Custom SG 400 by Shonky Musical Instruments
Looking for a custom painting specialist with a difference? I was. Luckily I found Antony Moggridge. Here is the story of a custom SG 400 by Shonky Musical Instruments.
Back up, what is an SG 400 ?
An Epiphone SG 400 is a Solid body electric Guitar. It was designed in the late 80’s. Mine started out as the cheap matt black “Goth” version of the model played by heavy rockers like AC-DC and Black Sabbath. Despite its karrang reputation, the guitarist who demoed it at Arcade Music in Cannock where I bought the guitar second hand, proved it was suited to many different musical styles.
The mission was therefore to lose the cliché “heavy rock” image and transform it into a wooden instrument looking close on 80-years old, that had been updated over the decades as things fell off. Yes, there were electric guitars 80 years ago! Long story short, mission accomplished.
To clarify, this guitar started out matt black, including black plate and black plastic control knobs.
This is my review of the project from a customer point of view. I have no affiliation with Antony.
Writing up the article I go through the stages from initial idea to a brief, to completion. There are many shared similarities between kitchen painting and musical instrument refurbishment, but also a few too many differences. At the end Antony answers some questions reinforcing why a luthier with his experience and outlook was the best person for this sort of project. There is also a selection of videos featuring some of his instruments being played.
Why not do this project myself?
Apart from kitchens and furniture, over the years I have upcycled plenty of challenging pieces including an AVL weaving loom, a 36′ wooden ketch and more. Traditional Painter members have successfully tackled all sorts of faux paint finishes too, making all manner of surfaces look like what they are not. But there are limits!
Working through the initial planning stages, I realised that although there are many shared skill sets between customising a mahogany guitar and refurbishing a mahogany kitchen, there are times when you need to recognise where one skill set ends and another one starts.
Tired, dated, still works well…
Tired, dated, transform, too good to throw away – phrases coined at TP back in the day. Many of our clients think along those lines when they have been assessing what to do with their sturdy, well-fitted 10, 15, 20 year old wooden kitchen. Everything works, but invariably they see where the lacquer has oranged or the pine is particularly knotty. What to do to bring an old kitchen into the 21st century? Replace it, change the doors… or paint some life back into it?!
I went through a similar thought process with the guitar, but in reverse. My Epiphone SG-400 was a standard guitar in good condition, but I wanted to make it look like it had come from a bygone age.
The starting point: I knew that underneath the well painted matt black lacquer lay a solid mahogany body. It is built like a tank. The tuners hardly ever need tweaking. It has a fabulous smooth playing action, and with 2 humbucker pick-ups and some fiddling with control knobs, it can sound like a heavy beast or a gentle beauty. I really like it and had no intention of ever selling it. But “matt black goth paint“! Who am I kidding?! That combination is not really my thing, man. It might have been appropriate back in the late 80’s when I could have sat on my own hair, but now? Like me, that rock guitar looks dated.
However, rather than bring its look bang up to date, I wanted to take it way back in time.
Custom SG research
The idea to create my own aged Epiphone custom SG came to me after checking out the story behind Old Black, which is Neil Young’s 1953 Les Paul Gibson SG. More on that later.
Quick skip through modern history, where dates and claims about solid body guitars are a bit sketchy, but you should get the idea! (A comprehensive compilation here.)
The first production electric guitar came out in about 1930. The inventor of the “Electric frying pan” went on to form Rickenbacker guitars in 1934.
The first solid body guitar from Gibson was built by Les Paul in 1940. It was literally made from logs. Leo Fender was also experimenting independently with electric guitars at this time too.
The Gibson SG first came out in 1952.
A 1953 Gibson SG Gold Top ended up being known as “Old Black“.
Epiphone are pretty much synonymous with Gibson. Les Paul used Epiphone’s workshop. Nowadays they share similar if not identical ranges, but work out of different factories, different specs, very different pricing.
In 2017, around 1.12 million electric guitars were sold in the United States alone.
The technology behind electric guitars was around since the 1800s but nobody had joined the dots to amplify a musical instrument. Equally surprising, the technology in most electric guitars hasn’t really changed either, to this day.
That brief timeline gives us a lot of years for potential, authentic ageing!
I had a picture building in my head of how I would like my stock Epiphone SG guitar to look.
The body crafted from a piece of very old mahogany. It could have been black once upon a time, but now it was worn back to the bare wood, a mix of faded, ingrained greasy hands, dirt, and life on the road. It would have a patina literally reflecting how it had been held and played over the years.
Hardware: Over the years, the control knobs, pickup switches and tuners etc would have been added to, repaired or swapped out. The metal hardware would have aged, scratched and tarnished.
Apart from new strings, there was no intention of changing any of the hardware or electronics gubbins. I definitely wanted to keep the same sound.
Simple to achieve!
Shonky Musical Instruments, the best ones to meet the brief
As I mentioned before, at a push I am perfectly capable of doing this work myself – photographing the guitar, removing all the hardware, putting bits in boxes safe. A local luthier could put it all back together again and fine tune it for not a lot of money.
I have done a fair bit of paint stripping in my time too, and with a cabinet scraper and trusted Mirka CEROS sander I wouldn’t be fazed by the matt black lacquer. Ageing the timber underneath, again, how hard could that be. Traditional Painter Martin Guest had also recently shared the metal ageing potions he uses on brass hinges when painting old pianos. I have an artistic eye. What could go wrong?!
Not so much “go wrong” as “miss a trick”!
Not much could go wrong, but then I thought, hang on, I advocate specialist kitchen painters at Traditional Painter because they have acquired a wealth of experience and knowledge, having focused on one specific area of the decorating trade. Regardless of the cynical views that kitchen painters are just another very good decorator who paints kitchens, the reality is, kitchen painting specialists with years under their belt bring an extra edge to a refurbishment job. They have a huge database in their head from past jobs that helps them identify specific problems ahead of time. They have developed a keen eye for detail, spotting areas for improvement, mixing and matching the right colours and so on.
