Behind Bespoke: Tom Sands Guitars

It's time for stop three on our Behind Bespoke journey, where this week we're up in Rippen, Yorkshire visiting Tom Sands Guitars.

Founded in 2015, Tom Sands has quickly earned an incredible reputation for his top quality instruments and innovative approach. Coming from a background in Industrial design, furniture making as-well as having trained with the prestigious Ervin Somogyi- Tom's experience, skill, knowledge and passion has led to Tom Sands Guitars being some of the most sought after in the high-end guitar world.

Since beginning to work with Tom Sands in 2019, we've had the pleasure of seeing a variety of his stunning guitars come from the showroom, as-well as facilitating a number of bespoke builds and seeing as many happy customers,

Tom's guitars are known for being some of the most unique, responsive and beautiful on the market. But not only is his approach to building innovative, but as many of you will know, his earnest and open approach to conveying the process is very much the same, as you'll hear more about in the interview.

Thank you so much for joining us, Tom. To begin, how does Tom Sands Guitars define bespoke, and what does it mean to you? 

Well, I actually decided to look it up in the dictionary last night, after you sent me through the questions, because I feel like it's a bit of a buzzword at the moment. I think that people just attach it to everything to make it sound a little bit more boujee and a little bit fancier. Bespoke cocktails, or beard trimming, or whatever to the point where it kind of loses its meaning. 

I think for me it's simply building something for someone, taking into account who they are and getting to the core of what it is that they really need, to ultimately produce something that works harmoniously with them as a person. And that's it really. I think there are levels to it. There's full customization where anything is possible and you're never building the same thing twice, to having something that's almost modular in a way, and the variations aren't too drastic. But primarily, it's just about building something for someone. 

So, that leads into the next question quite nicely. What does building bespoke give a player that building a spec or stock guitar doesn't? 

I think they're two sides of the same coin. And I think to say that there's almost this idea that spec guitars aren't quite as ... What am I trying to say here? I think spec guitars are really important, because as far as I'm concerned, spec guitars are where I go a bit rogue sometimes and try things that I wouldn't dream of trying on a client's instrument. And in a way, a spec guitar is a snapshot in time of where a luthier is in their career trajectory. 

And it's almost like... I really like whiskey and I always think about spec guitars as being like a single barrel malt whiskey. It's this just little moment in time, at least the way that I like to build. But of course, if you are going to go into a shop and pull something down off the wall, there are going to be things that aren't perfect for you. You might find that the nut width is a bit off, or you can't do certain stretches. Certain things just don't work for you. But then again, I know this is about bespoke, but I think it's important to kind of caveat that with... A spec guitar can surprise you, and I think should surprise you and lead you down paths that you may not have otherwise gone down. However, I think a good bespoke guitar should also surprise you. 

In terms of aesthetics, playability, ergonomics, tonal considerations, do you find when people come to you for bespoke guitars that there is a focus upon one more so than others? 

I mean, this is the beauty of bespoke and this is the beauty of working with individuals is that everybody's different and everybody's got their own focus. Everybody places more emphasis on one of those elements or another. Some of my clients come to me and they have a very specific idea of what they want tonally. They can be the most difficult clients... not in terms of difficult to work with, but difficult to distil down, to get a sound. But then some clients love guitars with stories, it's why people love ‘The Tree’ guitar, or the Joshua Koa or Moon Spruce, or all of these different things. They like a sense of provenance with their instrument. And that can be really important to them. Other clients don't seem to care what the guitar looks like, they just want it to be a tool and they want it to facilitate the movement of ideas into sound through the path of least resistance. 

But then you've got people like me, personally I'm not a player, but I love guitars as objects. And so again, that's the beauty of bespoke is that you are working with individuals who've got different ideas. And quite often as well, somebody will come to you and they think they know what they want, but actually when you get down to it what they actually want is something completely different. And that can be a really surprising journey to go down with somebody. 

That's so interesting. How do you start the process? How do you interpret what people ask for and run with that? 

Again, it really depends on the person. Some people like what I do and they'll pay me a deposit and then I won't talk to them again until the guitar's done. That's kind of it. It's just like, "You do you, I like your work, come up with something." These are some vague parameters, I want a Model M and I want a spruce top and that's it. And people, they like to be hands off about it. They might just be collectors that... Again, everybody's different. 

But then I think the best result results come from a real personal relationship, so I really like to get to know my clients. I'll jump on a call with them as soon as I possibly can and have just a really good chat about everything. Not just about their history with guitars, but what they do and what their family is like, and where they're from. I like to, I like to build up a story and just really get to know that person, because those relationships really lend themselves to a positive outcome. The really successful guitars are the ones where you really enjoy working together and you feel like you're collaborating, you're building something together. 

Is there a tonewood you always think customers should explore? 

No, I think that you've got to be really open-minded and you've got to allow the instrument to be the instrument that it's going to be, without being too prescriptive. That sounds a bit vague, but there's an element surprise that I really like with the instruments. 

