Elderwood Guitar review: my custom-made semi-hollow

Guitars & Gear

I have never owned a semi-hollow guitar before, despite having played 335 style and ‘thinline’ guitars on several occasions. This year, I had the budget to rectify this, but with so many great options out there, I was undecided on where to invest my hard-earned money.

Enter Elderwood Guitars, a one-man operation based in Carlisle, in the north of Cumbria. I had seen a few Elderwood models for sale in a guitar shop in Newcastle, and a couple of players I know spoke highly of these instruments. Barrie, the man behind Elderwood Guitars, makes it his mission to create the guitar of your dreams at a more affordable price. You are involved in all aspects of the layout and design of your instrument, which is largely made up from recycled wood.

You may remember another guitar built for me, a nylon-strung classical guitar, which was also crafted by a solo luthier in Cumbria and made form recycled wood (and if not, you can read about that guitar by clicking here).

The two main principles of making something beautiful from old wood, as well as being able to design the guitar to my own specifications, was something which greatly appealed to me. To that end, I found myself in conversation with Barrie near the start of lockdown, and soon we went back-and-forth with ideas and draft designs. Rather than going for a more straightforward 335-style design, I was inspired by some of the beautiful high-end creations of small guitar companies such as Kauer. In the end, the final design looked like this:

The fifth & final draft of my custom design. Picture courtesy of Elderwood Guitars

My guitar would be an offset semi-hollow with a serious vintage feel to it. The two humbuckers and sound hole on the upper half would be covered in a gold foil/mesh, and the neck would feature block markers. For the finish, I requested as close to British Racing Green as he could manage, with cream for the pickguard, binding and truss rod cover, likening the overall colouring style to that of a classic Mini Cooper. You don’t see many green guitars and I have always wanted one. Now I just had to wait for it to be completed (although since lockdown meant that I wasn’t gigging, I was in no hurry).

Over the next few months, I received occasional updates from Barrie which always got me salivating:

Barrie checked back to confirm my preferences for pickups, tremelo, control layout, as well as general updates on progress. He seemed to be having a busy summer but as each guitar was finished and presented on his Facebook page, they continued to look and sound as high quality as I had been told they’d be.

At last it was ready to collect in early October, and it did not disappoint…

Specifications

  • Offset semi-hollow body, made from recycled pine
  • Maple neck, with rosewood fingerboard featuring block position markers
  • 3-a-side headstock
  • Bigsby-style vibrato system and ‘roller saddle’ bridge
  • 2 x Vanson ’57 Alnico II humbuckers
  • 1 x volume & 1 x tone control
  • 3-way pickup selector switch, plus mini-switch for coil-tapping
  • Push button to bypass volume control (see below)
  • Side-mounted jack socket (secured by four screws for greater stability)

This guitar certainly looks the part. The green finish contrasts beautifully with the pickguard and copper coloured control knobs. After sharing the images above on my Facebook page, I was inundated with questions and compliments about the it. It’ll certainly make a visual impact at gigs (whenever they start back up again).

Sounds

Acoustically, this guitar is much louder than my other electrics. It’s interesting just how much difference the resonance of a semi-hollow together with the sound hole, can make. The matched PAF-style humbuckers give you all the tones you would expect from an early Les Paul, but with more airiness due to the mainly hollow body. These humbuckers are made by Vanson, a budget brand readily available on websites such as Amazon. Barrie shares my sentiment that one shouldn’t have to, and doesn’t need to, pay over the odds for a combination of magnets and copper wiring. I had said early on in the design process that I was happy with ‘budget’ pickups on this guitar, and they certainly sound as good as anything the big name brands churn out!

The bridge pickup provides everything I need, from classic rock crunch to an almost rockabilly style twang – the Bigsby certainly comes to the fore here. The neck pickup gives up warm jazz tones on a clean amp with the tone rolled back, and splitting the humbucker into ‘single coil mode’, I’m able to get a sound remarkably similar to a Strat or Tele in this position, which is no bad thing as far as I’m concerned. With both pickups engaged, I’m in my beloved funk and soul territory, great for rhythm playing and bluesy licks. Not only that, but it feels like BB King’s trademark singing lead tone is virtually built-in to this instrument.

Is it any good?

Oh yes, it’s very good. I love it! I’ve certainty enjoyed playing it so far, both through my amps and unplugged. It sits perfectly on a strap and the neck is comfortably chucky, like a true vintage instrument (which is exactly how I like it).

My only hurdle so far has been getting used to the Bigsby-style vibratio. I don’t use the vibratio arms on my Stratocasters, but as well as the right hand aspect, Bigsby units are notoriously tricky to keep in tune. However, this is something that can only be changed through practice and getting used to using it, rather than anything wrong with the guitar itself. Nonetheless, Barrie’s ‘aftermarket service has been top drawer, offering all sorts of advice on how to get the most from the unit, as well as tips on maximisng tuning stability.

