HOPKINS COUNTY, KY (6/13/13)—Good music, like artwork, transcends the boundaries of time. Be it Bach or the Beatles, there’s no denying the virtually indefinable sense of universality and timelessness that flows through a powerful song or performance. It’s, in a word, electric. And while the innate “magic” of a truly talented artist, as well as their approach and technique, may ultimately define the sounds they create, it’s easy to wonder if the enduring music we enjoy on a daily basis would have ever became a reality without the aid of a skilled craftsman’s vision: an instrument.
While modernity yields an exceedingly accessible music market flooded with affordable, yet oftentimes machine-made and outsourced instruments—many of which are actually well-made, high-end productions—the mystique of an instrument constructed and customized by the hands of a true artisan remains unmistakable. In fact, it’s the touch of man that has become a sought-after commodity in an instrument-making age full of exact replicas and “perfect” tolerances.
Need evidence? Simply take a look at the current value of many vintage guitars. Though today’s vintage guitar market has shared in the nation’s overall economic downturn, a well-preserved 1959 Gibson Les Paul may still fetch well over half-a-million dollars in an auction-type setting. Why, you ask? To sum it up generally, it was produced at the pinnacle of an era that valued close attention to details and fine, hands-on craftsmanship.
Fortunately, however, there are still craftsmen out there practicing an old-world approach to the process with striking results. One of these artisans is Jacob Harper of Harper (JIH) Guitars.
A native of western Kentucky and a current resident of Boonville, IN, Jacob Harper displays a proficiency for producing some of the most beautiful, playable, and uniquely custom guitars in the region and, as some would argue, possibly the country. From his remarkable, signature solid body and hollow body designs, to his rather unorthodox creations like the “Hellhound” double-neck guitar/bass, Jacob’s particularly functional pieces of creative art work are known for instigating a drop or two of drool from the mouths of regional musicians. What’s more, accomplished performers like west Kentucky bluesman and thumbpicker extraordinaire, Alonzo Pennington, as well as Uncle Kracker’s touring guitarist, Kevin McCreery, have turned to Harper Guitars for their custom instrument needs both in the past and present.
Yet, for all the praise and trial-and-error know-how Jacob has accrued since he first started building guitars in 2007, he remains a humble, down-to-earth musician, architect, and family man that simply enjoys his time spent in the workshop.
In looking at his early inspirations, though, it’s really not that much of a surprise that he’s such an unassuming, albeit talented, human being.
In addition to a love for playing and listening to a diversity of musical styles, Jacob’s family has always been involved with architecture or construction in some manner. In fact, his childhood home in Cadiz, KY—a log cabin style residence—was constructed entirely by the sweat of his father and uncles’ brows. Undoubtedly, it was this continuous exposure to design and architecture that would eventually lead Jacob down a fulfilling path of architectural education and employment that bleeds into his custom guitar work today. Viewing these facts from an outside perspective, it seems that Jacob was simply destined to effectively combine the two facets—music and architectural design—at some point.
But how did he learn the "ins and outs" of being a luthier? What’s the actual process of making a guitar like? What keeps him inspired to create such intensive works of functional art? And what does Jacob have in mind for Harper Guitars in the future?
To find out the answers to these questions and more, myself, as well as Sugg Street Post writer Jessica Dockrey and photographer Jessi Smith, recently paid a visit to Jacob inside his two-level workshop and studio space in Boonville. The results of the intriguing encounter are as follows.
Luke Short: Tell me a little bit about yourself. How old are you and where are you originally from?
Jacob Harper: I’m 37, I believe. [laughs] I was born in Cadiz, KY. I was raised there and that’s where I grew up.
LS: What was your childhood like there? What were you into as a kid?
JH: We all grew up on, well, it wasn’t really farm, but it was a good-sized piece of land down by Lake Barkley. There wasn’t much to do other than to create your own fun. It was basically like you’d leave in the morning and wouldn’t come back until night. We’d just be out running around all day. It was a lot of fun.
LS: Is your family originally from this area?
JH: No. My grandmother is actually from India. She’s British. My granddad was from the states. He was in the Navy when he met my grandmother. Then they settled down outside of Christian County and they ended up moving to Rockcastle, which is near Eddyville, KY.
LS: Did you make it through school alright?
JH: I made it the whole way through Trigg County High School [in Cadiz, KY] and then I went to Murray State University for five years.
