Buying a Custom Hand-Made Archtop Guitar in China

May 8, 2018 by  

Starting with the L-7

My Grandmother’s 1933 Gibson L-7

I am a huge jazz fan, but am a rank novice at guitar playing. I have only been under instruction for about 30 months and with a full-time job, and me approaching my middle-60s, progress is slow, slow, slow.

When I started my lessons, I played my grandmother’s guitar, a lovely 1933 Gibson L-7 with a custom factory black finish, and a rosewood fingerboard that came from a Recording King guitar. I have no idea whether it was ordered this way or not. It was 1933, at the worst part of the Great Depression. It’s always possible that to save some money, first, the guitar may have been finished in black to mask any visual imperfections in the wood that would not affect its acoustic properties. It’s also possible that the Recording King fingerboard, having been made in the same Kalamazoo factory as “regular” Gibsons, was lying around, and that a production manager may have chosen to use any high end fingerboard that was readily available, rather than spend additional time and money to fabricate a proper L-7 fingerboard. I might have been able to perform some research with the assistance of Gibson serial number wizard Joe Spann, but when I was a small child, I took a screwdriver to the inside of the guitar to get the label out so I could read it (the things young kids do when unsupervised…). Of course, to avoid discovery, I destroyed the label and disposed of it, without my ever recording the serial number somewhere.

L to R: Hank Garland (Nashville Studio Legend), Andy Nelson (my uncle), Scotty Moore (Elvis Presley’s guitarist) taken by Tiny Timbrell

My uncle, the late Andy Nelson, of Gibson and Epiphone fame, was best known as a salesman and clinician for the Chicago Musical Instrument Company (CMI), parent of Gibson and Epiphone at the time. He bought this guitar for my grandmother in about 1938/39 when at age 16 or 17 he got his first paying job as a professional guitar player. He used that money to replace his mother’s previous guitar, which Andy, as a child, destroyed in some fashion. He probably went to one of the many fine Chicago music stores (where he grew up) and looked for the perfect guitar for his mother, within his likely limited budget.

Andy worked as a professional musician for the rest of his life, including ten years with CMI, and another five years with CBS/Fender. He was known and respected by professional and amateur musicians. Among his best friends were Les Paul, Tal Farlow (fishing buddies), jazz pioneer Jimmy McPartland, and countless others. The photo shows Andy on the bandstand demonstrating a Gibson ES-355, with jazzer/country phenom Hank Garland, and Elvis’ own guitarist, Scotty Moore looking on.

Back to the Gibson L-7, the guitar’s condition is still so pristine, I suspect it may have never been sold previously, and may have been sitting in the showroom or stockroom of this music store since the Gibson factory in Kalamazoo, MI shipped it in 1933 or 1934. In discussions with Joe Spann, I was able to find a Factory Order Number (FON), which was not among the group of serial numbers and FONs for which he had records, but by extrapolation, he dated the instrument to around 1933, which was the first or second year the L-7 was available. But I digress.

Larry Tries a Classical Guitar, And Some Bad News

I used this guitar, with what the manufacturer called light-gauge strings (.012 to .053) and even after having it gone through by local guitar store owner Jay Wolfe, who refretted and performed a serious neck adjustment, and put it through his fancy Plek machine, but in spite of all that, the lovely Gibson remained a chore to play—the worst problem was that the fingerboard seemed constricting, i.e., it was too narrow for my fat little fingertips. My instructor recommended a nylon-string classical guitar, whose fingerboards measure around 2 inches wide (the L-7 had a 1-3/4 inch wide fingerboard, and many archtops go down to 1-11/16 inches), which gave me a lot more room to move around. It was then that I thought that it would be nice to have a custom archtop built with a two-inch wide fingerboard. I had done some reading online and discovered luthiers in China who could build a custom handmade, hand-carved guitar made from premium wood, entirely to my specifications, for a fraction of the cost of having one made in the US.

It was during this period, roughly March 2017, that it was discovered that I had prostate cancer. The good news is that it was caught early, and thanks to 43 radiation treatments using a highly-focused proton beam device, the radiation only attacked the prostate gland, and for that reason, other than some slight burning when urinating (which was dealt with using the over-the-counter medication, Aleve), I had no side effects at all. I went to the oncology clinic at 7:15AM, and was on my way to work by 7:45AM at the latest. Subsequent testing shows that, for now, I am cancer-free.

My cancer was discovered due to a sudden spike in my PSA (prostate specific antigen) measurement (taken as part of my regular lab tests by my doctor) which had jumped from somewhere in the 1-2 range to 4.7. Frankly, the diagnostics, and in particular the biopsy, were far more invasive and painful than the treatment.

According to my oncologist, it was a textbook recovery. The only thing remaining that shows I had cancer are two pencil eraser-sized blue-green tattoos on my outer hips. These dots were used to align the radiation machine for my weekday treatments.

