Luthier Chuck Thornton: “What I set out to do was to build the finest guitar I could possibly build.”

By Jesse Ian Hopkins

Republished from our “Mojo Issue” Click here to purchase in print.

“What I set out to do was to build the finest guitar I could possibly build. So as long as I’m alive, that’s what I strive to do.” Chuck Thornton

When I was a young(er) luthier, I worked for a guy who used to say “With guitar making, you have to sneak your innovations in quietly.” This echoed something that I read in Bob Benedetto’s book that where he wrote: “Evolution is a slow process with the prolific makers at the helm”. These sentiments seemed to cater to a mindset that thinks they just don’t make ‘em like they used to and a belief that if it isn’t done the way Fender or Gibson did it, then it’s not right. My experience building guitars at Reverend corroborated these statements as well as my budding notion that the general guitar playing public is just not ready for anything too forward thinking in terms of how their guitars are designed or built.

Thankfully, there are guys like Chuck Thornton, guys who have that sort of wide range, total-immersion-of-craft kind of experience. Guitar builders who have studied the past masters and absorbed all the lessons to their core, and whose guitars speak for themselves, but who aren’t afraid to give you all the details. Luthiers who are, as a matter of fact, building them BETTER than “they” used to.

Damn, it’s a good time to be a guitar player!

GC: You’ve got quite a storied history with the guitar. From studying at Berklee and giving private lessons to building instruments with likes of Jon Cooper and Dana Bourgeois. Are there any one or two experiences/lessons that most shaped your mindset or philosophy as it applies to your guitar making?

CPT: The guitar has been a part of my life since I was eight years old. I remember waking up, morning after morning with my guitar on my bed because I played it before falling asleep, and would play it before I got out of bed.

As much as I love guitar, I’ve always wished I was a better player. So once I came to grips, after a year at Berklee, with the fact that I didn’t have what it took to be a great guitarist, I didn’t play as much as I once did.

Six or so years later when I started building guitars and realized I had a talent for design, I started my second passionate journey with the instrument, focusing on trying to build the finest guitar I could possibly build.

When I went to work for Bourgeois guitars in 1993 I did a lot of repair work on the side, and time and time again would run into the same repair issues.There was everything from ski jumps in the fingerboards to, broken headstocks, to poorly cut nuts, etc., and these issues were on expensive

There was everything from ski jumps in the fingerboards to broken headstocks, to poorly cut nuts, etc., and these issues were on expensive guitars.

I knew then that I didn’t want to build a guitar in the same way it had been built just because that’s the way it’s been done for the past half century. I wanted to address the areas of the instrument that I felt could be better.

GC: Has this mindset evolved over the years?

CPT: I’d like to think that I’m always evolving by designing new models and building my versions of existing models. For instance, I have a client who has 10 of my guitars now and wanted me to build him my version of two Gretsch-styled guitars, so I’m building him my version of a Country Gentleman based on my “Improv”, and a Penguin based on my “Blues Queen”. These are not guitars I would have thought to do on my own but I’m very glad he has asked me to build them for him. I don’t want to ever become complacent with my guitars, I always want them to be the best they can be.

GC: Generally speaking, what makes a CP Thornton stand out? And are there any common identifiable qualities (sonic or otherwise) that all your guitars share?

CPT: I think what makes my guitars stand out is that they look familiar without strictly copying anyone else’s designs. The two guitars that I build that come the closest to the original designs are my Classic and my HTL, which stands for Homage To Leo. Not only is the profile slightly different than what you’re used to, but the guitars also have a 4-degree neck angle instead of a negative neck angle like the originals.

My archtops, which include the Elite, Jazz Elite, Professional, Blues Queen, Professional Acoustic II, Improv and Acoustic Improv, are all carved from solid billets of wood, which are sonically different than a plywood top and back that are on most semi-Hollowbody guitars.

But, because of my integral sound posts, along with the through neck design, the guitars don’t feedback or have too bright a tone; they sing and sustain and, in my opinion, don’t sound dead like a plywood top and back do.

GC: What is your most popular model? 

CPT: If you were an alto sax player or piano player or even a bass player, one great instrument would do the job. What I love about the guitar is its extremely wide range of tones. Most of us aren’t Clapton or Gilmour who can do most everything they do on one style of guitar. I think most of us want to learn the songs we grew up with and love, so if I want to play an Allman Bros. song I’m going to play it on one of my humbucker guitars. If I’m playing some Richie Blackmore I’ll want my HTL with its single coils. I think this is what makes the electric guitar such a unique instrument and why so many of us have a lot of guitars.

I just built myself a semi-Hollowbody Improv that I’m absolutely in love with. I’ve always wanted a good sized archtop, but not too big–with fat tone, but without feedback. The semi-Hollowbody Improv gives me everything I’ve ever wanted in this style of guitar.

