Words and Photographs by Rory Anson
LUTHIER ROGER GIFFIN CELEBRATES 50-YEARS OF BUILDING GUITARS FOR ROCK & ROLL’S ELITE
I recently visited The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and had an opportunity to check out Play It Loud: Instruments of Rock & Roll. This exhibit offers visitors a rare glimpse at a variety of historic instruments and memorabilia spanning the history of the genre. Items range from Keith Moon’s “Pictures of Lily” drumkit to one of Ravi Shankar’s sitars to the jagged lines of Lady Gaga’s futuristic “ARTPOP” piano. But it’s the guitars that are the real draw.
Eric Clapton’s iconic “Blackie” Stratocaster, Jimmy Page’s legendary “Number One” Les Paul, and Eddie Van Halen’s haphazard “Frankenstein” are prominently featured among the over 130 instruments on display. This “Holy Trinity” of electric guitars are presented with an unobstructed 360° view, allowing us guitar-nerds the ability to scrutinize every tiny detail from lacquer checks and buckle rash to funky homemade paint jobs and cigarette-scarred headstocks (ahem, Edward).
While perusing the collection, luthier Roger Giffin’s name sprang to mind. No doubt evoked by the undeniable rock god presence which permeated the galleries. Throughout his now 50-year career, Roger has worked with many of the artists represented at Play It Loud and a whole lot more. And though Paul McCartney once told me that it’s rude to drop names, I’m compelled to do so anyway. In addition to Clapton, Page, and Van Halen (all of whom Giffin has worked with), here are a few more: Pete Townshend, David Gilmour, Keith Richards, Ron Wood, Joe Walsh, Mark Knopfler, Andy Summers, and Slash.
From his early days in a bustling and often chilly workspace in London to heading up Gibson’s west coast custom shop operations, Giffin’s career has had quite a trajectory. And despite his connections with so many members of rock music’s guitar glitterati, he remains affable and down-to-earth. Roger graciously invited me to visit him at his shop where we discussed his history as a guitar builder, checked out some recent projects, and I even managed to coax a couple of genuine rockstar stories out of him.
Guitar Connoisseur: Growing up in England in the ‘50s and ‘60s what was it that first drew you to the guitar?
Roger Giffin: Elvis. That was what initially sparked it. Listening to Elvis on 78s. We had what we called Skiffle bands in England…with the washboard and the tea-chest bass, so that got another aspect of it going. Then Cliff Richard and the Shadows appeared. I loved what Hank (Marvin) was doing and there was no way back after that.
GC: Tell me about the transition from guitar player to guitar builder.
RG: I was never really that good a guitar player. I could fudge my way through things. I’d love to have thought that one day I’d be a rockstar. That didn’t happen, but it kind of morphed into building guitars. I was playing in a band down in Portsmouth, on the south coast of England. We were struggling, no bloody money at all. I was playing a copy of a Rickenbacker 12-string at the time. I’d taken some of the strings off so that I could play it properly and so that’s what I used. At some point, I decided that I wanted an SG. I remember looking in the shop window and thinking, “Ah, look at that.” And because I couldn’t afford to buy one, I figured I’d make one. My dad being a woodworker was helpful, and I’d dabbled for years, so I went out and bought some wood. It wasn’t mahogany, but a piece of something that looked vaguely like mahogany. Going by photographs for the shape, I hand cut this thing. It took some time, but with a little assistance from my dad, I made something that kind of resembled an SG. So I played that for a while and ended up selling it to a guy in another band. That was the point at which I thought maybe we can do something with this. I made a few others after that…different designs, but that was kind of the start of thinking of it as a business.
GC: Was that the first guitar that you built?
RG: No, I’d made a couple of acoustics before that from stuff I bought as a kit. Not shaped or anything. You’d buy the sides, top, and back, but the neck was already made. That was the only thing that I didn’t think that I could handle. I made three of those I think. I know that I dismantled one of them because I didn’t make the bracing strong enough and the back caved in. Another was a twelve-string and I sold it to a guy that I was in a band with. I received an email from somebody about six months ago and it turns out that one of these guitars, a six-string, was recently up for sale at an auction. I was quite shocked to find out that it’s still around.
GC: When did you take on building full-time?
