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3R Guitars - Repair, Replica, Restoration





Digger talked to Chris Richards at 3R Guitars about his guitar repair and restoration business. With a large worldwide customer base of delighted musicians, Chris has brought his experience and skills to bear on numerous vintage and classic guitar repairs and restorations. Chris is THE man when it comes to revitalising your dilapidated but treasured vintage guitar.





Digger: Please tell us about your background Chris.

Chris: I guess I’ll start off with a confession—I’ve always been crazy for most things American, especially guitars, cars and music. I say “especially” because the list could go on and on, but those three categories have played a huge part in my life and, just to put the icing on the cake, I have an American wife as well! She’s pretty patriotic for her homeland but we have no hesitation in agreeing that you can’t beat British beer and curries so we’re kind of mixing the best from both sides of the Atlantic.
I’ve always lived around London and the South East, and lucky enough to have a dad whose kingdom was his garden shed/workshop; from a very early age, I was hitting my thumb with a hammer. I started playing the guitar when I was fourteen I think, and of course wanted to go electric, but back in the ‘70s cheap guitars were pretty poor quality. Unfortunately, Gibson’s and Fender’s were way out of range of a teenager’s pocket, so it was time to bruise more thumbs! Some wacky and (not so) wonderful guitars emerged from the workshop, but at least it was a start!
I’ve always been a hands-on kind of person and love working on “stuff”; I’ve restored several old cars and been lucky enough to own several classic American cars, including the iconic ’57 Chevy. They’re so much fun. My best experience was driving the Chevy from London to Sweden—2,600 miles in a week and £500 in petrol! Old technology fascinates me—while there are a lot more gadgets and gizmos nowadays, they’re out-dated and disposable in five minutes. Old stuff, on the other hand, can be fixed and fettled with, which to me adds a sense of value and pride.
I bought my first Fender Stratocaster when I was 17 after saving up £185 from various Saturday jobs and paper rounds. I sneaked out of the house with my savings book and squirrelled a sunburst/rosewood Strat back in without my Mum knowing. Unfortunately the deception didn’t last long and her words were something along the lines of “You’ve wasted all your money on a Fender Plastocaster!” The punishment was quite severe but hey, it was worth it!
Unfortunately, no matter how hard I tried over the years it became apparent to me that I wasn’t going to become anywhere near as good as Jimmy Page and my skills would be better spent building rather than playing guitars.

Digger: Can you please tell us more about 3R Guitars and how the business has developed into what it is today?

Chris: Firstly, I never intended to start a business. 3RGuitars didn’t exist at the outset, I just wanted a beaten up Telecaster because I thought they looked so cool. Well, what with my obsession for detail, I couldn’t just buy a cheap copy and knock seven bells out of it so I ended up building one from scratch.
Relic guitars were pretty scarce back then and, to be honest, rather fake-looking. I don’t like “blowing my own trumpet” but I guess this Telecaster surpassed what most people were used to at the time. Most weekends I’d get phone calls from my guitar-playing mates asking, “Hey Chris, can I use your Tele for a gig this weekend?” so it got quite a lot of exposure. I sold it for the price of the materials to make another one, as I thought I could do better. I started getting repair work from a local studio and things picked up from there, the upshot being that somehow I ended up with customers!
I decided to put a website together, really just to document my work with a view to maybe getting the odd job to cover costs. I didn’t expect to get so many enquiries, but apparently many people were interested in vintage correct cellulose refinishes and continue to be as it constitutes most of my work. Back then I still needed to learn a lot about business; for example, I once built a Telecaster for someone for £800 and he put it straight on eBay and sold it for £1200!
I’ve learnt a lot along the way but the main reason I do the work is because I love guitars. I have no intention of getting any sort of production line going—not only would that spoil it for me, but all guitarists are very particular about their instruments and working on only a few guitars at a time seems to suit both parties.


Restoration in progress and, final photo, completion of a relic Gibson guitar




Digger: The level of detail, such as ageing, weathering, distressing, simulated rusting and finger/playing wear is amazing. How many hours would go into the average build?

Chris: I can’t make a guitar in less than three months. This timeframe is dictated by the nature of cellulose paint, or more precisely how it dries. The ageing to the paint just doesn’t look right unless I wait that long. To be honest, I don’t keep an accurate record of the time taken and all guitars are different—for instance, ash bodies take a lot longer to prepare for paint than alder. It’s just the nature of the wood. No pun intended, but I take the rough with the smooth and it takes as long as it takes!
I’ve made lots of jigs to ensure I can make components accurately, consistently, and faster. To give a good idea, I can get the basis of a neck built in two days and a body probably the same, but the majority of the time is spent in detailed work and preparation for paint. There’s no substitute for time spent hand-sanding and the more time you take, the better the finish!
I guess the time taken should dictate the price of the guitar but that would be unrealistic and I wouldn’t be able to carry on doing the work I love.

Digger: These instruments have a history and a life of their own. Can you describe the feeling of restoring a guitar from a wreck to a fully-restored and usable state?