GC: Do you offer anything in the way of custom building or do you stick to established models and options?

CPT: Some of my models were developed from custom orders. The Contoured Legend Special is a perfect example of that. One of my clients said that he’s always wanted a Les Paul style guitar but didn’t like the sharp edge on the top where his strumming hand rested, didn’t like the weight of the guitar, and really loved the feel of a tummy tuck. So, I started with my Legend, gave it an arm slant and tummy tuck, and then dished out the back to make it lighter. When I strapped the guitar on the first time, my initial reaction was not a lighter Les Paul style guitar, but more of a single cut SG style guitar. It’s a very cool guitar that can be built as a 1 piece body out of some very exotic woods, like quilt mahogany, Tasmanian blackwood or koa.

GC: How many guitars do you typically produce in a year? Has your output been affected by the current state of the economy?

CPT: I build three batches of guitars a year with 15 guitars per batch. Thanks to my incredible clients, most of whom have become good friends, I have not felt the recession at all. I have one friend who has purchased 29 of my guitars to date, another friend who has I think 14 now with 4 more on order.

Another person who I have not met, but consider a friend, purchased 9 in one year! And another friend who I have not met has I think ten now and two on order in every batch this year. One way the economy has hurt me is one of my friend’s, who purchased 13 of my guitars, business has been affected by this recession, and hasn’t been able to buy any guitars in some time. I miss building guitars for him and wish I could afford to build one for him and just give it to him.

GC: There seems to be an explosion of awareness and accessibility of boutique guitar makers, and talented new builders seem to be emerging all the time. Where do you see this industry headed in the next 25 years?

CPT: This is without a doubt the best time in history to be a guitar player.

Even as recently as twenty years ago, it was pretty much unheard of for someone to buy a guitar without playing and hearing it first, and I think the reason for that was because you could play a dozen guitars before you found one that felt right or sounded great. I think guitar players are far more sophisticated now and are getting away from the big box store mentality of guitar making.

If you have four or five thousand of your hard earned dollars to spend, do you want to go into some big store and hope you can get what you want by picking it off the wall knowing, 1) – how many people worked on this guitar when it was built, and if they were having a good day or pissed off at the world, and took it out on the guitar, and 2) – how many people played the guitar before you got there and rejected it for one reason or another? Or would you rather talk to the person who’s building your guitar, with his name on the headstock and his reputation on the line?

I think you’ll see over the next 25 years the independent luthier taking more share of the market away from the big companies.

GC: What do you feel are your greatest/most innovative contributions to the guitar?

CPT: My carved radiused headstock is one. After seeing numerous broken headstocks I felt it was important to address this area. I carve a radius in the top of the headstock and a volute in the back of the headstock to get opposing radii. There’s a lot of strength in a radius, so my thinking was to have two radii back to back so whichever way a guitar fell, hopefully, there would be enough strength there to prevent a fracture. Three clients that I know of have dropped their guitars– one so hard it broke the 5th string tuner off the guitar. But none of the headstocks have broken.

The through-neck design in my archtops is another feature that I’m very pleased with. With the traditional design, you have an end block and a neck block that the neck is glued into, so over time with the weight of the strings pulling the tailpiece, pushing down on the bridge and pulling on the neck can result in a distorted or cracked top and, as it’s been referred to, a “ski jump” in the fingerboard.

With the through-neck design, the neck is the end block and neck block, so now with the tension of the strings, you don’t get two blocks trying to pull towards each other, which cause ski jumps in the fingerboards and cracks in the top. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen semi-hollow bodied guitars that fretted out past the 12th fret from this problem.

Another thing I do is, instead of bracing a top to withstand the pressure of the strings, I carve integral sound posts into the top and back, kind of like the sound posts a violin or cello would have, only I do two sound posts under the bridge that get glued to the through-neck. And the sound posts from the back also get glued to the neck. I believe that these sound posts transfer energy from the bridge into the neck and back, and also stop any top distortion from the pressure of the strings. They also dampen the top which I believe reduces feedback.

And yet another thing I do to solve the feedback issue in a semi-hollow is that the pickups are in their own pockets instead of hanging inside an open box, which can cause microphonic feedback.

GC: Have you achieved what you set out to do with CP Thornton Guitars, and what legacy do you hope to leave behind?

CPT: What I set out to do was to build the finest guitar I could possibly build. So as long as I’m alive, that’s what I strive to do.

When I worked for the violin maker (Jon Cooper) there were times he would sit and study an old violin for hours, studying the workmanship, the graduations in the top or the bee-sting in the purfling on an instrument that was two hundred plus years old, and worth so much more than the maker ever would have dreamed his work could be worth. I hope for the same with my guitars, and I hope the same for the people who have purchased my guitars, that they become more valuable than anyone would have ever dreamed.

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