McSwain Guitars: A Vintage feel with an artistic edge

By Will Swanson

That headline is the least amount of words I could group and still even give a glimpse of what we are dealing with here. If you look at the website or the McSwain page on Reverb you will see lost signs from old gas stations along route 66, the gauges out of a 50s bomber and some sort of a modern twist on the old west while preserving that low down dirty dog feel, it’s really quite impressive.

Once you see and hold these in person you realize these up to the moment player’s instruments with amazing feel, precision and that cutting-edge usability wrapped up in a beautiful patina that extends far beyond the aged edges of the old tin.
I had never held one of these amazing instruments, or even seen one in person before I stepped into his Portland, Oregon workshop but as I started getting handed these, one by one by the man behind them, the history of each coming in fast, excited statements and stories I realized there is a reason they are special, because they were made with passion and a dream, I couldn’t wait to get talking with the man and yet I didn’t want the tour and tactile side of this to end but it must so I could bring you the story behind it all…

GC: So these guitars obviously require a great deal of skill and artistic ability, has this always been something you’ve been around?

SM: It started out when I was a kid, my dad was very musical and my mom was incredibly artistic. The whole family was musical. We’d sing together and harmonize. I grew up in the church choir as a kid. Then, at Ashbrook High School in North Carolina, we had an amazing choral program with phenomenal teachers. We performed all kinds of operatic and classical pieces. Our choral group went to Vienna and toured all over Germany and Austria, performing in cathedrals and concert halls.

GC: That’s very cool.

SM: I was classically trained as a first tenor as a kid and then went to Furman University in Greenville South Carolina after I graduated high school. I started in their choral program but found out I could get free beer (laughs) playing rock and roll, so the classical music took a back seat. As a kid, I had all kinds of Dremel and carving tools and built model cars and planes. It’s interesting because I now have two boys, 12 and 11, and they are both into all of the same stuff I was into. It’s come full circle as they are into exactly the same things as I was as a kid.

GC: Would you like to see them go the same way, would you wish your life on them, that they went through the same stuff you did?

SM: You know… you want to say yes. I am the happiest I have ever been. I get to do what I love as work. I’m nowhere near that point that I can just sit back. I still have to work every day. I love my “job” and my wife and kids, everyone is healthy and happy… life is good! I would love to have my kids work with me, but I would never demand ‘you have to do this’. When they get older, junior high/high school, they have a job working with me if they want, sweeping floors, building stuff, so they don’t have to get some crappy job somewhere else. If they decide to go to college, that would be awesome. But, they’ve always got a job here with me.

GC: As long as their happy and healthy…

SM: Yeah, as long as they are healthy and happy and they are doing something productive.

GC: You were in metal sales before you got into this, so was this a hobby?

SM: Well, I graduated from college with a politic science degree and went right into medical sales, literally the day after I graduated. Right before I left college, I carved this plaque for a friend and it took me right back to the feeling of creating something by hand. I had been playing in this rock and roll band for four years during college, but I hadn’t done anything from an artistic standpoint, like carving or painting. It brought back all these feelings and it was just like wow! So after a day of selling medical supplies, I would pull out my old carving tools, and started carving faces into this Warmouth super Strat body. I ended up sending that body to Steve Vai. It was the first one I ever did.

GC: Wow, that’s a good first customer.

SM: Yeah, I had just sent him the body. He had this guy Matty Baratto, who worked for Ibanez put it together for him. Matty and I became great friends. He’s a great luthier in Los Angeles.

GC: Yeah, I saw a video with him and Steve Vai once,

MC: Yeah, It’s crazy how everything comes full circle. My business partner, Steve Hall, was at the NAMM show in ‘88 waiting to get an autograph and overheard Steve Vai giving out his private number and wrote it down. He called him when he got back home and ended up with an autographed copy of Flexible Leftovers. I remembered that story, so a couple years later I asked him if he still had Steve’s number. He did. I called and got Steve on the phone and asked if I could send him the guitar body. It was off to the races from then on.

GC: Cool beginnings.

SM: The artistic side was always there. It was just through the guitar that I found my way back to it. After I left the medical supply job, I worked for a steel company. I would see patina on these different types of metals like aluminum and brass. I had done a lot with wood and carving but the metal really intrigued me. I could see the properties of the metals, the hardness, the way it corrodes, the colors it changed to… I wanted to incorporate it into guitar design.