Chris: I guess this has to be my favourite type of work. Yeah, okay, they’re just an assembly of wood, plastic and metal but somehow they’re far more than the sum of their parts and this is more evident in a vintage instrument. I feel so lucky to have grown up in what I would consider the best era in music and witnessed more or less the whole history of the electric guitar. Vintage instruments are, generally speaking, constructed from better materials, some of which aren’t available now; and when they were built there was more human intervention, which gives them far more character. Modern guitars may well be technically better being made by machines but the all-important human factor is missing.
Most vintage guitars over the years have been refinished and had different pickups installed (or even worse!) and the owners want them restored to their original specifications. I am used to receiving anything from a box of bits to a creosoted mess but nevertheless it’s almost a religious experience when I first open the case and pick up the guitar. Somehow all the years of playing has imparted a personality on the guitar.
My rule of thumb with any restoration is “less is more” and I will always do my best to retain as much of the original guitar as possible. Every Gibson SG I’ve restored has had a weak neck joint, so I do all the repairs from inside the front pickup cavity leaving the visible parts of the body alone. Any pickup cavity filling or rerouting I’ll try to keep within the confines of the pickguard. When it comes to refinishing a guitar, any sort of electric sander is a big no-no; chemical paint strippers and hand sanding is the best approach, again to preserve the original guitar.
It’s always a great feeling finally seeing the guitar through a restoration. First it looks worse than when it arrived and then, as the work progresses, things start to improve. Because every job is different, I never have that routine feeling and finally, when I get to put the strings on and get to play it, it’s so satisfying. Without exception, the owners are over the moon as they thought they’d never see their guitars in a state so close to the original again so I guess it’s a win-win.

Digger: What impact have The Internet and new technologies had on the 3R Guitars business?

Chris: Without the Internet, business would be a lot more difficult—I’d have no website, no emails, no easy way of sending photos. Just a few weeks ago I was speaking to someone about some damage on his Les Paul and while we were on the phone he emailed me some pictures; it all seems so matter-of-fact nowadays but just a few years ago that would have been like a UFO landing in your back garden! Email means that I can converse with people all over the world, and the Internet not only allows me to have a website (which is vital) but it’s also the greatest encyclopaedia ever. I can also shop around for rare guitar parts, so I’d have to give it a big thumbs-up.

Digger: In addition to restoration, do you offer any other services such as advice or sourcing? And what would you say makes 3R Guitars stand out?

Chris: I’ll talk incessantly about guitars, guitarists, and anything related to music, but yes, I’m generally pretty free about advice-related questions. Postage costs can be quite prohibitive for small jobs and I’m more than happy to talk someone through a simple job. I just view it as a bit of advertising and I’d like to think that at some point it may lead to a bigger job or a recommendation. I do stop short of answering questions like “I’m just an amateur and want to restore/relic my own guitar…” I’ve been caught out too many times like that, it can lead to a minefield of questions that take ages to answer so I steer clear of them.

Digger: Why do you think retro and vintage musical instruments are so popular these days and seemingly increasingly so with every generation?

Chris: Opposite to what I said earlier, there are some wonderful guitars made nowadays; they’re relatively much cheaper than they used to be and there’s a far wider range of choices. I don’t think it’s exclusive that every guitarist wants a retro or vintage guitar, a lot of my customers are “old rockers” (like me!) who grew up in an era when Stratocasters and Telecasters were just guitars, but I guess if your hero plays a 1958 Les Paul then that’s what you must have!
Old guitars are usually made from excellent woods which, due to restrictions, can’t be used anymore—for example, swamp ash or Brazilian rosewood. Modern manufacturers use an equivalent but it’s not the same as what was used in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Carlos Santana said you play from the heart; guitars are very tactile things and old ones just make you feel good, which in turn is going to inspire you to play better. The big problem is that genuine vintage guitars are very expensive and a mid-‘60s Stratocaster would set you back thousands of pounds. Would you want to risk travelling and gigging with such a valuable guitar? I guess that’s why retro is so popular - you can have your cake and eat it! I love vintage guitars and if I could afford it I’d have a houseful of them. In a lot of respects I think it makes a lot of sense to buy one instead of a new guitar because, like any antique, it will keep its value and may go up and you’ll have the enjoyment of playing a vintage guitar. Right now, if I had a choice of buying a ‘70s or new Gibson SG, without hesitation I’d plump for the ‘70s one. Gibson made some superb instruments back then and a good new SG is about the same price as one from the ‘70s, but if you’re talking Stratocasters then it’s a different ball game.

Digger: What does Retro and Vintage mean to you and what are your personal Retro passions? What are the Holy Grails for you?