RG: After doodling around at various jobs through the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, I thought, I don’t want to work for anybody. I rented a house and put a workbench in the basement and started making guitars down there. It was slow, but I made a handful of them. Then I went and got a job at a music store in Kingston. We had a workshop up above the store and I’d do repairs for them and I’d build stuff upstairs. It was a very, very old building from the fourteen or fifteen hundreds or something. Which was typical Kingston, there are a lot of old places there. I remember there was a hole in the floor so I could see what was going on downstairs.
GC: Do you recall your first famous client?
RG: The first thing that I built for anyone well-known was a Flying V copy for Roy Wood. In the ‘60s he’d been with a band called The Move, and was later one of the founders of ELO (Electric Light Orchestra) along with Jeff Lynne. I built this guitar for him and he wanted it red and blue. One-half red, one-half blue to match his coat. The neck was divided into two colors as well, and it had three Gibson pickups in it. Roy was a very quirky guy.
Later I worked up in London at a store called Top Gear, which was like the place where everyone hung out. That’s where I met Alan Rogan. He was working as a salesman and I was doing repairs in the back of the store. Somebody came in from The Who’s management company and they were looking for a tech to come out with Pete (Townshend). And I thought, “Wow, what a gig!” Alan had just been divorced and I had just gotten married, so I couldn’t do it. Alan took that job and he was with them the whole time. He was such a character, you name ‘em and he’s worked for them. He was so good to me and introduced me to a lot of these people, steering work in my direction.
GC: What did you do for Pete?
RG: I did some repair work and maintenance on stuff for him and John (Entwistle). When Pete went over to using Schecter Telecasters in the early ‘80s, they were buying stuff from California and having them sent over. Alan said, “I know this guy here in London, why don’t you get him to do it?” So I did six or seven of these for Pete. Same kind of thing as the Schecter’s; two humbuckers, with all multi-coil taps and whatever else they had on them. I built them super lightweight, out of poplar or alder, and Pete had a rack full of these.
GC: Did any of them survive?
RG: Ha! He only broke one. Pete had these monstrous strap-lock systems on all of his guitars. There were big square metal plates bolted into the body, one on the bottom and one on the top. And a big threaded rod poking out of it with this knurled wheel which screwed on. There was no bloody way that the strap would come off. The problem was that as he was banging the guitar around, the whole thing pulled out of the body. Strap, strap-lock system, it all came crashing to the ground. So Pete finished it off!
I had a wall in my workshop in London with broken bits of guitars on it, broken headstocks and things that got smashed. Some of them Alan had picked up for me, a piece of a black Strat and a sunburst one. I don’t know where it went. When I left England I think I just left it all there.
GC: How did your relationship with Gibson come about?
RG: I’d gone to a music show in London, something equivalent to NAMM, and I met Henry (Juszkiewicz), the boss at Gibson. At that time I had been toying with the idea of going to America. He said that he could probably use me, maybe set up a custom shop. It was just a thought, no more than that. Around that time that I was involved in designing what became the Steinberger M-Series guitar with Mike Rutherford (Genesis) and Ned Steinberger. Ned liked what I came up with and in exchange, I asked him if he could help to open some doors. He talked to Henry (who remembered me from London) about trying to get me over here, and that’s what set the ball in motion. Henry was friends with Al Gore, who was a senator from Tennessee at the time, so he put in a word with him and that helped a little, but it was the Steinberger thing that got it going. It took two years to get all of the paperwork done. Permits, work visas, and everything, so I came over here in 1988.
GC: Was the custom shop up and running at that point?
RG: Rick Turner was involved at the time, and he’d been setting things up. But when I arrived in North Hollywood, I went to the shop and found out that Rick was leaving that day. He’d had a row with Henry, so I was on my own. I didn’t know what the hell I was supposed to be doing. Nobody in Nashville had any clue as to what was supposed to be going on. They said, do whatever you want to do.
GC: How long were you with Gibson?
RG: Five years. Initially, the shop was attached to Gibson’s artist relations office. They closed that space and we moved to Burbank into Michael Tobias’ old shop. That was the most absurd bloody thing, it was like a 5000 square-foot shop with me and Gene (Baker) rattling around in the corner of it trying to cover the rent. It just couldn’t last, it didn’t work. Aside from the fact that no one had ever told us what we were supposed to be doing there. So we just did repairs and warranty work and built custom Gibson’s using bodies and necks that we’d get from the factory. We did the occasional one-off here and there. The Jimmy Page thing was one of the few official things that we took on, but other than that we were just left to our own devices.
GC: How did the project with Jimmy Page come about?
