Behind Bespoke: Lame Horse Instruments

Welcome back to Behind Bespoke, where this week I caught up with the wonderful father/son duo, Chris and Jeremy Jenkins of Lame Horse instruments.

Lame Horse guitars are some of the most visually striking, beautiful guitars on the market. I spoke to Chris and Jeremy a bit about this, and how their years of experience and confidence in Lame horses’ tone led them to push the aesthetics of their instruments, read below to hear a bit more about this. When it comes to the Lame Horse tone- it’s hard to articulate how distinguishable it is, but with the perfect balance of warmth, clarity and brightness- you really can recognise a Lame Horse from a mile off.

Combining touches such as fully adjustable necks (for tweaking your action on the fly) with early 1930′s style, these guitars are packed with mojo. Lively and immediate with a vintage woodiness seldom found in anything without a little gold banner on the headstock (and a rattlesnake rattle on the inside!), these wonderful guitars excel at dusty blues, Americana, modern fingerstyle and anything in-between.

Chris & Jeremy define everything the build as ‘bespoke’ with no two instruments ever being the same. Get a deeper insight into this below!

Chris and Jeremy, thank you so much for joining us. To kick-off, how would Lame Horse instruments define bespoke?

Chris: Well I think most everything we do is bespoke. We have defined models and within that model, they don't change because that's important to the sound of the guitar and what it's supposed to do. No two guitars are the same, so they don't ever look the same. They don't have the same rosette, so to speak. I know some people say, "Well, I don't ever make the same rosette because it's out of different wood or it's a different color." But ours are completely different designs. So I think that bespoke is important to us. We have a conversation with everybody at length before we make a guitar for them. What type of music do they play? What do they expect from this guitar? Why did they select us? Why did they select this guitar?

And they usually have a good reason because we get people who, if they want a vintage guitar, they're not looking for a Lame Horse guitar. They want a modern guitar or they've seen something that appealed to them visually or an idea that appealed to them. And even when we make, what we might call a spec guitar or a guitar for a dealer, they're all different. And it's because we had an idea and it's a bespoke guitar that hopefully catches someone's fancy out there. So in that sense, every guitar is a bespoke guitar, I think to some extent, but some are just way more bespoke than others, because some are very specialised requests and some not so much.

So do you ever build the same thing twice? If someone spots a design that they like, would you duplicate it?

Jeremy: Oh, of course. If somebody wanted something like that, we would. But I mean the only thing we repeat is our model types. And then all of our inlays are pretty much one-offs every time.

Chris: Probably the closest thing to the same thing we've ever done, we just did kind of to celebrate coming from the pandemic. The first show was what we call the BIG show. The BIG, the Bowersox International Guitar-palooza down in New Braunfels, Texas. It makes sense that it should be in Texas, because we've been out of the pandemic for a long time. We put that behind us long ago. We're just making the best of it. And so it was wonderful and we built two guitars, a big hoss and a saddle pal. A big hoss is a saddle pal expanded out to 15 inches and they were pretty much as identical as guitars can be, except they were different models. They had the same rosette, the same woods. And so, you never know, somebody might come along and want a matched set. We didn't think that would happen and it didn't. But they were both great guitars, both out of really nice, beautifully quartered cocobolo, which is almost impossible to find these days, just perfect over the top, one in a million Italian, Alpine spruce tops and matching rosette. So they were both great guitars. One of them is at the North American Guitar in Nashville and yeah, the other one, a really wonderful player who's a North American Guitar customer, Doctor Sam he bought that.

Jeremy: And even making a matching pair for us, is something we had never done. So in its sense, it was bespoke to us, I guess.

Chris: And even when we say bespoke, that was a matching pair. I mean, they aren't matching because the two pieces of spruce were different. They had to be voiced differently, very differently. I mean, when we first strung them up, we had to do a lot more voicing work on the one than the other. The tops are just different and we ended up with them both sounding the way we wanted, but that was a whole different process.

What would you say that a bespoke guitar gives to a player that a spec or stock instrument doesn't?

Jeremy: It's got to be the personalising of the instrument. I mean, you get something that's handmade and one-off. It's unlike most anything at all. So a bespoke, in my head, it's infinitely better because it's a one-off handmade instrument, so it's its own special thing that nobody else is going to have.

Chris: Some are way more personal. I think probably the most personal, well we've done something incredibly personal, but one that comes to mind that was super personal was a couple. One was a fellow who had this tree he used to play in as a child in the front yard of his house that died. And when it died, he salvaged some of that wood. It was a large maple tree and in the town of Clovis, New Mexico. Now I know, you've never been probably to Clovis, New Mexico. But there are not many trees. You have to look a long way to see a tree in Clovis, New Mexico, especially a maple tree. I don't know how they got it to grow there, but they did. And it got large and it died eventually. And he salvaged some wood and his big take on that thing was he wanted it made out of this wood and it was not wood that anyone would've chosen to build a guitar out of, but that was what made it special. We had to go to a sawmill and get these logs cut up. And we ended up doing a lot of things to them that we don't normally do, but it came out good. And typically, what we like is for somebody to have an idea of a theme they want, and then let us expand on it. What we don't like is for somebody to say, "Here's a design. I want this chicken crossing the road on my guitar." And that usually doesn't come out very well for us or them. But when they give us ideas that are personal to them, that works pretty well.