I don't have a particular favorite wood because It's like trying to pick your favorite child. I love all of the pieces of wood that are in my collection because they've each got something that drew me to them. They've each got a little bit of magic. And it's why I'll rarely build the same instruments twice. Sometimes clients will come to me and say, "I really like this guitar. Can you just build me that guitar? Because I want the same thing." And it's like, "All right, I can do that, but are you sure there isn't something else that would make this guitar even more special for you, that would make it even more right for you?" Because there's also no guarantee that you're going to get the same result because every single piece of wood is different. Every single piece of wood even from the same tree, even from the same board, even from the same flitch, it's going to be different and so that's why it's so magical. 

Also, there's so much common wisdom floating around in the industry that is a by-product or a consequence of mass-produced instruments. Rosewood sounds like this, Maple sounds like this, Mahogany sounds like this, which doesn't stand, it doesn't apply for luthier-built instruments. One luthier built with Maple, and it will sound like like another builder's Rosewood instrument and vice versa. There's so many nuances and we're all building in vastly different ways. And so being super prescriptive on tonewoods, it's not the way that I like to work. 

So obviously if somebody comes to me and says, "We decide that we want (using whatever vocabulary that we've decided on) a dry sounding instrument” then I'll be able to suggest something based on my experience of working with that timber. But this is the beauty of it. This is why it's so special and this is why so many people are drawn to it. 

That's interesting. Would you therefore rather not build the same guitar twice? 

Yeah. Definitely. And that's purely just because more opportunity, more... With some people, once they know that something works, they're like, "I'll replicate this." and that's fine. Then that will work for that person's personality. But for me, once I've done it, I would feel like it would be a dilution. Of course, there's elements of like, "Okay, I can build this guitar again with these ingredients, and I can try and get a better result. Now I've got the experience with it, I can do some more with it. Like how can I eke out every tiny drop of performance?" But I feel the results are going to be less surprising. 

Going back to the relationship side of thing, I'm not just building the instruments, I'm crafting an experience. And ultimately, the reason that I do this work is that I love the materials. I love taking the different ingredients and putting them together and creating something new and exciting. And I love the building the relationships with the clients, getting to know the clients, and having these relationships that extend beyond the instrument, that are everlasting. And so part of my job is to bring people along for the ride and allow them to experience the excitement that I find in doing the work. 

So ideally, when the customer picks up the guitar for the first time, they feel they have owned it forever and it just works for them. I had one could customer last year, and this was an example of the perfect project. We were texting each other every day. I'd be what is happening photos and videos. And we had hoped that we could have done a personal handover, but with COVID, it just did not happen. And because we had worked so closely together, there was a little bit of nerves and we had tried new things, and we had explored, and the client had given me a lot of freedom, and we were both excited. And there was this kind of moment where I thought, "What if it doesn't like it?" I felt comfortable in saying that to the client. I said, "I'm actually a little bit nervous because we're both so excited about this and it's been such a trip that, what if you don't like it? And he said, "I already love it." And before he had received it. It is like, "It's going to be what it's going to be, and I'll love it for whatever it is,." which is amazing really. 

But that to me was just like, I've done my job. Ideally that's what everything should be. Because also, there's no perfect guitar, the perfect guitar doesn't exist. But thankfully people's search for it is what keeps us all in business. 

Have you got examples of super specific requests you've received or your favorite bits you've done for clients? 

There was definitely the baritone guitar that I built maybe in 2018 was... The client and I have a really good relationship and we get on really well. But he made me work for that guitar. He's kind of in the Tom Sound's guitars folk lore at this point. Because he sent me a 24-page Excel, Word document about his thoughts about what he wanted the guitar to be and the features that he wanted, and it was a very involved build. It had pretty much all of my available options on it. Arm bevel, rib bevel, Manzer wedge, custom nut width, custom scale length, it was a fan fret. And we agonized for months on what the exact scale length should be. And we looked at, my client provided me with all these spreadsheets that calculated different tensions at different tunings, at different scale lengths, different string brands, to make sure that he was a hundred percent happy that we'd covered all the bases and made sure that we'd definitely made the right choices. And we came out with this guitar that was great, but it was really hard work. 

But because the client was really happy and it taught me a lot. It got me to think in different ways about... It just got me to think about every single nuance of the guitar and every subtlety. And made me think about variables that I'd perhaps not considered before. And they are things now that I take forward into future projects 

Finally, what do you love most about building bespoke? 

For me, it's about the people that it brings into my life. And obviously the good and the bad, but primarily the good and the relationships that are long lasting. I had a visit from a client who I've built two guitars for one was during my apprenticeship. And then one was I think, a couple of years ago. And he just came to visit, and we spent time together, and we went out for sushi and had the best time. 

We've got one slot available with Tom for 2025, secure it today with a 35% deposit.

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