GC: So was the metal like an inspiration, like it would look cool?

SM: What sparked that was when I moved from Charlotte to LA. I had done a guitar for Schecter for the NAMM show with KISS faces carved and painted into a body like Mt. Rushmore, we called it mount KISS more. I started doing a lot of one off pieces for them for NAMM shows. Do you know the band Powerman 5000?

GC: Yeah, I remember them

SM: Mike Tempesta the guitarist from Powerman happened to be in the Schecter offices one day and asked if I could do something with metal and I said ‘I have always wanted to do that’! Mike and I came up with the idea to use these cool gauges and metal on the top of his signature guitar model. I did a run of ten of them for Schecter, so it was Mike that lit the fire under that… the metal stuff.

GC: So when you are doing this for Schecter, at this point, is it income or…

SM: Yeah, income, its crazy, that first guitar for Vai was a gift. Everything else I’ve sold. Mike Star, the bassist in Alice in Chains, bought the next one and then Jerry Cantrell commissioned one.

GC: So was there a year that you kind of phased out on the 9 to 5 or was it gradual?

SM: It happened pretty quickly. While I was working at the metal company, I was building and selling, but it wasn’t enough to live on, even as a single guy. I was going to be responsible and keep building and selling guitars while keeping my day job. It was just mad money.

GC: Right, like sell one and then buy another.

SM: It’s a sickness man, a sickness (laughs). So the cool thing was I went to NAMM, January of ’96 and I was in a drum company’s booth, called Trick Percussion. They were building these aluminum drum shells and we had talked about building a guitar completely out of aluminum. So I made this prototype out of wood and then they machined it out of solid billet aluminum. The thing weighed a ton!

GC: I imagine it would

SM: It was like 25 pounds, but super thin like an Ibanez Satriani model. It was so heavy, people would try to pick it up and think it was nailed down!

GC: Anti-theft device

SM: Yeah (laughs) but nobody would want to take off with this thing! Trick Percussion had me set up on the corner of this huge two-story booth they had. So I’m out there on the edge of the booth with my cardboard box, some business cards, and these 3 guitars. A Japanese company called Hotline Music Corporation came by and asked about the guitars. I told them that Steve Vai had one and Alice in Chains, so they asked if they could place an order. I asked them to come back the next day and I was like holy crap, this is serious stuff! They wanted five of each!

GC: That’s a cool deal.

SM: So I had to be careful. I couldn’t sell them as a “Steve Vai” or “Jerry Cantrell” model, but I told them ‘I can make you something similar.’ They ordered ten at a price of $2875 each. That was more than my year’s salary with the steel company! So I thought… ok, this is a turning point in my life. I can pay off school loans while working at the steel company, I can invest part of it, et cetera. So then I go back to North Carolina and I’m working on this order, I’m playing in a band, and still working at the steel company. My boss at the steel company calls me into a meeting and says ‘You need to get your sales up and straighten up or you are in jeopardy of losing your job.’ It’s like I’m on double secret probation. I’m sitting in her office and thinking about this huge guitar order and the money and realizing if I don’t do it now and do it right, I’ll forever regret it and never forgive myself. So I just told her, “consider today the first day of my two weeks notice.”

GC: Nice

SM: And she’s said ‘no, we don’t want you to quit’ and I replied, ‘No, I’m done!’ I hated my job and so I quit! It was April of 1996. I walked out the door of the steel company and never looked back. I was making money traveling around playing with my buddy Shelly Sutton in an acoustic duo in the southeast, which was a bit of a buffer between the steel job and when this payday came in from the ten guitar order.

GC: Did you ever have to go back to do any regular work since then?

SM: Oh yeah, its been a roller coaster since then! I moved to LA in 1998 after I’d quit the corporate world in 1996. I had to pick up a couple bartending gigs to make ends meet.

GC: Was it a connection that lead to you moving?

SM: One big factor was my buddy Johnny Edwards, aka Johnny Coffin with Coffin Cases, We had met at the Schecter NAMM booth a few years before. I had called him and asked if he knew of anybody looking for a roommate out in LA and it turns out his roommate had just moved out. So I packed up and went. I ended up paying less rent there than in Charlotte so that made it a bit easier. I set up shop in the garage and started building guitars in LA.

