Review of the Benford Custom – A Telecaster/Les Paul Hybrid

Introduction

I’ve had the Benford Lestercaster a couple of weeks now and am in a better position to write up a more considered review than my babbling initial impressions.

Here I’m just going to try to discuss the guitar itself, rather than the extras that were included in the package, or the service that Steve Benford offered.

Benford Custom

Design and construction

The basic idea for the guitar was to build a Les Paul Studio that looked like a Telecaster. For the look, I wanted something sparse and classy that was just a mixture of plain satin finished wood and black hardware.

So it has a set/glued neck, 24.75″ scale length, tune-o-matic bridge and stop tail piece. Like the Les Paul, the neck is set at an angle of a couple of degrees to the body so that it clears the higher bridge.

The body wood is a piece of London Plane, a type of lacewood. The neck is mahogany. Fingerboard and headstock veneer are ebony.

Benford Custom

Details

OK, let’s get it out of the case and pick out some of the details…

The black logo on the ebony headstock looks superb. Very understated. This was a touch Steve added without asking and just fits in perfectly with my aesthetic sensibilities. The finishing on the neck pocket and heel is just astounding – totally flawless – as is the finishing of the fingerboard and frets. A couple of other details of note are the countersunk controls and the two tail-end strap buttons. These were specified by me, but the execution of my ideas is exactly as I conceived them. The two tail-end strap buttons mean that the guitar will securely stand up against a wall or amp, but also gives the guitar a better balance when strapped on. Only a very minor point, but the upper bout strap button is placed about an inch too high for my preference. The matt black EMG-style covers on the Seymour Duncan P-Rails pickups complete the plain and simple look.

Unplugged sound

As is traditional in a guitar review, let’s give it a strum before plugging it in. First impressions are that it sounds very lively; almost jangly. I had expected a darker/warmer nature to the tone, and this was quite a surpise – not a bad one – just different to expectation. As you would expect with a set neck and high quality materials, the sustain is phenomenal. The only guitar I’ve ever played with more sustain was a thru-neck Westone Thunder (a very under-rated piece of kit itself).

Benford Custom

Plugged sound

I’d originally planned to go for plain old PAF humbucking pickups, although I did toy with the idea of P90s. When I mentioned this to Steve he pointed me in the direction of Seymour Duncan’s P-Rails. This is a pickup that combines a Fender-esque single coil, with a P90, that also gives series and parallel humbucker wiring options. The wiring scheme, taken directly from the Seymour Duncan website, offers an amazing range of sounds with a minimum of complexity. And from an aesthetical point of view, with no more than a pickup selector switch and two knobs, because I wanted to stay close to the Telecaster control layout.

It is a fairly traditional pickup selector, master volume and master tone, that’ll be familiar to anyone who has picked up a telecaster. The volume and tone pots each have push/pull switches and in combination to the work of selecting which of the pickup coils are used:

  • Both down – Humbucker with coils wired in series;
  • Volume down, Tone up – P90;
  • Volume up, Tone down – Single coil;
  • Both up – Humbucker with coils wired in parallel.

There are a couple of limitations with this wiring scheme:

  • No independent volume or tone for each pickup;
  • Not able to select different pickup type configs for neck and bridge at the same time, so, for example, it can’t do a bridge single coil plus neck series humbucker.

I preferred to accept this limitation rather than have additional mini-switches on the front.

When I had been thinking about using traditional PAF humbuckers, I briefly considered using concentric stacked volume and tone pots, so that I could put in a Les Paul type control scheme, but keep the look of the Telecaster.

The actual sound? Oh rest assured I’m absolutely delighted. It is such a versatile guitar. It can handle anything from razor sharp C&W twang with the bridge single coil to creamy PAF-esque jazz tones with the neck series humbucker – with almost every stop in between these two extremes. At the sharp end it is easily a match for my Telecaster although having this biting sound but still with the incredible sustain takes some getting used to.

