Often, when Doug Wilkes makes one of his amazing custom guitars, he also builds one for himself. Lars Mullen reckons he’s got the right idea
Doug Wilkes has been making custom-built instruments for many high-profile artists since 1972. A highly imaginative luthier of the old school, Doug eschews CNC technology in favour of vintage tools and extensive hand-carving, yet his building philosophies can be surprisingly radical and some of his unique ideas have been echoed across the world.
And how did he come by the amazing array of guitars we find spread out in his garden? Simple: he grew tired of falling in love with each guitar he built and then having to send it away, so each time he received a custom order he really liked, he would make a duplicate model all for himself.
This clever two-for-one approach led to the far-out ‘RW’ guitar pictured left. The original, carved of maple and finished in bright pink, was built for Robbie Williams, who played it on US TV. Once Doug had built it, he knew he had to do one for himself in greenburst.
Look closer, and you’ll notice the unusual pickup spacing and the slanted layout. This is a side-product of one of Doug’s best-known innovations, his Answer Pickup System, a unique pickup arrangement which he patented back in 1987.
‘Sliding pickups have been around for decades, but my version is different,’ Doug explains. ‘The two coils of a humbucker are physically separated but they’re still wired as a humbucker, so one coil can be at the neck and the other at the bridge, or anywhere in the middle The coils are completely moveable, and fitted on rails. It comes wired in standard but with a choice of series/parallel as well, and with a coil tap system added you get a whole array of classic and custom sounds – and that’s why I called it The Answer.
‘It also eliminates the wolftones that often appear on Fender guitars when more than one pickup is on at once, when the extra magnetic pull on the string interferes with the intonation and delivers a double note.
‘I built an Answer model for Tim Renwick around ’88. Tim told me that David Gilmour would love one, and in my infinite wisdom I said “Who’s he?” He thought I was taking the mick! Anyway, David tried one, liked it, and ordered one with a rosewood neck.
‘I was invited down to the recording of Pink Floyd’s A Momentary Lapse of Reason where he used his Answer and one of my basses. I also had the job that day of setting up all the guitars, and his manager offered me a two-year world tour as David’s guitar tech. I was gobsmacked, but I had to say I couldn’t do it as I had signed a contract with my band to play at Warners Holiday Camps that summer at Carmarthen Bay. There you go!’
In the ’80s, with his reputation as a high quality luthier growing, Doug decided to do a difficult and dangerous thing – open a guitar factory. ‘I’d never been happy with mainstream brands,’ he says. ‘Fender necks were always too narrow for me. I had a Ned Callan with Peter Cook’s handwound pickups – I loved that guitar, but it fell to bits on me in the end. I came across John Birch guitars, and they were making a lot of noise about their guitars having this and that, but I hated them. I thought, well, if this is supposedly top-notch, I think can do better. I bought some pretty terrible guitar-building books, two nice blocks of wood, the best plane I could find and a really good set of chisels, and settled down to build my own Les Paul Junior.
‘I sold that guitar and put the money into equipment, including a pickup-winding machine. I wanted to be self-sufficient and build from the ground upwards, including some of the hardware. The next guitar sold in no time and it became apparent that I had the skills to become a builder, so while making and repairing in my spare time I learned all about tonewoods, the mechanics of hardware and, most importantly, doing set ups. To me, one of the best ways to learn how to set up a guitar properly is to build one.
‘So in three months in 1985 I transformed a bare 5,000-square foot room in Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent into a guitar factory, fitting and setting up the machines and building a spray booth, a work area and an office, and completed 32 guitars in time for a guitar show in London. I settled down with nine skilled craftsmen building 10 guitars a week.’
While many of Doug’s production models were based on proven designs, he also began to make a name for himself as a guy who could turn out truly outlandish guitars. ‘One was the Glam Rock Victorian Moustache,’ he laughs. ‘Then there was the Dick And Bollocks, and the Lord Lemon. The Slut started out as one of my “Doug doodles” on a scrap of paper; it had a body shaped like the letter W for Wilkes. Collectors of odd-shaped guitars are always trying to track one down.
‘At the same time I developed a passion to build a guitar based on the Gibson 335, but smaller. I’ve got two here, both from the mid-’80s. They’re semi-hollow double-cutaways, hand-carved on the inside to match the outside, with a Brazilian mahogany centre block for sustain but lightweight. These two are from the mid-’80s and have been gigged extensively, but still play and sound good.
‘The blue semi-acoustic was the first of this style that I made. It was originally blonde, but after I’d stood on it one day I decided to refinish it in blue. The Japanese copy of the Gibson vibrato is pretty bad. The cherryburst model from 2006 with gold hardware has a Bigsby, which works a lot better.’
Next up is a startling brace of doublenecks. ‘I made several basses for Gordon Rowley who was with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young,’ Doug explains. ‘He was having trouble keeping his Fenders in tune on tour, so I made him some Flying V basses out of solid maple. They were as solid as a rock, and he was so pleased he ordered a variety of guitars, including some twin-necks. I ended up making one for Steve Howe of Yes, too.