LS: What did you study at Murray?
JH: I studied Industrial Technology Design, which is focused on drafting, design, and architecture. My dad is a contractor, and when I was a kid, he was always building houses. I helped build them, became interested in that process, and I started drawing plans for him when I was 17. I just decided to do that in school and I’ve worked for architectural firms and civil engineers even since.
LS: What are some of the places you’ve worked for?
JH: Right out of school, I worked for a civil engineer based out of Benton, KY. From there, I went to work for Murray State in their Capital Construction Program. After that, I went to work for a place based out of Lexington, KY. We all worked in a satellite office in Paducah. I did that for probably five or six years. I moved there for that job. I met Andrea, my wife, during that time. She worked at Enterprise [Rent-A-Car]. Well, she ended up getting a promotion to the position of district manager in this area [Boonville, IN], so I said, “OK, you’re making more money than me, so I’m moving with you.” [laughs] We moved up here and she wasn’t happy with Enterprise, so she went to work for Alcon Pharmaceutical Sales. As for me, I work for Hafer Associates here in Boonville. They’re an architecture firm. I’m a project manager there.
LS: That sounds like a higher-level job.
JH: It can get pretty hectic trying to find personal time. It’s an eight-to-five job, but I often find myself working overtime. Plus, it’s pretty intense work, but I find time to be a dad and eat supper. I’m usually out here in the workshop most nights. I wake up extra early in the morning to come out here, too.
LS: At what point in your life did you get into music?
JH: I’ve always been into music. My mom’s a country singer and my grandmother was a piano player. She played in church for years. My dad has eight brothers and only two or three of them don’t play music. Some of them are professional studio musicians and others are weekend warriors, so I was always around that. They were always playing music, so it was just a part of my life even at a young age.
LS: Was there a point where you really started gravitating toward a certain genre and developed your own musical identity, so to speak?
JH: It’s kind of weird. I was always turned off by country music growing up, because my mom was a country singer. I guess I just thought it wasn’t “cool enough,” you know? It’s like you’re trained to be that way. On the flip side, the people who really started buying my guitars were country musicians. As I got older, I didn’t mind listening to country, and I actually appreciate pickers like [Brad] Paisley and [Ricky] Skaggs and all those other guys. But when I was younger and in high school, I dropped out of band because it wasn’t “cool.” I started playing in a rock band instead. We played heavy metal and rock, and it was a blast. I was probably way too young to be playing in bars, though. [laughs] That’s what I went more towards, as well as blues. The blues were what a lot of my uncles played.
Jessica Dockrey: What instrument did you play in band?
JH: I actually played saxophone.
LS: I played saxophone in band, too, but I was like you and quit because I didn’t think it was “cool enough” for me.
JH: There’s a low retention of saxophone players out there I guess. [laughs]
LS: I really kick myself sometimes now, though. If I could still play sax, I’d be doing Pink Floyd covers all day.
JH: [laughs] I still want to go get a sax every once in a while.
LS: I took piano lessons, too. I took them for about three years and then did the same thing—I quit because it wasn’t “cool”—and now I kick myself for that, too.
JH: As my son grows up, he will learn to play piano, because that’s the gateway to all other instruments. [laughs] I kick myself, too, because my grandmother had free lessons waiting for me if I wanted them, and she was an amazing piano player. I tried it out for maybe six months and just gave it up. That was so stupid of me. [laughs]
LS: So, at what point did you really get into playing guitar?
JH: I was probably 15-years-old and my dad had an acoustic, all my uncles played music, and I’d see and hear them playing all the time, so I wanted to do that too. So, I got my dad’s acoustic and I went through an entire guitar lesson book in about three days. It came pretty easy to me, but it hurt [my fingers]. You’ve learned guitar too, so you know what I’m talking about. I would play for six hours every day. I would just play, play, and play. That’s how I got into it.
LS: When did you say to yourself, “Hey, I’m going to build a guitar”?
JH: I was in Paducah in 2004 or so, and I just had an itch to build some furniture. I maxed out credit cards and bought a lot of tools during the process. I wasn’t married yet, so it was easy to do that. Building furniture was fun for a while. I had a friend there that I played music with at the time, and he was also a woodshop student from Murray State who was working for a guitar builder out of Mayfield [Kentucky]. I went over there with him and watched what he was doing one time, and the guitars the guy was making were amazing. I believe the guy’s name was Brad Smith. Afterwards, I said to myself, “I’ve got the tools to do that, and I’ve been playing for 20 years, so maybe I should try it out.” That’s how it all got started. It was kind of rough in the beginning, though. [laughs] I didn’t go to luthier school, so I had to make all my own mistakes. I’ve probably learned a lot more making those mistakes, though.
