Interview with Gerard Melancon of Melancon Guitars
Hi Gerard. This is Baris from Sound Magazine. Welcome to my column is called Guitarism. Now, lets begin with your very first beginings. What’s the story from making guitars to your own brand, Melancon Guitars?
Hello Baris. Well, like many builders my start was as a player. After several years on the road I decided I didn’t want to live that way any longer and settled for playing in my hometown. During this time I began doing guitar repairs for many of the music stores in the area which was my training in what worked and what caused problems on many guitars. I had this great idea one day that I would attempt to build myself the perfect guitar. With no prior woodworking or training other than the training from my father. My dad could fix anything and he taught me the insight into how things worked and the skill of being good with my hands when it came to fixing something. I decided to buy some wood and see if I could build a guitar. After building that first guitar, I found a pleasure in taking pieces of wood and creating something. I took that first guitar to a gig and a local guitar player began inquiring about it and soon asked to purchase it from me. I didn’t build that guitar with the intent to sell it but I thought after the pleasure I had building it, I could use the money to buy more wood and build a better guitar the second time around. That continued to happen for about 2-3 years and I would build about 5-10 guitars a year for friends and local players who were interested. One of the local players purchased one of my guitars and he was friends with one of the better players from New Orleans who was touring with his band. His friend bought one of my guitars and then the word spread around the New Orleans music scene and before long I had many of the top players contacting me. When these players toured the US it exposed my guitars to players from other states. At the urging of a friend, Jim Odom, who was at the time just getting his business off of the ground producing compressors for recording studios, I attended the NAMM convention in Los Angeles. Jim’s business is Presonus Audio which you may have heard of. I shared a booth at the NAMM trade show with Jim and Presonus. The orders I took at this trade show led to me establishing Melancon Guitars as a full time business 17 years ago.
Can you please summarise the production process of Melancon Guitars for our readers? Do you handle all stages of production yourself or you have staff to help, how long does it take to make a typical Melancon?
I started out as a one man shop but the backorder list became so long that I was forced to hire additional workers. I went from a one man shop after about two years to seven employees. For eight years the business grew and more orders came in but with this came more problems and stress of managing the business. At this point I was managing but was not very much involved in the production of the instruments. After several years of frustration and long discussions with my wife, I realized that I was frustrated because I loved building guitars but was no longer building them. After realizing this seven years ago, I decided to go back to being a one man shop. So for the last seven years I have been the only one building the guitars. From wood selection and purchase to final assembly, it is only me. I do have a secretary to handle the paperwork and answer the phones, she is my sister, her name is Sissy. I have guitars in overlapping stages of production at all times but I would estimate about 20 hours to complete a guitar depending upon the options. Inlay and binding can take longer. The 20 hours is spread out over time because there is drying of the wood, glue drying, finish drying etc.
Can you introduce&mention your main models who are unfamiliar to your guitars? What are their most significant aspects, advantages to your competitors?
The Melancon Line is made up of 9 guitar models and a 4 string and 5 string bass models. The Pro Artist is basically my take on the familiar Strat design and the Pro Artist T is my take on the Tele design. While the body shapes look familiar they are not exactly the same shape as the Fender telecaster and Stratocaster shape. The bodies are available with either swamp ash or alder. The Classic Artist and Classic Artist T are a nicer version of the Pro and Pro T. By the way anytime there is a T in the model description it designates a tele body shape. The Classic models have a figured maple top with natural edge binding. The maple tops I offer are only the finest grades of flame, quilt, burl and spalted maple. The Classic T also is available with forearm and tummy cuts and 3 pickup configuration of your choice. The Classic Artist is available with S/S/H standard configuration. I also offer the studio package on either of these models which is H/S/H pickup configuration. The Custom and Custom T have no pickguard but rather have the pickups mounted directly into the body wood and all electronics are mounted from the rear control cavity route. The exceptional figured tops are saved for these models. The P-90 Artist is only available in tele shape with a figured top. The P-90 Pro model is also tele shape with no figured top but with forearm and tummy cuts. Both models have Duncan Stacked P-90’s in neck and bridge that are wired with a 3 way mini toggle in conjunction with the 3 way selector switch. The mini toggle will allow series, parallel or split wiring on both pickups. The Cajun Gentleman is greatly inspired by the Gretsch 6120 model. It is a tele shape that is semi-hollow with TV Jones filtertron pickups, a Tone Pros tune-o-matic bridge and Bigsby tremolo. The model has a figured maple top with no contours. All models are offered with your choice of fingerboards, either maple, east Indian rosewood, Pau Ferro, Madagascar rosewood, or Brazilian rosewood. The neck wood is maple on all models and mahogany on the Classic and Custom models. I also offer solid rosewood necks. All fretwire is stainless steel for long life and ease of bending. All models are also available with tone chambers. The MB4 and MB5 are the bass models. This is my take on the familiar Jazz Bass body shape. The body woods are swamp ash or alder with or without a figured maple top. The necks are maple with maple or rosewood fingerboards. All guitars come with total RF shielding in all cavities to shield against electrical interference. Being a one man shop allows me to offer attention to detail that bigger shops can’t afford to offer. I can also be more selective when it comes to purchasing wood.
