Lutherie Spotlight: Joe Till - A Friend in California

Secrets of the craft from a master luthier.

Ultimate Guitar
Lutherie Spotlight: Joe Till - A Friend in California
Firstly, I’d like to apologize for the cheesy Merle Haggard reference in the title.

Today we get to hear from Joe Till, a proud California native and expert in hand-crafting electric guitars and basses. As the son of a carpenter and a former touring musician, Till’s path before becoming a luthier seemed to serve as the perfect training. He’s been building since 1996 with the meticulous care you’d expect from Stradivarius, putting in 100 hours of work with each instrument. Till has an affinity for interesting wood combinations and natural finishes, and the results are as awesome as you’d expect from the sound of this introduction - every one of his guitars looks like something Carvin would have put on the front page of their mail-out magazines. Anyway, I asked him some tough questions for everyone to get a glimpse into the life of a genuinely awesome character - and luthier too, of course. Read on!

: When did you decide you wanted to build guitars for a living, and how did you learn the craft? J. Till: That would've been the moment I discovered I could shape the back of a neck - almost exactly 21 years ago, in 1996. About ten years earlier, I was sitting in my drummer's van after another $40 gig when one of us said, "If we don't hit it big soon, we better come up with a plan B". He went into teaching, but I buckled on nailbags and got into carpentry - small jobs, mostly. I made a promise to myself to buy at least one tool after every job until I could make any shape I could think of. Eventually, I rented a commercial space where I made furniture and cabinets. Being the new kid on the block, I took on weird jobs that other shops wouldn't bother with… anything that wasn't square. Reception desks were one of my specialties. I had a good ten years of woodworking experience the day I bought a guitar with a broken neck at my local swapmeet. I wondered if I could make a new neck for it, so I clamped a piece of alder in the vice and I went at it with assorted shaping tools including a spoke shave, rasps and a Stanley Surform. Within a few minutes I had turned a rectangular board into a crude guitar neck. Instead of making a replacement neck, I just designed and built a whole new guitar, which became my TG-100 model (named after my Dodge A-100 pickup). Been hooked ever since - on Top Ramen.

JB: As someone who's opposed to CNC machines and automated processes in lutherie, what are your go-to tools for shaping a body and a neck?
J. Till: Well, yeah. I don't think CNCs have much of a place in lutherie. I think robots should only be used for things people can't make without a robot. Otherwise, they're just putting someone with skill out of work. And I have heard all of the arguments in favor of them - all done in a "salesman voice". To me, it's all about the hands - and the satisfaction that you've made something functional and beautiful with them. There's a wonderful film taken by George Fullerton in the Fender factory in about 1959 on Youtube. You don't see any robots, just human beings using your basic woodworking tools: Bandsaws, sanders, shapers, and such. Having a ball! I use about the same tools you might have had in your high school woodshop: Table saw, bandsaw, jointer, routers, belt and drum sanders, etc. I use them to make body blanks. I make my own jigs and templates - usually plywood. For shaping the bodies, my main tools are my rickety old Makita GV-5000 disc sander/grinder for the concave "German" carves, and my trusty Makita belt sander for the convex arm rest contour. For many years I did all of my neck shaping with Stanley Surforms. But, in recent years, I've gotten lazy and I start by hogging out the rough shape with the Makita sander/grinder then finishing it off with the Surforms… and sanding blocks.

: Would you ever put an opaque paint job on a guitar? J. Till: I am not philosophical about guitar finishes, except for a soul-deep dislike of polyurethane. Finishing is the one skill I did not already have when I started building guitars. And I admit that I have not been adventurous enough in that field, though I'm getting good results with my lacquers and dyes. Recently, I've become friends with someone very knowledgeable on the subject, and I hope to be moving into paint finishes… as soon as I acquire the proper equipment. And, I'm looking to involve outside artists to work their magic on some paint grade bodies - if we can get young people to buy nice guitars again.

: I see you have a lot of videos of you playing your instruments and having a good time doing it - would you say it's a labor of love?
J. Till: Sometimes that's what it amounts to. At worst, you wind up with a nice guitar. At best, someone buys it, enjoys it, and you live to make another.

: You're one of the few luthiers that still offers to build "one-offs" - everything to the customer's specifications. Are there any design requests that you might not entertain?
J. Till: The closest thing I have to a rule on this subject is that I will only build original shapes - mine or yours. I do not make copies of other brands - though I have made a few "Till Ecasters" for myself over the years. My "anything goes" boast applies only to people local enough to visit my shop, or to people who already own one of my guitars. These days I need to feel the trust and faith to take on particularly unique projects. I try to steer anyone else toward bodies I've already begun to eliminate the guesswork. Sure, there are some things I don't enjoy doing. For instance, I have no fun making neck-thru-body designs. I don't even like playing them! But, when my first order for one came in, I made a complete prototype first. If it had failed, I would have given the dude his money back. I've still got that prototype. Plays like butter!

