Behind Bespoke: Rory Dowling of Taran Guitars

Welcome to our new series, Behind Bespoke. In this series we're lifting the lid on the bespoke process and getting an insight into what it looks like for each of our luthiers.

First stop on this lutherie expedition, we’re heading to Pittenweem, Scotland to meet the wonderful Rory Dowling of Taran Guitars. 

Within 15 years of Taran Guitars, Rory has built up a phenomenal level of skill and knowledge around all things guitar building, as well as an incredible reputation and loyal customer base, resulting in Taran Guitars being in incredibly high demand.  

Since beginning to work with Rory in late 2019, we’ve seen a number of Taran Guitars fly out from the shop in a matter of days and worked with a number of customers to spec out and build their dream Taran Guitar. Take a look at a few of the sensational guitars below. 

For those fortunate enough to have played a Taran guitar, you'll know that they indeed are something incredibly special. A few years back, I had the pleasure of working alongside and being trained by Rory, which made it only natural for us to start this journey here.  

On a personal level, Rory entirely shifted my understanding, experience, and passion for bespoke instruments, as I witnessed first-hand just how 'bespoke' a guitar could be to an individual player. There was an incredible variety of guitars that went through the shop, differing in their tonal capabilities, aesthetics, and individualities, however one thing that never changed was the impeccable build quality and attention to detail, the clarity and beauty of each guitar, and the overwhelming delight from every customer as they first met their dream, completed instrument.

So, in this interview we speak to Rory about the bespoke process and how Taran Guitars approach this journey...  

Hey, Rory. I want to start our chat with a big question. How would you define bespoke? Tell me what it means to you... 

Bespoke is the understanding that not every client, player or musician is the same and that every person is looking for something that is unique but more importantly tailored to what they require and want in an instrument. That’s what Taran Guitars has been specialising in for the last 15 years, working with musicians and players all over the world to create their own tailor made, unique instrument.

Why do you think should someone commission a bespoke guitar as opposed to buying off the shelf? 

So, I think through all of the years of building for people tailoring to different peoples tastes, what we’ve essentially done is built a recipe book of all of the ingredients and how to put them together to create different tones, visuals, aesthetics and ergonomics.  
What is really important to highlight here is that the bespoke and spec builds go very much hand in hand and talk to each other. When you come and order a bespoke instrument, something that is ultimately tailored to exactly what you’re looking for, it’s not just been plucked out of thin air. It’s fundamentally coming from years of experimentation and a deep understanding of the whole process in its entirety. What you’re getting is a bespoke instrument, built from that bank of knowledge.

We see bespoke as the marriage of aesthetic, ergonomic, and tonal considerations. Do you find that customers tend to focus upon a specific area within this? Or is it generally a real variety across the board? 

I think when you start the process of talking about bespoke instruments often cilents are either really focused upon the tonal palette or the aesthetic or even types of woods that is being used. What I think is absolutely paramount to the whole build is that you break it down and get to the point where both you and the customer know exactly what they’re looking for in every single element.  
Each and every one of those elements are as important as the next, there isn’t one that is overriding another. The whole point of the bespoke service, and I really do believe in this, is that you as client start the process thinking “okay, we’re going to have a guitar” and by the end, not only do you have a guitar, but you have an infinitely greater understanding of what it was you were looking for in the first place, because of the questions asked the conversations and fundamentally breaking the instrument down into each of its elements and seriously considering each one individually.

So how do you begin to interpret what a customer asks for? And how do you put all these elements together? 