I have never played any of your instruments. But i have some friend who has Melancon strat and they are looking really cool. But how about the sound, tone, sustain, the playing comfort of your guitars? How can you describe a typical Melancon in the basis of those factors?
I am not trying to reinvent the wheel with the tone of my guitars. Most of the models are trying to capture the great tones from the past. The Pro is geared toward the player looking for a great sounding 3 single coil guitar without the vintage price tag. A swamp ash body is for those looking for the brighter 50’s sounding tone and the alder is a good choice for blues and rock players as well as jazz players. The Pro T is mostly ordered for players trying to capture the tone of the great 50’s model tele tone. I also do many alder bodies Pro T’s for blues and rock players. The Classic and Classic T models will have the same tones as mentioned for the Pro and Pro T except have a humbucker in the bridge for hotter output. The Custom Artist series will be more focused sounding with less overtones due to the top routing of pickups. Again the wood choice will determine the overall tone of this model, the alder and swamp ash leaning toward Fenderish tones and the mahogany leaning towards Gibsonish tones. I strive for an extremely tight neck pocket fit which will translate into greater sustain. Each neck is hand fitted to the neck pocket on each guitar which means I don’t pull a neck off of the rack and install it on a guitar. I have been told by many customers that the guitars resonate so well that you feel it vibrating against your body. Any trained player can tell you that you don’t have to plug and electric in to determine if it is an exceptional guitar but you judge it by its acoustic tone unplugged. Each guitar is designed to balance on your shoulder where you don’t have to hold the guitar up and try and play. The forearm and tummy cuts are also designed to eliminate any sharp edges so playing is very comfortable.
Can you please tell me about the raw materials of your guitars, Gerard? What kind of woods, what origins do they have, How do you choose woods etc.?
Each and every Melancon Guitar is designed to be a tool first, therefore it must perform first and foremost. The looks are and added bonus but it must have tone that inspires and effortless playability. I select only the finest wood for all stages of the guitar, this is where it all starts. I had select all of the woods which is time consuming but again being a one man shop allows me to be more selective. Most of the body woods are the traditional body woods since the earliest electric guitars. Swamp Ash which I purchase from the local mills because the best swamp ash grows in the swamps of Louisiana. This wood is the wood of choice for traditional tele sounding guitars and for the person looking to capture the sounds of the 3 single coil tone from the 50’s. Alder is offered for a more mid focused tone and is very good for rock and blues players. This wood also grows in the northwest US. Mahogany is also offered for those players looking for a thicker sounding guitar. The mahogany I use is from Africa as the Honduran mahogany is getting harder to obtain due to it being placed on the endangered list. I also offer black and white limba which is also called Korina, this is very similar in tone to mahogany.
The neck woods are maple, mahogany, limba and rosewood. The maple is the most popular neck wood and grows in the north east US. Mahogany is usually matched with mahogany body for more of a Gibsonish tone. The solid rosewood is a nice neck choice and is not as bright as a maple neck but a touch brighter than a mahogany neck. It works well to give more definition if playing with distortion. I choose all body wood by weight, the lighter woods resonate more and have more overtones. I have found that the lighter woods always sound better. The figured woods are obviously chosen for appearance and only the highest grades are used.
Do you get your own stock of woods and how is your supplying, drying/seasoning period of your woods?
I purchase my woods as close to the source as possible. The woods that grow in the US are purchased from the mills that cut the trees. Some overseas woods are purchased from mills but some are purchased from US importers. Wood will usually sit in my shop for a couple of years before entering the kiln for drying. This allows the wood the chance to acclimate to my shops climate. I have my shop temperature and humidity controlled. The temperature in the shop remains at 76 degrees and the humidity at 45%. Once the wood is has sat for a coupel of years in my shop, it is ready for use and is dried in a kiln at my shop until the moisture content is 6%.
6%? Pretty good. How about finishing process of your products? They are all nitrocellulose lacquered?
I no longer use nitrocellulose lacquer. I made a switch to UV cured polyester about 10 years ago. The polyester is much more environmentally friendly and there is quickly coming a time when lacquer may not be allowed to be sprayed in this country due to government regulations on the amount of volatiles that can be released into the atmosphere. The UV cured finish is cured instantly with ultra violet light. This cuts the time a guitar is in finish from a month to about 3-4 days which greatly speeds up production. The guitars are placed in an UV oven and the finish is cured completely in a matter of minutes.
Indeed, it makes life easier. Okay, can you please give some details about pickups on your guitars? As far as i notice, you use your own pickups. Why do you choose to wind your own pickups?
