Custom guitar designer Brad Wilson makes the ultimate birthday present
Wilson in his workshop.
Brad Wilson had exactly one week to finish his custom-design guitar for a commissioned birthday present and, at that moment, he was thinking about starting over. The guitar still needed a camouflage paint job, a Colorado design for the pick guard, a painted neck and all the wiring -- basically, it needed everything. But the stencils weren't sticking to the wood, the edges of the paint spots kept running together, and the prospects didn't look good.
Born and raised in Texas, Wilson speaks with a subtle drawl. His workaday clothing -- holey blue jeans, sweatshirt, beanie and boots -- and soft-spoken, "aw shucks" manner belie a quick and curious mind. Wilson is not a luthier; he does not fabricate the body of the guitar, and he is quick to praise those craftsmen who do. The services he offers are purely design-based. He takes a pre-cut body and customizes the design according to his client's specifications or according to his own personal preference -- which is how this all began.
"Mine's more a niche market: decorative, wall-hanging art," he says. "They can play it but, you know, if you'd been playing for twenty years, I'd probably say, 'I'll make you a cool-looking one that can be a tribute to something that means a lot to you.'"
His first custom-designed guitar came from listening to a Mastodon album, Crack the Skye. He decided he wanted to design a guitar with a variation of that cover. It was his first go-round with guitar customization, and he ran into more than his share of problems.
The "Crack the Skye" guitar, affectionately called "The Czar" by Wilson.
"I hadn't done anything like it, and I made a lot of mistakes on this one," he says, pointing to the bumpy texture of the paint. "Basically, after you paint it, you're supposed to seal it with the same brand. But I didn't seal it with the same brand, which is a big no-no. So right after I sprayed it, I hung it up to dry and literally watched it crinkle on me. It took about thirty minutes and a couple beers until I was like, 'it actually looks kind of cool.'"
Wilson estimated that the Mastodon guitar took him about three months to complete with all of the sanding, painting, design-laying and assembling, but he chalked it all up to a learning experience, and his other efforts have gone more smoothly...until the Colorado guitar.
The Colorado guitar is for Justin Van Sickle's twelfth birthday. His sister, Devin, designed the guitar from start to finish based on her brother's likes. The initial design called for a Denver skyline, but when that got complicated, they eschewed it in favor of camouflage.
The pick guard for Justin's "Colorado" guitar.
Wilson's fledgling business, Wilson Custom Guitars, is indicative of the do-it-yourself ethos in today's young professional world. Wilson works out of a studio in the Wazee Union building, which houses a host of other creatives: painters, photographers, musicians, dancers, designers. Most are young, some are established, and some are trying to break through, but the atmosphere they work in is one of mutual respect, encouragement and collaboration.
Wazee Union houses all varieties of artists and creatives.
"Everybody here is extremely helpful. If you ever need anything, everybody does it," Wilson says. "When my buddy Brandon [Kelloff, a graphic designer] makes these graphics for me, he does it at little-to-no cost."
Kellogg printed the graphics that Wilson used for his second and third guitars currently on display at the Retro Room and Scruffy Murphy's in downtown Denver.
The Retro Room guitar designed by Wilson is a nod to Buddy Guy's dotted guitar.
Wilson's guitar on display at Scruffy Murphy's in downtown Denver.
The studio itself is small, maybe ten by twelve feet, and well-lit. Wilson has a poster of Hendrix on the wall, a refrigerator stocked with PBR, and a plethora of paints, tools and ventilation masks hanging on the walls. The workplace is a single table covered in a black towel with a desk lamp for extra light. When he works, Wilson sits on a drummer's throne hunched over the table, with music pumping through his speakers.
Wilson works on the primer coat of the Colorado guitar.
Wilson's been a musician about as long as he can remember, starting out on the drums when he was four, before picking up a guitar, his main instrument, back in the third grade. Wilson took blues guitar lessons for about eight years, and one of this lasting memories dates back to when he played at Billy Bob's, the self-described "World's Largest Honky-Tonk," in Fort Worth.
"I was a freshman in high school; I wasn't even old enough to get in," he recalls. "I had to have a bunch of police forms signed and stuff."
Wilson played in bands throughout college at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas, mostly cover bands; when he graduated, he spent some time playing and touring in Holy Hell Rod, a metal band. He got burned out from playing multiple shows each week on top of a full-time job, an Internet business that sold disposable air filters, and when the recession hit in 2008, he decided to move to Colorado for work, landing at Omni Cable selling industrial wire. His favorite part of the job is the travel, which takes him through Wyoming, Colorado, Idaho and parts of Utah and Texas.
"I went to a Mastodon show in Salt Lake City, got into a huge mosh pit, and then the next day I had to go make sales calls. It was pretty great," he says. "Sore neck."
Today Wilson plays lead guitar in a Denver-based southern/country rock band, Dave Sonner and the American Campus, as well as acoustic sets with friend Dave Connelly. And in his spare time, he designs guitars.
The Colorado guitar gave him fits. His other guitars took about eight weeks a piece, but this guitar had a strict five-week timeframe, and with the paint-and-stencil method not working, Wilson had to seek out other options. He scoured the Internet for alternative solutions and came across a page talking about using cloth instead of paint. The method: cut the cloth in the shape of the body, glue it down, cover the cloth in layers of lacquer, and then sand and polish. Sounds simple, but there are a number of things that can go wrong: the glue could come unstuck, the cloth could wrinkle, and the lacquer could compromise the glue.
Instead of paint, Wilson used an innovative fabric covering for the guitar.
And yes, the glue came unstuck in a few places and the cloth wrinkled a bit, but Wilson managed to re-stick and flatten the fabric before it came time to apply the lacquer. For the pick guard, he took his idea to Darien Peterson, owner of Exhibitlink Prints, and Peterson designed and printed the decal. Piece by piece, the guitar came together, and Wilson finished stringing the guitar right as Devin Van Sickle arrived at Wazee Union to pick it up. She was clearly pleased.
"I bet Justin will cry when he sees this," she says. "He'll try to act all manly, but I bet he'll cry. We'll have to get a picture of it."
The "Colorado" guitar is finally finished.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events happening in the Denver art and theater scene.