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Guitar makers use design software to create custom instruments

New Hampshire Union Leader

January 18. 2014 1:27AM
Matt Harris, who runs Orphanage Guitars out of a shed in the backyard of his Bow home, gives a demonstration of one of his creations on Tuesday. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

BOW -- As a teenager, Matt Harris not only played guitar. He literally dissected them.

"Growing up, I would always take a pawn shop guitar and disassemble it and kind of see how it was put together," the Bow resident said last week.

He and his brother, Jonathon, later teamed up in a band at Ohio State, and recently reunited - this time to build guitars, not break them.

Thus was born Orphanage Guitars, which grew out of a marketing campaign for AutoDesk software.

"We made up a project (for an AutoDesk video) and chose to make Orphanage Guitars as that project," Matt Harris said.

The company, which initially called Manchester's Millyard home but now operates out of a shed at Matt Harris's house, received its first order from a stranger, a man from Arizona, last weekend.

The Harris brothers face competition from mass-produced electric guitars that can cost as little as a few hundred dollars as well as other custom guitar makers, including King Blossom Guitars in Grantham.

King Blossom co-owner Jeff Figley said he plans to produce about 25 custom electric guitars in the next year, ranging in price from $2,000 to $5,000 each.

"There are a lot of nice-looking guitars that don't sound great or play that well," Figley said. "People wanting a custom guitar want a whole package."

Figley said potential customers stop by his red barn to check out his guitars. "Usually, they'll come by the shop actually and play them," Figley said.

For Harris, designs are made using AutoDesk software. Customers then can review the 3-D images.

Orphanage Guitars is planning to put on its website an online design function, so a customer can customize a guitar in the comfort of his own home and see how the price changes as he tweaks his potential order.

Customers, for example, will be able to select from 30 neck choices. The software then will make the required geometric updates for the guitar.

"The only way we can compete is through the customization," said Harris, who did industrial design work at Dean Kamen's DEKA Research from 2001 to 2007

Harris said his guitars will start at around $2,600 with most averaging between $3,200 and $3,600.

Harris helped in the product design for SURFSET Fitness, an exercise device featured on the ABC reality TV show "Shark Tank" in 2012. Now, he is balancing his guitar startup with a busy consultant business.

Harris tried to raise $53,000 from strangers via the crowdsourcing website Kickstarter to update equipment, but received less than $19,000 on pledges by its August deadline, and thus wasn't funded.

For decades, Figley has worked with his hands building cabinets.

"I had a very prosperous cabinet shop and made a nice living," he said. But a souring economy cut into his cabinet sales.

"It's concurrent with my interest in moving into guitar making," said Figley, who has been selling guitars for about a decade.

Figley, who with his wife, Susan, run a pick-your-own orchard with a variety of fruit trees, also uses computer software to help design the instrument before manufacturing.

He uses mahogany and New Hampshire maple in his guitars.

"I'm a better builder than a player," he said. "I'm a good player but a way better builder."

Both guitar makers agree that a novice player is unlikely to buy from them.

"It's usually better players that have multiple guitars because they all sound and feel different and they collect them because no two guitars even off the assembly live ever sound the same because the wood is different," Figley said. "The better the player, the better they can tell the subtle differences."

As for Harris's teenage years, the Ohio native said he took apart about 10 guitars.

As for how often he put them back together, Harris said: "Not usually."

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