A Bonus and we Meet Mr. Wu and Lora

Fortune smiled upon me a few months later when my employer paid out a particularly generous bonus. I also thought about my recent cancer scare, and decided that life was too short and that I wanted to have a guitar made to my specifications.

I thought about the websites I had seen recently, and decided to do some more research. I came upon the jazzguitar.be forum, where there was much discussion about Chinese-made jazz guitars, in almost entirely a positive light. Many of the forum entries had pictures of some of the forum authors’ own custom Chinese guitars, which, in a word, were gorgeous.

At the upper end of this business there were two companies that made fine custom-built archtop guitars: Yunzhi and a luthier only known as “Mr. Wu.” Both companies were represented by a lady named “Ms. Lora,” of Yolanda Team. Mr. Wu had received extensive training as a violinmaker, and built a number of other stringed instruments prior to learning to build “jazz guitars.” Mr. Wu worked for Eastman, maker of some very fine, moderately-priced guitars for a time before he took employment with Yunzhi, as did Lora. Sometime after, Mr. Wu and Lora both left Yunzhi to start their own businesses. Lora had established sufficient rapport with both Yunzhi and Mr. Wu that she was able to work out a deal to represent both companies, acting as a go-between. She has an excellent command of the English language, and knows all of the aspects of hand-building a guitar.

I emailed Lora, and received an almost immediate reply. I sent back information on my specifications and received a price quote of $1,200 for a Yunzhi guitar or $1,600 for a Wu guitar (the final price came out to be about $1,700). I went with the Wu, based upon the testimonials I read on the jazzguitar.be forums (search for “Mr. Wu”), not to mention the beautiful photographic examples that the owners shared with the forum readers. It was more than I had planned to spend, but I felt it would be worth it in the end. The quote stated it would take about two months. Knowing how much time luthiers in the US spend on their creations, I thought that was a bit optimistic. It was. I am guessing, at the time I’m writing this, that it will probably ship somewhere around the end of May.

Larry Specs Out a Custom Guitar

1940s Gibson L-5, the Inspiration for the Overall Design

One of the most important items I specified which will make my archtop nearly unique will be the fingerboard. I decided to use the specifications of my classical guitar (with a few modifications). I specified the ebony fingerboard width to be 2 inches, and it would have mother of pearl block inlays, like a Gibson L-5. The body dimensions were much like the L-5: 17 inches wide, and 3-3/8 inches deep, with a Venetian cutaway to permit easier access to the higher notes on the instrument. The scale length is Mr. Wu’s standard 25 inches (the same as the Gibson Johnny Smith model, as well as most D’Angelico and Benedetto instruments) with 22 frets, but he could have made the scale length anything else. The wider fingerboard should make it more comfortable for me to play. If not, I’ve blown $1,700!

The top-grade materials used in the body are much like the L-5: close-grained spruce for the top (they claim their spruce and maple has been air dried for at least 19 years), and figured (flamed) maple for the rims and back. The neck is flamed maple, but in five pieces: three in maple, and two thin strips of ebony in between, which is purported to make the neck more stable and more resistant to twisting and warping. In other words, traditional archtop materials and time-honored construction techniques. The tailpiece is more like what Benedetto uses for their tailpieces: ebony, reinforced with steel to hold the string ends in place.

Nothing’s Perfect!

There were a few issues that were noted by nearly every one of the forum posters with Yunzhi and Mr. Wu:

  1. The electronics of most of these Chinese guitars, which, at the end of the day, are built to a price, are of shoddy quality and the soldering work is quite poor. Much of the hardware (tuners, pickups, etc.) is also of a lower quality than what an American or European luthier would use, though quite in line for makers of budget instruments.
  2. The frets required additional dressing.
  3. The guitars needed a complete setup, although this is something any owner of a new guitar should have done by their local music store or luthier anyway, so that was a “pass.”

Pete Biltoft Suspended “Charlie Christian” Single Coil Pickup

As for Item 1, I decided to bypass all of the hassles with electronics and specified mine to be an acoustic-only model (no pickup). I figured I can always have a floating pickup (one not screwed into the guitar’s body) added later. I decided on a Pete Biltoft floating “Charlie Christian” single coil pickup. I may also have new, higher quality tuners installed at a later date. I haven’t chosen an amp yet. It didn’t work out that way as you will see later in this story.

As for Item 2, see my comments above. The guitar would have received a full setup and a session with Jay Wolfe’s Plek machine to level the frets and have the neck and action adjusted to perfection.

As for Item 3, see Item 2.

