‘Many believe that luthier-built guitars are truer versions of the original models’

From gridiron to guitars: Former football coach Thad Chilton prospers as luthier

Mon, 02/25/2019 - 12:00pm

CAMDEN — Many in the Midcoast recognize Camden resident Thad Chilton as a Five Town Football youth football program cofounder and as the former varsity head football coach at Camden Hills Regional High School. 

While Chilton, indeed, devoted countless hours to youth football in the area, he is not simply just a football coach. 

Chilton is the proud owner of Camden Harbor Custom Guitars, his Camden-based business where he uses his skills as a luthier to hand-craft guitars. 

With three models of guitars — Classic, Northwood and King’s Pine — Chilton no longer has time for additional passions, such as coaching, and instead dedicates his days to building guitars, advancing his luthier skills and growing his business. 

How does one advance their skills as a luthier? 

“My training [as a luthier] has consisted of seminars at national stringed instrument symposiums, online instruction, video-based instruction, and textbooks,” Chilton said. “Each guitar that I've built has been a custom build — a great way to broaden my skills as a luthier.” 

Chilton’s passion for guitars blossomed in the late 1960s, at age 11, when he was hooked by his first electric guitar, an Olympic White Fender Stratocaster. 

“Inspired by older players I began ‘modding’ and trading guitars/parts in search of the newest sound,” he recalled. “This guitar ‘modding’ of electronics, hardware, necks, and setups carried on thru my art college years when we took a DIY approach to literally everything.”

Thirty years later, Chilton’s graphic design and art director position shifted from a hand-crafted process to largely computer-based. In a quest to return to his hand-crafting roots, Chilton turned to becoming a luthier during the summer of 2016 with his work as a luthier involving minimal amount of machinery usage and consists largely of Chilton single-handedly hand-crafting each guitar. 

The process to build each guitar takes two months to build and an additional two weeks to do final setup for the customer, though the process can take longer depending on the desired model and custom features such as color, custom appointments, electronics and finish. 

Chilton aims to spend at least six hours each day crafting guitars and spends countless hours tracking inventory and sales, marketing and maintaining an online and social media presence. 

Chilton’s goal with each guitar is to craft them to be as comfortable as possible, something he says is not achievable by factory built guitars, and sound nearly identical to their vintage counterparts. 

“Luthier built guitars are made to mimic the quality of the legendary electric models in both tone and construction,” he stated. “Some luthiers take the best features of various models and build a hybrid of their own design.”

The T-Style guitars Chilton crafts today are inspired by the Fender Telecasters of the 1950s, which Chilton categorizes as the original mass production guitar and a favorite for those gravitated to classic guitar models. 

“For many guitarists a Telecaster is like a favorite old sweater,” Chilton commented. “Nothing fancy about it, but it just feels good and it never let’s you down. It’s simplicity of design, and wide range of voice, makes the T-Style a reliable instrument for guitarists of all abilities.” 

The advantages of having luthier crafted guitars are significant, Chilton noted. 

“Luthier built guitars are made to deliver the quality of the original electric models in both voice and construction,” he stated. “Most luthiers use higher quality components created by domestic engineers and machinists dedicated to preserving quality vintage sound in their product lines. Many believe that luthier built guitars are truer versions of the original models than the offshore factory built mid-market and budget guitars.”

Furthermore, Chilton noted his guitars differ from factory built and even most lutheir built guitars as he strives to deliver a more vintage Telecaster sound. 

Northwood and King’s Pine guitars, Chilton’s premium guitars, are categorized by Chilton as “comfortable, light-weight, highly resonant, high-output T-Style guitars with incredible sustain and a harmonic vintage tone” crafted from incredibly rare tone wood sourced from Maine. 

“High quality woods and quality pickups are considered the most important factors in guitar tone,” Chilton remarked. “Great vintage tone simply cannot be captured by using commercially available new growth wood. Kiln dried new growth wood is never completely free of oils and resins. While most luthiers have access to similar electronics, they do not have access to the very rare tone woods that I employ in my guitars.”

King’s Pine guitars are crafted from Chilton’s stock of 170-year-old Maine White Pine, acquired from building rafters in western Maine and ring-dated to before the American Revolution. Early versions of the Telecasters were made from similar pine, Chilton noted. 

“The resins in these prized timbers crystallized more than a century ago leaving microscopic air pockets for a guitar body of unmatched resonance,” Chilton said. “I match these light-weight rustic bodies with one-piece necks crafted from 12 year-old Maine grown Northern Hard Maple.”

Northwood model guitars, meanwhile, are crafted from air-dried Maine Red Spruce with Chilton noting he is not aware of no other electric guitar crafted from solid Red Spruce. 

“The Northwoods T-Style is adorned with abalone shell purflings and natural wood bindings, are carved with a comfort contour, and are stained in three vintage color schemes,” Chilton stated. “I match Northwoods bodies with necks handcrafted from Maine sourced Northern Hard Maple with Ebony and Rosewood fretboards.”

Despite the advantages consumers experience in playing luthier crafted guitars, Chilton noted luthiers working in rural areas, such as himself, are challenged by the lack of musicians compared to major metropolitan areas. 

Rural luthiers, however, are able to establish distributorship agreements with high-end guitar shops across the country specializing in luthier crafted guitars, according to Chilton.  

Chilton, who is in the process of establishing those agreements for his King’s Pine and Northwood models, says rural luthiers are able to showcase their instruments in major cities and to professional musicians with the right distribution agreements. 

Those interested in purchasing a guitar can contact Chilton at 207-230-0001 or thad@camdenharborcustomguitars.com to arrange a private demonstration of the process in his Camden showroom, which contains several current builds and a Marshall VS 100 amplifier to plug into. 

Guitars are available for purchase at his showroom, located at 21 Lily Pond Drive, and online at camdenharborcustomguitars.com. Chilton’s company can be found on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube

Reach George Harvey at sports@penbaypilot.com