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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
Why do you think retro and vintage musical instruments are so
popular these days and seemingly increasingly so with every
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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!