LS: On that subject, tell me a little bit about the first guitar you ever made, which, as I believe, was a Gibson Les Paul-style solid body.
JH: With basically any guitar, the math is the same, which is something that I should have paid more attention to when I first started. I should’ve looked at the details closer. That’s what I’ve learned: it’s all about the details and precision. You know, you measure things a hundred times and cut once. My first guitar was really rough; it felt like a baseball bat. [laughs] It was far too heavy.
LS: To you, what is the hardest or most frustrating part of building a guitar?
JH: Setting up the fretboard and getting the frets right is the hardest part, because there are so many things that you have to make just right all at once. A lot of companies have machines that they throw the guitar in and they bend the neck and shave things off, but I still do all of that by hand, and I’m sure other guitar builders still do it by hand, too. But that’s definitely the hardest part; that’s where you really have to slow down and take your time.
LS: Is that mainly because of the spacing between frets, fret height, fretboard radius, etcetera?
JH: I could start to tell you, but there are so many little critical dimensions to consider—the curve of the neck, the angle of the neck to the body, and on and on.
LS: What’s the story behind your workshop? When did you move to Boonville, IN and when did you get all your equipment set up?
JH: Well, we’ve been here six years now. When we moved up to Evansville, I had already been building guitars. I think that “number eight”—that hollow-body over there [points to a black guitar in the studio area]—was probably the last one done during the transition. We moved up to Evansville, I lived with my brother for a while, then we lived in an apartment, and I would travel back home to my dad’s place on the weekends and work in his barn. I had to relocate my entire shop from Paducah to my dad’s barn so I could keep on building. Then we moved up here [to Boonville, IN] and lived in an apartment for a little while, but it wasn’t long before we said, “This is ridiculous. We’ve lived in and owned a house before.” I hated living in an apartment. So we started looking for places, and I think this [the Harper’s current home] was the first place I went and looked at. I like it because of all the potential it had for housing a proper shop in the garage area. It’s a really old house. It was built in the 1800s and it has some issues. I love fixing stuff up, though, but it takes me away from building guitars.
LS: Is woodworking something that you’ve always had an interest in or was it something that just developed out of the blue?
JH: Well, my mom’s dad was a fine woodworker. He built furniture. My grandfather on my dad’s side was a machinist in the military, and he was kind of a “fix anything” type of handyman. Then, my dad’s brothers, as well as my dad, were all woodworkers, contractors, fine furniture builders, and finish carpenters. My dad and all his brothers actually built the log cabin we all grew up in. It was just always something I was around. With what I’m doing now, I already knew how to use the tools, so it was simply getting them.
LS: The tools are definitely expensive. So, tell me a little bit about the layout of the shop?
JH: To put it simply, it’s one part dirty and one part clean. You kind of have to keep the two parts separated. The downstairs portion is the woodshop. I do all the work I can in there up to the point of finishing, and then I bring it upstairs to actually apply the finish. I’m using all the space I can downstairs. I can’t buy anymore tools, because I don’t have room for them unless my wife decides to let me use the garage part. Maybe this interview will help with that. [laughs] As far as a layout goes, though, I’m always working on how things are set up. I’ve amassed so many tools, and they’re all specialty tools, so figuring out places for all of those where I can actually find them when I need them has been fun. I play music and I wanted a practice space, so I built this studio and an isolation booth up here on the second floor. Well, a paint booth was a necessity, so I eventually made the isolation booth my paint booth.
LS: I know there are a variety of tools used to create a guitar by hand, but what are some of the main tools that you use during the process and what is their function?
JH: Oh, that’s a hard one. [laughs] They’re all equally important. You know, there’s a lot of roughing out—because I get rough pieces of wood from sawmills, some of which still have bark on them believe it or not—and you’ve got all your heavy machinery like the table saw and the band saw that help to take the original piece from a rough form to a dimensional piece of lumber. Then, you go into all the carving stuff—hand carving tools, planes, and spokeshaves, all the way down to needle files and beyond. I mean, the whole finishing process is intense. I could seriously spend an entire day telling you all the things I’ve learned about finishing.
