Superlist no. 802

Can I ax you a custom?
Where to find that one-of-a-kind guitar.
By Keith Axline


Ralph Novak of Novax Guitars. Photo by Mirissa Neff.
MAYBE YOU'VE BEEN around the block with your guitar and you want to finesse a new sound from your Strat, Tele, or SG. You want the uniqueness of your music reflected by the instrument that creates it, or maybe you're just a control freak. In any case, a custom guitar might be the panacea for your six-string woes. These shops share your passion for singularity, and they will be happy to tailor an instrument to your exacting tastes.

Originally from Paris, Christophe Brossard at Haight Ashbury Music has spent half of his life making instruments, and he brings a young yet experienced perspective to guitar making. Brossard entertains odd specifications and designs, and he even supervises those who are feeling handy and want to build their own guitar. Recently seen working on a fretless backpack bass that resembles a canoe paddle, Brossard has a passion for craftsmanship that is an excellent resource for local musicians who require more from their instruments. The least you could expect to pay for a custom electric is around $1,500. 1540 Haight, S.F. (415) 863-7327.

Dan Ransom at Ransom Guitars uses his 25 years of experience building guitars to craft an electric bass or six-string to almost any imaginable specification. He accepts hand-drawn designs, goofy ideas, and specific feature requests, and he feels out what you desire as input for your custom ax. The shop also houses a computerized fret-dressing machine – one of four in the country and the only one in the Bay Area – that ensures an even fret plane on your unique neck. Custom guitars start at $1,200. 15 Lafayette, S.F. (415) 864-3281.

Making guitars since 1972, Doug Roomian at Noe Valley Music says he used to entertain people's wacky ideas, but after so many odd results, he's now focused mostly on designs he thinks will work. The base price for a Roomian custom electric is $1,300. 3914 24th St., S.F. (415) 821-6644.

Ralph Novak at Novax Guitars patented the Fanned-Fret technique in guitar building, in which the distance between each fret in the scale is different for each string. Though it's funky-looking, musician Charlie Hunter swears by this method of guitar making. Novak's guitars also feature a proprietary bridge system, which gives each string its own bridge. All this attention to detail will cost you: the base price for a custom-made electric is $6,500. 920A Estabrook, San Leandro. (510) 483-3599.

An incomparable resource for local musicians for 38 years, Subway Guitars has housed musicians such as Michael Franti of Spearhead, Johnny Nitro, and Jon Otis as guitar technicians. It has 3,000 proletarian guitars from the '40s, '50s, and '60s lying around from which they can piece together your unique masterpiece. Prices vary, but you can expect a base of around $300 for a custom electric. You'll also have two weeks to try it out, as the store's "two weeks to experience ecstasy" policy allows you to bring it back for a full refund if you're not satisfied. 1800 Cedar, Berk. (510) 526-9685.

Custom amplifiers

Your electric guitar is only half the equation for getting the sound you want; the amplifier you play it through can be just as important. Dan Torres at Torres Engineering literally wrote the book on building your own tube amp, Inside Tube Amps. He or his coworkers can build an amp to your specifications as well as provide various DIY kits – one of the few places in the country that will. 1630 Palm, San Mateo. (650) 571-6887.