Coming back to what I was saying before, the understanding starts very simply with a conversation. Well simple ish… Describing tone in language is fundamentally very difficult, a language barrier almost. How do you describe how a Stradivarius sounds? I think if you ask somebody “okay… do you want warm, rich, dry or sparkly, woody, powerful, mellow” all of a sudden you’ve got these words that in the guitar world are our language. When you’ve worked with many people as I have, I can translate this language into a guitars design and wood choices.
If a clients dream instrument needs to be a really warm, encompassing woody guitar, then we go back to what we were speaking about earlier, the bank of knowledge, the recipe book. And instantly I know that I need to think “right, we’re not going for rosewoods, we’re going for Walnuts or Mahogany's perhaps even Fenland Oak. They want it warm, so that writes off maple. Do we want to think about a redwood top? Do we want to think about a cedar top? Do we want to think about a mahogany soundboard.” All of a sudden that’s your area of interest, these are what you go to for the starting point.  
From there, we will ask people to listen to guitars we’ve built and things that turn their ears, things they like. Also fundamentally really being quite critical about what they don’t like. I will often say to people if they come to play instruments at the workshop that they have to tell me what they don’t like, as-well as what they do like. Because that is a wonderful insight. I could build a guitar for somebody that was really warm and mellow, but they might then say “I would like more power too.” In this case we can start to look at different neck materials, and even construction and all of a sudden you’re starting to build up this picture.  
I think it does boil down to my experience and their willingness to really pull apart what they are actually after. What was it about that African Blackwood/Adirondack Tirga Beag that really spoke to them? Was it the power and sustain? Was it the clinical purity in the front of the note or the overtones in the back of the overall sound? As soon as you’ve got those building blocks, I can build a picture in my mind of what they’re after, and then you can begin to move onto aesthetics and everything else. That’s how we generally work.

What is it about the bespoke process that takes people out of their comfort zone? 

We build quite differently, our philosophies, construction techniques and combination of materials are not the norm, and I think when people are working with us it will challenge their perception of what an instrument is. I have always challenged that; I don’t have a finite idea or a preconceived idea of what an instrument should be and I still don’t, it is constantly developing, improving and evolving as my understanding becomes more in depth. 

I think that’s maybe a thing with the bespoke service that when you really try to boil down into what someone is looking for you are ultimately asking them to change their perception of what it is that they look for in a guitar or the sound that they hear or how the sound production of an instrument actually happens and the materials that go together at the end might not be what they thought it was. 

I think that is definitely the biggest challenge: to get people to really stop and go back to the beginning. It’s the hardest part for clients, but the more they do that the greater the outcome. 

What are the depths of specific customisations or requests that you receive? 

Every clients wants something specific ergonomically i.e. neck profiles, string spacing, scale lengths etc thats absolutely no problem, I always accommodate this.

People come to me because they are drawn to the sound and aesthetics of my instruments. I’m often asked to incorporate specific elements, for example, do a personalised shellfish inlay up the fingerboard and if that is what the client really is after then we can discuss that. I’m totally open minded, I’m always very interested to hear ideas about detailing. A lot of clients are very excited about the hot sand fade, the coloured detailing and the use of different types of wood in the detailing. These aesthetics have all come from past builds thus I’m excited to see whats next and how together we can push the boundaries!

What do you love most about building bespoke? 

The thing I really enjoy is that the process continues all the way through. You start the conversations and then a plan is hatched, materials are selected, and we look at all the colours and details.  

Often when I start a spec build I know exactly what I’m going to use, colours for detailing and everything else. Whereas with a bespoke build, the back gets put together and the sides get bent and there’s this overwhelming feeling of “we must use this” like a specific colour or material that will compliment what we’ve done so far. That is a constant evolution throughout the build.  

One of the other things I love about the bespoke build is that when you fundamentally get to know the person you’re building for. For example, I’m working with a client at the moment who is obsessed with the inside of the instrument and that’s great because that means we know we want to send him loads of pictures and really take him on a journey through the build, because that’s what he’s fascinated with. Those are the bits I really love, it’s brilliant. I also love it when they’ve gone through the process and are delighted with the instrument; we’ve achieved what we’ve set out to do. It’s an honour to work all the way through the process with people. 

Working with The North American Guitar only brings more knowledge into the mix. TNAG understands the way that Taran Guitars work. The wonderful TNAG team helps guide the client through the bespoke service, discussing all the details and then finalizing with myself before the build starts. It is a collaborative effort between all three parties, the client, TNAG and myself. Not only have we got a wealth of knowledge from our years of experience, but so has TNAG through their years of experience with both customers and guitars.  

We have a build slot available with Rory for 2024, which can be secured with a deposit of 35% today. 

Our goal is to make commissioning your dream guitar as accessible as possible and there are a few ways in which we can help you do this. There is the option to trade guitars in your existing collection against bespoke build slots, as well as a number of flexible finance options. You can find out more about these options here or reach out to discuss your dream bespoke build with TNAG and Taran Guitars.  

For more information on Rory, and to secure the remaining build slot we have with him for 2024, head here.

Join us next Wednesday as we continue our Behind Bespoke roadtrip.  


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