: You don't try to hide your feelings about mass production guitars - what exactly do you feel is lost in the process of going from hand-built to mass-produced?
J. Till: These are really tough questions, Joel! I hope I don't offend anybody with whatever I say. Actually, I've never had much to say about mass-produced guitars. Though, as I think about them now, I'm not so sure the world needs any more $129 guitars that are so difficult to play that most people would rather quit than continue. But, you know, it's funny, some of the cheapest imported guitars in the big box stores have better finishes than American guitars costing 20 times more. That's a real shame. I will take your question to mean Big Name vs. Everybody Else. And, I don't know what's lost by one, but so much is gained by the other. One focuses on how many guitars they can stamp out in a shift, while the little guys just want to see how good they can make whichever guitar they're working on - however long it takes. To one it's all business, to the other it's personal. Unfortunately for the independent builder, it can take people a long time to see the difference for themselves - if ever. One of the fun things about building guitars is seeing your own skills improve. At first it's just about getting the damn thing to play. But soon enough, your focus increases and you start paying attention to smaller and smaller things. Fit and Finish. Getting everything right. Details, my boy! I think my first guitar took me 27 hours from concept to strumming. 21 years later that same model (TG-100) takes me about 100 hours to make. It gets personal right away when you make musical instruments.

JB: You're clearly a fan of the aesthetic qualities of wood - but what's your opinion in the tonewood debate? How much influence does the wood have on sound?
J. Till: After years of research, scientists have discovered that, depending on where it grows and how much sun and water it gets, mahogany sounds like mahogany and maple sounds like maple. The debate tends to use words like "better" and "best". I don't. At first, for me it was all joyful experimentation. If it was pretty, I used it (I still do). But eventually I've begun to look at woods like capacitors - they color the tone. If I think a maple cap will be too shrill with too much bite, I'll "cool it down" by adding an airy, open grained wood underneath. Mahogany is great for this, but so are a hundred others… black limba, lacewood, myrtlewood, cherry, even the lowly alder. Or, if a piece "thuds" when you tap it, I might go with a maple on the back… or not. It's almost like making soup. Everything you do to a guitar makes some kind of difference. The fun only increases the longer you build. This debate you speak of is partly why I only make original designs. The guys making copies are held to a much narrower range of what sounds "good". Original designs let the player decide what the guitar is supposed to sound like.

JB: Lastly, I have to ask you a hypothetical question - if you lost all of your guitars in a fire, what would you build for yourself immediately?
J. Till: If you'll forgive me for not answering, I'll forgive you for asking.

For anyone wanting to see more of Joe Till’s work, I encourage you to visit his website and Facebook page (his more active on Facebook, which is where all the photos above are taken from).
And I’ll leave you with a video of Joe playing one of his more adventurous instruments - a double neck guitar/bass combination. Thanks for reading!
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-Joel Bennett

14 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Wow those are some really beautiful guitars. And it's great to see a small time guitar maker that makes their own designs, rather than just guitars that look just like Stats, Teles, and Les Pauls. 
    Amazing that a human being can create things like this.  A human with extreme patience and immaculate attention to detail.
    Beautiful guitars, how do they sound? My guess a very warm Lucile tone
    Just thought I'd mention that there is a GREAT documentary on YouTube called "RESTRUNG" about a guy who makes custom Bass Guitars. About an hour - Very well done.
    Beautiful guitars.  I'm curious about the "feel" though...  I've mentioned it before but I am one of the few that appreciates the LOOK of a PRS but just cant get comfortable with the feel of them. However, with Joe Till and all the craftsmanship, I think the neck would be good.
    I'm right there with you on the look vs. feel of PRS.  I was about to get one and never pulled the trigger because I never felt one that felt right in my hands.
    Ah the feel was what sold me
    I envy you... I would love to have one in my collection but cant justify the money for something I would rarely play.  
    It's the neck, for some reason I just don't like the way it feels in my hand.  Doesn't fit right for me no matter how much I want it to
    Nice craftmanship, but looks a bit like danelectro. Aside from the standard pickups you find in any guitar, its very difficult for a custom guitar maker to sell product when everything with a hammer calls themself a luthier. Again, beautiful craftsmanship, but you'll pay for every second of it.
    Prices were not included in the article, but I suggest you get a quote from him before suggesting it's overpriced. Not really seeing the Danelectro resemblance either, maybe you can help us out with that one?  
    Pretty sure they "start at" $2500 USD, which is fine, but separation from the other 150 custom luthiers is what i was talking about. Beautiful products. Enough said. Niche market.