SJR Guitars: The Road to Luthiery

Steve Rider

This isn’t the story of the Master Luthier who has been building for 50 years and has guitars in the hands of big stars like Keith Richards, Joe Perry, or Santana. It’s not the story of the scrappy young builder who lands an apprenticeship with the reclusive, famous luthier who passes everything down. Nope. This is the story of someone who accidentally finds his passion late in life, too late by some people’s reckoning. This is a story about beginnings. My name is Steve Rider, I am the sole entity behind SJR Custom Guitars, and this is my story.

Life is a funny thing. The places it takes you. Pulling you towards something; sweeping you away again later. I’ve lived in Portsmouth, NH, Pittsburgh, PA, Baltimore, MD, and the small mostly rural area where I grew up and now reside again, a tiny town of two thousand residents in Pennsylvania called Cambridge Springs. Cambridge had its heyday in the late 1800’s as a resort town with many mineral springs that were considered to be a kind of panacea in those days. Fast forward to present day and, if you know where to look, the remains of that incarnation can still be found here and there. But those days are past and Cambridge Springs is one of many towns in the Rust Belt that have settled into humble existences, not thriving, but not yet dead. 

This is the place that I grew up, surrounded by nature, trees and streams, forests and bridges. When I was young I was a very creative soul. I loved art and drawing, loved learning about history and the mysteries of the universe. Later on, I ended up going to college for a science major and stuck with that through most of my adult life in one form or another. But I wasn’t happy. There was something wrong and it took me a very long time to understand. In 2011 my job as a nuclear medicine technologist ended and I didn’t look for another one. I knew deep inside at that point that it wasn’t where I was meant to be. You see, there was something inside that I had forgotten, but it hadn’t forgotten me. I knew that I was done with the work I was doing, but I didn’t yet know where I was going from there.

I took my unemployment and moved out of Baltimore for good. I was done with the city. I went back to humble little Cambridge Springs and took a good long time looking at my life. I had reawakened my love for eastern philosophies a few years earlier, and I had started practicing Buddhism in earnest. I was so serious about it that I actually went to live at a monastery in New York State called Blue Cliff, a Zen Buddhist monastery following the lineage of Tich Nhaht Hanh. It was a great experience, but something inside me was saying that I wasn’t ready for the monastic life. Over the next couple years I struggled to find my way. I started my own businesses and began to understand the realities. While I was still struggling to get by in my second business incarnation, something interesting happened: I realized that there are people out there who are building guitars! 

It all started because I had tried to start a blues band and had gotten back into playing, and also got into gear, as many readers will understand. I studied amplifiers and got my first tube amps. That opened up some nuances in my playing that I wouldn’t have discovered otherwise. The band didn’t work out, but it had piqued my interest in music, electric guitars, and amplifiers. I was browsing the Musician’s Friend catalog one day, and I decided I wanted a Les Paul. It was a tangible feeling pulling at me. I had to have a Les Paul! Unfortunately, I had picked one of the most expensive instruments available. Champagne tastes on a fast food budget, right? To be honest, it became sort of an obsession. 

So here’s how it began…

I started getting into guitar groups on Facebook and one day I saw a page suggestion to a group called the Electric Guitar Builder’s Resource. I liked it and headed on over to test the waters. What I found stunned me. For some reason, I had never even thought of people making guitars. They came from factories or something, somewhere. My eyes were opened! I realized that guitars are not necessarily pumped out of an assembly line in Korea; PEOPLE were making guitars. And not just at Fender or Gibson or any other household brand, but on their own, in their own homes, in small shops and large shops, and even outside in the yard. I scrolled through the EGBR every day and the level of craftsmanship I was seeing just blew me away. Now at this time, I became aware that there was such a thing as a guitar “kit”. I saw an ad somewhere and immediately checked it out. And wouldn’t you know, prominent among these kits was the Les Paul style guitar right there in pieces and parts, waiting to be given life. The Les Paul, what in my mind had become the Holy Grail. Was there any question of whether I would get one?

Now I had no idea how to build a guitar at this time. None. I had always looked at woodworking and marveled at the artistry, precision, and skill, but I never knew anything about it or how to even start doing it. My parents were not into anything like that, so I sure didn’t learn any skills at home. So let me tell you, I started at Square One. I went back to the Facebook group and started absorbing every piece of information I could. If someone was talking about finishing, I was on that thread, even when I didn’t know what they were talking about. But I was there, cataloging and storing this precious information for later use. I wouldn’t even touch this kit until I had a good idea of how to do it. And I didn’t. I don’t know how long it was before I got started on it, but it was a long time. I probably agonized about that kit more than anyone has ever agonized over a kit guitar build! It makes me laugh now, but I was so serious about it. To me it felt like a surgeon preparing to cut into a patient. 