Questions, Questions…

After getting the quote from Lora, communication stopped for almost a month, because it was Chinese New Year. China pretty much shuts down for a month to celebrate the New Year. When communications resumed, Lora sent a number of questions from Mr. Wu:

Top bracing – should it be cross (X) braced or use parallel bracing? Experts believe the cross-braced instruments have a warmer, mellower tone, while the parallel bracing makes the guitar more percussive, and louder, most advantageous for use in a big band setting, where the guitar player is playing rhythm. I chose the cross-bracing option, as I wanted a great all-around guitar. My uncle, Andy Nelson, always thought the original Gibson ES-150s (with the “Charlie Christian” pickup), due to the cross-bracing of the top, had a warmer, more buttery tone.

Neck depth at several key points: After conferring with my guitar instructor, I went with Mr. Wu’s recommendations.

Body depth: Measured from the outside of the bindings, or the inside? After researching, including checking Bob Benedetto’s excellent book on building archtop guitars, I went with the outside – in other words, the height of the rims including the additional height of the bindings, is 3-3/8 inches.

Headstock design: Normally, Mr. Wu’s guitars come without any decoration on the headstock, or have a stock decoration. I wanted something stunning, and after spending a week seeking inspiration, I finally found it on the expansive flanks of a 1958 Buick Limited, which was one of the most extreme cars of the late 50s with an extended rear deck was so long that the optional air suspension was nearly a requirement for anyone who had a steep driveway, as the suspension could be lifted by several inches which would offer more clearance. There was so much chrome that, in traffic, the car almost blinded other drivers, and the chrome on the dashboard could easily blind the driver and passengers (that is only a slight exaggeration).

It brought back memories of my childhood, growing up in Oakland Park, Florida, just outside of Fort Lauderdale. When I was five or six years old, I can remember being a passenger in my parents’ 1959 Chevrolet station wagon, and when they turned right at the end of our street (they usually turned left to head out of the development) about two blocks away, there was an enormous silver 1958 Buick Limited 4-door hardtop parked in a carport. It was the first I had ever seen, and it took my breath away. Must have been the fifteen diagonal chrome slashes on each of the rear fenders. I wanted to see more of it, but of course my parents wouldn’t stop to let me check it out, and at 6 years old, and I was far too young to be traveling several blocks away from home, either on foot or on my bicycle.

Then, by the time that I was able to wander a little farther afield, the Buick was gone. Probably traded for something newer, and maybe something a little less baroque. Because of this admiration from afar, I have maintained a lifelong fascination for those enormous beasts. But I digress, again…

Massive Rear flanks of an Enormous 1958 Buick Limited; the Inspiration for the Headstock Design

I noticed the script and an emblem on those previously described expansive flanks. The script stated Limited. What a perfect name for a limited production (one-off) guitar! For additional decoration, I specified the knight’s head emblem that appeared just below the Limited script. I scanned the best quality examples I could find and provided them to Lora, who passed them on to Mr. Wu and his wife, who does all the inlay work. And they only charged me $40 for this work! They also sent me a drawing of the peghead to verify dimensions—important because the neck is so much wider than typical jazz boxes. Actually, it’s about the width of a seven-string guitar’s neck. Once I take possession of the guitar, I may hire an artist to paint in some detail lines on the knight’s head inlay to make it stand out more.

Finish: I specified a particular sunburst finish, along the lines of what Gibson used in the 1940s. They got pretty close. I wasn’t certain at first, but when later pictures were sent, showing the body after some polishing and buffing, it was perfect.

I think there were a couple of other questions, but once all of them were answered to Mr. Wu’s satisfaction, he began work. I sent Lora a PayPal down payment of 50% of the final price.

Scattered Pictures…

Headstock design sketch

Then I didn’t hear from Lora for over a month. After about five weeks had passed, I finally could wait no more, and sent her an email. Once I did this, I began getting photos every week or two, first with a drawing to confirm the headstock dimensions.

Top and back after carving and shaping

The assembled body with f-holes cut out, but before painting and before the neck was attached.

The next pictures showed the guitar top and back to verify quality of the carving.

Body and neck, painted but not yet buffed and polished. Note the beautiful figuring of the maple.

Side of the unpolished guitar. Again, note the beautiful figuring and the sunburst finish.

The back of the guitar. Take note of the neck, with the two strips of ebony sandwiched between the larger pieces of maple.

The next photos were of the assembled body (top, rims, and back) in natural wood.

Once approved, I received another set of photos showing the body painted (with a goodly amount of overspray), block inlays installed, neck installed, but still unpolished/unbuffed.

The body, with initial polishing. Neck still needs to have excess paint removed.

The headstock with my design. Ain’t it gorgeous?

Only two days later, I got yet another set of photos, this time of the polished body, with the peghead inlays (“Limited”) in place, and the rims were scraped of the excess paint. There was still some overspray at the bottom of the neck which will have to be scraped away, this being the technique most often used to eliminate paint overspray.