I was going to ask about that because I saw on your website, it says “give us a theme for the design process” and I just wanted to ask more about that, how you kind of interpret what people ask for and examples of this.

Jeremy: It depends, I guess, what people are asking for. We did have one with Dr Elmo, which would be a theme a lot of people know. He wrote the Christmas hit, which is, I guess, seasonally appropriate, the Grandma Got Run Over By the Reindeer, which is a smash here. It's a silly song that everybody loves, but he wanted a guitar built around that song. And so when we came to him with our ideas, we had kind of two ideas, which is one, we had kind of a reindeer motif around the soundhole on the front, and in the back, we'd worked out this whole design of this grandma that looked like she had gotten run over by a Christmas sleigh along the back. And we brought it to him and he loved the front, but he thought the back was too much. So it got cut off. But that's just the kind of thing… That was a kind of a silly, fun build. Or at least that back idea was a silly, fun idea. But yeah, it didn't make it past the drawing board.

Chris: He vetoed the reindeer tracks over grandma's body on the back.

Jeremy: We had another with a customer whose nickname was Cotton. So, we were working with cotton blossoms, and it could come down to somebody giving us a colour combination idea or even sometimes you'll get somebody who points to something that we've done in the past and they just go something kind of like that. We're pretty much open to everything.

Chris: We had a German fellow who lived in Chile who gave us colours. He wanted turquoise and sort of a deep red pipestone color, and did a rosette around that. But we have one client we built several guitars for, a woman that loves a Southwestern design, which is a favorite of mine, so we get along really well. And we've done several designs for her involving that. And it seems that everybody loves turquoise, and we have a supplier that has a lot, probably 20 different varieties of turquoise stone from all around the world. So we have turquoise from Arizona, New Mexico, China, different varieties. And those rosettes that incorporate turquoise stone are always very popular. And we cut purfling from... Lots of things, but it's difficult. A luthier can buy purfling out of different kinds of shell pre-cut, but you can't buy turquoise purfling. You have to cut that yourself. So it's a tremendous amount of work to cut 60 inches of a stone purfling. Stone is hard. A lot harder than shell. Especially when you have to cut it curved, to the proper curvature to go around a guitar. And we've done that many times. North American Guitars sold more than one guitar with turquoise purfling. We love to do that just because nobody else does it.

That's so interesting. So do you have to cut it to the curve because it won't bend?

Jeremy: Exactly. If it bends it breaks.

We see bespoke as the marriage between aesthetics, playability and tonal qualities. Do you find that customers kind of sway towards a specific area within that? Or do you get equally as intricate requests tonally as you would visually?

Jeremy: Totally. I mean the only difference I would think that we get from customers is requests on tops, but we have pretty specific stuff that we enjoy. And tonally, we feel like that's probably the least amount of variation in our guitars because we're very happy with the way our guitars sound at this point. Which was kind of the springboard that led us to do more and more creative stuff visually. Because we got to a point where we were very happy with the way our stuff sounded. So at that point, we were like, okay, well what can we do visually now that we're here tonally? And that's allowed us to see what we can do, to go to the furthest reaches.

But yeah, I don't think tonally at this point, is doing it as long as we're doing it, we're very dialled in. I guess our newest model, the big hoss is still in the earlier stages of dialling it in tone-wise, and which we really enjoy doing and is a lot of fun and testing it and seeing what they sounded like and see if there's a slight difference and changing the brace from here to here, that kind of stuff. But I don't feel like we're far off from having that thing completely dialled in exactly where we want it as well.

Chris: Yeah. I think it's pretty much there. People have heard them, I think when they wouldn't be coming to us. So some people, a lot of people come for the sound, but I think there's a process when people are attracted to a guitar. And I think it's almost always visually first. Sometimes it's sound. Really good players, it's sound. People who are maybe not quite as sophisticated a player looks matter more to them or collectors looks matter more to them. And there's that process. A place where they can hold and touch and play the guitar, and even amongst our guitars have a sound, I think, and I think they're very consistent.

But still, there are differences between models and between individuals. And so a person wants to sit down and play it. So I think they look at it first, and if it's not visually appealing they won't pick it up. Because if somebody's just dead set on a vintage Martin, they're not going to like our guitars. They're never going to pick them up. Certain shops are vintage shops, and they will never... They'll go to a guitar show, they will never stop at our table. They will just walk by no matter what.

Yeah, it's not for them. But somebody might stop, and then they ask if they can play the guitar and we say yeah. And they take it in their hand, they look it over and they get past that. They like it. They like the workmanship, they like the design. And then they put it in a playing position and they put their hand on the neck. You talk about playability, and then if there's something about that that is not comfortable, it may be a little different than what they're used to, but if it's uncomfortable or it doesn't feel right to them, then it's over. They never get to the actual listening to its part.