The point is, all craftsmen are on a journey, we all want to learn, but how far do we need to go! Craftsmen customising musical instruments may use many of the skills we have learnt as kitchen and furniture painters, and vice versa, but there are plenty of differences around the edges.
I decided to eat my own dog food, so to speak. In other words, I followed my own professional advice and went looking online for a specialist to customise my guitar for me.
Fortunately I found Antony Moggridge at Shonky Musical Instruments in Somerset. It was a smart move, and a pleasure doing business with a brilliant craftsman who kept me informed all the way through. An artist with a business-like approach, a rare type!
Obvious obstacle to overcome – painted mahogany
Antony managed to replicate exactly the vision I’d had of the guitar body – dark, worn, scratched, dented, patina, natural wood.
Easy to say, but as all painters will know, most timber is painted for a reason. Often you strip paintwork to find a hodgepodge of different wood underneath. Wood that is perfect for painting may not look so appealing au naturel.
In this case, the first thing Antony said to me was along the lines of ‘beware, we might not like what we find under the lacquer.‘ Looking at it finished, you would be hard pushed to tell that the body is actually 3 pieces laminated together.
Antony managed to lose the planking effect with the judicious use of wood dyes.
The marks were achieved with a custom hammer that he uses to replicate multiple decades of knocks and bruises.
It was overall sealed with coats of clear matt lacquer. This leaves it looking a little dull compared to the normal high gloss polish on new guitars, but it will buff up naturally in parts over future years of use.
Is it mahogany or mahogany?
Technically the Indonesian mahogany body of the guitar is not mahogany. As far as the biologists are concerned mahogany comes from Africa and this sub species is actually meranti.
I came across the same discrepancy when painting wooden boats. The boat wrights would say they installed new mahogany planks, but it was invariably Indonesian or Philippine mahogany. Still beautiful markings and durable, but not the real mccoy.
Not so obvious obstacle to overcome – the head stock
Antony stripped off the black lacquer, but didn’t think the maple head stock looked the part. It was too light and pristine. Out again with the black paint and signwriting pencil.
A touch more brass suggested itself.
Obvious obstacle to overcome – aged accessories
Apart from the colouring of the timber, I knew it would be getting a brass guard fitted. I had seen one on a Shonky custom slide guitar. It has been said that it looks like a piece cut from a Moroccan tea tray.
The brass is from an old brass plate that I hammered flat. (Antony)
Apart from the guard though, I hadn’t given the rest of the guitar hardware much thought beyond making it look worn. That’s where Antony worked his experience and creative magic to tend to the details.
Age the bridge and anything that does or doesn’t move. Done.
Antony had tried to source different pickup surrounds from China. They still haven’t turned up!
I ended up just aging the original black plastic ones. The plastic parts are aged using acetone, gravel and fine abrasives.
The volume and tone knobs used to be standard black. Not any more. They are resin, knocked about a bit, very much the part.
The pick-up switch grommet thingy is an old penny
I know some experienced musicians who are into their instruments, and they are flipping out at the details on this guitar. Praise indeed. Musically, it is still a stock Epiphone SG-400 too. Suits me to the ground.
Shonky Instruments Q&A
Antony, what do you do for a living and why?
I’m a luthier i.e make, service and repair stringed instruments. (Yes that’s what I do for a sort of living!)
I’m a luthier because I absolutely love making instruments. The final process of putting the strings on and playing the first notes is always magic and I can’t see myself ever getting tired of it.
Some of your custom built guitars look like they have been bodged together from bits of spare timber and old driftwood. What’s that all about? Do they work?
Indeed some of them are completely bodged together. And yes they are playable.
I try as much as possible to use reclaimed or at least sustainable timber for most of my builds. I really don’t like the fact that for many years guitar makers and buyers seem to believe that guitars that sound good have to be made from rare timber cut down from the middle of a rain forest. The above photo is from a range called “Firewood specials” which are instruments made from my offcuts from other instruments.
As a point of reference, if you are trying to navigate through the world of guitars looking for inspiration, check out this extended article on best guitar brands. It covers all the big name guitar makers and their philosophies when building guitars through the ages. Every luthier has their angle!
Antony, you sell guitars made from cigar boxes, what’s the story there?
Cigar box guitars are simple instruments using a box as a resonator. Although commonly associated with American Delta blues, this is somewhat misleading as similar homemade box instruments are to be found worldwide throughout history.
In the 1st world war Box fiddles and ukuleles were commonly made and used by soldiers in the trenches. They are becoming increasingly popular. I make a full range from very basic slide instruments to fully fretted with top of the range pickups.
Do you play all the instruments you build?
Yes I do play them or try to. That’s a big perk being a luthier. I’ve literally played hundreds of different instruments! The biggest perk is when a musician plays one in a gig or on a recording.
Do you have a Youtube channel?
Yes. Videos of electric banjos, the world’s smallest diddly bow, flamenco guitar, log eukele, bazooki and some cigar boxes rocking the house down!
This is the link to my Youtube channel. Unfortunately I don’t have the time to record each instrument, as for every 4-minute Youtube video I’ve done there’s about 2 hours of outtakes!
Antony is a true artist, and seems to be very big on customer service too. He kept me informed every step of the way with ideas and progress reports. It was superb value for money, delivering a “new” personalised guitar that is good for a life time. That much we kitchen painters have in common with luthiers!
Drop Antony an email or give him a call via his contact page if you are interested in his service for new or customised stringed musical instruments.
Please share it on Twitter, Facebook, or print it out for reference. Thanks.