Bad Seed Custom Guitars (www.bsguitars.net) is by any measure a newly minted enterprise, it was literally just a couple of years ago that Sheldon Currington welded up his first Bad Seed guitar. What the? Did that say welded? Yep, sure did. Sheldon makes his electric guitars out of aircraft-grade steel and out of titanium – semi-hollow bodied metal guitars that found immediate favour with Metallica’s James Hetfield. He must surely be the first luthier in the world to produce titanium-bodied guitars for sale. It’s a classic Kiwi-can-do story that NZ Musician is very pleased to present as a world exclusive, in the words of this radically creative luthier himself.
For me, guitars are such a great thing… I grew up around music and have always dreamed of building guitars. The first guitar I built was a one-piece mahogany creation, and when I say one-piece I mean it. The neck and body are all cut from a single piece of wood. I didnt want to bolt on or glue in a neck, so I chose to cut it out of a single piece with no joins at all between the neck and body. I dreamed of sustain and depth of tone. I was 16 when I started that guitar, and Ive always wanted to build them as a profession. Since this first guitar I got side-tracked with engineering and building race cars… thats more than 15 years ago.
A couple of years back I got the bug again. A buddy and I had just spent a weekend at Beach Hop ogling at the cool American cars and listening to the live bands. On the drive back to Wellington I said to myself, “I just wanna do more with my music. I arrived home enthused about all the ideas I had dreamed up along the way and I set out to design and build an all new electric guitar for myself. I wanted to pursue that old dream.
Inspiration and Background:
About the same sort of time I heard a rumour that Metallica were touring down this way and were planning on doing a few shows in NZ. Well, I thought, Im just gonna have to get tickets to every show! I’ve been a major Metallica nut since the ’Black’ album, it just grabbed hold and changed the course of history for me!
I was researching tickets one day and by chance found a photo of James Hetfield on stage with what looked like a rusty guitar? I thought, no way, is that real? With a background building race cars I had always thought about combining my metal engineering skills with my love for guitars but I figured it would be expensive and heavy, and sound terrible…
So, I looked into the rusty guitar and found that it was a real thing. There was no stopping me now. I figured that if someone else is doing it then why can’t I? I had a play with a few ideas and I sunk myself into planning something different. A whole new design, like no other. Something that I could claim was genuinely my own concept.
I bought some aircraft grade steel, all the very best components and set about machining up a neck and fabricating a body out of metal. It took a bit of working out but I spent the time and created a design that I had never seen before. Sure it was a basic LP-style guitar, but this guitar would have special features.
I fabricated the steel body and machined the single-piece wooden neck to fit inside it. I had it painted with a unique clear coat finish that exposed all the TIG welding around the edges, finished assembling the guitar and spent time with Kenny Duncan setting it up. He did a magnificent job detailing what was really my first Bad Seed custom guitar.
The neck was a single piece of wood from one end to the other, just like my guitar from years ago. I still wanted to keep that design feature in my latest creation. To me glue joints or bolt on connections are like walls for sound and vibration, so I chose to eliminate as many of those joints as possible. I bought all of what I considered to be the best parts for the job. The tuners, the pickups, the bridge and tailpiece etc: all high end stuff. I took the body and neck off to a local painter I found and he sprayed Nitro on the neck and covered my freshly TIG welded body with a clear coat finish in preparation for a black top coat that was due to be reliced enough to give the effect of metal showing through.
Well, the black never made it onto the body. He called me up and said, “I think you need to come look at this, it would be a shame to cover it in black paint.” I totally agreed with him and just took it with the clear. The clear just set it off perfectly and was like nothing anyone had done before!
While all of this was happening the Metallica shows were coming up super fast. I only really finished the guitar about two days before heading off to Christchurch for the first dates of their NZ tour. My plan was to take my prototype and meet with Brett from the Rockshop in Christchurch while down at the shows, but after the major earthquakes the place was a total mess and we just couldn’t meet. So, as you do, I took a quick drive to the venue, parked and got talking with the security guards. From there the rest is Bad Seed folklore.