It Ships!

About a month later, I asked Lora to give me a progress report. She told me the guitar was finished and the enclosed photos were for my final approval, and ain’t they gorgeous! Everything was nicely polished, the inlays were in place, the lovely wood, especially the maple, showed beautiful figuring.

Because I had to make a business trip, I asked Lora to delay shipment to ensure I would be here when the guitar arrived, as I didn’t know if it shipped by air or surface ship (it went by air). Fortunately, there were no import duties assessed, and I didn’t have to receive it from Customs.

I sent Lora the final payment, and then waited several weeks for its arrival.

When I picked it up at the Post Office, I immediately noticed how well it was packed. It was in a cardboard box, wrapped extensively with wide brown shipping tape. When I got home, I immediately set to opening it. After going through all of that tape, I noticed several layers of thin styrofoam between the underside of the box and the guitar case (an inexpensive Chinese D’Angelico branded case). When I pulled the case out, I found additional layers of styrofoam between the case bottom and the inside of the box.

Mixed in with the packing material was the pickguard with attached pickup (which was specifically not ordered). It broke off from the pickguard within a day or two of receipt of the guitar. It was held on with a small piece of bent tin which was soldered to another piece of tin which attached to the pickguard.

I brought it to my favorite guitar dealer for a setup, and he advised waiting a few months for things to move around and settle in, in other words, get used to the new environment.

The Good

I opened the case, and there it was. Simply gorgeous. The finish was virtually flawless. There were some strings attached, and when I found the ebony bridge in the case’s storage pocket, I eyeballed the bridge’s position and tuned up. It felt nice. The lower tension of the 25 inch scale length really did make a difference.

The 5-layer bindings are all alternating maple and ebony, far different than the usual “ivoroid” material. I did see one or two tiny spots where the bindings had likely cracked during bending and were expertly filled in.

The sound, as I have discovered from a lot of playing since I first received it, is rich and full, and when played in anger, has a lovely archtop “bark.”

The Ugly

One thing I noticed right away was that the ebony tailpiece really wasn’t. It was a hunk of styled ebony attached to a bent piece of brass, which was the tailpiece. Maybe someday, I’ll have a Benedetto tailpiece made for it. I also noticed the tuners seemed loose and wobbly. Maybe at some point, I’ll get some nice Grovers or Schallers for it. The pickguard attaches to the neck with two longish wood screws. The holes were already stripped when I tried to attach the pickguard. Something else for my local repair guy to deal with.

On the pickguard was an attached pickup (which was specifically not ordered), which broke off from the pickguard within a day or two of receipt of the guitar. It was held on with a small piece of bent tin, soldered to another piece of tin, which was attached to the pickguard.

The D’Angelico case turned out to be damaged goods with a large amount of covering being missing. I was afraid that it would come all the way open, allowing the guitar to fall out. It was then that I researched cases, and found one that seemed to do the trick–rugged, protective, and reasonably-priced. It was a British-made Hiscox case. One of their publicity stunts was to have five or six grown men standing on the case at the same time, followed by proof that the guitar was none the worse for wear.

Reactions

I brought the guitar to my next lesson, and my instructor was taken aback by its beauty, and by the classical fingerboard, as he, too, plays some serious classical guitar. One of my co-workers wants to order one, while another co-worker had problems getting his head (and hands) around the wide fingerboard. Generally, though, the reactions were very positive.

In Closing

I did make one big mistake, and that was keeping the guitar in my bedroom, which is also my practice room. The shower is somewhat open to the bedroom area, and even with the exhaust fan, the guitar has received far more humidity than it should have, which explains why I have had to keep adjusting the bridge up (higher action) to stop several strings from buzzing due to being too close to the frets. Of course, with the bridge going ever upward, the string tension increased, making it much harder to play. My practice room will be moving to the downstairs bedroom, far from excessive humidity. I’ll probably keep it in its case for the most part, too. Archtop guitars are sensitive beasts, and complex, too. Excess humidity is one sure way to get much of the wood moving in different directions.

At this writing, the “Limited” is paying a visit to my local guitar emporium for a full setup and if necessary, a final tuning on the Plek machine. Then I can start taking dimensions for the floating (suspended) “Charlie Christian” pickup I plan to have installed.

This was and is my dream guitar. The ordering process was very easy, and of course, the price is easy on the checkbook. In reading other comments in the jazzguitar.be forums, I’ve noted that a number of players have ordered several guitars from Mr. Wu or Yunzhi over the years, and as they discovered things they didn’t like, or wanted to make improvements, it was an easy matter to sell the previous instruments, often for close to the purchase price, and order a new one, with “tweaked” specifications. I don’t think it would be financially feasable to go through multiple designs with American or European luthiers, unless one’s checkbook was truly bottomless.