‘Guitars are just wood and string and a bit of math’
How Waco-based attorney Chris Harris builds his own sound.
Interview by Eric Quitugua
Waco attorney Chris Harris has customized more than 20 guitars in the
past five years, many of which are Fenders. Photo Courtesy of Chris
For Waco attorney Chris Harris, custom building his own guitars gives him total control of his sound. Sand, grain fill, seal, prime, paint, and repeat. Add in a new neck, tweak or replace the pickups, and tool up on other components. The end result is a guitar that can pack the dirty crunchiness of a Gibson Les Paul and the bright twang of a Fender Telecaster. In the past five years alone, Harris has Frankensteined 20 and has two more necks, gun oil finish, and pawn shops at his disposal to add more.
HOW MANY GUITARS HAVE YOU BUILT AT THIS POINT? ARE THEY ALL
Before I answer that, I have to be clear about one thing so that I’m not excoriated by any luthiers who may read this. I do not consider myself to be a luthier! A luthier is a maker of stringed instruments. In my mind, being a luthier generally involves more manufacturing than what I do. I do make stringed instruments, but I generally make them out of already existing guitar parts. I’ve created or restored about 20 electric guitars in the past five years. I can do minor work on my own acoustic guitars (re-setting the occasional bridge or tweaking a truss rod), but I never have built an acoustic instrument.
There are three main criteria that I consider whenever I’m deciding if I like a guitar or not. The order of importance has changed over the years: (1) sound; (2) playability; and (3) appearance. When most people start, they don’t know anything about sound or playability, so they base their decision on looks alone. That’s normal and fine. As you get better, the playability becomes more important. As your skill and your gear grow, the tone becomes more important. When you make your own instruments, you get to control all three parameters. That’s why I build them.
DO YOU BUILD THEM FROM THE GROUND UP, INCLUDING THE BODY? OR IS IT MAINLY CUSTOMIZING OLDER ONES?
I don’t go chop down a tree and use a CNC machine to make a guitar body or a neck. Rather, I like to make guitars in one of two ways: (1) transforming a cheap, poorly intonated, difficult-to-play instrument into something that can be used and enjoyed by a professional musician; or (2) making custom guitars out of custom parts.
I really love both methods. It turns out that knowing how and why an electric guitar works is incredibly helpful to my ability to sound good when I’m playing. Today, if you give me an instrument that is hard to play and sounds bad, there’s a pretty good chance that I can make it sound and play a lot better without replacing a single component. Just knowing how to set the relief of the neck and how to intonate the instrument can make a tremendous difference. I can do all of that with a screwdriver and a hex wrench. If the frets are sharp and cutting my fingers, I can fix that (roll the edges) in about 30 minutes now rather than giving up on the instrument. If it won’t stay in tune and bends are hard to make, I can file the nut and adjust string height. I can radically change the sound of a guitar just by adjusting the height of the pickups. Doing these things takes a very small amount of actual time, but it seems to take years to know what to do and how to do it.
WHAT SHAPES DO YOU LIKE WORKING WITH THE MOST? IS THERE AN
ADVANTAGE TO THEM?
I’m largely a Fender guy, and my favorite body to work with and to play is an offset body. It has a perfect weight balance both when seated and when standing. Fender started using this shape on its Jazzmaster guitars in the late 1950s. This particular guitar of mine was a custom build by me from custom-ordered parts. I wanted to blend the shape of a Jazzmaster with the electronic simplicity of a Telecaster. Some have called it a “Jazzcaster,” but I just call it an offset Telecaster, because every part of the guitar is inspired by a Telecaster except for the body shape. Besides the weight balance and look of this guitar, I am a little bit proud of its sonic range. Electric guitars transmit sound from the strings through these things called “pickups,” which are sort of like microphones. Where the pickup is placed on the guitar determines a lot of the sound. On this guitar, I used a really “hot” Telecaster bridge pickup and paired it with a P-90 pickup for the neck. A P-90 is an old, old type of single coil pickup, but it handles distortion really well. This particular (offset) guitar can handle everything from wandering country licks you might find on a Merle Haggard recording to the lead for “Sweet Child O’ Mine” by Guns N’ Roses. I loved the guitar so much I gave it to my daughter (Jaimee Harris) who is a singer/songwriter in Nashville; she’s been using the pandemic as an opportunity to improve her own playing.
YOU MENTIONED IN YOUR EMAIL A TELECASTER THAT CAME TOGETHER
BY ACCIDENT. WHAT CAN YOU TELL ME ABOUT THAT?
It’s a very simple instrument in a classic “surf green,” reminiscent of early Fender guitars of the 1960s. Guitars are just wood and string and a bit of math. If the span between the nut of the guitar and the saddles of the bridge are the correct distance from each other (25.5” on most Fender style guitars), and if the frets on the neck are correctly spaced, then any guitar should be able to reproduce notes of the frequency desired. But most real guitar players would agree that 100 guitars with the same dimensions that come off the same factory line will all play a bit differently and sound a bit different. Some of it is due to the fact that natural materials are used; wood is not fungible. It’s all different, even when you’re dealing with the same type of wood, like ash. Trees are different just like people are different.
While there is a great deal that you can control in terms of how a guitar plays and sounds if you know what you’re doing, I still believe that some of it is frankly due to luck. I got a bit lucky with this particular guitar. It started off as a very cheap instrument that I got for $120 because I needed a body that was already painted. Most of the time, when I buy a Telecaster style body, I have to pay $200 for a raw body, and then I have to sand it, grain-fill it, seal it, prime it, and paint/stain/finish it. I enjoy doing all of that, but to do it right, it takes me a month because I use older paint that has to cure, and I was building this guitar for a friend who wanted it quickly. So I cheated a little by starting with a whole guitar. Then I replaced every single component on the guitar—I replaced the neck, the tuners, the pickups, the bridge, the control plate, the wiring … I even replaced the strap buttons and the pickguard. When I got it all together and wired, I was pleasantly surprised at how resonant it was, and I was super happy with how great it played. I will oftentimes give my favorite guitars to my children, but I couldn’t give this one away. I did not give it to my friend, either. He got a great guitar, but not this one.
DO YOU HAVE MORE LINED UP TO BE CUSTOMIZED?
Always! I have two spare necks laying around that need to be turned into guitars. Even when I’m not currently building one, I’m sort of building one. I’ve been applying gun oil finish to one of these necks for the past week, and I don’t have a clue what kind of guitar the neck is going to be a part of. I frequently peruse pawn shops looking for terrible guitars that have great bodies. It’s like musical recycling. Right now, there’s a cheap Peavey guitar sitting in a pawn shop somewhere waiting to be transformed into somebody’s favorite guitar ever. TBJ