Small-shop guitar makers have been popping up like mushrooms in a dank cellar in recent years, one after another enthusiastically claiming to have learned their craft by studying the great vintage instruments that have passed through their hands. To be honest, though, unless you’re working in the right place at the right time, the average entry-level repairman’s exposure to Blackguard Teles, slab-board Strats and ’59 Les Pauls is pretty minimal. But a job with one of LA’s hottest custom guitar makers of the mid-to-late 1980s? Yeah, you could call that the right place and the right time.
That’s exactly where Don Grosh learned his craft. Some 35 years since he took up the trade, Don and his eponymous Grosh Guitars are long resettled in the more pastoral location of Broomfield, Colorado, on the edge of the Rocky Mountains a few miles north of Denver. It’s here that a rigorous drive to maintain standards and consistency, and a constant appreciation of the lessons learned in that LA hot seat, continues to help his team of five turn out some of the best-respected boutique electrics available today.
SoCal state of mind
Grosh was born in 1961 in Glendale, California, and his family moved to the Santa Clarita Valley two years later, where he grew up. “I have two older brothers and a younger brother,” Grosh relates, “so growing up in the 60s and 70s I was very influenced by the music they were listening to. My oldest brother, Bill, was a keyboard player, and Glen was playing acoustic guitar. That influenced me to want to learn, but I didn’t start playing guitar until I was 19.”
Regular readers will have noticed a common thread: guitar, amp and pedal makers raised by parents who used their hands to make a living, and who themselves learned woodworking, metalworking, and other trades at a young age. Grosh fits the bill entirely – in fact, he was practically made to make stuff.
“At that time, I was into building stuff,” he confirms, “making things out of wood and all. I was working at my dad’s machine shop in the summers starting when I was 13, then the whole skateboard craze was happening in California, so I started making my own boards. I had a little skateboard company called Sun Boards, and I was selling wood boards to friends and things. Around the same time the BMX craze was starting and my friends and I began fabricating our own bikes. I’d learned how to weld at my dad’s shop, and for my 13th birthday I asked for an arc welder!”
Once playing the guitar became an obsession, it was inevitable Grosh would start building them too, and build he did. Several instruments in – while also repairing guitars for friends, glueing fractured headstocks, cutting out replacement bodies – he was making good money in his day job, working for a contractor building custom cabinets, when a 1985 issue of Guitar Player magazine came out with Steve Lukather on the cover.
“I saw that Lukather was playing a Valley Arts guitar on the cover,” says Grosh. “And I didn’t know anything about Valley Arts, but I knew they were in Studio City, which was pretty close to me. So, I thought, ‘Man, I’d love to make guitars for my job!’”
With three of his home-brew guitars in hand, Grosh headed over to Valley Arts and applied for a job. The call-back came a month later: “Mr. Grosh? You’re hired!”
Valley Arts Guitars was founded by Mike McGuire and Al Carness in the mid-70s. By the time Grosh joined the team a decade later – well before the sale of the brand name to Samick, and then more recently to Gibson – it had become known as the premier custom-guitar maker and pro shop in the Los Angeles area. First-call session aces Larry Carlton, Lee Ritenour and Tommy Tedesco were among the devoted clientele, along with stars such as Lukather, Robben Ford, Mitch Holder, Duane Eddy and dozens of others.
“I started in a low-level position in the repair shop,” Grosh tells us, “then I started building some guitars. And it was great. I was able to jump right in because I’d already had a little experience with my own stuff, so I was able to learn what they were doing, and I learned a lot more being there. In a few years I was managing the guitar shop there, and then I opened a separate facility just for production, where I was the production supervisor.”
Perhaps the biggest benefit in the entire gig, though, was the access to top-notch vintage guitars that Grosh received as part of the position. It’s the kind of apprenticeship you just can’t pay for, and the best possible grounding for an aspiring guitar maker.
Grosh recalls: “Because of all the pro players coming through that shop, there were so many incredible guitars coming through, vintage Fenders, vintage Gibsons. So, to have experience with all of those guitars and see the positive sides to them, and some of the negative sides, that was great experience that I never would have got if I just would have started on my own from scratch. As far as getting my work really dialled in, that was what really helped me. Working with pro players in that way helped me fine-tune everything that I do. Those were the real building blocks.”
Sticking to the recipe
After seven years at Valley Arts, Grosh set out on his own in 1993 to build guitars in southern California under his own name. Although he would later design a highly regarded Les Paul-inspired model, known as the Set Neck, Grosh has always been best known for his Fender-inspired bolt-neck models, a specialty that, he tells us, was born out of the old ‘write what you know’ edict.
“I was more of a Fender player,” he says. “I had a few Gibsons, I owned a Les Paul Black Beauty, I had a 335, a few different odd pieces, but for whatever reason I was drawn more toward the 25.5-inch scale guitars for what I liked to play myself. So, yeah, that’s what I was into, so that’s why I also gravitated more toward those designs for my own building.”
Where many young small-shop builders will find their formulae evolving continually as they gain experience in the field, Grosh’s invaluable time repairing top-shelf vintage instruments and building new custom guitars for the most demanding players on the professional circuit enabled him to work out the kinks in the process before he’d even put his own name on the headstocks. In short, he was getting it right right from the very start.