RG: Gibson sent me out to spend a weekend with Jimmy at Lake Tahoe. It was great, Jimmy’s a lovely guy. How bad can that be? I’m kinda hazy on it all now, but we basically just talked guitars. He had the main one with him so I took measurements and made some templates. I built a one-off called the #3 and Gibson worked on doing their own which they could sell in bulk (this would later become the basis for the first-run of Jimmy Page Signature Les Pauls).
GC: The “main one” being the Les Paul that he acquired from Joe Walsh?
RG: Yes, that’s right. It had an asymmetric neck profile, a kind of sliced-through-an-egg-shape. Shallow on one side and a bit more ’round on the other. Deeper on the bass side and it tapered away on the treble side to sit in the hand more like that. It felt very comfortable. I don’t remember now whether Joe had that done or if it was like that when he got it. Jimmy did tell me but I forget. Fun stuff!
GC: Any other memorable rockstar moments that you’d be willing to share?
RG: I got called out to go to Shepperton Studios where the Stones rehearsed, and they rehearsed at night. This was in 1982. My good pal Alan (Rogan) called me up and said, “They’ve got a shitload of trouble with the guitars up there. Crates of ‘em and half the stuff doesn’t work.” So I’d finish my day at my shop down near the river Thames in Richmond, hop in the car and drive to Shepperton Film Studios. Over there, crates of guitars. At the other end of the room, the Stones are rehearsing. I’d be pulling cases out of these crates of guitars seeing what can I do here and what can I take back to the shop to fix. So I’d fill my car and come back the next day and get something else. It was a hoot! Really nice guys.
Another memorable event happened during my time at Gibson. They owned Steinberger at the time. Ned Steinberger had come up with the TransTrem system, a transposing tremolo system which could step down and lock in position and be perfectly in tune. You’d go down four steps and up two, and the thing would be in tune. The engineering on it was ridiculous. It took ages to set the thing up, it was a real bugger to work on.
Eddie Van Halen got one and they called me up from his studio and asked me to come over and show him how to set it up. I had to have it on paper, written out because I couldn’t remember how to do it. It was that complicated, you had tools to adjust this and that. So I went up there and sat with Eddie for an hour or more and we went over what you need to do, each step. I’d do a bit, then he’d do it.
Eventually, he got it working perfectly. He was very quick and got it straight away. Once he figured out what you could do with it there was a big smile. Eddie’s got this Steinberger hung ‘round his neck, walking around the studio while we’re talking, and he’s playing on this thing. He was playing tunes, melodies, using the transposer. So he’s like doing all this stuff on the neck, and he’s transposing this thing up and down to change the note. It was like a pedal-steel guitar. My jaw was on the ground. What he was playing sounded like it was physically impossible. The guy is just that good, absolutely ridiculous. I’ve got a great deal of respect for him.
GC: What are you currently working on?
RG: I’m building this guitar for Willcut Guitars, one of my dealers. They want a guitar commemorating my 50th-anniversary, can you believe it? The initial thought was to do a number of them, each one would have something on it representing one of the bands that I’ve worked with. But for a 50th-anniversary guitar, there’s gotta be only one. You can’t make a bunch of them, otherwise, it takes the uniqueness away from it. So I thought maybe I’ll do just one guitar and put lots of stuff on it. Well, the bloody guitar is gonna vanish underneath it all if I do that, so I decided to pick just one thing.
(Roger shows me a beautifully figured Brazilian rosewood fingerboard with a paper rendering of the instantly recognizable prism from Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon album cover taped to it.)
I had to pick something that everybody would recognize and that’s it. This is a very old piece Brazilian rosewood, you can’t get stuff like that now. The odd bits of Brazilian that are available now don’t look anything like this. That’ll make it special if nothing else. The body is a single piece of White Limba with a one-piece curly maple top. It’s purely hollow. There’s a White Limba neck for it as well. I think at this point that it won’t have anything else on it other than the prism and a pearl “50th-anniversary” plaque at the head.
GC: While we’re on Pink Floyd, I saw that the Huber/C. F. Martin “Shithammer” replica guitar that you built for David Gilmour recently sold at Christie’s for $50,000.
RG: Yeah, can you believe that? I thought when Clapton’s (Giffin) Strat sold for $42,000 that was really something. I’m waiting to see if Page ever sells his Les Paul’s, can you imagine what he’ll get out of those?
GC: Beautiful work Roger. Thank you for taking the time to show me around the shop and for sharing some of your stories. Congratulations on 50-years of guitar building!
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