Roger Giffin’s Custom Guitars Have Helped Rock Icons Fulfill Their Dreams

February 5th, 2015

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This story appears in the January/February 2015 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine, which includes features on the Beatles and Epiphone, Marty Stuart, Johnny Cash’s Custom Gibson J-200 and more. Click here to visit our store .

Star Guitars: Luthier Roger Giffin’s custom creations have helped rock icons—and those who dream of being one—fulfill their dreams.

By Chris Gill | Photo by Stephen Funk

Any obsessive gearhound that has researched the guitars owned and played by rock’s biggest names has likely discovered a common connection between many of them.

Of course, one will immediately notice the expected shared preferences for Gibson Les Pauls, Fender Telecasters and Stratocasters, and Martin acoustics, but those who look even more closely will realize that most of the greats have also commissioned the work of independent luthier Roger Giffin at some point in their careers.

Giffin’s client list is likely the most impressive in the business, as it includes British legends like Eric Clapton, Peter Frampton, David Gilmour, Mark Knopfler, Jimmy Page, and Pete Townshend and American icons like Neal Schon, Slash, Eddie Van Halen, and Joe Walsh. Since Giffin first went into business in the late Sixties, his services have been sought by many more famous players, including Hank Marvin, Dave Edmunds, Steve Hackett, Andy Summers, Keith Richards, Ron Wood, George Harrison, Brian Setzer, Elliott Easton, Steve Stevens, and Jerry Cantrell.

Some of Giffin’s most notable instruments include a pair of “Blackie” Stratocaster replicas he built for Eric Clapton in the mid Eighties, six of Pete Townshend’s Tele-style guitars that were his main instruments during the Eighties, and an exact reproduction of Jimmy Page’s “Number One” 1958 Gibson Les Paul, which Page dubbed “Number Three” and used onstage as a backup. He also built a three-pickup Les Paul Custom for Peter Frampton after Frampton lost his original, an unusual headless guitar with a 19-inch scale for David Gilmour, a non-cutaway hollowbody Les Paul for Malcolm Young, and a pair of custom hollowbody 12-string guitars for Eddie Van Halen. Giffin collaborated with Steinberger and Genesis guitarist Mike Rutherford to build the prototype Steinberger M Series model, and when he was working for the Gibson Custom Shop he made the prototype of the Les Paul Florentine model.

Despite having such a prestigious list of clients and accomplishments, Giffin remains one of the industry’s best-kept secrets mainly due to his reliance on word-of-mouth promotion. These days, he builds guitars in a one-man workshop at his home in a quiet suburban neighborhood in Beaverton, Oregon, where he has resided since 2004. It’s a long way from the bustling music hubs of London and Los Angeles where he once plied his trade, but Giffin is happy with the slower pace that allows him to concentrate more on his craft.

“I’ve been setting my own pace now,” Giffin says. “I’m not looking to be swamped with work anymore. I’ve gone flat out, working seven days and evenings a week, for more years than I can remember. I don’t want to do that anymore.”

Giffin’s interest in building guitars started when he first learned to play the instrument. “My first guitar was an acoustic that I built from a kit of parts,” he recalls. “I bought the kit from a dealer in London. My dad was a woodworker, so he steered me in the right direction and helped me with things I couldn’t figure out.”

As a teenager during the Sixties, Giffin saved up enough money to buy his first electric guitar. “It was a 1960 Les Paul Special that I bought for 50 quid,” he says. “I eventually sold it. Later I moved to the south coast of England and started playing in bands. I needed another electric guitar, but we were starving, so I built myself a copy of a Gibson SG. I sold that guitar to a guy who played in another band in the area. That got me to thinking. I was able to make more money selling my guitars than I was playing in a band. I started making guitars on and off from that time onward, which was about 1969.”

Giffin started working in music stores, where he performed repairs and built guitars. During this period there were only a handful of independent guitar builders in England. “We had to make up things as we went along,” Giffin remembers. “You couldn’t buy all the specialized tools that are available today. I remember phoning up Tony Zemaitis to see if he needed an apprentice. He said, ‘I’d love to say yes, but I’m too busy, and everybody who comes to me for a guitar wants me to build it myself.’ That made sense to me. The funny thing is that I got the exact same requests years later. If you’re a one-man show, people don’t want to buy a guitar unless the namesake builder made it.”

