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For the last 20 years, master luthier Neil Smith has provided services to the Las Vegas, Nevada metro area.
His custom-built guitars have been used by many pro players, including Jeff Ray, Larry Esparza, John Wedemeyer, Matt Baldoni, Mark Hall Speights, Chris Kennison, Ray Mouton, and Tom Marth.
He has repaired and set up guitars for such artists and shows as Celine Dion, Elton John, Jersey Boys, Australian Bee Gees, Cirque du Soleil, Shania Twain, The Scintas, and many others.
Neil is also an Authorized Fender Custom Shop repair technician.
These days Neil is planning a new production line of guitars which incorporates a lot of his ideas to date.
What’s your background and how did you get into luthiery?
My brother was a guitar player so I got exposed to guitars and gear at an early age. I started on the instrument at about age 9 or 10.
As a kid I was prone to tearing stuff apart. One of the first patients (or victims) was a guitar that my brother and father bought for my birthday. It was a terrific guitar and learning how to change strings and remove and reinstall the pickups among other things fascinated me – it was cool to see how it ticked.
Later I played guitar professionally, worked in local nightclubs and did a couple overseas tours for PACAF (Pacific Air Forces).
During those years spent as a musician I loved working on my own guitars – other musicians would play them and often ask me to set theirs up; I suppose that’s how the repair initiative began – back in the early 80s.
So, rather unwittingly I developed an interest in this stuff all my life. Like a lot of folks I got married and and went to college – trying to do a “straight gig.”
Although the college degrees are rewarding, learning how to study was the best thing about college. However a job working in the profession I had chosen just wasn’t a good fit.
One day I was sitting at the City and County Building – after filling out some job applications – and just thought to myself, “Why don’t you do what you love?”
So I bought a business license and started putting flyers on cars and generally putting the word out that I was doing guitar repair – that was 1998.
I sought out every skilled luthier that was around and fortunately a well respected guy located in Reno, Nevada (Jim Anderson of Notorious Guitar Hospital) took me under his wing.
Right off the bat – despite the huge learning curve, struggles and strife that come with learning luthiery – life was more like a leaf on the river rather than a salmon fighting upstream.
This is where I am meant to be.
You’ve been in Las Vegas, Nevada for over 20 years now. What makes Las Vegas a great place in which to be a guitar repairman and luthier?
For a few reasons.
Number one is the tremendous cross-section of musicians here – including weekend warriors, internationally known artists and local pros.
When I started here this was a great place for a stringed instrument repairers to be.
Now Las Vegas is packed with repair people – I’m glad I opened in the nineties because it wouldn’t be fun starting out now.
Conversely, this is a good place to get challenged as a crafter. Although some of the most talented crafters in the world are in small towns – they don’t do the volume or get the diversity of repair requests.
Technicians in large entertainment cities need to keep up on the latest gear (and often how to install it) and perform repairs on nearly any instrument with proficiency.
So it’s pretty fascinating to be exposed to that level of musicianship in a town like this – both famous and pro sideman players.
And although there are terrific players in every town, there’s an abundance of them here – and they come from all over the world.
Secondly, for building, the climate here is ideal.
Wood needs curing before you can build anything with it. And this is a terrific place for drying wood naturally. In general by the time you build a guitar here the wood is sufficiently cured and it’s not going to shrink.
Guitars that are made in moist areas – they come here and they often shrink, causing finish issues, warped necks, cracks and sharp fret ends among other things – some are destroyed.
When a guitar is made in a dry climate and it goes to a moist climate, that doesn’t happen. It may absorb some moisture but will be fine even if it comes back to the dry climate because once cured it expands very little (except extreme humidity).
So, there are exceptions – but as a rule this is a terrific place to make things out of wood.
And third, there’s no state income tax.
Working a town like this causes you to expand your abilities – it makes you stretch yourself and push yourself – and you get to meet amazing people.
It’s been a real good experience for me.
So what’s really exciting you about what you’re currently working on? Because you’ve done some great little guitar projects recently.
I’ve been building guitars by hand since around 2005. And predominantly building hybrid copies. And then also some custom instruments – highly custom instruments.
But for one person, it’s really hard to produce enough guitars to make a lot of money. So it’s been mostly a labor of love and mostly a learning experience.
