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INSIDE: BANKER GUITARS
Nathaniel Murphy burns up the brand new '58-spec Korina V and Excalibur from Banker Custom Guitars. It's a series of firsts, as these are the first '58-spec models from the very first run by Gibson's first authorized boutique builder.
Learn more from Nathaniel about the Korina V and Excalibur and Banker Custom Guitars, as well as Gibson's authorized boutique builder program and how a small-town banker is helping to reshape the framework of one of the industry's biggest brands.
The Korina V and Excalibur are the very first '58-spec guitars from authorized Gibson boutique builder, Banker Custom Guitars.
Matt Hughes of Banker Custom was the first boutique builder to officially sign on with Gibson as part of the authorized partner program, which gave him unique access to Gibson trademarks, body shapes, and headstocks.
We were chatting with Matt over the summer, and he told us about his private stash of super clean White Korina and gorgeous Brazilian Rosewood. So we asked him if he could build some '58-spec models, the first of their kind, and he did. And they are awesome.
You might be thinking, why is his name Matt Hughes if his brand is called Banker Custom? Before building custom guitars, Matt was a banker, and it also just so happens that his favorite Skynyrd song is called "Mr. Banker." His mates started calling him "Mr. Banker," and so eventually, when he did start of the company, he didn't have much of a choice. He had to call it Banker Custom.
Next, you might be asking yourself, why would I get a Gibson-authorized guitar from Mr. Banker instead of an actual Gibson? Well, it's a different experience entirely. He runs a small shop that makes, at most, 50 guitars a year. He wants to get to know the customer personally and get to know them well, and he wants to specifically tailor every little detail to how the instrument is going to be used and what the player wants.
It's a holistic and old school craftsman kind of approach. It began very naturally for him, and that's how we got into business. He started repairing, restoring, and eventually building guitars for himself and his mates and people in the community because there was no one else in the community to do so. Our mission at CME is to make Mr. Banker's community a lot bigger.
If you can believe it, Banker Custom Guitars is exactly what it sounds like: custom guitars, made by hand by a former banker.
Matthew Hughes opened Banker Custom Guitars to the public in 2016, and he’s never looked back. He is the owner, operator, and sole employee of the newly authorized Gibson boutique builder and he spends every day doing what he loves–building guitars the old way, the hard way, by hand in a North Georgia shop he also built by hand.
Self-taught, Matthew’s guitars are a labor of love in the truest sense, made with feeling, patience, and pride. Each year, Banker Custom Guitars produces no more than 50 to 75 guitars, each by Matthew’s own hands, one at a time, and that’s the way it was meant to be, because, Matthew maintains, if a guitar isn’t built by hand, it’ll never feel at home in one.
What is Banker Custom Guitars?
Banker is a small, hand-built custom guitar shop in North Georgia.
Who is Banker Custom Guitars?
Banker is run entirely by me, Matthew Hughes, with lots of encouragement and moral support from my wife, Sarah.
How did you get started building guitars?
I started playing at a really young age, was always in bands, and grew up in a rather rural area where the nearest guitar shop was an hour and a half away. I was always doing my own maintenance, followed shortly by tweaking and repairing friends' and bandmates' guitars. I built my first guitar in my early twenties, primarily because I was broke, needed a certain style guitar, and couldn't afford to purchase a decent one. The first one I ever did was a kit. I still have it actually, and every time I look at it, I am absolutely horrified! Pretty soon after that, I started building some more, then started taking a stab at making bodies, then necks, and down the rabbit hole I went.
When and how did Banker Custom Guitars begin?
Banker started selling guitars to the general public in 2016. I had been doing refinish and restoration work out of a small shop I built in my backyard. I was also building a few guitars here and there, letting friends play them, taking them to jams and shows. One day I had the crazy idea to give the stuff I was making a name, and it went from there. I was, in fact, a real-life banker by day, one of my favorite songs is Mr. Banker by Lynyrd Skynyrd, and so it just felt like it was all meant to be.
What inspired you to begin, and what inspires you to continue?
