Wednesday, February 23, 2011
Interview with Brent Monson - Monson Custom Guitars
(Brent in his workshop)
If you have ever met me, you know that I am absolutely obsessed with guitars. I have been playing, collecting, and worshiping them for 20 years. They are all over my house, under my bed, on my couch like cats. I know which guitar I have used on every song and album I have ever recorded. I don’t name them, but I know everything about them. My old favorites are the one-of-a-kinds, my mongrel Fenders made from odd parts, my old one-off Gibson Flying V made from factory scraps, my 15 pound Les Paul Custom with the paint stripped off the neck. My good friend Robert spent hours modifying those guitars and making them solid. But a few years ago I ran into a problem, and it is funny that in this interview Brent mentions the word “alchemy”, because that was the root of my problem. My great guitars were bogged down with old energy, and there are no modern tools to fix that. I needed a change. My friends Will and Nathan (from Wolves in the Throne Room) both had some really cool custom guitars made by Brent Monson in California. They were completely hand-made, different than anything I had ever seen. The BC Rich influence was apparent, but there was something completely foreign about them. Nathan’s Witch had an amethyst stone embedded below the bridge, and a bizarre scrolled headstock. Very cool. The guitars played beautifully, not dead-sounding and plinkey like a lot of high-end guitars. They sounded alive. There were no corners cut, no half-assed anything. Robert, who graciously performed some emergency pickup surgery on Nathan’s guitar, was equally impressed with the quality. I am not one to pussy-foot around, so I contacted Brent, sent him a cd, and pretty soon he told me to pick out a guitar. He had several, but I dug the Rapture model – the first one of that design. I dreamed about the guitar every night until it came, and I still remember opening the case. It was smaller than I thought it would be, which was great because it fit me perfectly. It was light, sturdy, and it played and sounded great. It’s ebony fretboard was actually solid ebony, not just a veneer. It sounded great acoustically. A month or so later, I used it to record every electric guitar track I did on RTITN, and it produced the exact tone I was after. Dark, thick, and full. Soon after that I got Brent to build me a custom model, and a year or so later I got the first Wendigo model with USX inlaid on the fretboard. Dealing with Brent is one of the best choices I ever made. It is not some business arrangement, I don’t get paid to plug his guitars. And if you don’t believe me just look to Scott from Neurosis, Will, or Mike from YOB. All of those guys are as serious about their gear and music as I am. Brent isn't some rich guitar snob making $10,000 clones, he is one of us - a guy who loves dark music and pointy guitars. Do yourself a favor, save up some cash and get a guitar with a soul. Enjoy.
1 - Tell me about the first guitar you ever played.
The first guitar I ever played belonged to my friend in high school. He bought this cheap piece of junk. It was in the days of Dokken and it was hot pink. I think the guitar was by Arbor or something like that. Anyway, he got tired of it quickly and I asked to borrow it. I took it home and I learned simple little blues lines on it more like I was playing bass. I didn't own my first guitar until I was attending college many years later which was an Ibanez. I used to beg my guitar teacher to show me how to play AC/DC and Slayer riffs, but he would only listen to a few seconds of the music for fear of being overwhelmed by evil.
2 - Tell me about the first guitar you ever made.
The first guitar I ever made was called the Impaler and I still have it. In hindsight, it was pretty terrible. There was a lot of stuff that was just a little "off" on it. I loved it though because I made it and I thought it was the coolest thing ever. I think of it like this Max Shreck character or something. My father had a nice piece of walnut that he was saving for something nice, but it was just sitting there for years and finally I asked if I could use it. My best friend had just died and my bands had all broke up, so I was looking for a way to keep myself busy and not think about life too much. I had just seen the Misfits and was enthralled with Doyle's Annihilator, plus I was studying audio engineering with plans to get into recording and studio work. Building my own guitar seemed like a good way to educate myself about how stuff like that worked. The mistakes on the guitar only made me want to do better on the next one.
(Scott Kelly with the Redemption)
3 - I have some really great Gibson, Fender, and other big name guitars, but the guitars you made for me far surpass them in tone, feel, and overall quality. Can you explain why guitars made by hand sound and play better than factory made, machine-cut guitars? I think it is pretty easy for most guitar players to appreciate the difference, but as luthier I'm sure you could go into much greater detail.
