Hello, and welcome back to Gracie Meets…! If you’re a musician, this episode is for you. I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Stephen McSwain, a well-known luthier. Take a listen if you’re interested in learning about the awesome world of building guitars!
Show Music: 2019 07 25 cello pizz 01 and 250109 rhodes 02 by Morusque used under Creative Commons License CC BY. No alterations were made to the original composition.
Cover Art: Kyleigh Kinsey. Instagram: @ato._.noodle
Intro Music 00:00
Gracie Solomon 00:12
Hello, and welcome back to Gracie Meets…. I’m a musician and one of the most important parts of being a musician to me is having your own instrument that is personalized for you. So I invited Mr. Stephen McSwain to be on the show. Tell me about yourself.
Stephen McSwain 00:27
Well, I am originally from North Carolina, I moved to Los Angeles in 1998. To pursue music and guitar building. I had started building guitars in 1996 in North Carolina, actually ’91, but officially as a company in 1996. And I always loved music, loved electric guitars and always wanted to build them so I just started building them and now I have been doing it for about 22 years and after moving to Los Angeles and living there and getting more established as a guitar builder I moved to Portland, Oregon, where I am now in 2014. So to break it all down I am a high end electric guitar builder that hand builds my own line of guitars called McSwain guitars.
Gracie Solomon 01:23
Tell me about the space that you use to do your work.
Stephen McSwain 01:26
My space I’ve got a couple different areas. I have a for more of the heavy duty work like band saws and routers and drill presses and power tools and things like that. I have an out a space that is kind of like a garage with dust collection and all sorts of tools that I use for cutting the wood. Then there’s a section which is more of my clean area, which I use for setting the guitars up for electronic work. That kind of thing. And I also have another separate little space which is for painting and I’ll paint the guitars in there.
Gracie Solomon 02:05
What kind of training, or schooling, or practice did you need to do, to be able to achieve this?
Stephen McSwain 02:11
I, you know, I’m self-taught. For the most part I never went to school there are actually guitar building is officially called luthier or luthiary. And a guitar builder is called a luthier. There are schools of luthier schools. Roberto-Venn in Arizona is one where they teach this. I did not go to any schools I basically played guitar, took them apart and just kind of bought a couple books and learned how, how they work. And from there, it was just sort of trial and error. I got a couple power tools and started cutting them by hand and then realized that there are, you have to have a specific measurements on the guitar neck to the fret Which is pretty, pretty intense. So originally I wasn’t skilled enough to do that. So I would buy the guitar necks and just attach them to the guitar bodies that I had made. So I taught myself how to do the guitar neck work, which is the frets and all of that by looking at books, by watching videos. And now it’s great because there’s a lot of online information with YouTube and different websites that you can go to, to learn the process, which again, get some really good information, which I’m actually at some point going to start a little series on how to build a guitar from scratch, and I’ll be videoing the process.
Gracie Solomon 03:44
I personally would have never thought of turning a hobby like building guitars into a paying job. I’ve seen a lot of your work and it’s so beautiful. I know that you’ve built a bunch of guitars and I know it’s probably hard for me to ask you but what is your favorite guitar that you’ve built?
Stephen McSwain 03:59
That’s a two-part question, a two-part answer I should say, my favorite guitar that I think is kind of a toss-up between, I used to do a lot of in just one-off guitars and they would be more art piece guitars more than anything. Of course they were functional electric guitars, but one, which is on my website is a dragon. It is a Japanese style dragon that I had carved for a famous Japanese musician named Tak Matsumoto from the band B’z. It’s capital B apostrophe, little z. And they’re huge in Japan and he had bought this as a gift for a singer named Koshi Inabia and it is a Flying V shape but it has a traditional style Japanese dragon that I carved into a piece of mahogany with eyes that are LEDs with rubies over the end of them and when you pull the volume knob up, the eyes glow bright red. And the teeth are carved out of bone. It’s just a pretty elaborate guitar so that that one of my favorites in the tie with that one is a car guitar that I made. It’s literally like a 19-inch miniature version of a 1958 Corvette and the neck comes out of the trunk. And it literally will roll has little rubber tires and wheels and it’ll roll across the floor. So those are my two favorites. My favorite one that is one that I do. I’ve done many, many of these is my American flag guitar, which has cast stars with either skulls, or bullet shells, or peace symbols, or things like that. And its metal top, like a thin metal top that’s glued down to the wood. So that’s my favorite current one that I’ve build a lot of.