Recently I started getting into CAD/CAM (Computer Aided Design and Manufacturing).
Watching YouTube videos, I realized that a lot of the young guys – and a lot of the older guys too – are getting into CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machines for their shops.
And I always stayed away from CNC machines because I thought hand-building was the preferred way to make a guitar.
And I believed that people would pay more for a completely hand-built guitar.
But what I found out is that it’s absolutely not true.
In the marketplace just about everybody refers to their guitars as hand-crafted whether they’re made by hand or whether they’re made by a CNC machine.
Also another thing I realized is that you’re still the creator even if you’re using a CNC machine.
You’re creating the CAD, you’re building the models – you’re still sanding, you’re running the machine.
There’s still a huge creative process. And in a way, the software gives you more control over your design. Because it can do things that are extremely time-consuming and difficult by hand.
At any rate, I’m excited about CAD/CAM and the freedom it gives you. Once you learn it, and you get your workflow up, you can do some incredible things.
I have a few models now that I’ve developed that are unique to my shop. I’m real excited about producing those guitars in my shop and it’s been a long time coming. Because I started building in ’05 but I didn’t really get into CNC until about a year ago.
And I’ve been working tirelessly learning CAD. Because you have to learn CAD before you can make a CNC do anything for you.
So that’s what I’m excited about. I’m excited about the future and the tremendous possibilities that are there with the CNC and the CAD/CAM.
You came up with a successful guitar design called “The Supernatural”. Can you tell me how that came about, and describe what kind of feedback you’ve had from the folks who have purchased that guitar?
The guitar was originally designed and built for a local guy named Jeff Ray, who was one of the top first-call guitarists here in Las Vegas.
He likes a cross-section of instruments, but he wanted something he could play jazz on but that he could also play other types of music on.
Rock guitars are not great guitars for jazz. Although there are guys like Scott Henderson who can take solid body guitars and play jazz on them, Jeff wanted a specific sound – he wanted to get an old-school sound.
So I did some research on Gibson archtops and other guitars and I based the design of that guitar on a Gibson-style archtop.
But I used a flat top – a red cedar top. And the way the guitar is made, it has a real live, resonant, sustaining sound.
I got lucky is what it boils down to. Because usually if you do research and build a prototype, you have to make a lot of changes.
The first guitar sounded great. It had a Gibson scale neck – 24.65 – and used Humbucking pickups. Anyway, Jeff really liked the guitar.
But then Jeff, sadly, tragically, passed away. And the guitar sat in the rafters here forever.
Until one of Jeff’s friends came along, and he was interested in the guitar.
And I only had to make a very few changes to it. I put a cutaway on it and changed the frets – that’s really about it. And he just really fell in love with it.
In fact quite a few of the players came in and played that guitar and made videos with that guitar.
And it wasn’t until they played it – I mean I know it was a good sounding guitar – but it wasn’t until professional musicians played it and really put it to the test – that I found out just how good it was.
And that’s really how I came up with the name – because it really does have a “supernatural” sound.
So that’s kind of the basis for the guitar. And now I’m developing sort of a solid-body version of it. Which of course will not sound like the hollow version.
The Supernatural hollow-body looks like a solid body guitar but it’s not; it’s a hollow body. But it’s a thin body. Anyway that’s how it came about. And it just ended up being a success.
So in addition to the model you’ve described, you’ve also come up with several variations of the Supernatural guitar. Can speak to those variations?
I was trying to come up with something that married some classic shapes. Some Telecaster, some Les Paul.
I’ve always been a little bit partial to Gibson guitars, I mean I love Fenders too – I love all guitars – but I’ve always really, really loved Gibsons. But the hollow body version of the Supernatural is going to have a Gibson scale and a set neck.
That said, I wanted to try some different things.
I had several shapes of the Supernatural and I put them out there on my Facebook page and I asked for opinions. And some of them got pretty negative feedback and some of them got very positive feedback.
So I discontinued the negative ones and have continued the positive ones.
The ones I ended up keeping are really a hybrid of the original and it’s really as if, let’s say, a Les Paul married a Telecaster. But with much different woods and a different scale length than a Fender.
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