LS: You mentioned that you get some of your wood from local sawmills. Is that where you get all of your lumber?
JH: There’s a mill north of here. I get a lot of my ‘big stock’ stuff from there, like mahogany and maple. I usually find all my really highly figured stuff on eBay. I find it one piece at a time that way. I have to see detailed pictures of it before I buy it, though. I’ve paid $350 for a relatively smaller, highly figured piece of wood before.
LS: Did you acquire all your equipment at once or did you acquire it over time?
JH: It’s been a process of maxing out credit cards to get my bigger stuff in the beginning. Then I got married and we agreed that I needed to stop doing that. [laughs] But, at the very least, it’s set me up. I always argue that it’s an investment, which rarely works with her. [laughs] Since I started selling guitars, I haven’t made any profit. It all goes back into tools. At times, when I need something like a new jig or something like that, I’ll just make one myself instead of going out and buying one for $400 right off the bat. Then, I’ll buy a new one when I can, when I have the money. Right now, though, I’ve been able to cover most of my costs from selling guitars and we’re all happy.
LS: As far as smaller stuff goes, do you turn to places like Stewart-MacDonald?
JH: Yeah, Stewart-MacDonald is a big company for me right now. If I ever stepped up production, I’d really have to look at that, though. Stewart-MacDonald is great, but it’s a little expensive.
LS: What are the most common types of woods that you use? Also, what are some of the more exotic woods you’ve used?
JH: Maple and mahogany. Those are the most common. I’ve also used Korina, sapele, Honduran mahogany, African mahogany, highly figured maple, plain maple, rock maple, sugar maple, soft maple, purpleheart, ebonies, zebra woods, rosewood, and some others. I’m not big enough yet for them to bring the Lacey Act down on me, though. I’m not traveling to South America to get my lumber or anything if that’s what you’re getting at. [laughs]
LS: What happened with the Lacey Act and the Gibson Guitar Company is insane. It’s interesting that they were the only company to come under fire, because every other big guitar manufacturer—as far as I understand it at least—was using and importing the exact same woods.
JH: What kills me is that Gibson is probably a steward of forestry in those countries where the forests are pretty much raped on a daily basis. Gibson comes in and says, “No, we want to have wood to use in the future. Let us show you how to do this the right way.” Still, though, they came after them. I think it was all political. I guess everyone at Gibson was republican or something. [laughs]
LS: You mentioned that getting the frets correct is one of the hardest or most frustrating parts of building one of your guitars. What’s the easiest or most enjoyable thing about a build to you?
JH: I really enjoy the carving process, especially when I make hollow body and carved top guitars. I still do all of that by hand. I use the “old school” method where I’ll just lay out a kind of topography with the wood and sit there and work that down with a router. Then I’ll get a handplane and knock off all the edges, and I’ll handplane everything else down smooth. That part is tedious and your hands have blisters all over them at the end, but it pays off when you get some finish on it or see someone playing it on stage.
Jessica Dockrey: That makes me think of Alonzo Pennington’s guitar, “Goldie." That guitar is so beautiful. I love it.
JH: Yeah, that one came about when I had a little extra money and I was in between builds. When that happens, I just build my own guitar out-of-pocket. With the one Alonzo now has, I was actually sitting out here one night thinking to myself, “If I’m going to build a guitar, what am I going to do with it?” Well, I got to looking at my goldtop Gibson Les Paul in the studio, and I thought, “I’m going to see if I can beat Les Paul.” [laughs] Evidently, Alonzo thinks it does.
LS: I would have to agree with that, too. A handmade guitar that is well-build will beat a mass-produced instrument—like a Les Paul for example—the majority of the time.
JH: You know, there’s a really fine line that you have to cross. You can have a really, really expensive piece of trash. I definitely know what I’m doing, but I don’t always know everything about the wood I get from mills. I don’t know how much they’ve dried it and I don’t have the big, costly equipment you need to test a piece of wood’s moisture content. Keeping that in mind, I try to buy wood well in advance of a build so it can acclimate. If I worked with fiberglass or graphite, it might be easier, but that’s not what I want to do.
LS: A lot of people that aren’t that into the technical aspect of guitars don’t realize how much changes in temperature and humidity can severely alter, or even permanently damage, tonewoods. You really have to take care of a good instrument for it to retain its value and tone.