GC: But this isn’t still those ten guitars?

SM: Right. I had finished that order and was doing a lot of one-offs. I was doing stuff for Blues Traveler and had just met Korn on their tour in Charlotte. Right when I moved out to LA, Korn was working on their ‘Follow The Leader’ album right up the street from us at NRG Studios. Monkey and Head both bought a guitar, which was my first sale after I moved to LA. I was growing my client list and building more guitars. But, it’s the same old adage ‘you’re only as good as your last sale’ so I needed to hunt for clients. Fortunately being in LA, you run into interesting people and professional musicians that can afford a custom guitar. After a couple years, I realized it just wasn’t enough steady income. There were times I could barely make rent or buy groceries, so I got a bartending job at night. I worked for the same bar/restaurant, Boa Steakhouse, for 12 years while still building guitars during the day. That afforded me the ability to buy a house, get married and start a family. It’s funny because I used that bartending gig to make so many connections. That’s how I got my licensing deal with OLP and Cort Guitars. That’s how I met Slash, through my great photographer friend Mark Mann that got me invited up to Slash’s house….I met Joe Perry through that and he invited me over to the studio while they were recording…so many great things came out of that bar beside just supplemental income and making great lifelong friends. It was connections and I parlayed that into so many different things. Here’s a piece of advice for a kid looking to get into the entertainment industry, get out there and bartend (laughs)! You will make so many connections if you’re in the right location and you’re just cool about it.

GC: Good advice. That leads me to another question, now that I’ve seen your guitars and the quality is amazing, and the tone even unplugged it fantastic.

SM: Thank you, I appreciate that.

GC: Very nice instruments for sure, but as we’re talking and you’re getting these referrals and they are selling to people that play, that know what they are doing, but they aren’t going to be road gear, I mean a lot of professionals are paid to play or expected to play certain things, I mean, you will always see Slash with a Les Paul, so how do you get your name out there, is it just the website or the link or reverb, how does anybody know these people have and play your instruments?

SM: It’s a culmination of things. I have friends like Elijah Blue, Gregg Allman’s son, He’s bought a ton of my guitars. He was recording with his band Deadsy at NRG Studios. Jared Leto saw the guitars and called me up and wanted to commission something. Slash has introduced people to my guitars. He actually did a photo shoot for me and that has been a HUGE help as a promotional tool. Basically, word of mouth and social media are incredibly important. Plus, I’m a natural born networker. I always had a pocket full of my business cards.

GC: Sure

SM: So people see that Slash owns a couple and think they must be good. I have enough known clients under my belt now that I can use on the website and it feeds itself. One of the great things about social media is that it’s an insane tool! You have the world at your fingertips! How you use that is what you have to figure out. You don’t just jump in the driver’s seat and take off. You have to deep dive and navigate how to find your audience. That’s one of the great things about my partner Steve. He’s so surgical about using Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, email and our website. You have to know how to target your audience. I may have thirty thousand followers on Facebook, but a very small percentage will ever see a particular post.

GC: Right

SM: Only a select number will see it. Facebook must have specific algorithms to control that. You can buy these little ads, but to promote it, there are ways to strategically do that such as demographics, age groups or interests. So you have to be very judicious on how you spend your ad budget. We’ve been very lucky about converting the people that see those posts into signing up for our email list. Once you get that email list going, that’s direct engagement. The power of the press is still so huge! That’s why having you here makes me feel very, very fortunate

GC: And I’m on the other side, I’m glad to do it.

SM: Thank you! Last year, we had an incredible review in Guitarist Magazine in Europe. My dealer, World Guitars in England arranged to have our Red, White & Bullets model reviewed and that lead to three direct sales, 2 to the same guy! That just shows that one great article can lead to sales. One client bought a Gasoline and a Sta-Cool Oil guitar and the other client bought a custom Peace Revolution. It was really cool.

GC: Sounds like it.

SM: It’s super important to have everything in place on the website, on social media, and having the E-store lined up. It all has to work together.

GC: That prompts another question, the guy in England that brought the two, did he buy them for the artistic side or to play them?

