BEHIND THE BUILD:
Over the last 20 years, Kansas City native Chris Swope has built up quite a resume: Production Manager at Sadowsky Guitars in NYC...Pro Shop Tech and Engineering Department at Gibson Custom...Guitar Advisor for Private Reserve Guitars...He's won Guitar Player Magazine's "Editor's Pick Awards" for both his Geronimo and GTO models...Nashville aces like Kenny Vaughan are slinging Swope guitars...and his biggest score yet? Ron Wood of the Rolling Stones just recently purchased 2 of his instruments. As one would expect, these experiences have given Chris a world-class education in high-end guitar building, maintenance, retail, and most importantly it would seem, "outside-the-box" guitar and pickup design chops.
Chris was kind enough to set aside some time for TME recently so we could dig a little deeper into the origins of Swope Guitars and what makes a master builder tick.
Chris, thanks so much for taking the time to answer a few questions for us! Could you start by shedding some light on how you arrived at the designs you’re currently building?
I built my first Geronimo prototype as I was leaving NYC and moving to Nashville in 2002, unsure if I would get hired anywhere or not. It was my back up plan, I guess. Well, I did get hired at Gibson Custom and after a couple years found myself in the Engineering Department. I learned a ton there and I had access to loads of interesting things. There were all the “classic” pickups you would expect, plus discontinued pickups from the 70s and 80s, like some of the Bill Lawrence stuff, and pickups all the way back to those from the lap and table steel era. That is when I began experimenting with pickup designs. I wanted to design guitars but I wanted to do something unique, not just another shape with P-90s or humbuckers. I kept at it after I left Gibson and when I had something I thought was really special, I decided to revisit Geronimo. The MG and GTO models morphed out of that. I wanted to come up with a single coil model and tried a variety of pickup designs.
It came down to two very different sets that I really dug and couldn’t decide between, so I made two different guitar models, keeping the more traditional look of a slab body with swamp ash for the MG and the sleeker body, in alder, for the GTO.
In your search for something unique, were there specific issues you noticed players facing that your builds are trying to help solve?
Hopefully, the issue of which guitar to take to the gig! When I lived in NY I’d throw a guitar in a gig-bag with a couple pedals and maybe a small amp on a cart if there was no backline, and head down to the subway to take a train to the club or rehearsal space. I needed the guitar in that bag to be stone cold reliable and cover a lot of musical ground. That need for versatility is something I’ve tried to address in all my designs. Plus, they are not meant to be garage queens. That’s why they are called “Knock-Arounds.” I want people to play them. Don’t worry about your belt buckle.
"...that's why they are called 'Knock-Arounds'. I want people to play them. Don't worry about your belt buckle."
Your guitars straddle the line between classic design elements and something new and fresh. How difficult was it to achieve that balance, and why was it important to you to incorporate some classic elements?
I have a mid-century modern/Jetsons/3-button suit/pre-psychedelic aesthetic. So that late fifties/ early sixties thing hits hard and I can’t get away from that, visually. And as much as I love a Telecaster, and for some that is all they need, I also really appreciate say, a Wurlitzer Cougar or a Magnatone Typhoon. They were obviously inspired by Fender but yet they were not copying them. There was no cottage industry of off the shelf replacement parts back then. Small companies tooled up and made their own. Admittedly, many of those off brands didn’t have the kind of craftsmanship that would hold up over time but they serve as a model of how to think outside of the box that so many seem stuck in now. I like to think my guitars share the spirit of that era but with a superior build quality and a bit of innovation, too.
After having your hands on so many guitars at both Roger Sadowsky's shop and the Gibson Custom Shop, what elements make a guitar exceptional in your opinion, and how do you try to achieve that in your own builds?
Feel, sound, resonance, playability, comfort…..occasionally you’ll stumble upon an individual guitar where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. That’s my goal with each guitar I build so I have to be as consistent as possible, from the wood to the wire. “God is in the details” was something often said at Roger’s shop, and it’s true. Take something as simple as a nut. Poor execution can mean the slots are cut too high and the action feels stiff, too low and the strings rattle.
The string to string spacing can wander or the outside strings might be cut too close to the edge of the board and you roll off the neck when you play. Poorly cut slots can result in tuning issues or a choked note. There are endless ways to screw it up. Now take that example and apply it to the fretwork, the wiring, the pitch of the neck, the set-up of the vibrato, and on and on…These are things a player won’t see but he will feel. He won’t know why he put the guitar back in the case. He just lost inspiration. Exceptional instruments inspire. You must have the tightest tolerances and attention to detail every step of the way because there are so many variables in the mix.
Speaking of inspiration, I think it's safe to say that we're all looking to leave our mark on the music world - whether it's an artist writing songs or an artist building instruments. What impact do you hope your guitars will have on the guitar community?
I want to build guitars that inspire players to reach for that next note or write that next great song. Like a lot of people, music has been the number one driving force in my life. It has allowed me to express myself, define myself. It's been my therapy. And when it all clicks, it's magic. I want Swope Guitars to be a part of that magic for others.
Looking ahead, what gets you excited about your current projects, goals, builds, etc...?
I'm currently working on a bass guitar but I've got a great many other designs in my head and I'm constantly looking for inspiration wherever I can find it. I hope to continue to grow my brand and expand my product line and keep this dream rolling...and I'd like to start another band!
Visit our Blog for other exclusive interviews and more.