JH: When you tell a guitar store that you’re having problems with the neck or fretboard, they sometimes heat the neck until it pops off. If you leave a guitar in a car, it can do the same thing. It’s like putting your guitar in an oven basically.
LS: How many guitars have you made since you started building in 2007?
JH: I’m on my 35th guitar right now. I’ve built more and more each year. I’ve probably made four this year so far.
LS: How long does an “average” build typically take to complete?
JH: My standard solid body flattop guitars usually take around two months to make. If I get more weekends at home, it may take a week less. The killer part about guitars is that you get everything to the finishing stage, you put the finish on, and you have to wait. Then you put more finish on and you have to wait more.
LS: Is that just part of the drying process when you use nitrocellulose?
JH: Yeah. In about a week-and-a-half, I can have a guitar ready for finishes, but then it takes a month or a month-and-a-half for the finish to cure.
LS: Wow, I had no idea that it took that long.
JH: A lot of the bigger companies use different finishes. For example, PRS [Paul Reed Smith Guitars] use acrylic-based urethanes that dry super quick and become really stable. They look really good and they probably have their own mixture, but all the “gear heads” love the nitrocellulose finish. They say nitro is the best and that’s what I use. I think there are ovens and drying rooms that you can set up that make the process go faster, but I don’t really have room for that at the moment.
LS: I actually think it’s cool that you let it dry and cure naturally, so to speak. You’re not rushing it and it seems like a much more organic process in that sense. So, who are some of the guitarists you’ve worked with? I know Alonzo Pennington is a well-known customer, but who are some of the others?
JH: Yeah, Alonzo is definitely a more well-known customer. One of my buddies from college, Bryan Fox, has actually bought four from me. He’s buying his fifth from me right now. He collects guitars and I guess he believes in me. [laughs] The first guitar I made for him was inspired by Waylon Jennings’ famous black and white, leather-bound [Fender] Telecaster. He’s like, “I want that,” and I was like, “I don’t work with leather!” [laughs] He said he just wanted my take on it. So, I hand carved a rose and all the vines on top of a really nice piece of figured, black-dyed maple. It turned out great. He just shoots me new ideas and we go with it. After I finish up with the two I’m working on now, I’ll start in on his next one.
LS: Yeah, tell me about the two you're working on now—the paisley bass and the Gretsch-inspired white hollow body.
JH: Yeah, I’m building those for two other guys that have been good to me. They’re friends of Bryan [Fox] up in Louisville, KY. One is for Chip Adams, who is the director of the Louisville School of Rock. He’s a great guy. He said to make him a bass and it’s turning out well. The other guy, Kevin McCreery, who’s friends with both Chip and Bryan, used to play with Tantric. I guess I got with Kevin right as he was starting to work and tour with Uncle Kracker, which is what he’s doing now. He’s a touring guitarist. Bryan was like, “Get Kevin a guitar right now!” I was like, “Well, I’m finishing a guitar right now, so take it!” [laughs] I gave it to him and he ended up really liking it. After that, I got with him about making another one, because guys like him get endorsed by the bigger companies, like G&L and Gibson, and they send guitars for them play. There was a point where I didn’t see him playing my guitar all the time and I was like, “No. I can’t deal with this.” So, I stayed on him about building another one. He said that he had always liked Gretsch White Falcons, so I told him I’d do my take on it. I’m hoping they don’t have a patent on white paint and gold sparkle binding. [laughs] Other guys that play my guitars are Drew Lambert from Sam Hunter & The Two Tones and Ronnie Paul Kingery of the Glen Templeton Band. They were actually both in the Glen Templeton Band. Ronnie wanted a guitar and Drew saw the whole process, became interested in my stuff, and had me build a bass guitar. Drew’s was the five-string black and green bass I made. It turned out really well.
LS: That reminds of me of something I wanted to ask you. What’s been one of your favorite guitars to build so far?
JH: “Goldie” was my old standby. I played it out a lot. That’s really hard question, though. In truth, my favorite is always the last one I’m finishing.
LS: Is there anything that you get “third-party” help on during a build?