Something had been awakened inside me. Something I had forgotten, but hadn’t forgotten me. Years before, when I was about 18-19, I started doing some building of knives and daggers. I got blades and fashioned the wood and metal pieces of the hilts. I didn’t really know what I was doing and certainly didn’t have the tools I really needed to do it. But I mention this because at that time my father had said something to me. He said that, while I was making those knives, it was the only time he had ever seen me happy. For some reason it had stuck with me for two decades, those words. I guess parents can see you better than you can see yourself. 

I had been slowly buying the supplies I would need and found myself lingering in Home Depot browsing through wood stains and sandpaper. Finally, I had everything I needed. I had asked all the questions and gotten all the answers. It was time! I went at it with that surgeons touch, being so careful, double checking everything before I made a move. Don’t get me wrong, I knew that this wasn’t going to be a $3000 Les Paul. I had no illusions about that. But it would be MY Les Paul, that I had put together myself, me, who had had no idea how to even stain wood before this. Things went as expected. I did a lot of things right and some things wrong and ended up with a pretty good showing for my first time out. During this time I had discovered something about myself. That deep inside me there was something that didn’t just want to create, it needed to create. I needed to express myself through art, through craftsmanship and skill, like I had seen others do. It was something that had been missing all that time, all those years of trying to make things work. They couldn’t work, because I was not being true to myself. Those words from my father had finally come home to roost. I was starting to understand.

When I was done with the kit, I started experimenting with the electronics and components, switching in different caps and pickups, getting an idea of how this thing functioned. It wasn’t long before I built another kit. And it was during that and another body that failed that I understood why I needed to make my own. It was no surprise. I had already started buying tools. In the back of my mind there was no doubt. I had a plan. I was living in an old farm house in the country and I had spare rooms and plenty of space to expand into. I knew in my heart that this was something I wanted to do. I bought wood. I bought more tools. Every dollar I could spare was going into building. It was quickly becoming the center of my life. I did whatever I had to do. I had tools inside that should have had dust removal. You can imagine how that worked out! I switched everything to a hastily assembled workbench outside and put tarps up. Irresponsible tool ownership, I know, but I couldn’t stop. If I had to buy those tools again, I would.

Time passed, situations changed, as they usually do, but this thing was growing. Business number two had run aground when the engine of my van exploded and there just wasn’t any money to buy a new vehicle. I had no choice but to move into my parent’s house. It was that or face the winter homeless in the Snow Belt, and winter was coming. It was a huge blow, but again, I would come to understand something. There’s a line in the movie Fight Club (one of my favorite movies), “Once you lose everything, you are free to do anything.” I was down but I was still breathing and I had discovered my muse. There was no question of whether or not I was going to keep building. I was just getting started and nobody was going to stop me. I’m telling you, if I would have had to physically fight someone to keep going, I would have.

The house was crowded and I had little space in which to work. My room was full of wood, guitar bodies, and the cardboard box lid that I was doing my staining and finishing in, which usually contained a half finished body. Most of my tools were still outside and would remain there for the duration of the winter, under tarps. I had cut out my first bodies with a jig saw and sanded them forever on the spindle sander to get the sides flat. Later I started using a router table, which was an exercise in terror. I had never used any kind of power tool before this all started and I was very respectful of the router, I still am, but back then I was scared as hell! The winter was hard. I couldn’t use my tools most of the time and it was apparent, anyway, that I needed better tools. I had to have a decent sized band saw. I needed a way to thickness the wood for the bodies. I was using my plunge router to join boards and my oscillating spindle sander for, well, anything I could make it do. There was no money for a long time and everything ground to a standstill. Dark times, those. I was halfway through the most ambitious build I had ever done, and I was at a standstill.

But spring always comes, sooner or later, usually later if you live in northwest Pennsylvania. I was on the pages on Facebook constantly and people were getting to know who I was. Still always learning, asking questions, finding out who really knew and who didn’t. I was also seeing that there were a hundred ways to get to the same end result. Money was the pressing issue because I needed better tools to get to the next level. A couple of things had happened. I got invited to the Guitar and Bass Expo in Wyomissing and made a plan to build four guitars to show there. I also answered a completely random add on the EGBR from someone looking for writers to do small articles for the Guitar Connoisseur Magazine blog. I jumped on that immediately and ended up doing an article on Prince for my first job. I’ve done a lot of writing over the years between a million research papers, two novels that never got published, short stories, poems, and song lyrics. I wasn’t afraid of writing even though I had never done it for a magazine. 

