Interview: Justin Abernethy’s guitars fuse offset soul with vintage magic

Californian luthier Justin Abernethy has built a reputation for creating boutique instruments that combine his love for offsets and vintage gear. The man himself tells us all about his journey to boutique guitar nirvana…

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How did you get into guitar?

“I was a high-school freshman in 1990 when Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam and a long list of other great bands were starting to put albums out. It was a great time for music and the guitar. I had to learn how to play, no matter what…

“I bought an Antares Les Paul copy for $25 and it was all over. I was tearing the thing apart before I could even play. I had no idea what I was doing, I just wanted to know everything about it. Soon, a good friend started teaching me how to play over the phone and before I knew it, we were playing in a band…”

When did you first start building guitars?

“I started building guitars around 1999. After high school I apprenticed at a local music store for about five years doing repairs, setups, fretwork, et cetera. During my time there, an opportunity arose to work with local legend Gene Baker, building high-end boutique electric guitars.

Abernathy Interview Sonic Empress 61 full length

“I learned everything at Baker Guitars – from setting up vacuum and compressor lines to working with a host of machines and seeing guitars start as raw wood through to completed instruments. The guitars were all hand-made on a pin router in the beginning, which happens to be the same pin router I use today. My time at Baker was instrumental in learning how to build, not just repair guitars. All in all, it was a great experience. I had the honour to help build guitars for Ronnie Montrose, Robben Ford and others.”

What was the moment you realised that you could go it alone?

“Well, over a period of about 15 years I worked and built guitars for Baker, Ernie Ball, National Resophonic, Fine Tuned Instruments and Premier Builders Guild. During this time, I gained the necessary experience to really hone my skills. It wasn’t just a job, it was something I loved to do, so, in my own time I was working on my own designs and steadily collecting the tools to do so. Fortunately, this prepared me for when Premier Builders Guild downsized in 2013 and I decided it was time for me to try and do things on my own.

Abernathy Interview Sonic Empress 61 close up

“Building guitars has always been very special, a privilege, and I feel fortunate to be working on my own designs now. I lay awake at night excited about my work, endlessly thinking about new designs, ideas and what opportunities await. I love every aspect of it, from raw-wood selection, construction, paint and finally hearing it for the first time. Each one is built with love, one at a time, with purpose, unique in its own way. I fall in love with each one, trying to perfect every detail… it’s a sickness [laughs], I would do it for the sheer pleasure of building. A true romance.”

Did you get any initial investment or help when you started out?

Abernathy Interview Sonic Empress 52

“Well, I’ve been in the industry for about 20 years now, and did my first NAMM in January in the hopes of gaining a few dealers and exposure. Up to this point, everything has been an organic DIY operation. So, in a way, you guys are providing my first springboard!”

At what point did you feel like you ‘nailed’ your branding?

Abernathy Interview Justin Abernathy

“You know, as far as branding goes, I’m really not sure If I’ve nailed it or not. I can tell you everyone loves the headstock design and shape of the guitars. The company name and logo is my last name, so, what’s not to love!?”

What’s your best-selling product?

Abernathy Interview Sonic Empress 61

“So far, my best-selling product has been the Sonic Empress model. And, although I have several different models, the Empress is my personal favourite. It’s a 25.5-inch-scale offset guitar with vintage vibe and modern feel. I offer tonnes of options – pickups, neck shapes, colours, et cetera. I’ve been building them out of 100-year-old reclaimed fir and tempered maple. The response has been amazing – players really love the tone and feel.”

What’s your proudest moment as a maker to date?

“The fact that I’m doing this on my own is something I’m very proud of. It’s not a single moment that has been my proudest, but rather a trend I’ve seen along the way. Just about everybody I’ve sold a guitar to has come back to buy another, and in some cases, a few.

Abernathy Interview Sonic Empress 61 side view

“I sold a guitar on Reverb.com to a guy and later found out that it was Jeff Tweedy. Not only that, but he wanted two more! On another occasion, Ryan Lewis of Macklemore bought one of my Steed models and went on to order another. Moments like these really make the hard work worthwhile. Having repeat customers tells me I’m doing something right. It’s one of the best feelings in the world.”

What are the biggest challenges and opportunities for the guitar industry in 2019?

Abernathy Interview Sonic Empress 61 bridge close-up

“For me, the biggest challenge I’ve faced is just getting them out there. Getting dealers to take a risk on a brand/person they’ve never heard of is a challenge. Through experience, I’ve learned that if I can just get the guitars into the hands of players, I know they will love them. But finding a way to do so is easier said than done. I think social media and the internet has provided a great platform for the guitar industry. Reverb.com has been a huge help, and where I’ve done most of my business.”

Can you give us any details of any forthcoming launches?

Abernathy Interview Sonic Empress Short Scale Bass 64

“In the future, I’m looking to do a 34-inch-scale Sonic Empress bass. I currently offer a 30-inch short scale, but people have been requesting the 34-inch. I’ve also started working on a chambered version of the Sonic Empress and I’m looking forward to building more of those.”

Check out more Abernethy models in the gallery below:

For more info, head over to abernethyguitars.com.

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