Tom Bartlett of Bartlett Guitars: “After I built my first guitar I never built another cabinet again”

Tom Bartlett’s Retrospec model is the result of an intense obsession with the Les Paul legend, and a penchant for doing things the old way.

Call it ironic, perhaps, that Canadian guitar maker Tom Bartlett’s deep love of vintage Bursts was fuelled by his own disappointment in his first real Les Paul, but so it began. Such was the fervour with which Bartlett chased the Burst down the rabbit hole that, in addition to having crafted several highly regarded, detail-perfect reproductions, he has long run a successful side business selling components and luthier supplies to help other hobbyists do the same. The crowning achievement of his own guitar making, however, came in putting his own original twist on the style. But that was some time in the making, and to get there he had to learn the legend inside-out.

“I grew up in Ontario,” Bartlett tells us, “just outside of Toronto, and as soon as I was exposed to music, really, as an independent listener, that’s all I did. Forever more it was just me walking around with headphones on and absorbing as much as I could. Particularly the rock ’n’ roll of eras past, even. It was such a huge influence on me, and I immediately wanted to play the guitar, but could not play it at all.”

“A friend of mine got an electric guitar, we were maybe 10 or 12 years old, and I thought, like, I’m immediately going to sound like Eddie Van Halen. I picked it up and just couldn’t make a sound out of it that was pleasing at all. It was terrible!”

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The Retro Mk2 is built to the same shape and dimensions as the original Retrospec, but using alternative woods and hardware options, along with simpler satin and solid-colour paint jobs.

Unlike many, though, Bartlett’s obsession was such that he persisted. A low-quality acoustic guitar from the parents led to the promise of an electric guitar after a year of determined playing, and play he did.

“I played it for hours every day,” he recalls. “And then I spent the next years and years trying to build up enough money and resources to afford a Gibson Les Paul, you know? That was always the pinnacle. And it didn’t matter to me what year it was, none of that made any difference to me. It wasn’t until I was sort of an independent adult that I finally purchased my first real, branded Gibson Les Paul. But, unfortunately, I was disappointed by the quality, and that disappointment is what drove me to build my first guitar.”

“At the time I was a woodworker, I was a cabinetmaker, and the quality control on the guitar was quite poor. I thought, ‘I bet I could build one as good or better than this.’ And so, I did. That was the beginning of the end, really. After I built my first guitar I never built another cabinet again. It was a very quick transition into guitar making.”

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Bartlett in his workshop

Calling Kalamazoo

For Bartlett, a big part of the quest – the part that ultimately involved doing it ‘right’ – lay in reproducing as much as possible of the work just the way it would have been done in Kalamazoo in the 50s. Not just maintaining period-correct specs and components, but putting it all together in the same ways, too. The trick, of course, is that while a major mid-century guitar brand had a full factory to work with, and the benefit of assembly-line production, Bartlett himself is a one-man shop.

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“Having been in the business now for about 12 years, I’ve learned to try not to be frustrated by the process,” Bartlett tells us, “But part of the struggle is that it’s difficult for one person to learn the 500 steps that it takes to build a guitar from a raw piece of lumber to closing the case and putting it in the box. I personally only do two batches of guitars per year, and it’s really hard to get good at doing 500 things when you only do them twice a year.”

“So, it’s a painful process, and a lot of my fastidiousness has come from the fact that I have to do these things with very little practice. I try to remove as much margin of error as I can by building accurate jigs, and creating machinery that gets me 95 per cent of the way there, and then the final five per cent is done with the finesse of somebody who has done it for a long time.”

Ultimately, however, the entire point is to re-create the vintage approach to making these guitars; to be all-encompassing in the effort of firing up that time machine to take Bartlett back to the construction methods and materials in use more than 60 years ago, so much as is possible. Which means a far more labour-intensive approach than many makers are taking, but that’s what the entire premise demands.

