Custom Shop: Swope Guitars

Getting to talk to so many bright, talented builders through this column has me feeling a little inspired lately, and I’ve been thinking a lot about the choices we make in our lives. We know that chaos reigns supreme in the known universe, however, I believe there is no denying that we have some form of control over our lives. Not everyone exercises that control freely and some are content to live out the status quo. However, amongst the luthiers I have spoken to thus far, I have observed a pattern: at some point in their lives, they had a waking-up moment and decided to take risk-taking matters into their own hands. Chris Swope of Swope Guitars is no different.

Premier Guitar

Chris’s story begins in Lawrence, Kansas where he got his first apprenticeship at Mass Street Music. There, he was introduced to the basics of guitar repair. The real fun started, though, when Chris decided to move to New York City and landed a job in Roger Sadowsky’s shop in Times Square. Chris was still green but clearly showed potential. “Roger said to me he ‘could tell I had hands and that I didn’t know too much, or think I knew too much, wherein he’d have to retrain me.’ I hadn’t developed a bunch of bad habits,” says Chris. This was a rare case where inexperience was actually an advantage.

I asked Chris what it was like coming from Kansas to work smack in the middle of Manhattan. He told me that although Times Square had come a long way from the rough-and-tumble neighborhood it was in the 70s and 80s, it was still a very colorful scene. “Right downstairs on Broadway was a great big porno theater with a marquee, and every Wednesday they would change the titles — stereotypical joke titles like Ridin’ Miss Daisy and that sort of thing,” says Chris. He spent the next seven years at Sadowsky, for most of which he served as the production manager and primary bass-builder. He had a hand in building nearly 80% of the basses sold between 1995 and 2002 — a very successful period for the Sadowsky brand. Chris showed up a relative ‘newbie’ and left a seasoned luthier.

Swope Bass

After his time at Sadowsky had run its course, Chris headed to Nashville and was hired by Gibson. “That gig was initially in their pro shop, which was kind of like their cavalry,” says Chris. “We got to basically learn every single step in their whole production.” For Chris, who’d spent the past seven years working in a relatively small shop, this was a big change. He found the experience valuable because he got a new perspective on how guitars can be produced in greater quantities. “Nobody is responsible for an entire instrument there; you’re a part of the machine…which is cool.” However, it seems that Chris preferred the attention to detail required at his previous job. “At Sadowsky, it had to be perfect. Roger wanted you to look at each instrument as if it had your name on the headstock.”

Six years later, Chris found himself back home in Kansas with a new gig working for Musician’s Friend’s Private Reserve Guitars as a salesman. “It was probably my least favorite thing I’ve done in the guitar business, to actually be a salesman, but it was a pretty valuable experience.” By this point, Chris was having trouble ignoring the urge to start his own business. He had a friend at Private Reserve with whom he would regularly have long conversations with. During one of these talks, Chris mentioned wanting to start his own shop eventually. His friend, several years Chris’s senior, quickly replied: “Well…you gotta do it now!” He continued, “You know Chris, when you talk to me in the morning, I’m up, I’ve got my coffee, I’m fired up, we’re gonna start a band… but five o’clock rolls around and I just wanna watch America’s Got Talent.” Realizing he still had plenty of time and he could always go back to working for someone else if he failed, Chris took the plunge.

Swope Bass Body

Having known Chris for a few years now and having had my hands on many of his instruments, I can tell you without a doubt, he is detail-oriented. At first glance, Swope instruments are familiar, inviting, and downright attractive. One of the first things that caught my attention was the pickups. Many luthiers use third-party pickups or wind their own using pre-existing pickup designs. Chris chooses to start from scratch and craft his own pickups, covers and all.

What makes Swope Guitars special isn’t that they push any boundaries, but rather that they are well-thought-out and extremely well-built, and that they have a unique mind behind them. In fact, the same can be said of a lot of boutique brands. I often hear and read a lot of complaints about the high prices of boutique instruments. What many people overlook is that when you invest in a boutique instrument, you are getting a whole lot more than what shows up in the shipping carton. You are paying for a piece of work that is backed by a lifetime of experience. You are paying for the eyes and hands that craft a musical tool that could not be done justice on an assembly line. I want to make it clear that to luthier’s like Chris Swope, this isn’t just a job. It is a passion, it’s an obsession, it’s a calling… it’s one human being deciding to look chaos in the face and make a move.

For more information, visit Swope Guitars’ website.

Builder Profile:

Name: Chris Swope
Current Location: Overland Park, KS.
Years Building: 24 years. “I am in my 6th year building under my own brand.”
Favorite Wood: “It’s not exciting but I just love light-weight alder. I’m a simple man with simple needs.”
Favorite Tool in the Shop: “Probably my pickup winder.”
Favorite Bassist: “I’m a British Invasion geek, so it’s between McCartney and Entwistle.”
If I Wasn’t Building I’d Be: “I have no clue. It’s all I’ve ever known.”

From his first time picking up a bass 16 years ago, to starting his own bass company, Serek Basses, in 2015, Jake Serek has been on a mission. Touring with bands such as Smashing Pumpkins, KISS, and Slash gave him a taste of the professional life. His experiences working at Lakland and Third Coast guitar repair sharpened his skills.

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