I asked very nicely and arranged an appointment to seek advice on what it takes to build a world class guitar. The Metallica crew showed an amazing amount of interest in what I was doing. They offered awesome advice and gave me contact details, asking to stay in touch. The entire crew were so gracious and kind to me, so humbling to be around for such a big organisation. Another three weeks later and Im standing back stage in Auckland with Mr James Hetfield in their Tuning and Practice Room with a second prototype, explaining to him that I don’t like sleep and that I’m good at what I do.
I literally finished the guitar, sent a quick email to them and drove eight hours to Auckland, not even waiting for a reply. James and the crew welcomed me into their inner community for the two days they were there and we related so well about music, cars and life in general. This was our first face to face meeting, but would not be the last. I think I realised at this point in time that I was onto a winning idea here. With a guy like James Hetfield showing interest in what I was doing maybe I had something? He has a real eye for detail, and an ear to match.
Some months went by and we had kept in touch really well. At that time I was also helping James with some new paint for one of his cool Hotrod projects. The same paint as we were using on the guitars. Then this one day, out of the blue, I get an email from James’ PA asking me for more paint, oh and also if I could build two guitars for James? I called him back a day later, after I had come back to earth, and we organised the paint and talked briefly about the specs for his guitars. I had the go ahead and was set in motion. How’s that? My first Bad Seed guitars out there ever were for James Hetfield of Metallica!
At this point in time the guitars were still very much in prototype stage, and they were cool with that, but I had to get this right. I worked hard over the next few months at making a few design refinements, and then I built the Bad Seed JHX and JHV custom guitars. There was no rush from them, they were patient and very happy to wait until I was ready to let them go. I was invited by Metallica to hand deliver them to their HQ in San Francisco, an offer that I couldn’t let pass by. My father and I got on a plane and spent time in my dream world, the Metalliworld! These guys couldnt be more down to earth and accepting if they tried. We were treated so well.
While building those two guitars for James I got a little carried away in all I was doing. I started thinking to myself, “Is that it? Is this as far as someone can go with this idea?” Well, maybe I’m a little crazy, but I took it to another level… I bought a sheet of titanium into the country, taught myself how to weld it and work with it, and built another prototype. This one was insanity! The cost of the titanium was ridiculous for a ‘just have a crack at it’ guitar. But I guess I was feeling good about things and I just had to know.Titanium body, mahogany neck, rosewood fretboard with nice mother of pearl block inlays, Tone Pros, Sperzels, EMGs and all the nicest appointments I had in my mind.
Wow! What a guitar! Now I’ve gone and done it! This titanium guitar had more attack, more resonance and more sustain than I had ever imagined. It played like butter and oozed tone! It had a harmonic content like nothing on earth. And the coolest thing was that when you played it, it somehow talked back… The titanium really comes alive in your hands. This for me was the way forward. An elite and exotic material used for such a rogue pastime… rock’n’roll!
Design and Build:
These Bad Seed guitars are not like anything you have ever seen. The metallic bodies are constructed in a very handcrafted way using modern welding methods that are not easily learned, with over 10 years of experience in the race car industry to back me up. Each body is CAD designed and laser cut for accuracy, prepared and clamped in a similar way to an acoustic I guess, with the sides being hand formed and welded to a front and rear face. They are made using very thin materials to keep the over all guitar weight down. In most cases the titanium guitars are under a comparable wooden equivalent and the steel ones match weight for weight. They are not heavy at all and I have worked extremely hard to ensure this aspect of them.
The neck is built out of one piece of timber, from one end to the other, routed to accept the pickups and other components that are buried inside the guitar once assembled. To date I have used a variety of woods including mahogany, maple, koa, walnut and even tawa. All have made interesting tones that have been very pleasing. The fret board is glued, just like any other guitar and the most popular options of rosewood and ebony give softer or harder edged attack as requested. The feel of each neck and fret board has always been a factor to consider as well, each with its own benefits. I’ve employed a few neck profiles and fret board radii along the way, and had awesome feedback about my choices in that department. The most popular is a slim profile thats similar to a ’60s Gibbo, but slightly more modern.
