When asked how it felt to be the world’s best guitarist, Eric Clapton replied, “I don’t know. Ask Prince.” Whether the story is true or an urban myth, it’s safe to say that when it comes to the world’s top guitarists, bespoke instruments are as much a part of their repertoire as their songs.
Originally based in London and now headquartered in the US state of Virginia, BJ & Byrne still makes guitars by hand in the UK. Its completely customisable handmade guitars (from £2,250) use a stable, durable and sustainable wood named Accoya that is far lighter than its hardwood counterparts. “We joke that our guitars never go out of tune because of Accoya’s stability,” says company co-founder and owner Tommy Byrne. “It isn’t exactly true, but owners of our instruments all say that they stay in tune much longer. The wood has a tremendous tone and resonance, and because it doesn’t dry or crack in cold or dry climates and is pretty much impermeable to moisture in humid environments, the integrity of the guitar’s build quality is never tested like that of a regular hardwood guitar.”
The commissioning process begins with a choice of model, then moves on to selection of the pick-ups (sensors that detect the sound), which are all hand-wound in Devon, and the tremolo, which can be made in gold, chrome or steel (or, of course, omitted). Options for the scratchplate include managed African ebony, Accoya Beech, Accoya Ash and plastic pearloid, while the body itself can be made in any colour, although the word on the scene is that a clear finish with a slightly yellow, vintage-style tint that shows off the wood grain is à la mode in the world of guitar enthusiasts.
“For the fingerboard, beech is my favourite wood as it gives our guitars an authentic vintage look,” adds Byrne. “This is most often requested on our standard slim neck, but we have been asked to make them huge and chunky. We also offer all sorts of inlays on our fretboards, which can have the customers’ initials or nickname on.”
Byrne’s clients include professional guitarists such as Elliott Randall – best known for his guitar solos with Steely Dan, including Reelin’ in the Years – and investment bankers and traders who are, Byrne says, “great players, but are also smart enough not to give up their day job to wait for that call from the Stones’ touring manager”.