podcastsmall business war stories

Becoming a Guitar Builder | SLJ Guitars

Becoming a Guitar Builder | SLJ Guitars

Many of us dream of ditching our desk jobs in favor of a workshop. Working with our hands, crafting something out of wood or some other material. Something physical, something real.

Seth Lee Jones worked at Whole Foods for 6 years while on the side building up his business as a guitar maker. Eventually he had to leave his day job because he had enough people beating down his door with requests for guitar work.

He now builds builds 25 to 30 custom instruments a year and a handful of acoustic guitars.

The journey to becoming a full time luthier or guitar maker, is not an easy one.

Today, we are happy to share with you Seth Lee Jones’s story as the latest episode of Small Business War Stories.

Check it out:

The Soul of America Tour

This episode is part of the Soul of America tour sponsored by Tecovas Boots, Badger Maps, and Impact Dog Crates. During April 2017, I drove with my six month-old puppy Muddy Waggers, my guitar, and my podcasting equipment with the goal of recording podcast episodes with small business owners throughout the heart of America.

Listen to the podcast:

Show Notes

A summary of our interview with Seth Lee Jones of SLJ Guitars is below.

You can use the links below to jump to your interests.


So tell me a little bit about your company, your brand is SLJ Guitars, right?

Seth Lee Jones: Yeah, that’s just my initials, and a pretty boring thing to do, use your name as your brand. I do mostly repairs and restorations. I build probably 25 or 30 instruments a year under that brand. And I make a handful of acoustics every year too, maybe four or five.

I mean there’s absolutely nothing ordinary about your guitars or anything. I mean some of the stuff, we’ll get into it a little bit more about the carbon fiber things you do are really cool. And it’s a really cool mix of kind of an innovative approach to doing some things with modern materials, but with some vintage construction methods, right?

Seth Lee Jones: Yeah. I just don’t want to get stuck in that old-world way of thinking. Especially with so many new modern materials that come out, and we can take advantage of that stuff as guitar makers and come up with stuff that’s unique, and maybe things that might last longer than the old way of doing stuff.

How long have you been doing this?

Seth Lee Jones: I have been breaking eggs for probably 16 years. I’ve had my certification from Musicians Institute for 10. But it’s always been just a lifetime of passion for making instruments. I always wanted to make a lap steel first, you know, and I did that, and then made some cigar box guitars. And then you know, wanted to try to make a real guitar. When you first get started at it, it’s breaking eggs. You gotta mess some stuff up, and you gotta make some mistakes, and fortunately I’ve gotten past that. I think if you’ve been doing it as long as I have, and you’re not any good at it, it’s time to quit. So, I’ve gotten to where I think I’ve hit my stride, and I’m really starting to make some nice stuff, at least for the last six or eight years.

That’s an understatement. I mean some of the stuff you’ve shown me here is pretty incredible. That’s really cool. So what inspired you, I mean you’re also a musician, right? So how do you think about the combination of being a musician, and a guitar maker?

Seth Lee Jones: I’ve been playing music since I was eight. My folks got me into playing piano, I took lessons, and then I got a guitar when I was 12. But that was the stepping stone to wanting to make a guitar.

My first job was working for a furniture maker as like a summer job. Not necessarily an apprenticeship, but just a summer job helping this guy who made really, really high-end furniture.

And he got to talking about how much I liked playing guitar, and how those were actually made of wood, and we could probably make one. So lo and behold, we did try to make one, and it came out pretty bad. But it was a starting point.

But it came out of a love for the instrument and wanting to know more about it and be able to play it. And then make my own that had characteristics of my style, you know?

You’re involved with a guitar-making class that teaches people how to make guitars at Tulsa Wood Arts. What inspired you to do that? How did you get into it?

Seth Lee Jones: I was actually contacted by the director of that program, because they wanted someone to show someone how to do it by hand. There’s a couple of other guys in town that make guitars, but they do them with CNC machines.

And there’s nothing wrong with doing it, but this is a wood-working, wood-arts, we’re talking about wood-arts here, not CNC arts.

He wanted to have a person in there that taught a class that was an analog, at-home way of making your own guitar. And that’s what we do up there. We use primarily plunge routers, handheld plunge routers and hand tools.

And we use old-school templates and hand tools to do all the cuts, and I have designed that program so that someone might be able to take that class, and go home and do it again in their garage.

See when I went to school at Musicians Institute, they showed us how to do everything on these big, massive pin routers, with three-phase power, and we had to have a bridge port milling machine with this really special attachment to slot the fingerboards. All this equipment that when I got out of school, I was like well great, I don’t have that. I don’t know how I’m going to do that again.