The body receives the neck through a window at the heel area, around the 17th to 18th fret. I’ve done this to give just a little more access to the upper frets for that shredder in all of us. Depending on the body style of the guitar, access up to the 24th fret is really pretty usable. There is a huge amount of time and effort involved in getting that connection to lock together nice and tight, and it is function just as much as it is form.
With the neck and the body so tightly integrated I would call these guitars a semi-hollow body design. For me the key element in my concept was to create that one piece neck-through, like I did so many years earlier, but combine it with a material that could offer sonic advantages as well as aesthetic options. It is stable and able to be connected in such a way that the guitar can still be stripped back to its basic components for repair or alterations. The connections are all hidden away and it’s not easy at first to work out just whats going on with them. With a little bit of time most players ask the question, “So, does the neck go all the way through?” “Yep,” I say, “…that’s exactly the point.”
There are no access holes in the back for electronics. I want these guitars to look simplistic and clean. So in a similar way to an old hollow body jazz guitar, the pots, jack and wiring all get installed through the pickup holes. This means a little expertise and patience in the assembly process but the finished product speaks for itself.
The COO/Managing Director of EMG pickups in Santa Rosa, California road tested my original Titanium Prototype for a few months last year and emailed me saying:
“I am a bit of a metal freak. I think stainless steel is an amazing human invention due to its ability to ward off the elements, it is utilised in many critical applications, it is a ‘high end’ product, it is very cool looking, and you can do so many different things to the finish and it will still retain its unique properties. Now titanium is even higher up on the cool metals scale. Take titanium and build a fine instrument out of it? Dude – I am hooked for life. The welding beads you achieved on that piece – unbelievable craftsmanship. Intriguing is a slight understatement as that LP is the perfect storm of inventionism – a singularly unique instrument. Hurts my brain to think about the skill it took to build.
“To me, it is the ultimate blend of metal into a medium that has been dominated by wood. And on top of that – the way you integrated the neck was pure design genius. Despite its complexity, that instrument reeks of simplicity and elegance. Just looking at it tells that story.”
So I think I got the design working pretty well and it achieves what I set out to do. (He now owns one.) He also didn’t want to part with it after he had had it for that time. I told him that that one was mine and he couldn’t have it, but I’d build him one just the same. Late last year I spent time with him and the EMG team in California on my way to Summer NAMM and delivered it to him personally. He was so excited to receive the world’s first Bad Seed titanium custom guitar on the market.
I’ve worked super hard to reduce the number of components between the bridge, the but and the beck. To me, if I can keep this to a minimum then I’m going to get better sustain and a better wooden/organic tone instrument, with a metallic body. It’s about keeping the vibrational energies going, transferring that energy back into the wood, and harnessing it well with the electronics after that. I feel the instrument needs to sound great unplugged for it to sound great plugged in. These guitars are very loud even before you turn the amp on and they have cool harmonic properties simply due to the nature of their construction and materials. I think good pickups will do well with anything that is naturally great to start with.
Testing 1, 2…
I built the concept up right from the beginning with the theory that these guitars need to be stable, play well and sound great. I’ve asked advice from the right people, and I’ve had some incredible people stop and pay attention along the way.
I have managed to capture the interest of world leaders in the music industry from players in some of the biggest bands today, right through to the companies that are building guitars and components. Bands and people like Metallica, Foo Fighters, Dave Wiener (rhythm guitar for Steve Vai) and others have all had amazing things to say and have inspired me to push further into what I’m doing.
Companies at the other end that support these guys like EMG Pickups, Seymour Duncan, ToneRite to name a few have been super helpful in pointing me in directions for that never ending quest for tone. I’ve also had them in a recording studio in LA laying down tracks. These guys have all put themselves forward without me begging and have offered an unbelievable amount of help and ongoing support to see me succeed and learn.