SM: No, they are both players and that’s the crazy thing, you get a lot of these people that are successful businessmen and they still play. I still play! I have my AC/DC “homage” band the DC’s… I play just for the fun of it. I’m building guitars as my bread and butter and I love that, but I am actually playing just for the fun of it.

GC: Like Steven Segal and his huge collection that no one knew about.

SM: Exactly, and there are a lot of weekend warriors out there that have become doctors or attorneys or whatever, and they are playing just for the fun of it. Now they have that disposable income where they can buy these high-end killer guitars and build their collections.

GC: Right, so as I am looking at your website and you’re talking these guys with high amounts of disposable income, your guitars average about five-grand, is that a price that you get a lot of sales at or would you get five times as many sales at half the price?

SM: My partner and I have discussed this at length. It’s not necessarily a price point. It’s about getting people to know about the brand and understanding how much work goes into each guitar. We don’t think it’s about charging less. Maybe we would sell a few more if the price was lower, but…

GC: You’d water down the brand?

SM: It’s not even about that. It’s just that there is so much work that goes into these guitars! It’s a crazy, absolutely insane amount of work, but I love every second of it…

GC: It’s worth the five thousand dollars…

SM: The number of hours that go into it, yeah, that’s why we priced them there. Now we are talking about doing a Tele model for a bit less, without the set neck or tone chambers…we definitely want to move some product, but if the same amount of hours are going into it, it doesn’t pencil out.

GC: When you’re making a guitar that is for someone famous like Slash, you know he knows how to play and he has a bunch of expensive guitars, is the pressure on to do something better or do you still just build it as good as you can and not think about who is going to play it?

SM: All of these guys are virtuoso players and they know how a high-end guitar should perform, but I still build it just as I would anyway. The same attention to detail goes into a guitar regardless who it’s going to.

GC: The electric guitar market has changed so much or at least it’s more visible these days, there are instruments like yours or the trussart guitars that have jumped in levels over a custom shop Fender or Gibson where you could choose a color or something, it just seems like its really growing, is that true?

SM: Definitely! I feel like I am right in the middle of this movement. There was recently that piece by the Wall Street Journal on the electric guitar dying out and to some degree, I think that’s true in regards to the mass-produced “commoditized” version. I don’t think that the larger companies are going to be seeing the constant year after year growth that they are used to. The higher-end boutique guitars are still selling and in some cases, more than ever. The perception that electric guitars are cheap or nothing special is changing. Consumers are realizing that a handmade electric is every bit as fine as an acoustic and craftsmanship is growing a newfound respect.

GC: Electric guitars are usually pretty simple as far as electronics, pots, switches, and pickups, there are other cool mods and such but some of yours light up and glow, how hard is that?

SM: It started a long time ago when I was still just carving designs into my guitars. I started messing around with these old aircraft gauges I’d find at old salvage yards. The metal housings are really deep so I had to cut them open to fit them into a guitar body. As I was doing this, I wanted to put a light source into the gauge. I needed something self-contained, so I searched out these little-led lights that work with a 9-volt battery and started using those wired to a push-pull pot on the tone control.

GC: Have you had any problems with that being susceptible with vibrations or anything?

SM: No, some of the little mechanisms that make up the gauges move around, the needles and stuff, but that’s what they are designed to do.

GC: So what do you like better, playing guitars or building them?

SM: Building them, by far since I’m the world’s most ok-est guitarist! In my band I don’t even play, I just sing. However, I do play everything I build and put the guitar through its paces to make sure they are in tip-top shape. But it’s not that often that I just sit down and play for an hour. I work on them and then spend the free time doing family stuff. I am just really enjoying my life. I’m the happiest I’ve ever been.

GC: Is it hard to shut the business side off?

SM: Yeah, definitely. I’ll run down here after dinner and just paint another coat or put another layer of clear and then I know I can let it sit until the next day. Some nights after a dinner break, I’ll come back to the shop and work till midnight. It’s a seven day a week job.

GC: How busy are you, is it like staying busy as orders come in or?

