Strumming up business

Father, son build custom guitars

The small but well-appointed workshop at 13th and Reynolds streets smells like sawdust and wood glue, lacquer and hot solder. The tools are typical -- a small saw here, a set of screwdrivers there. A vise holds projects steady on the workbench, and a lamp throws light on an area where more delicate work is done.

It's all very rock 'n' roll.

It's out of this shop that Ron and A.J. Berkshire have started making a name for themselves by repairing, restoring and building guitars.

In two years, Berkshire Guitars (father Ron is the owner; his son, the managing technician) has built a business on its reputation for bringing old guitars back to life and building new guitars with musicians in mind.

Nearly 350 instruments, with broken necks and rock-worn bodies, needing new frets or just a little polish and care, have made their way to the workbench. Some are music store repairs -- Berkshire Guitars is an authorized Fender repair center -- and others are from owners wanting to hear their six-string sing again.

"One of the biggest things people come to realize is that something major, something like a broken neck, doesn't have to mean death for a guitar," A.J. said. "It's nice that we can surprise people that way."

A.J.'s interest in guitars began in high school. After an initial false start as a child, he picked up the guitar about the same time he started taking shop classes.

"What I quickly found out is that I wasn't going to make it as a rocker," he said. "So my answer, of course, was to take my guitar apart."

His passion led him to JP Guitars in Puyallup, Wash., where he apprenticed with luthier Jack Pimentel. From there, he went to work for Fender before going into business with his father.

In a corner of the shop, candy-colored guitar bodies, in a variety of styles and states of completion, hang from hooks. Ron Berkshire takes one down and gently wipes a thin layer of dust away with a damp rag. As he rubs, a brilliant, nearly transparent purple emerges. He smiles, admiring it with an artist's eye. He does much of the shaping and carefully considers the aesthetics, visual and tactile, of every instrument.

"It can't just look good," he said. "It has to feel good."

The instruments, most custom built to musician specifications, begin life as slabs of oak, ash or mahogany -- square for bodies, long and slender for necks, kept stacked on a high shop shelf. A custom Berkshire will cost less than $1,000.

"We do build with a price tag in mind," Ron said, pulling out a personal custom. "But the mistake in building something like this is that people don't really want to play them. What I like doing is building for musicians, people that are willing to take these guitars out and make them work."

Because the name on the headstock -- Berkshire with a flying B -- is unfamiliar to most guitar enthusiasts, the business model on the construction end is about building the brand rather than pure profit. Margin on the custom guitars is usually pretty slim.

"It's because we don't have that name," Ron said. "We know that. We know it's something we have to build."

 

Berkshire guitars

WHERE: 102 13th St., Augusta

WHEN: 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Monday-Friday; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday

CONTACT: (706) 823-5800, berkshireguitars.com

The price of playing like a pro

A custom-built Berkshire guitar will set you back less than $1,000. A guitar from a big-name maker will likely cost more:

B.B. KING: The blues legend's signature guitar, Lucille, is a Gibson ES-355, a semihollow-body electric. King's is custom-built, but Gibson sells a model with the same specifications.

PRICE: $4,449

JIMI HENDRIX: The Purple Haze rocker was known not just for playing Fender Stratocasters, solid-body electric models but also for lighting them on fire. Other greats who played the Stratocaster include Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jeff Beck.

PRICE: $689.99 for the base model, up to $4,800 for one from Fender Custom Shop

ERIC CLAPTON: Slowhand has played a lot of guitars in his deacades-long career, and in recent years he has worked with guitar maker Martin to develop a line of acoustics.

PRICE: $4,349

Sources: Gibson.com, Fender.com, MartinGuitar.com


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