When it comes to testing I have been spoilt, to say the least. I’ve now got a great international resource that I can call on any time at all, for help. And my local team of guys like Kenny Duncan from KDG, Max Watt from Gatman Guitars and OSR Band, the team at Wellington Rockshop and all the numerous others that bend over backwards to offer assistance make my job of getting these things right, not only easy, but a real thrill. I also play in a couple of bands, so it’s really rewarding and worthwhile for me to be able to build new ideas and models and test away on them either myself, or watch and listen to them live in others hands to get a grasp on if an idea was good or bad. Real life testing and experience from real musicians, literally of all levels.
Now, you might be thinking right about now, what does a titanium or steel electric guitar sound like? Is that a useful idea, or is this guy just going too far? Being semi-hollow and made of unusual materials they sound like nothing else! Titanium and steel could perhaps be thought of as cold sounding materials but the way Bad Seed guitars are constructed I can achieve a really well-balanced sound with a full bottom end that is just thick and rich.
With the introduction of titanium I was shocked at just how full the tone is in that material. Both materials add an almost piano-like quality that just rings like a bell, creating articulation where a traditional wooden guitar might get muddy sounding. The real advantage of using these cool materials comes in their awesome harmonic overtones. Bad Seed guitars sustain longer, ring out with more overtones and have more articulation than most wooden instruments Ive played. And being semi-hollow they also resonate a bit like an acoustic guitar, so in my opinion you get the very best of everything. There is nothing lacking in these guitars sound-wise, with so many options to create your tone, and there are so many extras hidden in their complex and diverse palette. Hearing is believing though, so you have to play one for yourself to understand.
Finishing is one area that I love on a guitar. To me if the shape is beautiful it speaks a lot for someones tastes in style, but the finish of any guitar says a lot as well. This is a place that I have only just begun to explore. With my history in race cars and hotrods, combined with the metal body construction of these guitars, I feel like there are no limits to this element of what my clients and I can do together.
With the James Hetfield guitars I was fortunate to have found a new prototype clear coat system that has been super popular on the guitars (the same paint I supplied for his hotrod). I can create a grain within the surface of the steel bodies that to me feels a little like I’m giving the metal some wooden elements in its appearance, just in a metallic kind of way. We clear coat over the grainy guitar body and it holds its metallic appearance so well that it catches everyones attention straight away. Most people ask if it’s even painted?
The titanium guitars are anodized for the coolest appearance. Titanium, once anodized, has an amazing finished look and the best thing is that it still feels like titanium to touch. It’s a beautiful finish and the colours are stunning. I can do a satin through to a highly polished finish and the reflections off the titanium are so cool. It reflects the natural light around you and looks like nothing else.
The necks so far have been coated in a range of products including stains and nitrocellulose clears for the purist, modern lacquers and also tung oils for a natural wooden feel. In my view the feel of the neck is almost the most important feature to get right. Its the first thing that any guitar-slinger connects to. If my guitar feels great to you in your hand you’ll want to spend time playing, and it’s that first impression that’s gonna make the difference. I am big on getting the neck right. Clear coats, painted colours, chrome plating, anodizing, Artwork and even Rusty guitars have all been a huge hit to the individuals that have taken hold of them so far.
Last year I did a stint making special effects for The Hobbit film. While on that crew you get to meet a whole new element of talent and one guy that has been an inspiration to me was Scott Harens who runs a great company called Dreadmeister, that make the most insanely detailed skulls and other accessories for guitars, cars and jewellery.
I had been wanting to do something cool with DM for quite some time and I got in touch with Scott to create a new guitar using his accessories. He supplied me with a range of skull knobs to fit the guitar out. We took this one to a new level and on this guitar I arranged for my painter at Dzine Signs to work out something completely new. We took an image of the DM skulls and impregnated it within the layers of clear paint on my latest Bad Seed LP style guitar. This is a new technique that Chris at Dzine Signs has come up with that has never been done on a guitar until now. With the brushed metal background and the thick clear coat it’s given this guitar a look that’s almost 3D, and it matches the DM skull knobs perfectly.