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“These weren’t artists building these guitars, necessarily,” says Bartlett. “It was an assembly line. I just do all of those assembly line portions on my own, but I use the old methods because it results in guitars that are, each one’s a little unique, even as far as dimensions of the neck, you know, hand sanding takes its toll. And, I don’t know, there is some romance involved in that, but I wouldn’t say that it’s a far different result depending on which way you get there.”

None of which is to say there aren’t challenges in accurately reproducing the original formula to the best of your abilities, especially these 60-plus years later, when certain ingredients are notoriously difficult to come by.

“I would say the two biggest factors in having a guitar that is really great are, first, starting with great lumber,” Bartlett says, “That is the singularly most difficult portion of any guitar builder’s life, is procuring really great lumber. Particularly old-growth lumber.

“And then the second part is the finish, the paint. Those two things are so hard to do right, because they’re not easy to get. And the lacquer, for instance, after beating my head against the wall for a long time, I finally just went to a lacquer manufacturer and gave them the formula of a 50s-era nitrocellulose lacquer, and took out the plasticiser. And now they give me the plasticiser in a separate jar so that I can add it back in if I want to, but I never do because I want these guitars to look the way they do now having been built in the 50s.

“It’s night and day when you compare the lacquer that’s on a modern Les Paul, the finish is something like eight times thicker than what it is on a 50s Les Paul. It’s not even close. It’s rubbery and plasticky. Try putting a rubber matt down on your snare drum and see how well it rings out, you know? It’s a totally different thing.”

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Retro rockets

Bartlett’s great leap forward came about 2012 or so when he decided the tricks and techniques he’d discovered while teaching himself to recreate a near-as-dammit original Burst could just as easily be used to create something entirely his own… or, rather, his own with the help of two valued friends and contributors.

“As you know,” he begins, “there’s a rabbit hole there to fall into in the vintage guitar market. It’s tough to get out of that vortex, but I realised a few years into it that I could apply all of these principles to a new guitar that I could freely market and enjoy and develop. So, the Retrospec is actually the result of that effort.”

According to Bartlett, however, the project never would have got off the ground without the urging and input from a notable Burst enthusiast who’s otherwise better known for his obsession with the real thing. In addition to dealing in many actual vintage parts, as well as highly regarded vintage-spec replacement components, Kim LaFleur has long been the proprietor of the Florida-based Historic Makeovers, an acclaimed refinishing and refurbishing service that specialises in makeovers of recent Gibson Custom Shop Les Pauls, given them period-correct neck and top carves, nitrocellulose finishes, and hand-ageing. LaFleur, it’s worth noting, is the craftsman Joe Bonamassa turned to for the restoration of the badly refinished ’59 Les Paul he acquired the year before last, now known as Lazarus for the way LaFleur helped it raise from the dead.

“Kim was the one who instigated a new design,” Bartlett relates. “He’s been in the Les Paul market a long time, and he came to me and said, ‘Let’s build a cool guitar. A unique, new style of guitar.’ And he actually sent me a few little mock-ups in Photoshop and stuff.

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“And I had been working for a long time with [product designer] Magnus Melkersson in Sweden, and that’s when I came to Magnus and said, ‘Kim and I would really like to do this new design. Would you help us with the technical drawings?’ And Magnus just took it and ran with it! He was a monster with it. It was back and forth every two minutes, he had ideas flying at me. It was fantastic to work with him, and still is. I still work with him a lot.”

In the Retrospec’s case, though, the veracity of the design is definitely more than skin deep. Which is to say, sure, it might look a little like a reconfigured Burst from the outside – with slightly different lower-bout contours, a more pronounced upper-bout protrusion, and of course a different headstock shape – but get the weights-and-measures brigade on it and the depth of that effort is fully revealed.

“We used the same amount of mahogany as a Burst,” says Bartlett, “and the same amount of maple as a Burst; it’s all the same cubic centimetres of wood. The hardware is in exactly the same spot as a Burst. If you play a Burst and switch to the Retrospec, it’ll feel like a Les Paul, and when you reach for the switch it will be right where you think it’s going to be. It’s all very deliberate.”