Personal favourites are:

  • The bridge series humbucker through my wee valve amp with everything turned up to 10;
  • Neck humbucker through a clean amp for a warm, but still very clear and distinct, jazzy tone;
  • Neck and bridge P90s with the amp up full but the guitar’s volume rolled back just so it is on the verge of break up.

It is amazing how much difference the scale length makes to the feel of the guitar and it is taking quite a while to “recalibrate” my fingers. Bending strings is so much easier, without the string feeling “flappy”, even to the point where I can now do a whole tone bend on the A and D strings with my pinkie. This does have a downside because, on a more frequently used bend like a whole tone on the G string with my ring finger, I’ve now got a tendency to over-shoot and go too sharp. This is not just about the scale length though. The ultra smooth finishing of the frets has a big effect too.

One thing I may change eventually is the fret height. I specified Dunlop 6130 fretwire and whist the width of the fret wire is perfect, it is a fair bit higher than I’d thought it would be. This is not an issue above the 7th fret, but below that it shows up a flaw in my technique: my inclination to press the string down harder than is needed. If I hold a chord shape, say an open A, as I would normally, then as I press the string to the fretboard it is pulling the fretted notes sharp. Perhaps it is just going to require more personal “recalibration” and an improvement in my technique, so I’ll give it a few more months before I go for the more radical solution of getting the frets stoned flatter.

Benford Custom

The neck profile itself is a thing of beauty, and I’m not quite sure how Steve has achieved this. It feels both substantial and slim at the same time. Fast and solid and some bizarre hybrid of a classic baseball bat and Ibanez shredder’s neck. I think it is a combination of a fairly conservative depth (note the small “C” – real Conservatives are much thicker) and a slight “V” profile, although I don’t think the profile, in section, is symetrical. If forced to guess I’d say that the bass side of the neck is slightly rounder, and the treble side flatter. This no more than deduction on my behalf because I can think of no other way a neck could feel this substantial under the thumb and yet so fluid under the fingers. Of course the immaculate gentle satin finish also adds a massive amount to the neck feel.

For the first time since the Benford arrived, I picked up my Telecaster over the weekend. Despite this previously being one of the most playable necks I’d ever encountered, I was shocked by how hard it was to play in comparison to the Benford. The glossy laquer on neck and fingerboard just felt sticky and unpleasant. Way to go Steve – you’ve just ruined some of my favourite guitars for me!

Summary

As you can probably tell from the above, I’m a hugely satisfied customer. Just considering the intrument alone; if I’d walked into a guitar shop and bought this thing off the hook for under £830, I’d have considered that I’d got a damn good deal. When you add in all of the extras, the joy of designing it (with help and advice), the fact that it is a totally one-off original, the superb craftsmanship/care that has gone into every aspect of the build, I feel like I’ve walked away with the bargain of the century.

Benford Custom

Samples

Buying a guitar from Benford meant a box full of surprises

One of the great things about buying my custom Benford guitar was seeing the care and attention that Steve Benford put into it. Aside from the guitar itself and the 80+ emails that Steve and I exchanged, this is really shown with the extras Steve included.

First off was the superb SKB hard shell case, which I paid for but, at $50 is an absolute bargain. The cheapest I can get one of these in the UK is £105 (the equivalent of $157, at today’s exchange rate).

Then after taking out the guitar itself I found some small bits an pieces in the storage section of the case…

First was the standard set of allen keys for adjusting the double truss rod but… hang on a second, these have been modified. Steve explained that this is because he uses a neater/smaller design for the truss rod cover and shortening the allen keys makes adjustment easier. If there is one thing that sums up the extent Steve has gone to, to make sure he’s happy with every detail of the end product before it ships, this is it.

Allen Keys

Next were a couple of custom Benford guitar picks. A little thicker than the gauge I usually use, but great none-the-less, and looking at the colour, they’re going to be difficult to lose!

Picks

Then came a CD-ROM of the build pictures complete with a rather unflattering self portrait! Also included on the disc were loads of Steve’s own recordings which are definitely worth checking out. Some stunning stuff on there and you can listen over at MySpace.