I’m super excited about all that can be done using this medium of metallic bodies with wooden necks and I really do feel that there are so many options I may never get to try them all. I’ll have a go at it though! I have so many more ideas still floating around in my head that I cant wait to try. But remember, these are only my ideas: and it’s about what you like, not me, so I’m always into what gets your wheels spinning and inspires you for a look and vibe!
Marketing, hmmm marketing:
This has been an area that’s at times been questionable? I’ve had some successes in being blatantly cheeky, like international level acts taking me in back stage and entertaining me whilst here in New Zealand. These guys usually have a genuine love for what they do, and they are always keen to see someone who puts their neck out succeed. Don’t get me wrong, there have been rough times with this plan and I’ve been walked right back out a few times too after security guards got a grilling from band managers. I’ve only ever asked nicely, and they can always say no right? Ha ha.
On other levels I’ve managed to create awesome relationships with some major brands and people in the USA that have taken a personal interest in my success with Bad Seed. I’ve been invited multiple times to attend the NAMM show as a guest in the last couple of years, and this year in January we took the Winter NAMM show on and set up with a display there to showcase a range of nine Bad Seed custom guitars, all varying in style. It was a total success and months later I’m still finding new growth from that one event.
As a New Zealander in the USA I have felt very welcomed and have been received so well every time I’m there. I feel that, while my market is not exclusively within the USA, it has been there that I have seen most success so far. I have yet to take my venture further abroad, but mark my words, it will happen! Last year I sent guitars out to England, Abu Dhabi, USA, Australia, and locally to clients within NZ and the interest just keeps on growing.
For me, Bad Seed is a personal experience. I like being up close and personal with my clients, to find out what really makes them happy and inspired. I like to find out what gets people going and I like to be a part of their exciting lives too. Thats why I take the time and invest all I can in getting face to face meetings with people. In our modern age we can do so much from our virtual office, and thats great, it really is. But for me I just want to be a little old fashioned and keep that thing alive that makes us humans. Its personal relationships that make all of this special. To me anyway.
I aim firstly to build a simple and honoured relationship with my clients that involves them in the designing process. From that point we can get building. For me it’s not about you as a customer owning a Bad Seed custom guitar, its more about Bad Seed being able to create your own dream guitar, for you. That way its your creation, and not mine. It means that I’m just the lucky one that gets to build it for you. If you think these guitars are inaccessible by price then please don’t be scared off. I want them to be bought and played by musicians that appreciate a great instrument. By no means are they the cheapest around, but you don’t have to rob a bank to think about approaching me either.
Titanium is pretty exotic amongst metals. I aim to produce the right kind of instrument to suit my clients needs, and so compromise is something that I have never thought about. I guess price is a factor for anything right? But I believe that the titanium is 110% worth the cost involved! Custom guitars all over the world cost a little to build and own. I just feel that it’s not so much about the cost as it is about the value. One of my guitars might cost a little to buy, but in years to come when youre the only one in the entire world to have that guitar your investment starts to look like it makes sense. The price of any custom guitar is really more relevant to its design and attention to detail than just the materials used. I would say Bad Seeds custom guitars prices are very comparable to other unique guitars on the market.
I read Dave Berry‘s first Luthiers’ Fancies feature in NZM and I really need to say that he absolutely hit the nail on the head with his comment “… for each of us, our journey with the guitar is a unique and wonderful experience.”
Bad Seed has been an emotional, inspiring and very rewarding experience for me. I’ve worked closely with so many extraordinary people in such a short space of time from locals to internationally recognised names. Each and every one has been an awesome part of my life and my experience in doing what I love, and all of that from an idea that came from this guy out of Tawa, New Zealand… Who would have thought huh?
I really feel that if you have an idea in life you just have to get involved and see what can happen! My problem is that I don’t do things by halves. I tend to sink myself so heavily into anything I’m passionate about. It gets results, and I find amazing life experiences along the way!