JH: Up until about two guitars back, I did every single detail myself. Now, though, I’ve got a good friend, Tony Dorris—who has his own amp company called Volition Amps—helping me out with installing and wiring the electronics. He makes his own effects pedals and amps. They’re all boutique. Tony’s kind of like a mad scientist, too. Of course, he’s a down-to-earth, awesome guy, but he has this mad scientist thing where when he talks to me I’m like, “I can tell you how I want this to sound, but I have no idea what you’re talking about right now.” [laughs] He’s done the wiring in the past three guitars. If it’s artwork outside that I do, he’s doing artwork on the inside. Now you can take off my [electronics] covers and it’s like human anatomy in there. Everything’s laid out perfect. Before, I’d just wire everything myself and it wasn’t perfect, to say the least. I got pretty good at soldering, and I can read a schematic just fine, but I didn’t know the real technical theory behind what I was hooking up. So, Tony is my go-to guy for all the electronics. It’s pretty cool too, because we bounce ideas off each other and come up with new wiring possibilities.
LS: So, is your son, Ian, who is two-years-old, rocking out on the guitar yet?
JH: If he could pick up a guitar, it would be smashed. [laughs] I call him Sid Vicious.
LS: Where did the idea come from for your signature “Harper scroll” cutaway on your guitars?
JH: There are actually two different things that are kind of like my signatures: the scroll on the bout of the body and the headstock scroll. The headstock scroll is kind of 3-D. On some of my earlier designs, I was drawing inspiration from the blueprint of an old F5 mandolin I had. I liked how they did the scroll and I tried to incorporate that scroll in those designs, but I actually made a mistake by cutting it at the wrong angle. That’s really how that came about and you can see how the design has changed over time in my guitars. Some of it comes from a need for simplicity too, especially when it comes to putting the binding on.
LS: I was actually thinking that applying the binding, especially when it comes to the "f-holes” on one of your hollow bodies, might have been another one of the most difficult or frustrating parts of a build too.
JH: Oh man, it really is sometimes. I think of it as the game of Operation where it buzzes when you touch the sides. That’s just how frustrating it can become. [laughs]
LS: With so many guitar companies making instruments on a mass-produced scale, what makes a handmade, custom guitar special now?
JH: You can really argue for both sides of the market. If I ever expanded and had to step up production, I would probably add a CNC [Computer Numerical Control] machine to my equipment just to cut the rough outs, because you can lose a finger working with your hands. I’d rather have a machine doing that part for me. There’s something to say about people who mass produce guitars, too, because they have specific tolerances they work with. You can pick up one guitar and then another down the road and they’ll feel the same. There’s consistency there. When you do it by hand, you really have to take your time. You get a guitar, take all the critical dimensions from it, write it all down in a notebook, and you say, “That’s going to be my next guitar.” Then, you have to look back at it and figure out everything you did, and you’ll sit there with a micrometer and measure it all out. It’s a slower process, but you can feel a real difference in the end product. There are always going to be these little imperfections that remind you it was handmade. They’re not bad imperfections. With wood grain, the bigger companies will trash a body blank with a small imperfection because they can, whereas I’ll work that imperfection into the guitar as a focal point. It’s just a lot of work doing it by hand and getting all the tolerances the same. Now, you can pick up one of my guitars and say, “That’s a good feeling neck,” and you can pick up another one and it will feel the same. It’s taken me a while to get to that point.
LS: I think those little imperfections are things that people should still value about anything handmade. You know, making instruments by hand is how it all started, and you’re carrying that tradition into the modern world.
JH: For sure. There’s definitely something to say about the way I make them, too. You know, the guy who’s playing one of my guitars knows that it was made it a shop and knows all the specific components it was made with—the woods, the design, and all the electronics. I also send my customers pictures of the process so they can see exactly what’s happening and where I’m at with it, which is something I think is pretty cool. I’ll give them a CD of all the pictures I took, too; they go all the way from the chunk of wood I got at the mill to the finished product. I don’t really know if there’s an argument about which way is better—handmade or mass-produced—but it’s kind of like, “Why do you buy the Rolls-Royce instead of the Ford?” I’m not saying my guitars are a Rolls-Royce, but it’s the same concept.
LS: Specifically, what are some of the customization options that you offer? Is it pretty much wide open to the customer?