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Giffin got his first big break during the early Seventies when Roy Wood commissioned him to build a Gibson Flying V copy. “I was working for a shop in Kingston in Surrey,” he says. “Back then you could turn up at a gig with guitars under your arm and walk right backstage. I showed up at an early gig by the Electric Light Orchestra to talk to Roy, and he asked me to build him a Flying V that had three humbuckers and was half red/half blue to match his coat. From there I built a guitar for Jeff Lynne, and then other famous guitarists started contacting me. A whole new world suddenly opened up.”

Between 1975 and 1979, Giffin worked for Top Gear Music on London’s Denmark Street. “That was where I met all of the big names,” he remembers. “The shop was their hangout. Alan Rogan, who got me the gig at Top Gear, worked as Pete Townshend’s guitar tech, so he hired me to do work for Townshend and Entwistle. Later he got a job working for Eric Clapton, so he introduced me to Eric as well.”

In 1979, Giffin opened his own workshop under Kew Bridge in the western London borough of Richmond upon Thames. “I started my own full-scale business,” Giffin says. “I made guitars in a workshop with a few other employees, and I hired a guy to manage a retail shop where we sold my guitars and some used instruments. The business grew and grew. All of the guitarists in the big bands at the time used to come down there. That’s where I did a lot of my best-known work—Townshend’s Tele-style guitars, Clapton’s Blackie replicas, and custom guitars for David Gilmour and Andy Summers.”

Giffin operated the business until 1988, when personal problems inspired him to seek out a change of scenery. As fate would have it, Gibson offered him a job managing the custom shop that they had just opened in Los Angeles, so Giffin sold his business, packed his bags, and moved to the United States.
“Working for Gibson was a very interesting experience,” Giffin admits.

“Originally, when I came out there I was supposed to work with Rick Turner, who was in charge of the Custom Shop at the time, but he left the week that I arrived. I had to get on with it by myself, and there were times where I didn’t know what to do because there was no direction. Between the time I arrived in 1988 and when I left in December 1993, we moved the shop twice. When Gibson bought Tobias, they moved that whole operation to Nashville. The Tobias factory was just sitting there empty, so they moved the Custom Shop over there. It was just me and Gene Baker working together in this huge place. We were there about nine months, and then one Monday the hatchet squad showed up and told us we weren’t working there anymore. That was the end of that.”

Giffin and Brett Allen operated a rental and repair business on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip called R&B Instrument Services for a few years, but eventually Giffin went back to building guitars on his own. In 2004, he and his family moved to Beaverton, Oregon, where he remains today.

Like most boutique guitar builders, Giffin offers a standard range of instruments that customers can modify in any fashion that they desire. Basic models include the Standard solidbody and hollowbody, T1, T2, T Deluxe, Macro, Micro, Brigand, and Valiant. Giffin sells most of his guitars direct to customers (waiting times vary from six to 12 months) and through a handful of dealers, including Destroy All Guitars, Distinctive Guitars, and Willcutt Guitars.

“Because of the way that I do things, I can vary or change pretty much any part of a guitar if a customer wants me to do that,” Giffin says. “I offer two single-cutaway models, because people kept asking me to make them a Les Paul, which I’m not allowed to do. I came up with an offset single-cutaway model called the Valiant, and after I licensed that design to Premier Builders Guild, I came up with another design called the Brigand. I just got back the rights to make the Valiant, so now I offer both.”

Giffin estimates that he’s made about a thousand guitars since the late Sixties. “I’ve made about 460 since I started my new serial number system in 1998,” he says. “Back in England, I made between 300 and 400 guitars. During my busiest period I made about 50 guitars a year. Thanks to the Internet, I often get emails from people who bought my guitars back in the Seventies and Eighties. They’ll send me a photo, and I’ll put it in the vintage gallery on my website.”

While new customers are still discovering Giffin Guitars, many of his best customers are repeat business. “My clients always need another guitar with a different sound,” he says. “That’s why I love working with guitar players. They never have enough guitars.”

This story appears in the January/February 2015 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine, which includes features on the Beatles and Epiphone, Marty Stuart, Johnny Cash’s Custom Gibson J-200 and more. Click here to visit our store .

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