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No better mousetrap

When it comes to constructing the optimal ’59-style, set-neck, single-cutaway guitar, Bartlett is very much an originalist. Which is to say, no interpretation or reinvention or improvements are needed, when the end goal is a sort of alchemical realisation of what is, for many players, the most valued, valuable, and desirable electric guitar of all time… only new off the bench.

As Bartlett puts it: “There were a few people that came out with their own designs and said, ‘Well, this is an improved Les Paul,’ and I always thought, ‘That’s well and good, there are a lot of people who are improving on the Les Paul in their own minds. But an improvement could be a lateral move for someone else, or it could be a detriment to another person.’ To me, I wasn’t looking for an improvement, I was looking to replicate the perfection that is a Burst, in a new suit, you know?”

Examined more closely, it’s clear that a lot of these efforts – however noble their intentions, and whatever perceived ‘flaws’ they seek to address – risk taking the results further from the ideal, which already exists in the guitar exactly as it was made circa 1959.

“A lot of people will change the classic weak point on a Les Paul, that truss rod and the dreaded neck break,” says Bartlett. “They’ll say, ‘Let’s try to mitigate that by changing the design itself,’ but now you’ve fundamentally changed the design of the guitar. That has an impact on it. There’s nothing wrong with that at all, but was that the intention? Was the intention to change the tone of the guitar? Because that’s what you’ve done.”

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Which isn’t to say there’s no good place for the modified, reworked, and otherwise ‘improved’ guitars inspired by the late 50s Les Paul. That’s where a more recent model from the Bartlett stable comes in, and it fills a very valid place in his lineup, but that shouldn’t be thought of as replacing the period-correct homage to the Burst.

“That road leads you to the Retro Mk2 and the wraptails, all these variabilities,” Bartlett adds. “You can change up the things to improve it for a specific customer who orders a custom guitar. I’m not saying that I wouldn’t deviate from that formula, but it’s kind of to me, why fix what isn’t broken?”

“When a customer says to me, ‘Oh, I’ve owned several Les Pauls and none of them really do it for me. I want you to make one that is going to work for me, and these are the shortcomings that I’ve found over the years.’ That’s what makes them a custom guitar. But you don’t have to deviate from using a different type of glue, for instance, or change how you access the truss rod. But these minor differences – when really it comes down to customising a guitar for that customer, right from selecting the best tonewoods that you can – it really starts from the ground up.”

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On your marks

The folding-in of some of Bartlett’s own notes on reinventing the wheel recently delivered the Retro Mk2, a guitar built to the same shape and dimensions as the original Retrospec, but using alternative woods and hardware options, along with simpler satin and solid-colour paint jobs.

“The Mk2 was sort of my personal beliefs of what I wanted in a guitar, at that moment,” he explains. “And korina is such a wonderful tonewood – so under-utilised, but such a wonderful tonewood. People who don’t use it, or would like to use it more, say that they don’t use it because it’s so hard to get in good quality. And that is very true, it’s very difficult to find high-quality material. But the payment is so great on it.”

“For the Mk2 I offer an internal tone chamber, that is like ribbons of wood that are tuned, which is kind of interesting, but the side effect is some weight relief as well. And that is optional. Most of them are solidbodies.”

In addition, the Mk2 offers a more immediate means of skirting round CITES issues that can more and more be a pain in the neck for travelling guitarists. Costing somewhat less than the fancier Retrospec, it eschews that flagship model’s Brazilian rosewood fingerboard, for example, for timber that doesn’t require its own passport.

“It’s a non-CITES, easily travelled guitar,” says Bartlett. “There’s nothing about it that needs a special permit. There’s no pearl inlay, even the Honduran mahogany is listed on CITES Appendix 2, there’s no Brazilian rosewood, it’s all above-board, non-CITES wood. So that has staying power, in my mind.”

Visit bartlettguitars.com for more.

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