I use Duncan Stacked P-90’s on the P-90 Artist and P-90 Pro. I use TV Jones Filtertrons on the Cajun Gentleman. All other models come standard with Melancon Custom wound pickups. I offer a vintage wind and a blues wind on the single coil, tele and humbucker style pickups. I also offer most of the aftermarket brands like, Lollar, Duncan, Van Zant, Fralin, DiMarzio and Barden. If a hotter pickup is desired I recommend chosing from one of the above mentioned manufacturers. Being a one man shop, my time is limited and I simply don’t have time to have 50 different models of pickups.
So why winding your own pickups, then?
Well, i choose to have the pickups wound to sound best in the way I build guitars, it also allows me to tweak them until I think they sound the best they can and match well with Melancon guitars. Again I am not trying to reinvent the wheel here so all of the traditional materials are used, alnico magnets, fibre board bobbins and vintage style wire.
What brands of machine heads, truss rods, pots and caps, nuts, frets and jacks do you prefer for your fine instruments?
I have all of my hardware made by Gotoh in Japan. This some of the finest hardware available. The pots are CTS brand pots. I use many styles of caps and install the type that sounds the best. Each guitar is put through a tone test to determine which type of cap sounds best to compliment the woods and pickups. I offer the traditional ceramic disc caps, Polyester Film Caps, and Orange Drop Caps. The nuts are Tusq by Graph-Tech which are a bone substitute with self-lubrication. I also offer Graphite nuts on request. The output jacks are made by Neutrik. Jescar Stainless Steel frets come standard and I also offer EVO gold fretwire and the nickel/silver Dunlop wire. My standard wire is .047” tall X .104” wide. I also offer a taller wire that is .055” X .095” and a vintage size wire that is .043” X .080”.
What’s your opinion on “Tone Chambers”? I see you supply that option to your customers...
The option is determined by the tone the player is looking to get out of the guitar. Mostly jazz players order this as it adds an acoustic quality to the instrument that resembles the tone of hollow body guitars. The upper mid frequencies are accentuated when a guitar has chambering. The Cajun Gentleman comes standard with chambers and has a solid center block and the edges are .25” thick.
One of the most promising innovation/trend for guitar scene looks like those “roasted/baked/toasted” woods lately. What do you think about those “cooked” woods as material?
I have not tried roasted maple necks yet but plan to. I friends with other builders who have tried them and seem to like them. The advantage is the increased temperature during drying makes the wood more stable which is always a good thing for guitars. So with no experience I really can’t give you an opinion.
You have fine way of creating a guitar concept, there is absolute attention on details. How about the tremolos and their sustain blocks which i personally believe that they are very important on guitar sound and resonance? Do you prefer tremolos with pure steel blocks or brass ones?
I like the feel of the tremelos with a push in arm. They don’t have any play between the bar and the block like the screw in arms do. You can also adjust the tension on the arm to allow it to swing freely or have it have enough tension that you can easily move it out of the way or into your grasp. This adjustment is made via a small allen screw on the back side of the push in collar. The height the bar is above the body is also adjustable so you can set it to your liking. I prefer the steel blocks on my trems and find they sound better and have better sustain.
How many guitars do you produce in monthly basis?
I produce 6-8 guitars a month. This varies depending on inlay, binding or other special request which sometimes take longer.
How about your import/export situations? In how many countries can your guitars be bought?
I have distributors in England, Italy, Japan, and Thailand. In other countries with no distributors sales are handled through US dealers or direct sales.
Do you have endorsees? Can you tell me about your projects about endorsements?
I do have endorsees. A list of endorsees is viewable at www.melanconguitars.com under the artist tab on the menu bar. I have different levels of endorsements depending on the exposure the guitars will receive. All artist are considered for endorsements. A bio of your career and list of recordings is required to be submitted for consideration. I do have other artist who have endorsements from larger companies that I have built guitar for but they don’t have endorsements. Brad Whitford from Aerosmith, Dave Mathew and Mark Knopfler are a few.
Woaw! Cool names you have, Gerard. I like to know since Sound is from Turkiye, what do you know about Turkiye and Turkish guitar scene? Have you ever been here before?
Unfortunately I am not familiar with the Turkish guitar scene. I have heard Yavuz Cetin and Erkan Ogur play fretless guitar. I have never been to Turkey but would love to visit your country. My wife and I love to travel when time permits.
We are here to get you a warm welcome. Okay, i’ve come to the end of my questions Gerard. I wish you luck for Melancon Guitars. Please feel free to send a message to your potential Turkish customers or dealers maybe?
I would like to thank you Baris for the opportunity to do this interview which hopefully will make the guitarist in your country somewhat familiar with what I do in building Melancon Guitars. It has been an honor and a pleasure. I would like to say hello and wish all of your readers kindest regards. The thing I love about the guitar is it allows us to speak the universal language of music! Wishing you all of the best.