JH: I love that each guitar is different. People call and they’re like, “I have this idea and I hope I can make it happen.” And really, the sky is the limit, but I’m learning something new every time. I like to stay with my shape just to keep my name and signature out there. Fortunately, unique finishes are really a popular thing, so I don’t have to change the body shapes too much. With finishes, I’ll try anything pretty much. I’ve been successful with all of them so far. The last one that I did, a flat black eight string guitar, was difficult. That was the first time I’d done a flat finish on a guitar. It’s nothing like going to Lowe’s and picking out flat paint. It truly is a pain. On that guitar, I had it all completed, everything on it, and all the electronics had been tested, but all of a sudden the paint started cracking on the back. There were big red cracks. It was basically some kind of chemical reaction between the lacquer I used and the paint that caused it to happen. So I had to strip everything off. I had big chemical gloves on and got some heavy grit steel wool and just worked all of it off. I try to be as clean as I can with filters, but with satin finishes you get it all glassy, put it in the paint booth, spray it, and you hope that one little piece of dust doesn’t land on it. But it’s all whatever the customer wants. I can get different woods, electronics, tuners, bridges, and I can make the finishes happen.
LS: I know that you won’t build an exact clone of a well-know style of guitar. For people who ask you why you won’t make one, what do you say?
JH: I won’t, because it’s just a waste of time. You know, for the guy who decides to call Stewart-MacDonald, orders a Les Paul guitar kit, and puts it all together, that’s fine. But if you’re calling yourself a builder and you’re using a kit, you’re really not a guitar builder. There’s so much knowledge to gain when it comes to really building a guitar, from tools to wood to processes. I actually want to make a name for myself and the company. I want this company to last into the future, and I think having a signature shape on a quality guitar is the key. It’s what keeps me up at night. I’ll send a guitar out and I’ll just worry about it making to the customer safely, and I really hope the customer loves it. I’ve had guitars go out and the customer will call and say there’s something wrong. I’ll pay to have it sent back and I’ll fix whatever is wrong on my own dime. I don’t think I’ll ever turn a customer away after they've paid when something’s wrong or if there’s something they don’t like. Everyone is genuine about any issues they have, too, so I’m always going to make it right. I think that’s the only way to be.
LS: What you do really is an art form. There aren’t that many people that are true luthiers, but it’s a centuries-old craft. With that in mind, what keeps you inspired and moving forward?
JH: Getting custom build orders and having people call and say that they have a new idea is really what gets me inspired to do this. I could build a copy of one I’ve made before and be just as happy, though. I really enjoy doing it. If I did any more volume that what I do now, I could see certain parts of it becoming kind of monotonous, but I just really love doing all of it. You know, there’s the kid in school who has to explain what their dad does for a career and some say an accountant while others say a firefighter. Of course, the kids are going to think the firefighter is awesome.
LS: So, basically, you want to be the dad who builds rock n’ roll guitars. [laughs] That’s a pretty cool profession to pursue. Why do you think music and art forms like guitar building are still relevant and important for people to hold on to, to respect?
JH: It’s a release. It’s a universal way to communicate with people. Anybody could talk about music and art and find common ground. Or, at the very least, it can start a discussion. Plus, I think it makes the world a little bit smaller. It brings everything together. You can learn more about other cultures through music. It may sound lofty, but it’s true. As far as what I listen to, it really depends on my mood. I’ll listen to just about anything other than hardcore rap, but I’m a Beastie Boys fan from way back believe it or not.
LS: At the end of the day, why would you ultimately tell someone to check out Harper Guitars?
JH: You’re getting something boutique. A lot of people will argue that something boutique just costs more, but that’s not the issue. There are regular guys and girls out there making things with their hands and I think that’s worth the extra money to get that. You know, it’s like the “Walmart versus Ma & Pa stores” argument. Walmart makes it easier to get everything in one place, but when you spend a little extra time searching things out you can get something better usually. When people get my guitars, they know that every little piece of it has been looked over and all the details have been paid close attention to. Plus, I’m a musician. I’m not going to give someone something that I don’t enjoy playing. I put a lot of care and time into it because it’s something I really enjoy.
Want to find more on Harper (JIH) Guitars, such as additional photos, how to order a custom creation, artist testimonials, and more? Visit the official Harper (JIH) Guitars website at this link: http://www.jihguitars.com/. You can also interact with Jacob Harper or peruse additional photos of his works by visiting the “JIH – Custom & Handmade Guitars” Facebook page.
To read a “Gear Guide” on Alonzo Pennington’s custom “Goldie” guitar, which was made by Harper (JIH) Guitars, click here. A full interview with Alonzo Pennington can be found here.
Sugg Street Post
Writing/Interview by Luke Short
Photos by Jessi Smith