I mean just a good pin router can be several thousand dollars. So going into that, with that experience, I wanted to make it so people might go home and still have enough equipment in their home to do it rather than going to some fancy facility.

You also get the relationship and the pride of ownership to say, “I made this.” And over the years, I discovered that Guitar Center just didn’t carry what I wanted to play. So I get to make what I want to play.

Who are most of your customers? How do you find your customers? Is there’s a lot of word of mouth?

Seth Lee Jones: A lot of it is word of mouth, and it’s taken me years to get to this point. I had a regular day job. I worked for Whole Foods for six something years. And at a point, I had to say well, I’ve got more people beating my door down to do guitar work. And I’m really a lot happier doing that, so I need to quit working for the man, and start working for me.

It gradually me more people over time as I developed in my craft. I also developed as a player and met more people. That really is how I developed the clientele over time. I get people sending me stuff from Los Angeles, Montana, the furthest one I’ve had sent to me was from a USO base in Afghanistan.

What are the most common repairs that you see? And what percentage would you say of your business is making new guitars, versus repairing them?

Seth Lee Jones: I would say, probably 75% of my business is repair, and the rest is a combination of fabrication of parts and new instruments. Because you know, it’s not always somebody needs a whole new guitar. They might want a body in a special color, or a neck with a special neck-width or something like that. So that’s part of it too, making parts for people.

And I’ve had makers have me help them produce parts for their guitars. For example, sometimes I make fingerboards. Some people don’t have the ability to slot a fingerboard at home, and they want to use a wood that’s different than what LMI offers. I can slot a fingerboard for somebody. It’s not that big of a deal.

So there’s that, but I have an interesting position that I’m in right now, where I can repair guitars, play music locally, make new guitars, teach people to make guitars, and I cobble together an income that’s sustainable out of that.

The beauty of that too, is that those things are not really unrelated. So they feed each other, right? I’m sure you meet people out playing that end up buying one of your guitars.

Seth Lee Jones: Right, and just in the same breath, I meet people who take my class that would have never come to a bar that I play at. You know what I mean? Like I get doctors and lawyers, and right now we’ve got a nurse practitioner, she’s doing really good. And I’ve had young kids, you know 16-17 take the class. People who would never hear about me as a musician, because the demographic is wrong, hear about me through that class, and vice versa. You know, people who would never hear about Tulsa Wood Arts, because they’re hanging out at The Colony, hear about it because I’ll talk about it. My bass player made his bass in my program. And I make a point every week to say Bo Hallford, he made that bass he’s playing in my class.

You play at a place called The Colony, right? Where else to you play?

Seth Lee Jones: I play every week at The Colony. I also play in a place called The Q-Spot in Enid every now and then. I’ve got some little spotty gigs here and there through Tahlequah and The Mercury here in Tulsa. Playing for me is product testing.

I love doing it, but it makes me a little bit of money, tens of dollars. I really do it because I love it, and I want to try the stuff that I make, and show the people that come out, get to see what it is I make. It more or less, playing for me, is an extra-curricular activity. I don’t want to put all my eggs in one basket, type of thing too, but it’s picking up. We’ve been getting more and more spots as we go along. I’ve only been doing that for about four months with my own outfit.

You brought up CNC machines. So in the era of CNC machines, and in the era of internet musical instrument stores, what does it take for a small guitar maker to succeed?

Seth Lee Jones: You have to set yourself apart in some way. Whether that’s the flair that you put on your instruments, and the way that they’re decorated and painted, or alternative materials. There’s a whole myriad of different directions you can go with that, but you just have to put yourself apart from what’s out there. There’s so many makers out there, especially with the advent of CNC and laser-cut stuff. That technology is accessible to anybody. You can get a CNC machine for less than a thousand bucks now.

It may not be a very good one, but you can put together a home unit and start cranking out parts, and it’s doable. You just have to find a way that makes you different than them.

And the thing about the CNC machine too, is that it’s only as good as the operator, and it’s also only as good as the guy writing the CAD file. So, I’ve seen instruments that were made on CNC machines that had sloppiness about them. So, just because it’s made on the CNC, doesn’t mean it’s perfect.

It has to be designed properly by someone who really has their numbers right. And then the operator, the guy running the machine, you can screw things up just being an operator.

You’ve gotta have something that is you. Something, your “thing“, the “shtick“.

How would you characterize your shtick?