‘This white one has a two-piece Brazilian mahogany body, maple necks and ebony fingerboards. I also made the bridges and tailpieces. The other one has a body capped with four pieces of maple.
‘I’ve been commissioned many times over the years to build my own Telecaster-style guitars. The one with the brass hardware dates from the very early ’80s and has matured into a great-sounding guitar. The blonde one is only a few years old; it’s patterned after an original ’52 and has Bare Knuckle pickups. The orange one is carved from a piece of English ash with a tummy-tuck, topped with birdseye maple.
‘Most of these represent a lot of work, but the red one with the black guard is my “four-hour model”. It was an experiment to see how fast we could build a guitar if we went into mass production. The neck was already built, but I made and sprayed the body, wound the pickups and assembled it in that time. I still use it for rehearsals! In contrast, the one with the gold humbuckers and the single coil took many hours.’
As a custom builder, Doug Wilkes is often asked to build a guitar based on a classic design, but upgraded. ‘I think I’ve replicated most of the common styles now,’ he muses. ‘Here’s an Explorer-style guitar, a LP Jr type and a typical ’80s pointy headstock guitar with a super-lightweight body… that one sounds phenomenal.
‘Strat-styles are always a favourite, of course. I have two that I use regularly in bands: the red one has overwound Schaller single coils and it’s good for authentic blues sounds, while the dark blueburst has EMGs and a Floyd Rose, so it can handle most things. The third one is a traditional sunburst model with a very nice maple fingerboard.’
Much more frightening is the Wilkes Bat Guitar. ‘I work in a Meatloaf tribute band and was nagged into building a guitar with a Bat Out Of Hell theme,’ Doug grins. ‘This would make anyone look a prat on stage. I’ve stabbed myself on stage with it!’
Equally wild, in a very different way, is a six-string bass built using Victorian pitch pine from the rafters of an old mill. ‘I built a similar one for a customer and I loved the wacky shape. The Kent Armstrong pickups give a really massive low end. I use Kent’s pickups on most of my guitars… they’re also on the five-string J-style bass, with an English ash body and a maple neck. On that, the fingerboard is a gorgeous piece of Thai rosewood… it looks and sounds wonderful, but it’s hard, so you need a very sharp plane.
‘I’ve collected some amazing pieces of figured wood over the years, especially birdseye maple. It’s funny to think how guitar players love to see this figuring on a neck… a butcher who wants a solid maple butcher’s block will avoid tiger-stripe and birdseye like the plague, as they wouldn’t want the eyes to jump out when it’s hit with a cleaver!’
Doug is recognised for making guitars that echo the classics but with alternative options, and next to emerge blinking into the sunlight is a quartet of humbucking solidbodies. ‘Sometimes I’m asked for unusual woods for this style of guitar like alder or poplar, but the first two follow tradition with Brazilian mahogany bodies and maple tops,’ he explains. ‘The cherryburst one has a reversed lacquer process which ages rather quicker. The light tobacco sunburst one is 31 years old, and still gigged regularly. The double-cutaway is a BG Deluxe – one of the first guitars I built. I still use this one, and it plays great. With 35 coats of lacquer, it’s pretty robust! Finally, the black one is a version of a guitar I built for Carl Morton, who asked for an LP with a chamfered body, Bare Knuckle humbuckers and a vibrato.’
We’ll finish with a look at some Wilkes basses. First up is a pair of modern active four-strings. ‘At some point in the ’90s I was being asked for exotic basses with curved bodies and wax finishes,’ Doug says. ‘I was aware of the wax process as I had been making waxed gunstocks for gun shops.’
Next is a fretless with one of Doug’s patented ideas, the ‘slap plate’ – a feature now copied by manufacturers worldwide. ‘This is a BI Standard Percussive fretless from ’85 with a humbucker and a piezo pickup in the fingerboard,’ he demonstrates. ‘It really got the industry talking when it was launched. It gave that distinct fretless sound, but the piezo added a percussive attack… perfect for ’80s slap styles. The piezo has its own volume control to blend with the humbucker. I kept the body mainstream, although the headstock has an unusual two-a-side tuner formation.
‘The sunburst one is a recent customer order. I was asked to build a simple workhorse bass for a guy who had lost all faith in wooden fingerboards, so I made him a bass with a phenolic resin fingerboard, which is a sort of plastic, like Bakelite. There’s not a dead spot to be heard anywhere! It’s got an active Kent Armstrong.
‘The final two are a Wilkes Supreme bass and an acoustic bass with some nice features. I fitted the bridge further up the body so it would resonate better, and used a very thin soundboard plus a wooden truss rod system in the bridge to stop the pull of the strings buckling the top. It also helps enhance the sustain, like a soundpost on a violin.
‘I’ve loved all the guitars I’ve made for customers and always feel the best one is the last one, so this is how my collection has evolved. Mind you, I might miss duplicating the next one – it’s going to take me a full year to build a 24-string lyre harp guitar from very expensive exotic woods!’