SM: No, I’m backlogged about eight months right now. That’s why we started the ‘Reserve Your Spot’ thing on the website. People can pay $250 and it holds their build slot. When I get to their name on the list, I get a hold of them ‘your slot is up’ and ask what they want built. If they decide they don’t want to wait or decide not to buy a guitar, they get their money back. They are just reserving that slot.

GC: What lead to the designs you have made as your available guitars?

SM: I have always liked Les Paul’s and that sound but I also like Fenders with the body cuts and the lower weight and that upper horn. I just developed it from there. It has a lower weight than an LP and it’s more comfortable, but it has that warm deep tone still. It also comes from these great players that have my instruments. In the early days, I had a volute on the back of the headstock. Slash was playing it and asked why it was there and I told him it had that vintage touch, something I like in guitars. He didn’t want a volute on his guitars, so that kind of prompted me to change that feature. The weight thing was also important and that’s part of why there are tone chambers in the larger body SM-2 model we offer. It’s a weigh reducing feature and helps balance the guitar but also adds resonance and warmth. As far as designs go… I’ve always loved flags and the American Flag in particular so that’s why we have the Flag Series. Also, I love the grittiness of old auto shops and wanted to incorporate the images that were used in the old oil cans of the 30s, 40s, and 50s… hence the Fuel Series. There’s also a “fight the power” side to our ethos… that’s where the Rebel Series comes in.

GC: I know that it’s often said that it’s so easy to get a good sound out of an LP for anyone but a Strat or Tele requires some fight and effort, do you think that’s because of the scale and what scale do you use?

SM: I think there is something about the 24.75″ scale that does go along with that. I use 24.75″ scale on mine, but I also like the sounds of Strat or a Tele so I put split coils in all my guitars. You can pull the knob out and it’s like a single coil sound without losing the power of the humbucker. It’s super versatile.

GC: I am familiar with Arcane pickups, your chosen supplier, do you get custom winds from them on something from their stock catalog?

SM: They are custom but based on some of their stock models. They do a model called the Triple Clone but my models are wound to work with the additional tones that come from the metal on my guitars. If a customer wants a specific brand like TV Jones, I’ll gladly put those in, but Rob at Arcane has really figured out most any options in pickups, so it’s kind of one-stop shopping.

GC: In talking about the metals and construction I know you are very proud of your patented design…

SM: The Tone Layer, yeah! It’s the metal layer and binding I use around and underneath the fretboard that we just got a patent on! I’m super excited about it. It adds so much sustain and resonance to the guitar. I’ve had pros comment on how every single note rings out anywhere on the fretboard. It’s due to the Tony Layer!

GC: And I am sure it will help keep a neck better adjusted with changing humidity or temperatures.

SM: Oh yeah, the metal will definitely help with that too.

GC: Is this a technology or design that you would license out to other guitar companies if they wanted to use it?

SM: Definitely! I could see it catching on and other manufacturers wanting to use it in their designs. It’s a super universal design and could be used with almost any guitar design that’s out there today.

GC: So what is the future of McSwain guitars, are you hoping to grow or are you happy with where you are?

SM: I am completely happy with what we’ve achieved so far, but I want to see the company grow for sure. I want it to be there for my sons if they want to do it. I would love to see more McSwain guitars out there and continue to build a legacy that will inspire people and be around LONG after I’m gone!

GC: Me too….

I have to admit walking into this interview I wasn’t sure what to expect, I had talked to Stephen briefly on the phone to set up the time and such and he seemed like a nice guy, very polite and excited about the interview but I wasn’t sure what persona I’d be meeting, the artistic guy that is out there about his art and the cosmos or the guitar guy that seems to know all the whose who in the biz and what about the instruments themselves, overblown artworks or crafted instruments that are a wee bit finicky and precious to play – well, it was none of that.

I met a well rounded, down to earth guy that lives in a cozy house in a well-adjusted neighborhood with two very mannerly young sons, it happens that he builds guitars that are just as well grounded in their playability even if the attention to detail and quality of the construction is well into that art world where they leave you in awe.

I could see why some of the best guitarists in the world would choose to play these guitars, buy them even when they have factory gives them models built anyway they want. These are truly something special and yet they just feel right, they don’t play like art, they are something you could take on a stage, use in the studio or just hang out with on your couch strumming away with a smile on your face. I was truly impressed on all levels by man and machine.

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