notes and thoughts on custom guitars
I'd like to present my perspective and address my philosophy on our custom instruments,
hopefully to prevent any disappointments and misunderstandings.
Proletarian quality is Subway's overriding theme and focus. For over 38 years we have been
assembling custom instruments at budget prices. We have liquidated partial, and entire,
inventories from factories and companies of their unwanted overstock; and we have re-manufactured
or cobbled together an amazing portfolio of guitars and basses.
Companies like Danelectro (the old Neptune, New Jersey operation) once sold us 4000 necks and
bodies. We've also bought old stock from the Gibson Kalamazoo facility and Fender, when they
closed their Fullerton plant. USA Kramer, Dean, Moserite, Dan Armstrong, Kay, Martin, Harmony,
Alembic, Hagstrom and Warmouth have added to our huge inventory of parts stash used to build these
The Subway operation is a collaboration of cottage industries in the San Francisco area. Over
the years it's been a pleasure to have on our crew luthiers like Larry Scott, Ralph Novak, Marc Silber, Steve
White, Michael Franti, Johnny Nitro, Chris Powell, Howard Klepper, Jon Otis, and many more.
I'm also trying to offer an alternative to today's market which has 95% of its instruments
sourced in Indonesia and China, and produced under deplorable labor practices. Incidentally:
these same deplorable labor practices are the same slavery that built (and continues to build) the
good ole' USA in all our years gone by.
The Subway view is not necessarily to offer the new, shiny, traditional instruments from China
or the stock look of Fender or Gibson re-issues. If you really need one of these, get one. We try
to create our own stuff with our own look and aesthetic.
Finish: If you want what is referred to as the "shiny, prick-red corvette" look, we're
not for you. Our finishes are handsome and functional, usually a clear or dyed wood stain with a
satin look and feel. It is non-toxic to produce. A good lacquer finish can add hundreds of
dollars to the price of the guitar, and the lacquer is poisonous to the user. We also offer a
punk-ish hammertone finish (a 1940s-era machinery finish) in solid, metallic colors.
Appropriate parts: This is a tough idea to communicate, so let me offer two examples:
- String nut: We offer nuts hand-tooled from bone, low action, accurate spacing,
but not particularly highly polished - the highly articulated look.
- Frets: Appropriately milled and polished.
When people ask: "How can you make these guitars for from $200-$400?" Let me ask you this: Do
you prefer that I charge you for a string nut, or frets with a finish, that are found on $2,000+
custom guitars? Appropriate, functional quality is our theme. You must ask yourself honestly:
Will you be satisfied with what is adequate and functional? Or do you prefer to spend a lot more
for super-polished and shiny appointments? If yes, there are many builders who will charge you
thousands of dollars for it.
Madison Avenue and Hollywood have sold some of us a value system where our self-esteem is
coupled to a superficial, shiny product. You must be honest and ask yourself: is this me?
We're the old school. On one of our custom guitars you might get Schaller gears with some
company's logo, or a neck plate with a company name, a pickguard made of ebony or smoked
plexi-glass. For years I imported large shipments of Korean necks and bodies to build our
instruments that were a synthesis: half import, half domestic. Some parts might be mis-matched,
but they are of top quality and functionality.
I hope to add you to our list of ecstatic customers. Musicians like Ry Cooder, Jackson
Browne, Taj Mahal, Billy Bragg, Joe Louis Walker, David Lindley, Robert Cray Band, have bought over a
dozen-plus instruments EACH from us. Steve Cropper, Les Claypool, Bob Dylan, Green Day, Mark
Knofler, Joe Satriani, Darryl Jones, Charlie Hunter, Jimmy Page, Cheap Trick, all have enjoyed our
custom instruments. See the more complete list at the Doghouse
for more happy customers.