And so actually the most important part, they have to get through those first two parts before they ever listen to it. And then if it's all right, and I think we do find them, they know they like the aesthetic and I don't think we ever had anybody say, I hate this neck. I can't play this. That's never been a problem. So they play it and the sound seems to be all right, we've never had anybody return one for sound or anything like that.

So when you said about the models staying the same, do you offer variation within the neck profile or the nut width, or do you keep it exactly a spec per customer?

Jeremy: We have how we like to do it. And then if they request a certain nut width, we can adjust. But the way we have it dialled in right now is the way we prefer it. We can adjust the neck, yeah. That's fine. But the scale length can't change. That's important to the sound. But the nut width or shape or radius of the fingerboard or something like that, that can all be adjusted with every guitar.

Is there a specific tonewood you would say to every customer to consider?

Jeremy: I mean, it's always up to the customer, but it's Italian spruce for us.

Chris: Well, and Engelmann for tops.

What about the back and sides?

Chris: The backs are active, but backs and sides only matter really because of weight. And they do have some sonic effect, don't get me wrong, but it's very, very small compared to the top. It's all about the top. And we go through a huge, long, scientific process selecting these tops. I was in Italy in September and I went through two pallets of tops, stacked probably four feet high, each of them, and I brought home 13 tops.

What does the selection process look like?

Chris: Well, we weigh them, measure them, we get the density. That's the first thing. And then we get the resonant longitudinal frequency, the longitudinal resonant frequency of the boards. And with those figures, those things, we can calculate Young's modulus, the stiffness of the board. We can calculate, of course, the density of the board and come up with things like the Young's modulus, which is the stiffness.

Something that violin and bowed instrument makers have been calculating for a century, and guitar makers have been slow to come onto these things, and some still resist it. There are guitar makers forms I can mention it on, and you can't believe the abuse I take on it.

A thing called sound radiation coefficient, which is a well-recognized thing in the bowed instrument community, and it measures the potential volume and response to harmonic stimuli. That's how it's described.

Jeremy: Yeah. It's just trying to give us the best idea of what we're working with before we start working with it. And so far, it's been enormously successful for us.

Chris: Oh, yeah. And so for European spruce, a number of sound radiation coefficients of 12 is good, but the higher, the better. Englemann spruce has a much higher average sound radiation coefficient, a somewhat higher. It has the highest average of all tonewoods, all top woods. But keep in mind that averages don't mean anything. They're only individual pieces. You can build a guitar with a sorry, bad piece of Engelmann spruce and a good piece of some other inferior species as an inferior average and get a much better guitar.

Redwood has the worst average, but you can get an exceptional piece of redwood and build a good guitar, a really good guitar. But we really spend a lot of time on that. And I'm old, I like to tell people I'm really old and I've got very few guitars left. So I want to build the best ones I can build. So if we stick with those woods or tops, we know we can find really good pieces and we're going to build really good guitars. And so why take a chance on some outlier thing that we may or may not be able to find?

A Western red cedar, we have a few of those that are really good, too. You can get really good Western red cedar tops, but because it's so light and it's harder to find really the pieces that are stiff enough. And we have an algorithm we run them through that Michael Bashkin and another friend of ours, Richard, who's a classical builder up in Wyoming, a retired plastic surgeon that we worked on now for three or four years to get the right stiffness. We run them through that. And so, we really work on getting the right pieces of wood for the tops, and there are certain backs and sides. What all do we have, Jeremy, that we like?

Jeremy: You're talking about what we build-out of the most?

Chris: Well, what are the backs and sides we have the most of?

Jeremy: We've got a slab of Bubinga that we've been chipping away at for 15 years or so. We have some good sinker mahogany that we made a couple out of.

Chris: Southeast Asian rosewood, cocobolo, ebonies, we got some ebonies, a Myrtle, a lot of Myrtle. That's really good. Oregon myrtle makes really good guitars.

Do you find that the relationships become a big part of building Bespoke Guitars?

Jeremy: It's the best way to do it. The best way to do it is start with ground zero with that person, go through all your wood with that person. Talk about theme and idea from the start, because then you could really start to unravel that thing that they're after that they don't even know that they want yet, or they don't even understand exactly how to define and you get that good month or two into that process, and you get to work with them. And the better you know them, the happier they're going to be at the end of the process.

Chris: Yeah. I think Jeremy summed it up. It's the best part of it. And I think if we could do them all like we did our friend Mike’s. We had one fellow from Georgia that just flew in. We were saying that we got this whole second floor that's vacant and he just came and stayed up there a couple of days and stayed in the shop and went through the woods. And Jeremy came up the last day he was here and he and Jeremy developed the rosette design for his guitar. And he became a member of the family over a couple of days.

Jeremy: Yeah. That was the lame horse experience right there.

I saw that on your website as well about the lame horse experience.
Chris: Yeah, it’s the ideal way.

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Thanks for joining us this week, see you soon in our next episode of Behind Bespoke.


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