By Angela Rose | Apr 29, 2018
Industry: Consumer & Lifestyle
Products: Custom guitars
Though he's only 25 years old, Phillips has already been working at what he loves for a decade.
"I built my first instrument, a five-string bass, during my sophomore year of high school," he explains. "As soon as I started building it, I fell in love with woodworking. It really captured my attention."
He went on to construct a classical acoustic guitar -- dubbed "The Log" because "It's probably one of the most sturdily-built guitars in history" -- as his final senior project before moving to British Columbia to attend an instrument-building program.
"One thing that stuck with me that one of my guitar-building instructors said was that only about 10 percent of students who graduated the school did something with their education," he recalls. "I made it a point to be one of those 10 percent."
Fortuitous circumstances brought him back to the Roaring Fork Valley to launch a custom-instrument crafting business in a 730-square-foot shop space that had previously been occupied by a mandolin builder.
"It was a space that had already been used to create instruments," Phillips says, "and is pretty much the only reason why I have a shop. [The landlord] offered me a very reasonable rate for rent and, because of that, I had a humidity-controlled environment where I could put all the tools and wood I had acquired during school."
Phillips specializes in "odd-looking instruments with unique features" and sells three to five of them a year. While he says the average price ranges from $3,000 to $5,000, it's extremely variable based on the wood used, finish required, and other custom features. Between builds, he lines his pockets laboring as a general woodworker and craftsman.
"The inconsistency of the financial aspect of music has made it difficult for me to just strictly build guitars," he says. "I've done a lot of other things, everything from framing houses to making furniture. I've made quite a few tap handles for a local brewery. Because I'm not able to be in the [guitar] shop full-time all the time, it can take from one month to one year to produce a single instrument."
Each build starts with a one-to-one scale drawing. "If I'm doing a commissioned instrument and it's going to be very one of a kind, I draw it to give the buyer and idea of what they are getting as well as to have a blueprint to build off," Phillips explains. "That way, if I want to replicate it, I can do so with consistency."
Next, he moves on to choosing the materials he'll use and creating the necessary jigs for the build. "A jig is basically a tool that is used to help with a certain function in the process," he adds. "It might be a plywood template that is the shape of the body or a tool you can use with a table saw to make a certain cut. Jig building is an extremely important step because it allows you to achieve a consistent result."
The actual construction of the instrument requires several steps -- from bending sides and carving the neck to gluing braces -- that vary depending on whether the guitar is acoustic or electric. Then comes sanding and finishing, usually with oil or lacquer.
Assembly and setup happens last. "That entails putting any hardware on, gluing the bridge onto an acoustic, and creating a saddle and nut for the instrument, which are the two contact points where the strings touch," Phillips says. "The setup is the last step and one of the most important on a build because if your guitar doesn't play well, nobody is going to want to touch it."
"They have every type of artist you can imagine coming through the doors," Phillips says. "I was very lucky to have made a relationship with the bass player from Thievery Corporation there. I've been fortunate to meet some large names in the music industry and have kept a good reputation. That has been extremely helpful with word-of-mouth sales."
Challenges: Phillips says marketing is a big challenge for him due to a lack of time and resources. Dealing with the financial ebb and flow of self-employment adds another level of difficulty. "I take about 40 percent down to build an instrument and then I don't like to accept any money until the instrument is in [the buyer's] hands," he explains. "It can take up to a year to build one, so it's hard to support myself at times."
Opportunities: Phillips spent nine months on tour with Michael Franti & Spearhead, working as the band's guitar tech. While the experience meant he wasn't building instruments for more than half of the year, he says it was valuable nonetheless. "I learned a lot about the music industry and was able to make a lot of good connections," he says. "I'm building a second instrument for Thievery Corporation and looking into endorsing two other artists that are very prominent in the music world."
Needs: "I think many artists would agree that financial backing could help everything," Phillips says. "As a small artist in the community, I feel very supported. It's just difficult to do what you love when it takes time to develop a list of clients."