Finally collecting the new axe. Picture courtesy of Elderwood Guitars

I expect to be in the studio again in the coming weeks, recording a new LP with the Nick Gladdish Band, and this guitar will be coming along with me. I’ll share links to sounds and videos of this guitar in that (or any) setting as and when they become available…

If you are interested in your own custom-made guitar, Barrie can be contacted directly through Elderwood Guitar’s Facebook page. I’d recommend that you take a look through the numerous creations he has made, and make sure you have a good idea of what you are looking for when you drop him a line. Once you do, you will meet an affable and courteous man dedicated to making the best instruments he can, at a price point open to all of us – and that, like his guitars, is truly something to be admired.

Upcycled music: my custom-built, eco-friendly classical guitar

Guitars & Gear

Those of you who follow me on Twitter may be aware that I recently had a new classical guitar custom made for me by Neil McHardy Guitars in Cumbria. Here’s some details and a closer look…

McHardy’s eco-friendly mindset

Neil works alone and handbuilds his guitars to order. His offset sound hole design came from his father, who built guitars for the boys he used to teach, using old wood. Neil, a retired engineer, has kept the same overall design & philosophy, creating beautiful instruments out of old wood. Most of his guitars had previously been doors, floorboards or old workbenches. It goes against the mentality of many high-end luthiers, who prize certain ‘tonewoods’ over others. Believe me, these guitars sound brilliant & play as well (if not better) than their (considerably) more expensive rivals.

Unique in more ways than one

I first discovered Neil’s craftsmanship at the Sunbeams Music Centre in Penrith, which has a guitar donated by him amongst its collection. Intrigued by his philosophy of using recycled wood, I contacted him to ask if he had ever made a nylon-strung guitar. Neil told me he had not (all of his creations until then had been steel-strung acoustics), but was up for the challenge.

After lots of careful of research, Neil designed & built a guitar to my specifications. He also sent me regular work in progress pictures (below).

The finished product

Neil finished the guitar for me in late January, and it was great to finally have it in my hands to play. All of my requests & requirements had been met, from the thinner body depth to the input jack being placed separately from the bridge pin/end strap button. The offset soundhole does not effect volume, but rather allows for more vibration of the top. It also suits my more percussive style of playing better.

Specifications

Top: Red Cedar
Back & Sides: Spanish Cedar
Neck: Cherry, with a Beech stripe
Fretboard & Bridge: African Ebony
Head Facing & Golpe: American Walnut

Nut & Saddle: Camel Bone
Pickup: Fishman ‘Presys’

Depth: 90mm at bottom, tapering to 70mm at top
Width of lower bout: 370mm
Length: 1,000mm
Nut Width: 52mm (2″)

I’ve played this guitar for a couple of months now and still very pleased with it. The thinline body & offset soundhole create less conventional nylon-strung sound which is perfect for jazz and latin styles, while still retaining an intrinsic classical vibe.

Unplugged, it is loud enough to be heard, but the onboard mic/pickup combo is very versatile for both live performance and recording – I especially like being able to blend the ratio of microphone (just under the soundhole on the guitar’s upper bout) and pickup. Having a tuner on there means one less thing to forget to pack in my gigbag too!

I’m terms of how it looks, I think this guitar is a real stunner. To me, it mixes the best of classic Spanish guitar with elements of African design – particularly in the binding & rosette. Speaking of which, these are another feature unique to all McHardy Guitars, as they are pieced together from spare wood chippings. No two rosettes made by Neil look the same!

Playability

The action is low but clean, and the 52mm (2 inch) nut, the standard in classical guitar making, feels perfectly comfortable. Its thinline body make it easy to hold in the right position and the neck is well intonated. Big stretches aren’t a problem and full chords hold their tuning across the fretboard. In short, it feels as good to play as it sounds.

The electrics are simple to navigate and sound superb. I’ve already found two settings which will likely become my main voicings for this instrument.

One of a kind

When I first met Neil in his workshop, I noticed he had a collection of wooden circles on a string. These, he explained, were the cut-outs from the soundhole of every guitar he had ever made. He estimated there to be around 50 in total. All of them steel-strung six string acoustics, until mine.

However, it seems Neil continues to diversity and experiment. At time of writing, he was starting on his first ever twelve string, another requested build. I’m sure he’ll nail it as brilliantly ass he did with my nylon-strung axe.

In a follow up conversation, Neil mentioned one of his Facebook followers admiring photos of my finished guitar so much that he had started enquiring about his own. So perhaps this could be the start of a whole new range for Neil!

For more info…

If you asked about his work, Neil would tell you that he’s “just a man in a shed”. However, if you would like to see more of his guitars, or even discuss a future build of your own, then please do check him out via the Neil McHardy Guitars Facebook page – just don’t inundate the poor guy with requests for the Tim Higgins Signature Model!