Regardless of whether you're talking about homes, cars, jewelry, or guitars, something about the word "custom" sounds pretty damn expensive. So when we came across a luthier (translation: guitar maker) that sells a majority of his beautifully crafted custom guitars for under $600, we were pretty much knocked off our feet.
After springing at the opportunity to have a Mike Gee Kustoms guitar of our own, the folks here at The Uncommon Thread wanted to find out more about the man crazy enough to go up against Guitar Economics 101. Mike himself brought us up to speed on his journey of becoming an industry leader, how he'd hack it out on a desert island, and the hidden talent that's frankly good enough to make MacGyver quit his day job. Mike Gee is out to challenge everything we know about the finer things in life by proving you really can have it all, trust fund not required.
Where does your love of music come from?
From a very early age I remember my parents always listening to music. Be it the radio or albums, my parents loved 50s / 60s music peppered with a huge dose of 70's country. Little did I know that they were providing me with a great education of pop and melody sensibilities that would be the foundation for music I would later create.
What inspired you to go from someone who plays instruments to someone who make instruments for a living?
Building guitars for a "living" was almost by accident. When the economy crashed in 2007 I started tinkering with vintage budget guitars. These were generally the type you would have bought from Sears or Montgomery Ward in the 60s and 70s and were often made in Japan. These were the perfect guitar for the average Joe such as myself because vintage Fenders and Gibsons were beyond the reach of almost anyone. I seem to remember in 2007 a 1958 Gibson Les Paul sold for $750, 000!!!! I took all the knowledge of guitar repair that I'd acquired during my many years on the road and honed them as I restored these jobber guitars. This progressed to me creating the first Mike Gee Kustoms branded guitar in 2009 (I wish I could get that one back for my collection) with these focusing on classic designs such as Strat & Tele style guitars as well as Les Paul and 335 Type models. Almost every one of those built were what is known as Relics (guitars that look 30-60 years old, but are new). In July 2012 my wife turned to me at dinner and said "Why don't you just work one job? You should just build guitars." Up to this point I was working 50 hours a week at my day job and another 20 building guitars... it was scary, but I took the jump.
How did you personally transition from a musician to a luthier?
A lot of guys go to a tech school or intern under a skilled luthier. I, on the other hand, went to the school of "hard knocks." In the 90s I played in several bands (Left, KMFB, The Disgruntled Postal Workers) that often would travel from Central Kansas to Oklahoma, Missouri, Texas (and later Arizona, California, and New Mexico) for as little as $20. Not exactly a money making project. At the end of the day there was no money left to pay someone else to fix our gear. So as a result, I got pretty good at fixing wiring, cables, drums, PA's etc. Very few "luthiers" can re-solder a volume pot in the back of a dive bar with a lighter... I can. in the 2000s it went from a necessity to a hobby to an obsession to my day job.
Can you tell us a great story from your days on tour?
All the great stories can not be shared in a public forum... LOL. I can say this though: very few things in my life match the joy I feel when I perform. While driving 10 hours to play a 30 minute set in some dive sounds like a lot of work to some, it is to me one of the biggest highs even if there is only a handful of people there. Only thing that trumps performing is the day I got married.
Tell us about the guitar you're creating for Cult of Individuality. What inspiration are you drawing from Cult when creating this badass instrument?
The one I'm working on now, the second one for Cult, is made from reclaimed pine and will feature a single Humbucker. Its a Strat style body with the Cult Of Individuality logo Laser'd into it and will have a maple Strat-type neck with a rosewood fretboard. Not sure what stain we will use. A lot of the time I let the wood tell me what color it wants to be. At the end of the day, she will be a beautifully rustic guitar that is a perfect fit with the visual aesthetic of the Cult brand.
If you could only take one guitar with you to a desert island, what would that be and why? Can you tell us about the set you would play there?
If I was to only take one guitar, it would probably be a 50's Archtop Acoustic Silvertone. However when you're a guitar junkie, one is never enough... so I'd want the Silvertone, a Gibson Les Paul, Fender Jazz Bass, Several Telecasters (mine and Fender's), and a Gretsch 6122. As for the set I would play? I'm not the kind of guy that knows 1,000 covers. You'll never hear me busting out "Enter Sandman" or "Stairway to Heaven," so I'd probably work on original material and come back with several albums worth of music.
What was the strangest request you ever had from a customer?
I really haven't had any strange
requests. Sometimes we will mash up designs like put Telecaster parts and pickups on a Les Paul body. A lot of my customers come to me wanting a guitar that looks like a guitar that their favorite guitarist played. We do "star guitar" recreations Like Joe Strummers (the Clash) Tele, John Mayor, Billie Joe's (Green Day) "Blue" Strat, Mike Ness (Social Distortion) "Orange County" Les Paul, Rivers Cuomo's Strat, George Harrison's "Rocky," Zakk Wyldes Bulseye LP, as well as recreations of my customers guitars that they had when they were young. Guitarists are purists when it comes to guitar design, so they rarely go outside the box. That said, I'll do almost anything if its possible design wise. Crazy shape? No problem!! 4 humbuckers? I'll do that.