I love old guitars. The purposeful simplicity of some of the old designs. The pride and skilled craftsmanship that went into making those old American guitars. I'm always trying to recreate that vibe in a modern build, something that has all the feel, character, and tone of a pricey vintage piece.
I love working with old reclaimed tonewoods, chasing different sounds. It's always a bit of a rush for me when I'm stringing one up for the first time, not knowing what it's going to sound like. My two favorite things are music and guitars, and the fact that I'm creating something that will outlive me and hopefully continue making music long after I am gone is about the coolest thing I can imagine.
It's also been a privilege to be able to collaborate with friends and artists in the industry. I never thought I'd be working with bands like Mastodon, Marcus King, Rival Sons, Tyler Bryant and the Shakedown–I love their music and to have my personal art be a part of their creative process is just incredible. I still immerse myself in their world whenever possible, and I'll do tech work every now and then, sleeping in bunks on a tour bus traveling to gigs around the country and maintaining guitars. Those guys are the engine that keeps the world of guitar moving forward, and their feedback is invaluable to me. Just last month, I met Eric Clapton, and if you had told 16-year-old me that would happen, there is absolutely no way I would have believed you. Those friendships mean a lot to me, and the determination and drive I see from those guys inspires me every day.
How would you describe a Banker guitar to someone new to the brand?
As much as I hate cliche terms, "modern vintage" captures the feel of what I do. All of my guitars have a familiar yet unique quality to them. They are built to be players, not showpieces, and are designed as such.
How is a Banker guitar constructed from start to finish?
I've always been an individual who has to learn things the hard way, or I do not learn them at all, and it was definitely that way with guitar building. I never went to a school for it or took any luthier courses, so it took a lot of trial and error, creativity and learning from my mistakes in order to get a consistent build process dialed in.
When I've got an order or a build in mind, I start in my wood room, going through various pieces and sketching out potential bodies and necks with my templates to see how grain patterns line up and to get a rough idea of what something might look like. I then do my rough millwork, sizing pieces, and getting things to the proper thickness so that they can become a guitar. I start by cutting my shapes on a bandsaw and then trim pieces flush on a router table.
My next step is to fit the neck. I will use a hand router to cut my neck pockets and carefully trim and file each tenon to get a nice, solid fit and the proper neck angle. I will then make my fretboard, usually by hand sanding a radius with a radius block, cutting my fret slots with a fine handsaw, and then dry-fit the board to the neck. Once this is complete, I will begin laying out pickup cavities, control cavities, bridge, and tailpiece location, etc. The fit and position of the neck is where everything starts for me. After the cavities are routed, I will glue up my fretboard, install frets, and then set my neck into the body. From there, it is all finish work.
Each guitar is wet-sanded and buffed by hand. My goal is to put a guitar in a player's hands and watch them instantly feel at home with something that was built specifically for them. Your reputation is the most valuable thing in this industry, and if I thought a customer was not overjoyed about what I created for them, I would not be able to sleep at night. The music business is tougher than it has ever been, and while a few thousand dollars may not mean much to some people, to a working musician, it is an astronomical amount of money. I am adamant about folks feeling like they truly got their dollars worth–not only in the quality of the components but also in our time and dedication to the build and all the way to the final setup.
I keep my clients involved throughout the entire process from start to finish, in selecting the rough lumber and all the way to final setup specs. I send folks pictures, sound clips, recommendations, etc. Sometimes people will have an idea at the beginning, and that will change as the build goes on, or I will have a suggestion for something I think would be a better look or fit. It's truly a collaborative process, and most people feel like they had a hand in building their guitar, which, I think, is a pretty unique experience for them. I have a lot of repeat customers, some of whom have sold off every other guitar they own to have a couple made by me exactly how they want them.
What components, designs, techniques, etc. make Banker Custom Guitars unique?
Many of my guitars are inspired by classic designs which have incorporated my own interpretations and refinements. I am a pretty ruthless wood hound and seek out the best examples of tonewoods that I can find. Beautiful, lightweight Korina, true old-growth Honduran Mahogany, reclaimed sinker Mahogany, Brazilian Rosewood, Southern Swamp Ash–rare, high-quality tonewood is the backbone of what I do.