CD

The last thing out was the metaphorical icing on the cake. Steve had taken an off-cut from the body wood and carved a pick box for me. I’m not quite sure why, but I shall be eternally grateful. It is strange but this small gesture is almost as important to me as the quality of the guitar itself and tells you all you need to know about Steve’s idea of customer care.

Pick box

If you’re thinking of spending more than $900 (or £800) on a decent guitar, then, before buying from one of the big box manufacturers, you really owe it to yourself to have a quick conversation with Steve first.

Guitar finished and shipped

So along the way, Steve Benford sends me loads of pictures as the build progresses. You can have a look at these on my flickr stream.

Then I get word from Steve that it has been finished and it is being left “to settle” for a couple of days before a final setup. Steve puts up the pictures of the finished guitar on his gallery. Another few emails to and fro and we settle on calling it “The Lestercaster”.

Seeing these final pictures, and getting the tracking number from Steve has just brought it home to me how close my dream guitar is now. As someone has pointed out to me, I’m like a kid on Christmas Eve because there’s every chance that it’ll get delivered today, although Santa doesn’t get stopped by customs. I’ve tentatively booked a day off work next Monday, because if it is has arrived I will not be able to tear myself away from it. [many thanks to Martin for planting that idea – good call!]

And for anyone who is interested, here are the specs that I agreed with Steve;

Body: London Plane (supplied by me) in a Telecaster shape with a natural oil finish. Carve for my forearm and beer belly and countersunk controls a la PRS.

Neck: Mahogony glued/set neck. 24.75″ scale with a 12″ profile and ebony fingerboard with no fret markers on the face. Dunlop 6130 fretwire. Neck profile is probably best described as a fat/medium depth with a slight “V”.

Hardware: Grover 18:1 locking machine heads. Graphtech nut. Tune-o-matic bridge and stop tailpiece. Knurled Telecaster style knobs. All hardware is black.

Electrics: a pair of Seymour Duncan P-Rails pickups with EMG style matt black covers (love the look but not the sound of EMGs). Master volume and tone both with push/pull switches. Both down for humbuckers in series. Tone pulled up for single coils. Volume pulled up for P90s. Both pulled up for humbuckers in parallel.

Guitar Build – Choosing a luthier

So I’ve got a big chunk of wood, just the perfect size for a guitar body. This was given to me by a friend who had done some work for a high-end furniture maker.

This piece of London Plane (a type of lacewood I gather) has hung around the house, most of the time next to, or under my desk and has been a constant reminder of my long-term promise to myself to treat myself to a custom guitar.

An ex-colleague had gone on a guitar building course at Bailey Guitars and had been delighted with the result. I had been thinking about doing something similar but, for a couple of years had found it very difficult to free up a whole week and, being self-employed, it could potentially mean turning away work. The rough price of £1,200 to £1,300, including accommodation, was a bit of a stretch too.

I finally bit the bullet and wrote off to Baileys looking for a place on a course in late 2009 or early 2010 and… nothing happened. I sent a couple of chasing emails but still nothing. I made the assumption that they were either no longer running the courses or had gone out of business.

This was about the time I found the excellent Six String Bliss podcast and the first episode I listened to included an interview with Steve Benford , a luthier from Milwaukee.

I was impressed by Steve’s knowledge of, and passion for, guitars. I sought out reviews from previous customers. I also followed the story of Pipes and PT, the podcast hosts, having guitars built. Nothing but glowing endorsements.

I wrote an email to Steve, outlining my basic ideas, and we corresponded back and forth, hammering out the details and then came the part I’d been dreading. The actual price. If a self-build was going to cost upwards of £1,200, how much would it cost for a craftsman to do the same thing? Well the answer turned out to be $925! Or about £575 in sterling. Add in the cost of a hard case, shipping, import duty and VAT and it’s going to cost around £830.

Coincidentally this is about the price of a new Standard US Strat.

Postscript: Three days after sending Steve the initial payment, a got a reply from Baileys saying that they were taking bookings. There’s a lesson here for small businesses. Don’t ignore your email! A simple response saying “we’re really busy right now but thanks for your enquiry. We’ll be in touch in X days” would have secured me as their customer.