Craftsman performs sweet solo making custom instruments
Do what you love, and love what you do. How many of us get to say that about our professional careers?
In Westlake Village there’s a 55-year-old electric guitar maker whose whole life has been built around the love of his craft.
Joe Till, who grew up in Calabasas and Agoura Hills and went to Las Virgenes schools, followed in his father’s footsteps and tinkered with carpentry at a young age. Joe preferred playing the guitar—he made a living touring professionally with the Box Tops and the Drifters in the ’80s—but when his stage career slowed down he decided to put his woodshop skills to use.
“My drummer and I sat down after some $40 gig and decided to find something else to do. So I got into woodworking.”
Joe moved into a dusty, 800-square-foot La Baya
Drive workshop in 1992 and began a second career as a carpenter and cabinetmaker.
His foray into guitar building came four years later when he found a beat-up flying V electric guitar at a swap meet one day and decided to rebuild it.
“My first chore was to see if I could make a new neck, and it just came to me. It was easy. . . . From that moment I knew what I wanted to do.”
Joe remains a one-man band (he’s not married), and often toils seven days a week in a shop strewn with tools, hardware, wood samples and guitars in a various stages of production. Nothing appears orderly, but everything is in its place.
He’s made more than 210 individually numbered guitars and basses. He used to sell them in retail music stores until the recession forced him to pull back. Today he marches to the beat of his own drum and only makes guitars to order.
“That’s what drives me, and the end product is so satisfying.”
The world of Joe Till is all about wood selection, string intonation and neck construction—and doing it just exactly so. It takes him about 100 hours to build a single guitar.
Made in America is important to Joe. He sources wood locally and installs pickups manufactured by Santa Barbara-based Seymour Duncan.
It all starts with the wood.
Till necks are often maple and attached to bodies made of alder topped by maple laminate. Mahogany is sometimes a choice. His favorite is myrtlewood, grown only on the West Coast. Some fretboards are made from the beautiful purpleheart wood.
And he’s not afraid to think outside the box. He built a double-neck bass and six-string from a 200-year-old desk made of Hawaiian koa wood (the grain is stunning). And once he made 15 instruments out of a redwood-burl coffee table that he found at a Simi Valley swap meet. From the birdseye wood of a 1940s bookcase that he bought for $20 at a Camarillo Goodwill store, he constructed 10 guitar bodies, 20 necks and 15 fretboards.
“Everywhere I go I’m looking at tables and furniture to see how I can make a guitar,” he says. “One of the thrills of the business is working with different woods. If it’s pretty it becomes a guitar.”
One special style guitar that Joe calls Lady on the Beach has a multi-piece maple and walnut laminated neck with a rosewood fretboard and cherry wood body.
“I own three to four different go-to guitars and that is one of them, along with a Les Paul,” says Brian Watson, a West Hills musician who’s known Joe for decades and purchased a Lady on the Beach. “It really is a beautiful guitar.”
Most guitar manufacturers employ computerized modeling, but not Joe. He might use the same body template over and over, but he does all the subsequent cutting, gluing and assembling of the wood by hand.
Calabasas resident Chris Soulios, a Till guitar player from the popular L.A. rock band Gone By Sunrise, calls Joe’s work “the best kept secret on the West Coast.”
Joe offers seven different body shapes at prices that range from $1,500 to $3,000. Compared to big-name models made in gargantuan quantities (think Gibson, Fender), the price is more than attractive.
“It’s a super competitive field and he does his best to differentiate himself,” Brian says.
The best part, says Joe: “No two guitars are ever the same.”
That in itself is priceless.
Written by JOHN LOESING Photos by RICHARD GILLARD