Seth Lee Jones: What I do, is I try to follow some of the vintage guidelines, like the shapes and the tradition of that, but I want to add modern attributes. Not necessarily pre-amps or anything like that, but using the new materials like carbon fiber. Using different adhesives other than hide glue, because I just can’t be fooled into thinking that the greatest advent of adhesives happened hundreds of years ago. I mean they’ve been using fish glues and hide glues for hundreds of years, and it’s like, maybe even thousands of years.

I just don’t want to subscribe to the old world thinking, and so much that it pigeonholes what I do. I don’t want to let my material dictate how I’m going to make the instrument either.

One of the cool things you do, is you take these beautiful old Harmony guitars that used to be made in Chicago that made these birch guitars that were basically catalog guitars for Sears. But a lot of people ended up putting under their bed, or throwing them away. And there’s still some beautiful examples that have survived, and what you do is you kind of rehabilitate these guitars with modern materials, right? So what do you do with that?

Seth Lee Jones: Oh yeah. Well those instruments they were never really guitars. They looked like guitars. But they were intended to fall apart after a few years, because they wanted you to buy another one. You know what I mean? Like those things cost $12-$13 some of them, and they wanted you to play it for a season or two and go, “Wow, this thing really sucks. I want another one.” So when you find those things nowadays, a lot of times they need a neck set. Sometimes the fingerboards coming off of them. They’ve got cracks in them. You can get them for a song. You can get it for nothing.

So what I’ve been doing, is the bodies and the overall form of the instrument is still good, and it’s very classic the way they look. And the wood is old. It may not be the best wood, but it’s old and it’s dry. So what I’ve done is taken those, and removed the fingerboard, put carbon fiber in the neck, and either replaced the fingerboard, or reuse it if it’s good Brazilian. Because they were using Brazilian for like doorstops and everything back then. Some of those old Harmonys have beautiful Brazilian rosewood boards. And some of those had spruce tops, and birch back and sides.

So if you take those old Harmonys and stiffen up the necks, because most of the time the necks are not reinforced well enough to keep them from bowing up. And a lot of times they’re made out of really crappy wood, like alder or poplar or something like that. A little bit soft to be making a neck with no rod.

I then pull the braces out of the inside, and I replace them with carbon fiber laminate braces. So it’s a layer of carbon that’s you know, thirty-thousandths or so, with two layers of either redwood or whatever spruce conifer variety I have around. I’ll make a sandwich out of that, and make my two braces out of that. So I can make the braces then, much shorter and a little bit narrower, because it has the strength of that carbon in there.

Or you can dress them up and make them look real pretty. I’ve got that one on Instagram is all red. It didn’t have any binding on it originally. I put fancy binding and did all that stuff.

It’s fun. I like doing those. It’s almost like you get free rein, you know? When it’s really bad messed up, I kind of like them when they’re real nasty. Like that red one? That neck didn’t even come on that. That was a neck from another Harmony.

When you get something that’s so nastified like that, you don’t have to baby it, and “Oh, I need to see the original finish, and the original binding.” No, you just rip all that shit off there and start over. You basically use it as like a shell or like a kit. You take that old crappy Harmony, and you just build it up again.

I’m sure that playing and interacting with people in the music community, you must come across some really wacky stuff. So what are some of the oddest, wackiest things you’ve ever come across in this business, whether as a player or as a builder?

Seth Lee Jones: Oh man. We have a local artist, a friend of mine, named Chris Mantle. He does some really fantastic work here in town. His paintings are amazing. He’s got his own gallery up on 15th and everything.

But he also shows up to open mic nights with a guitar that he has customized, and he glued rabbit fur all over this acoustic guitar. And I’ve had to work on that a few times, and it has a smell, that guitar.

I‘ve seen stuff where people use house wiring like romex and stuff when they’re wiring pickups. Or some people use big metal screws and stuff that shouldn’t be there on a nice Fender guitar Strats and things like that.

People making their own whammy systems, I mean there’s been some weirdness come through here. But I think the fur guitar, probably takes it.

I had one dude came in, he had added all these extra little pieces of like, it looked like clothes … or wire clips, or something. He had added all these things on the fingerboard to get micro-tones, and it was kind of cool. He had it figured out. It was interesting.

He was playing all this micro-tonal stuff. It was a trip, but man it was sloppy-looking. He’d glued all this shit all over the fingerboard, and it was weird. But he could play it. It was weird. It was kind of an Eastern thing he was doing, it was really trippy. He had this seven string with all these extra frets on it. It was strange. But it wasn’t like a professionally made fingerboard, it was like he had glued all this weird stuff to it.

So I’m sure that in all the time that you’ve been running your shop and your business, there must have been times when things just went sideways. What happened and how did you react? What did you do?

