Interview with Luthier Stephen McSwain, McSwain Guitars –
How did you get your start in music?
I actually got started in music very early. My family is a very musical bunch and we were always singing together. I was in the church choir as a kid, then on to the high school chorus, where I was introduced to classical music. I was a 1st tenor and was fortunate enough to travel to Vienna Austria to perform. After borrowing other friends’ guitars and teaching myself a couple chords, I finally got my very first guitar of my own…. a 1943 Martin 00-18 that my uncle had bought after he got out of the Navy. It needed some repairs, so my dad bought it off of his brother and had it repaired for me as a Christmas gift. That was the moment of no return! HAHA!! I burned through two Walkman tape players to learn some Zeppelin and Boston tunes and never looked back. I continued to play in bands through college and afterwards.
Are you still an active player?
I still play guitar every day and once in a while will get up and sing a couple of cover tunes whenever the chance arises, but I’m so busy with the guitar business and being a dad and husband that there’s no time to actively play in a band.
How did you get started as a Luthier? When did you build your first bass?
Right after I finished college, I moved back to my hometown (Gastonia, NC) to start work as a medical supply salesman. I lived at my parents’ house for a couple of months until I found a place. In addition to my family being very musical, they were also very artistic, so I was incredibly fortunate to get the best of the musical world and the art world as a kid. While I was there, I pulled out all of my old carving tools (Dremels, exacto knives, etc..) and bought an aftermarket Strat-style body. I carved a bunch of faces and vines into the guitar and sent it to Steve Vai. One of my best buddies from college (we played in the same band together) had gotten Steve’s number. I called Steve Vai and sent him the guitar. He called back a couple of weeks later and said he loved it; it’s still on his website today.
After this 1st guitar, I started buying boards of mahogany and cutting the bodies myself. I went to every show that came through Charlotte, NC and would try to sell my guitars to anyone that would give me a minute. I met the guys in Alice in Chains and sold them two guitars. Once I had a couple of known bands under my belt, it got easier to get in front of other known bands.
I built my first bass around 1994 for Bobby Sheehan of Blues Traveler. It had their signature Black Cat and other animals carved into the top. I also built a P-Bass sized GUITAR for Chan Kinchla with the Blues Traveler Black Cat too.
How did you learn the art of woodworking/Luthier? Who would you consider a Mentor?
I basically taught myself to build guitars and basses by taking other guitars apart and putting them back together. I bought a couple of books and learned guitar electronics too. George Amicay, an incredible artist who used to work for Fender Custom Shop, was a big influence for me. He encouraged me to really go for it and start focusing on guitar building full-time. Also, I give HUGE credit to my parents for giving me the opportunity to explore music and art. Without them… I probably would have never even known where to begin.
How do you select the woods you choose to build with?
I always look for interesting grain patterns. I don’t always go for the super straight grain woods. I like unique characteristics in the woods I choose. I also like to use repurposed woods when I can. I feel like giving a piece of wood a second life imparts good energy into the guitar or bass.
How about pickups? What pickups did you use in the past? What electronics do you use right now?
I have used a lot of different pickups in the guitars and basses. I started out using Seymour Duncan and DiMarzio. Now I am using Arcane. Rob Timmons tweaks his Triple Clone humbuckers for me and they are incredible.
Who were some of the first well-known musicians who started playing your basses?
I’ve built instruments for Slash, Stev Vai, George Lynch, Jared Leto, Duff McKagan, Steve Jones, Been Moody, Tommy Lee, John 5, Vernon Reid, Chan Kinchla and Bobby Sheehan of Blues Traveler, Ben Moody of Evanescence and We Are the Fallen… and many more.
How do you develop a signature or custom bass for an artist?
The bass I built for Bobby Sheehan was a one-of-a-kind bass.
What are a few things that you are proud about your instruments and that you would consider unique in your instruments?
I build each guitar and bass one-at-a-time which makes each one unique unto itself. I use a lot of metal tops on my instruments, that gives the tone a really cool top end. Combined with the warmth of the wood, the metal gives a really nice sustain and brightness.
Which one of the basses that you build is your favorite one?
I built a metal top bass with .357 bullet shells around the perimeter. It has a hot rod metal flake finish on the back that is burned and completely distressed. It looks really cool and plays great!!!
Can you give us a word of advice to young Luthiers who are just starting out?
YES!! KEEP AT IT!!!! It takes a lot of time and patience to get to where you want to be. One crucial piece of advice that I tell young Luthiers starting out… create your own shape body and headstock!!! Most builders (including myself) start out by building a Strat or Tele clone and get stuck there.
What advice would you give a young musician trying to find his perfect bass?
Play as many guitars or basses as you can before you buy! Don’t necessarily follow trends or play what your favorite Rockstar plays. When you pick up that “special” guitar or bass… you’ll know. It’ll speak to you.
What is biggest success for you and for your company?
For me personally… the biggest success was getting my work in the hands of some of the biggest players on the planet. These guys have all bought my guitars. That instilled an incredible amount of confidence in me to keep going.
Are you preparing something new, some new model or new design? Or maybe some new gear amps, etc.
I am always designing new concepts. At the moment, we are building a completely new website and doing a social media push to get out in front of as many people as we can. The new models will be featured on the website www.mcswainguitars.com and can be bought direct or through select dealers. We are also going to be offering a brand new line of KILLER basses.
What are your future plans?
I will keep building for the rest of my life. I always “jokingly” say that I retired in 1996 when I quit the suit and tie job to start building guitars/basses full-time!!! I’m one of the lucky ones that GETS to go to “work” everyday doing what I absolutely love.
Is there anything else you would like to share that we have not included?
If you are starting out as a builder… Be honest, be humble and maintain your integrity. There are a million ways to cut corners… make sure that you don’t compromise quality!