Chris: All my hobbies are retro or vintage, especially anything old and mechanical. I’m not so fussed about ornamental stuff, but along with guitars I love vintage cars, old aeroplanes, jukeboxes, etc. Up until the last few years I’ve owned a myriad of classic cars, mostly American; in addition to the ’57 Chevy I’ve had a ’65 Thunderbird, a ’63 Oldsmobile and a ’56 Chevy and used them as everyday transport. I love the fact that you can fix them with three spanners—¾, 5/8 and ½ inch!
I love designs that are perfect straight from the mould—I say perfect when actually they’re not but for some reason the faults just make them better. Leo Fender was an electronics guy who decided to build guitars. He wasn’t a Luthier so he was free to think and turned guitar design on its head. He was also very thrifty—a lot of the Telecaster and Stratocaster design was aimed at cutting costs. For example, the bolt-on neck: originally he didn’t even bother installing a truss rod in the neck. This should add up to a pretty substandard instrument but somehow it’s the opposite. Other things that float my boat in this way are the Zippo lighter (perfectly fit for purpose), the ’65 Mustang (a winner straight out of the box), the second World War American Jeep. I don’t know whether it’s true that Jeep stood for “just enough essential parts” but it would make sense! There’s also the 356 Porsche speedster and, to cap it all, Dualit toasters!

Typical vintage restorations




Digger: What are the most unusual items you have worked on and what tend to be the most popular?

Chris: The most unusual guitar I’ve restored has to be a 1930s National Resonator, a metal-bodied guitar that incorporated a speaker cone—kind of a mechanical electric guitar. With the metal body I had to rediscover my car body repairing skills but I really enjoyed doing it and the customer was over the moon with the end result. I was also asked to convert an already butchered 1958 Les Paul Junior into a Les Paul “Senior”—that was a task and a half but it was well worth it, the finished guitar even surprised me.
The most popular jobs are refinishes in vintage-correct nitro cellulose. This involves stripping off all the original paint and refinishing in cellulose products from the wood up. I’ve never met any guitarist who is a fan of the modern finishes, which are so thick it’s almost as though the guitar has been dipped in paint. Quite often the quality of the woodwork underneath leaves a lot to be desired! I’ve done far more Fender guitars than Gibson.
I do get a few requests from people asking me to convert a cheaper guitar into a more expensive one (for example, converting an Epiphone into a Gibson), usually accompanied by some obscure reason. This is something I won’t do. Generally, people don’t realise how many subtle differences there are and, as well as it being unethical, the cost is prohibitive.

Digger: Who are your ‘typical’ customers, where are your customers coming from and what customer feedback/comments do you get?

Chris: I suppose most of my customers are older but it’s certainly not an exclusive club—there are several younger people for whom I have refinished/built guitars, especially if they have a particular guitar hero’s instrument copied. Due to the nature of a web-based business, most of my work is by post when people are so far afield. The majority of my work comes from the confines of the UK but occasionally I’ll get some from Europe.
Musicians are nearly always nice people to talk to. I’ve built or worked on guitars for all standards of players, from professionals to people who just love guitars. A guy called me once and asked me to refinish his Precision bass in a black relic—and could I do it by a certain date because he needed it for a tour. I was really chuffed when he said he was touring with Take That! Another customer used to play for the original Angelic Upstarts and still tours all over Europe with various bands; he obviously has a pretty wild stage act, as I’ve even had to glue a Strat body back together for him! I do love it when I get pictures of guitars I’ve worked on being used in gigs.
It’s always great to get favourable customer comments and I’m pleased to say that my work usually surpasses what the customer is expecting, especially concerning restorations. I guess when you give someone a box of parts and get a working guitar back it’s pretty exciting. I always send pictures of the work in progress so if there’s anything that the customer is not happy with, I can correct it before the job is finished. I also always tell people that if they are unhappy with anything, get the guitar back to me and I will make good.

Digger: What are the best and most enjoyable aspects of running 3R Guitars?

Chris: Doing something I love I guess, working with different types of wood, and taking a one-inch thick plank of maple and over a couple of days fashioning it into a guitar neck is so satisfying. One of my long-term projects is building an acoustic Archtop guitar; I spent days making jigs to cut a dovetail join for the neck and it came out perfect, achieving something that I never thought I could do! I’m always experimenting with new ageing techniques and it’s great to discover a new way to improve the realism. But I think the best bit is seeing one of my guitars being used in a gig.

Digger: What are your plans for 3R Guitars in the future Chris?

Chris: At the moment I’m quite excited as I’ve just started building my own design/range of guitars named Dina, after my gorgeous wife as she was the inspiration for them! They’re all hand-built so I use the word “range” quite loosely! My idea was to incorporate a lot of the features that I like on other guitars and build a retro-styled instrument that looks as though it came out in the ‘60s. Number 2 is just about completed. I’d love to get some orders in for a few to get them out there and seen by other guitarists. I suppose my all-time ambition would be to build a guitar for someone famous. That would make me ecstatic!

More vintage restorations





3R Guitars - Repair, Replica, Restoration



Vintage guitars repaired/restored/refinished. Nitro cellulose paint 'Relicing' service for existing guitars. Custom guitars built & individual parts manufactured. 

I love guitars and will always guarantee total care and attention to detail.

Nothing gets started unless I'm happy that you understand exactly what needs to be done, and nothing leaves my workshop unless I'm happy with what's been done!


Tel: 01474 354521













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