Gracie Solomon 05:54
What do you think makes your job more unique than other jobs?
Stephen McSwain 05:58
What makes my job unique I do a lot of different styles of designs, which a lot of companies don’t build or a lot of other luthiers don’t build. So the combination of like a thin metal sheet across the top of it with all different kinds of, you know, unique features like the cast stars with a cast that have either sterling silver or bronze or brass or copper. The little knobs are made out of little gears that I’ve made and sculpted out of wax and had cast in metal. So, it’s a very, I feel like I build a very versatile guitar. And you can get a lot of sounds a lot of tones out of it. So combining that with the, the unique artwork on it is I think what makes it different from a lot of other guitar companies.
Gracie Solomon 06:54
How would a high schooler like me become someone like you? Would I have to know someone to get this job?
Stephen McSwain 07:00
No, you can actually do it yourself. And I started as a hobby and eventually developed into a full time thing where I was making enough money to support myself and now support a family and, and I have two, two boys. I have a 15-year-old son named Jude, and a 13-year-old son named Gunner. And basically, for somebody who was wanting to start out as a kid, if you can get an apprenticeship with somebody who is a builder, by all means, that’s the fastest way and the most efficient way to do it. But there a good way to start. There are companies. There’s one in particular Stewart McDonald’s, which is a guitar builder supply shop that is online, and they have kits that you can buy which has either electric or acoustic guitars, bases, ukuleles, that kind of thing. And you buy these kits and they’re cheap. They’re about 200 bucks, I think. And it comes with everything you need to assemble a guitar basically, and you can paint it or you can stain it. And that gives you a really good point of entry for not much money. So I would say that and then once that, if you if you were to tackle something like that, then you could move into starting to build your own guitar bodies and be but there’s a lot of instructional videos and books. So just search online, just search guitar building online, and there’s a million things that you could learn. So that would be a really good starting point.
Gracie Solomon 08:37
Going from how to be a luthier what tips would you give to someone to become more like you?
Stephen McSwain 08:46
Yep, don’t give up. Yeah, it gets frustrating sometimes. And you feel like if you kind of screw something up and you just got to keep working at it and just, you know, just practice and just have fun with and don’t beat yourself up. You know, just you have to be persistent with it though because the only way you’re really going to get successful and really become good at your craft is to do it over and over and over. It’s kind of like with anything, it’s like playing the guitar. You just have to practice at it and work on it. But don’t get frustrated. You know, ask advice. You know, people can email me if they have any questions to my website, or to my social media. I always try to encourage any, anybody who asked anything or any way I can and give them as much advice and encouragement as possible.
Gracie Solomon 09:40
Well, thank you so much. Your work is awesome. And it’s so cool talking to you. I’m so thankful for your time.
Stephen McSwain 09:48
I am honored that you would want to talk to me.
Gracie Solomon 09:51
In this age of do it yourself type work, it’s as simple as just looking up a YouTube tutorial or doing a quick Google search to find instructions on how to make guitar to how to grow a garden on how to search for paranormal spirits to hosting a murder mystery party. There’s something to be said about teaching yourself a form of art and breaking it down to the basics of it. Take Stephen. He can look at a block of wood and some wires and see not just a guitar, but pure art. I would say it takes more than a normal person to do something like that. But then again, show me a normal teenager. Thanks for listening.
Outro Music 10:22
Gracie Solomon 10:31
Thanks for tuning in. If you like Gracie Meets… subscribe so you can listen every time a new episode is dropped. Follow Gracie Meets on Instagram @gracie.meets (gracie(dot)meets). Tune in next Saturday for a fast paced interview with an auctioneer. If you would like to see some of Stephen’s work, go to mcswainguitars.com that’s m-c-s-w-a-i-n-guitars.com.