Well, I think it just comes down to the fact that there's a certain amount of alchemy involved with building something by hand. It's trying to make the end result greater than it's parts. There's also a certain amount of ritual that goes into each guitar....a process that involves spirit and soul. I tend to listen to certain kinds of music depending on what I'm working on. I try to infuse each guitar with a life and personality of it's own. I'm constantly trying to get away from certain conventional wisdom and tread new territory. I'm constantly asking myself what I would want and that has usually been the best rule towards building something that someone else would want. I often make the analogy of going down to the car lot and buying, for example, a brand new 2011 Mustang or going to find an old '67 Mustang somewhere and rebuild it from the ground up. Which one has more unique personality? Which one has more meaning for the owner?
(Will with the Doomsayer)
4 - A lot of guitars players I know are really interested in your guitars. Mike from Yob, Scott from Neurosis, and Will from Indian have been using your custom guitars for a while now. You have been doing your thing for a while now, and a lot of guitars players (of many styles) all over the world have played your instruments. But you seem to be catching on in the underground here in America through musician-to-musician exposure. Will and Nathan from WITTR first turned me on to you, and on and on. There are a lot of custom guitar makers, but you are a longhair metal-head like us, and I think that gives you an edge. How do you feel about your place in the world right now?
You've got something there. Word of mouth exposure has been key for me and like you said, I'm one of them, we come from the same backgrounds and we relate to each other. I listen to all this music and I'm active in the underground scene. I'm not someone who doesn't care about this music or the people involved with it. I'm a true fan of music first, and that shows and means something with the artists I work with. Most of these guitar companies don't give a damn about music....hell, some of them don't even care about making guitars, they're looking at profit. They see me as a threat to that profit and only act by following what I do and attempting to step on that any way they can.
As for my place in the world right now, it's funny you ask, because I've been thinking about that a lot recently. A few years ago, I felt that I reached a point where I could successfully build anything to suit anyone. I went from making pretty cool guitars to being a world class builder. I kept building and working to make people aware of my capabilities figuring that the more well known I became, the better business would get. Then, of course, the economy went to hell. After that, I kept becoming more well known around the world, but that didn't necessarily equate to more business for me. Even though I'm reaching new countries all the time and have guitars in every part of the world, I thought things would be better for me financially at this point in the game. But, this is what I do, so much so, that it's who I am to a point, so I build the next creation and try not to worry about all that too much. Friends tell me that my influence can be seen in just about every major guitar company now. Someone recently referred to me as "the new worldwide standard in extreme custom guitars". I can accept that.
(Mike from YOB with his Nomad)
5 - What is your favorite personal guitar?
I'm a lot like a musician who always says his latest song or album is his favorite. Usually the guitar I just finished is my new favorite. But I do have a number of guitars that I consider to be the milestones of my development. The Piranha, Invictus and Virus are a few of those. I have an old Piranha that I love and is the last guitar that I built and kept for myself many years ago. I love the Redemption, Malice, Nomad, Rapture, Savage, Vigilante, and Doomsayer designs. I have a lot of designs that I thought would do really well for me and have gone largely unnoticed, but I also have many others that I didn't expect to become as popular as they have and are now very successful for me.
6 - What kind of music do you like to play? Have you ever been in any bands? Or are you currently in a band?
I grew up learning to play a lot of Sabbath, Metallica, Danzig, Misfits, and Type-o-Negative stuff. My style of playing is very much along those lines. Doom, punk, thrash, black metal....that's my rhythm style. Lead, I tend to play very slow bluesy stuff, which is why I think none of my bands ever worked. It was a mish-mash of styles that no one seemed to understand. I did play in a few bands...a punk band where we did a lot of Misfits and GBH covers. A black / thrash / doom / punk band...I was heavily influenced by old Samael at the time. I played bass in a goth rock band and also guitar in an old school death metal band....did some Celtic Frost covers. I don't play in any bands now and haven't in a very long time. I'm pretty rusty really.
7 - If you could pick any guitar player in the world to play one of your instruments, who would it be?
Hmmm...well, I don't really go for any of the "rock star" types. Most of them are really just out to take you for all they can get from you and then move on. I've learned to know my niche and choose people to work with wisely. I did seriously ask myself that question last year and I only came up with one name...Peter Steele. I figured when the time was right I would contact him about it. He died a few months later. Live not only as if today could be your last, but someone else's as well I suppose. I do still have something planned with that though.
I'm actually really comfortable with where I'm at right now.....with who's playing my guitars. I feel I'm in my niche and to answer your question: They already do.
8 - Final thoughts? Anything you want to say?
Thanks Nate! I truly appreciate your help and support, not to mention all the other people and musicians that I've been able to work with. I have had the fortune to work with some very cool and talented people around the world and for that I'm thankful.
Check out Brent's guitars at monsonguitars.com