Many times on this trip I have seen things happen that made me think that this was just meant to be, that I’m in the right place doing the right thing. I managed to secure some work that would get me the money to buy new tools and as soon as I did, I found a builder who was getting out of the work. I bought most of his shop. I got the saw I needed along with piles of wood, some bodies and some seconds, a stack of templates a mile high, clamps, everything. It couldn’t have been better timing. Things got really crazy. I decided to clean out the basement to build a shop. Now the basement had been horribly neglected for about twenty years, not to mention filled to the ceiling with junk. There was standing water down there and it was really a mess, a biohazard. We got a dumpster, a very large one, and I commenced to hauling roughly seven tons of junk singlehandedly through a window into the yard then carrying it around to the other side of the house to throw it in the dumpster. Meanwhile, time was getting short on building for the guitar show. I was writing articles and doing interviews for Guitar Connoisseur, building a deck for money, cleaning out the basement, and building guitars. I had to ration my time very carefully. I was completely exhausted at the end of every day.

I wanted to have four guitars for the show, but with all the other work going on, it just didn’t happen. However I did have two guitars that I thought were very special. I ended up with two telecaster style builds: a flame maple on basswood, and a solid ash with a purple, iridescent, three layer stain finish. The iridescent guitar had that stain, and I had never seen anyone else do it before. There was this beautiful random figure in that ash and the finish made it come out and change colors depending on the angle you were viewing from, a really cool guitar! The flame maple guitar, the one I had stalled on the previous winter, was just a classic look that went over real well with most people who saw it. I didn’t skimp on pickups. I used custom wound boutique pickups from Geppetto Guitars in Texas for the flame maple, and a set for the purple guitar from John Benson that I had gotten from another builder. The Geppettos were straight up vintage all the way, and the Bensons had a growl to the bridge when you gave it some gain.

That summer, ending with the Guitar and Bass Expo in Wyomissing, I don’t think I’ll ever forget. It was grueling, it was epic, and it was really my debut to the guitar world. I slept for about a month after that! I made a plan to make money selling unfinished guitar bodies. I had noticed that there was a market out there because guys wanted to build guitars, but didn’t want to spend all that money to build their own shop, buy their own tools, etc. So I decided that I would devote the next year to making bodies. It was a very cool time. Getting into what it means to be in business making guitars, how to handle customers, so much to learn, and there always is more to learn. I was doing interviews for Guitar Connoisseur and getting to talk to all these amazing luthiers. I’ve never built an acoustic guitar, but I have learned so much just from talking to these guys that when the time comes I’ll already know half of it! I started getting an idea of what the discerning player was looking for in a guitar, what the trends were, and the history behind everything. I was also learning CAD and trying to build one of those small CNC machines. The machine didn’t work out, but I did manage to teach myself some CAD. I designed my own style of bodies, called the Solstice IV, and made a few prototypes, which I’m still working on!

I made bodies, lots of bodies. Business was growing. I was getting all kinds of things thrown at me. It wasn’t unusual to be making a style that I had never done before. It might have been a mistake to go into the custom order gambit right off the bat. What I’ve learned from a lot of guys who know is that part of the job is how you fix the mistakes you make, but with unfinished bodies there was no way to hide anything! So it could be very challenging. There are two sides of me when building, the side that is taking joy in the act of creating art, and the side that is meticulous, perfectionistic, a harsh critic to be sure. I’m probably harder on myself, on my own work, than anybody else has ever been. But I’ve learned that that is common in this gig. It’s just the kind of people we are. 

So things continue to roll onward. I’m always looking to expand my skills and try something new. I’ve begun a very modest guitar building and repair library, which I look forward to expanding. I’m experimenting with adding amplifier and speaker cabinets to my catalog, which has been quite an adventure. I’ve partnered with the Guitar and Bass Expo to help bring two new guitar shows to Western Pennsylvania, one in Erie and one in Pittsburgh. This will be the first year for both shows. I need to build a host of guitars to have enough in stock to show, and to fill requests to place my work in a few stores and a new boutique shop that will be opening in New Jersey.  Though I don’t have the time I used to for writing, I still do manage to keep doing interviews and articles for GC. Through my relentless search for sources of materials and parts, I’ve also started offering figured tops for sale and am working on the website for that venture with some help from Frets4Vets humanitarian Tom Baker. 

I’ve never had any formal training of any kind, but there are a lot of people who have helped me along, and continue to do so. If I had to pick someone who has really mentored me it would probably be Matt Kielecki, a luthier with a world of experience in the biz. He keeps a low profile, doing a vast amount of repairs on all kinds of instruments, and collecting about every prewar banjo he can get his hands on. He’s been a constant help and a solid support for me, always keeping positive, looking for solutions, never giving up. There are people like Matt who have believed in me, even when I couldn’t understand why, people who have seen something in me, or in the work I’ve done so far, that push me forward, giving me hope when things are bleak. Those people tell me things that resonate with what is in my heart, they tell me to never stop building. I move forward because this is my muse. That’s become the motto for SJR Custom Guitars: Find Your Muse. I’ve waited my whole life to find it, and I’m not letting go.

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