When Darren (Doc) Reid looks at a guitar, he sees potential.
“They’re much more than pieces of wood,” says Reid, a custom guitar builder and the man behind Doc’s Guitar Repair & Custom Shop on Topsail Road in Conception Bay South.
On a sunny Saturday, Reid took time to talk to The Telegram while working in his shop as classic rock played from a stereo tucked onto a shelf.
Walking in, customers are treated to a poster gallery of famous guitars, leading them to the shop’s front counter and a rack of guitars with an amp underneath, a place for both Reid and his customers to see what a guitar sounds like.
Behind the counter, the walls are filled with guitars on racks, guitar parts on shelves and in sliding drawers, and even an acoustic guitar cut in half, its bracing exposed.
Beside one workbench guitar, bodies lay stacked atop one another, waiting to be completed.
Reid is extremely busy these days, with a few custom guitar orders in various stages of completion, as well as a steady stream of repairs and tune-ups that each need to be approached differently.
With a red Epiphone SG resting on his workbench, Reid explains there aren’t quantified settings that every guitar must meet.
“You’re not setting a guitar to factory spec numbers, to heights, or anything. Each one, you’re dealing with this,” he says, pointing to the guitar in front of him.
“This has its own rules from everything else, just like that bass from earlier.”
The bass he is referring to is one of the custom orders he’s working on, which he had earlier pulled out of its resting place to explain what goes into creating a custom instrument.
The core of what will become a fretless bass was, in a previous life, the support beam for a 90-year-old piano. It will now be the neck and central body part of the neck-through-body design.
Unlike a bolt-on design, which is built by bolting the neck to the body, this one uses one piece from tip to tip. That continuity provides resonance and will give it a unique tonal character.
The other woods — purpleheart, mahogany, birdseye maple and others — have been glued together to form the body in a mirror image of itself.
This instrument, a one-off piece, won’t have an equal once it’s completed, and that’s what Reid wants.
He loves it when a customer comes in and says, “It doesn’t exist, so can you do it for me?”
His reply is always the same.
“Yes! Ah, excellent, love it — that’s what I want to do.”
After that first exchange, Reid and the future owner of a custom-built instrument have a conversation about exactly what the person is looking for, what can be done, and the sort of parts that will be used.
Cost versus value
Depending on the woods and the parts used, and the amount of time required to build it, the instrument will vary in price. Reid said they start at $2,400 and go up from there.
“I probably don’t sell them for what they’re worth,” he said.
What a guitar is worth and what it costs are two different things, and putting a price on his own work can be difficult, Reid said.
“The repair part, it’s very natural — for me, anyway. One of the other really hard things for me to get my head around is … the value of what I do, because, you know, just because something’s natural, and you’re good at something and it’s easy and you enjoy it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value.”
Matters of cost, worth and value are things Reid has more difficulty with than anything guitar-related.
“Just running my own business, I suppose, is the hardest part,” he said.
Getting to this point has been a journey that began when he was playing guitar in a band in the 1990s.
That’s when he first saw how simple adjustments could improve a guitar.
“The big revelation came with a song — I’m dating myself a bit now — ‘Two Princes’ by Spin Doctors. There’s two guitars in the band and playing riffs with open strings and playing up in the seven, eight, nine (fret) area, it just didn’t sound right. … Each one thought the other guy was playing it wrong. We looked and we were playing exactly the same thing, and then I did some research and figured out this whole intonation thing, and taught myself how to do that part of the repairs, and as soon as I did and played the song, it sounded better than anything, and then everything else sounded better and then I just kinda got infatuated with it a bit.”
That infatuation led Reid to search out books and knowledge in a time before the Internet was the main source of information.
He got a job at Griffith’s Guitar Works, where he honed his craft and made his first custom guitars.
At the time, he was doing a lot of assembly work using pre-made necks and bodies sent in from the mainland and modified at the shop before being wired up.
One day, he decided to build his own guitar body from scratch. Using his lunch breaks, over the course of a month Reid built a Telecaster-style guitar and wired it up. The neck is largely regarded as the most difficult part of a guitar to build, and Reid skipped that step, instead using a pre-made neck.
The guitar now hangs on a rack beside a disemboweled Flying V-style guitar in his shop, above an amp and ready to be played.
“It’s one of the nicest sounding guitars I’ve ever put together. A lot of the regulars come in, and that’s the benchmark. Every amp sounds good with that guitar. That one gets played a lot. Anyone who comes in will usually pick it up and strum it a little, and I’ve loaned it out a lot to be played in the studio.”
Over the years, there have been highlights, like the part he played in Garrison Guitars.
The company, which is no longer in business, used a unique bracing system for its acoustic guitars using one moulded glass-fibre piece, instead of the traditional wood bracing. The material, and the way the bracing connected to the guitar body, made a bright sounding guitar.
“Myself and a gentleman in Mount Pearl, Don Taylor, did the prototyping for the Garrison factory when they started up, because I used to work at Griffith’s Guitar Works, and he started Garrison, and Gibson went on to buy it,” Reid said.
“Not a lot of people can say they were involved with something quite so exciting now. I mean, the company doesn’t exist anymore, but it’s a piece of guitar history.”
He’s built plenty of instruments, and stands by the quality of his work, but when asked what he’s most proud of, the answer isn’t the Telecaster, or any of the other instruments he’s built.
‘The go-to guy’
“That I’ve stuck it out (long) enough, that I’ve just become the go-to guy, it seems,” he said. “I’m proud of all of it, really.”
That he is, in fact, the go-to guy for many guitarists is evident in the sheer volume of work Reid has, which keeps him “crazy busy.”
Most of it is repair and tune-up work, stuff that Reid still enjoys.
“This is the bread and butter. This is the stuff I do so that I can build,” he says of the tune-up he’s currently performing.
Somewhere on the spectrum between repairs and complete custom builds sits the clone.
Sometimes, customers will ask Reid to recreate a famous instrument. It’s the reason he has a 1971 American quarter among his guitar parts.
Reid holds out the quarter, which he keeps in a small plastic Ziploc bag.
It will eventually be screwed onto a clone of Eddie Van Halen’s Frankenstrat, an instrument the famous guitarist modified heavily, and sometimes drunkenly, in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
The quarter was one of these modifications, and is used to stop the bridge from moving too far down onto the body of the guitar.
Recreating the Frankenstrat is a job Reid takes seriously. Through extensive research — including poring over photos and videos of Van Halen with the guitar — he’s confident the instrument will be an exact replica.
The quarter is same year as the original, the reflectors on the back are the same brand as the original, and even the screws on the bridge match exactly.
“I know for a fact that if all those little parts weren’t necessarily there that they probably wouldn’t even notice, but I just can’t do it that way,” he said.
It’s partly a pride thing, and partly because he’s a dedicated craftsman.
“This is my art, and that’s a serious thing,” he said.
Reid goes quiet for a minute as he works on a guitar, his dog, a white Boxer named Lucille, lying in a chair a few feet away.
Then he smiles, and looks up like a man with an idea.
“There it is, what I’m most proud of. Finding my calling.”