Seth Lee Jones: Well, when I first came back to Tulsa, I started a shop with a fella, and it ended up not going so well. After I left that business, I really lost my ass on that, my name got run through the mud so bad that I had to basically start over with a client list here in Tulsa. So I went and got a job. So after I built up again, then it moved on. But yeah, when I first came here, it crashed and burned pretty hard.

I had to go get a day job. And there’s no shame in going to get a day job, you know. Arts and things like what I do, they’re earned. They’re not guaranteed, you know. You gotta be one, good at your art and good at selling your art, but it’s not a guaranteed thing.

So related to that, you put out this amazing quote on Facebook the other day, which is “I’m staying home to practice, because nobody’s gonna congratulate me on how good my drinking has gotten.” Where did you find that? Where did you hear that quote in the first place?

Seth Lee Jones: Yeah, “No one’s gonna compliment me on how much better I’ve gotten at drinking.” I think it was in the mid-90s. Taylor had a guitar ad, and it was a middle-aged fella holding a Taylor guitar. And he had a beer on the table or something, and then his wife is walking through the kitchen. And it said something along those lines, and that always kind of stuck with me. Especially, nowadays, because a lot of places I play are bars.

You know, and it’s pretty easy to fall into that habit, where you just, you know, you’re in a bar all the time, so you end up drinking a little bit. Sometimes you gotta stay home, and work on your craft. So you don’t get pigeonholed and stuck in one spot as a player.

I watched an interview with a guy… Man, he must have been in his eighties, this cello player. And they asked him, they said, “Do you still practice every day?” And he says, “Oh yeah.” And they said, “Well why? You’re eighty-something years old?” And he says, “Well, because I feel like I’m still getting better.

And it’s never too late to pick it up either. My dad picked up bass when he turned 50. And he knows more cover songs than I do. He’s 60 now, but man by 55 he knew more cover tunes than me. And he gets in there under his headphones and practices every day.

And that’s what it is man. If you practice 30 minutes a day, you’re not going to lose any ground. If you can give it any more time than that, you’re only gonna gain it.

What would you say is the number one lesson that you have for small business people who may be listening, who may be thinking about taking the plunge and starting their own thing?

Seth Lee Jones: You can’t be discouraged when it doesn’t work out. I mean how many tries did it take to make the light bulb, you know? Like I said earlier, I had a job, and I waited until this thing that I love to do took over to a point where I couldn’t have that job anymore. The job was in the way. So I think having something to fall back on is incredibly important. Putting all your eggs in one basket, particularly as an artist of any kind, is really not a fiscally strong thing to do. You’ve gotta have something else, and diversify your art. Like I’ve got four different jobs, technically. You know, I’m getting a little bit from all directions, and that’s what keeps me going.

You know, you gotta find other ways, and not focus just on one thing as an artist. Spread yourself out a little bit, but also having something to fall back on. Like if you’ve got a job, then keep it until it takes over that job.

Where do you see this going in the next 10 years? I mean you have an amazing location here, a beautiful house, and a beautiful shop. Where do you see yourself going and growing as an artist?

Seth Lee Jones: Well, I would like to make about six acoustics a year, and spend the rest of the time picking guitars and drinking Coronas.

Yeah, you know, I think a lot of people … I get this a lot, they’re like, “Man, you gonna be the next Leo Fender? You gonna get you a CNC machine, make 50 guitars a month … ” No. I worked for companies that did that, and one in particular, the guy was miserable because he lost his art in the pursuit of a job. I think what people miss so wholeheartedly is that the definition of “making it” to somebody, is purely that person’s definition. No one else’s.

So to me, I’ve already made it. I play three or four nights a week. I generally will make $60-$100 a gig, and I get to make guitars, teach people to make guitars, fix guitars, live in this beautiful house, and I got no complaints. If I went up from here, great. If I don’t, I’m fine. I made it. I made it. I’m doing my art for a living. I get to play music and make guitars.

Is there anything else that you want our audience to know about your business? Where can people find you? What are your websites, and social media handles?

Seth Lee Jones: I think the easiest place to find me is Instagram, @SLJGuitars.

Final Thoughts

Seth Lee Jones is a true artist. He builds amazing guitars and keeps his operation small enough so that he can maintain quality. He understands that he is the one in control of defining what success is for his business, no one else. 

He has built his business slowly, primarily through creating an amazing product so that his customers become the only marketing he needs. 

If you have any question or comments about today’s episode, please leave a comment below.

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Pablo Fuentes

Pablo Fuentes is the CEO of Proven. He is a graduate of the Stanford Graduate School of Business and UCLA. He is a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioner and a blues guitar player and builder.

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