Building everything by hand also gives you a connection to an instrument that is impossible to achieve in a modern machine shop. I can feel how the wood transfers vibration as I am shaping it on a router table. I carve all of my necks using simple hand tools: a rasp, a file, and sandpaper. I believe this technique allows you to create something that goes beyond what a machine can do. While I have general specs and guidelines for certain guitars and neck profiles, I ultimately go by feel. Does this neck feel right? Is it comfortable? Who is the person that will be playing it? What style of music do they play, and what is their playing technique? All of these things go into consideration when I am creating a guitar. I use old-school, cloth-insulated wiring, the highest quality audio components, boutique PAF and P90 pickups from winders like OX4 and Tyson (who are as OCD about vintage tone as I am), tuning machines from Grover and Kluson, hardware from TonePros and Faber, and I make all of my own plastics, pickguards, and cavity covers in-house to ensure each guitar has a bespoke fit. All of my finishes are proper, old-school nitrocellulose that will check and crack just like the old formulas.
How long does it take to make a Banker guitar from start to finish?
It depends on the guitar, really. I typically give folks a 5-6 month production quote, as I have a pretty consistent backlog. As far as true build time start to finish, each guitar has around 40 hours of work in it. That can vary by wood type, custom requests, inlay and binding work, etc.
What inspires your creative process?
Wood, music, good design work, classic cars–you name it. I have a soft spot for the oddball guitars, the futuristic stuff, the clean, mid-century mod look of natural Korina and plain white plastics, old celluloid, and the smell of sawdust. My shop is my second home. I love walking in there and smelling nitro lacquer curing. Putting on a good record, turning the volume up, and disconnecting from the outside world and immersing myself into a build. If it's for a specific artist, I'll listen to their music non-stop while working on their guitar. I follow a lot of other builders and am always inspired by the work I see out there–it pushes me to be even better.
What is the spirit of Banker Guitars?
A lot of the folks who were making guitars at the American companies back in the golden era were actually carpenters and furniture builders by trade. Much of the design and joinery work that they incorporated still lives on today and some of it has been forgotten. I try to imagine myself working in one of those factories when I'm creating a guitar. I've owned a number of vintage guitars from that era over the years, and of those, I am currently down to 3. My main ride-or-die guitar is a 1957 Les Paul Junior that has had the headstock snapped clean off and repaired. I told my wife that when I die, I am going to claim one moment of pure selfishness and request that guitar be put in the ground with me. It's an absolute hammer, acoustically it is loud and lively, and when it's plugged in, hold on. It'sIt's like playing a bolt of lightning. The notes just explode out of it. Owning that guitar really changed a lot of what I thought I knew about guitar construction. The formula is so basic–high-quality old-growth lumber and a block tenon that positions the entire base of the neck into the body. It was a budget technique originally as these were low-end student guitars, but that technique also resulted in one of the rowdiest rock and roll guitars ever created. The experience that I've had with that guitar is what I am constantly chasing and trying to put in the hands of other players. The spirit of this company aims to honor the legacy and continue the tradition of the men and women that crafted those incredible instruments during the heyday of the electric guitar.
What is the Banker Custom Guitars mission?
To put high-quality, road-worthy, handmade vintage-style guitars into the hands of players and collectors, and deliver an experience that you cannot get with a larger company.
Where does Banker Custom Guitars go from here?
I intend to stay small. I don't see myself ever building more than 50-75 guitars per year. I've worked in corporate America for a long time. I've seen the pitfalls and the mistakes that come with expansion, and I have no interest in it. I've never intended to get rich building guitars. If that was my goal, then I definitely chose the wrong profession. At that level of volume, I can handle everything with my own two hands, give clients the time and attention that I like, get to know folks on a personal level, and know that everything that leaves my shop is a worthy instrument that I personally approve of. If I can make a decent living by waking up every morning, making a pot of coffee, and walking downstairs to my shop to build guitars all day, I am a happy man.
For a truly custom experience unlike any other, shop our selection of handmade Banker Custom Guitars built by Matthew Hughes in his North Georgia workshop. You’ll know what “meant to be” really means.
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