“It’s interesting,” he confides, “last year was our 25th anniversary, so we’ve been doing this for 25 years, and I have to say, what started out as our original Retro Classic guitar and the Tele version of that, pretty much nothing has changed since then, as far as what we do. I have customers now who have owned their guitars for 20 years, even pushing 25 years, who have bought our newer guitars recently, and the comments I always get is, ‘The neck feels exactly the same as the guitar I love that I’ve been playing for 20 years!’
“For me, the original formula is having a guitar that’s really resonant, really alive acoustically – because that’s what’s going to translate through the amp, and the pickups will only pick up what’s resonating through the guitar. It’s not 100 per cent about the pickups. That’s a good portion of what you’re getting, but the whole foundation of what’s going to happen is the resonance of the guitar and how it vibrates.
“So, there are certain things that we’ve done: our neck design, our headstock thickness, a little bit more mass in front of the nut of our necks, how we pick out the woods for the bodies and the necks, that all contributes to that foundation. And then from there, it’s the feel of the neck, the shape of the neck, how we roll the fingerboard edges so it’s really comfortable. You know, I want the guitar to feel like something you’ve been playing for years, not something you think, ‘Well, I’ll have to get used to this.’ Something that fits your hand and feels like it’s worn in, it’s broken in already.”
Pickup the pieces
By way of gaining further control over the recipe, Grosh Guitars started winding its own pickups in the late 2000s after moving from California to Colorado in 2005, and the results have been a revelation. As Don tells us, there’s a big difference between trying to translate the sound in your head into a description in a pickup-winder’s catalogue, and translating that sonic vision directly through your own hands into a product that you manufacture yourself.
“It kind of goes along with the way we make our guitars,” he says, “being able to have that control and get our designs the way we want to have them for ourselves. It’s only when you actually know how to make the pickup and what goes into it, you make your prototypes and you realise that this tension does this to the sound, this scatter pattern does that. Changing aspects of the build and dialling in the sound, you figure out what makes this happen, and you can tweak it from there to get the sound that you want.
“That was big for us, because I was able to fine-tune the sound of the pickups that I thought in my head I wanted to hear, and we were able to dial that in across the board with all of our pickups. That, and we can control the supply of the pickups, rather than having issues with getting pickups when we needed them.”
Much like the process with the company’s original guitar models, the ‘get it right the first time’ theory helped Grosh perfect the sounds of his pickups before the company even started pushing them out to the public, so no revision has been needed since. As he says, quite simply: “We just haven’t changed them, because I’m really happy with them! And it took us a long time to dial that in. It wasn’t like we just made a few single-coils and started putting them in our guitars. We probably made 25 to 30 neck single-coils only, because I wanted to start with the neck. To me, if I dialled in the neck tone that I wanted, I believed that would translate to the other positions.
“So, we started with the neck tone, dialling that in, and then once we had that we did a middle, which is basically just a reverse-wound version of the neck, and then we did a bridge, which is an overwound version. We did a few of those to get the output that we wanted, and we had our formula. I just thought, ‘Wow, that’s the formula I’ve always heard in my head!’ And now for me, that’s the pickup I want to use, so there’s a mojo there and I don’t want to touch that.”
Through challenging times that have forced other guitar makers to shut their doors, being small, working to a steady flow of orders, and keeping the supply chain running have all helped Grosh to stay in business during the current pandemic. And in addition to working to fulfil what tends to be about six months’ worth of back-orders, Grosh has also had time to consider what’s next on the design table.
One new offering is likely to be a hollowbody version of the ElectraJet, an offset solidbody design that Grosh introduced in the mid 2000s, before the offset-waist craze really took off.
“Doing this as long as we have, we’ve seen different trends come and go,” Grosh says. “Our original Retro Classic modern Strat- and Tele-style body shapes worked really well for us back in the 90s when I started. They were really popular. Then we came out with our ElectraJet, and that was our biggest seller for about four years. Probably 60 per cent of what we were building was ElectraJets. And then a lot of the other companies started doing more offset body shapes, and they started becoming more popular, but I think we were kind of lucky because we were at the beginning of the curve on those.
“Also, during that timeframe,” he adds, “the market really shifted back to traditional Stratocasters and Telecasters, so we came out with our NOS Retro and NOS Vintage, which are more traditional. Those are our biggest sellers now. But it seems like things kind of come back around. I’m thinking the modern Strat and Tele thing might come back in, so we’ll probably start doing more Retro Classics again. That’s what I’m hoping, anyway [laughs].”
Ultimately, Grosh is content building guitars that he’d like to play himself, and is perfectly happy to limit the options in that regard. You want a Jazzmaster-style vibrato and bridge on your ElectraJet, a hardware set that’s all the rage lately? Sorry. It’s a cool look, he says, but Grosh doesn’t dig those components’ lack of stability, so it isn’t going on there.
“It’s not something I would play for myself,” he concludes, simply, “and if you’re building guitars you’d want for yourself, I think you’re more passionate about it.”
Visit groshguitars.com for more.