The Art of Making Music

Create’s Elle Hayter talks to custom guitar maker Jim Mills

 Custom made guitars by Jim Mills

What first got you interested in designing and building guitars?

I got tired of buying good quality guitars that weren’t playing up to their potential.

How long does it take for you to build a guitar?

Around three months if the weather doesn’t turn nasty and send the humidity sky high.

What difficulties did you face when you first started building guitars?

Everything was difficult from sourcing the materials and basic tools, to climate control, building methods, finishing techniques this could be a very long list.

Have your construction techniques changed much since then?

Always evolving. There is nearly always a better way to do something and guitars are such complicated machines involving so many procedures between first bending the sides to the final enjoyment of the sound, …the refinement of construction is endless.


A piece of walnutTell us about how you choose your woods and where you source them?

I source wood from people I trust both in Australia and overseas. Because I build a limited quantity of guitars, I try to build with the best grades of wood that I can obtain. In this sense I am at the mercy of the suppliers who I have to rely on to send quality materials. I have rarely been disappointed, if I am, I don’t buy from there again.

What is your favourite tonewood and are their special ways to work with it?

For soundboards I favour Spruce which encompasses a variety of species from the Sitka,  Adirondack, Englemann and Lutz Spruce of North America to the European species such as Caucasian, Carpathian, Italian, German etc. I’m not a fan of Cedar or Redwood soundboards, probably because I’ve never heard anything sound as good as Spruce. For backs and sides I like many types of wood from the Rosewoods, Mahoganies & Maples that have been traditionally used to some of the less common species with beautiful figure and good musical properties. All wood used in guitars needs to glue well, ring well, finish well, if possible look great and remain stable.



Do you enjoy the finishing processes?

Finishing is a challenge and in that respect I enjoy it, it is also a major chore when using traditional Nitrocellulose Lacquer, and by traditional I mean not containing a catalyst. Be very suspicious of any finish purporting to be traditional nitrocellulose that has come on a guitar built in a factory. It almost certainly won’t be because it simply doesn’t suit mass production. It is unbelievably time consuming, I have made many solid body electric guitars that took a couple of weeks to build and then a month to finish.

Do you prefer building electric or acoustic guitars?

I like building both but if I had to build just one type it would be acoustics. An acoustic guitar if built properly, is a major feat of engineering. A box built from solid woods with no surface thicker than 115 – 125 thousands of an inch, connected to a neck which has to be mounted to that box at an angle correct in six different planes , supporting a constant tension of around 190 lbs for who knows how many years, enduring changing temperatures and humidity and occasional over enthusiastic treatment by its owner and under enthusiastic treatment by the airlines, is pretty special.



Has building guitars improved your patience skills?

In the workshop, yes . Everywhere else, NO.

Do you design guitars to suit each player?

Frequently, but you design them within existing parameters , I’m deeply suspicious of people who think they can reinvent the wheel.

Do you also play guitar?

I don’t play as much as I used to because I find building pretty intense, but yes I enjoy playing a little each day.

Have you ever performed in public and were you nervous?

Not really but if I did I’d be very nervous.

What is your advice for someone trying to find the perfect guitar?

Don’t! No guitar is perfect for everything, find the one that does all that you want to do better than the others, and then get it checked over by someone who knows what they’re doing before you buy it.


Jim Mills' workshopWhat guitars do you own and play?

I’ve got an old Gibson acoustic that I’ve had for about 35 years, and a couple of my own.

Do your guitar building skills translate to other creative building projects?

Well you tend to build everything like a guitar, ie very slowly and carefully.

What do you love about your job?

Just about everything, creating something functional and attractive from a collection of bits.

What are your passions/inspirations/influences?

I love hearing a guitar, electric or acoustic, being driven when it’s played, that’s when you hear the grit and the guts of the thing. Listen to Stevie Ray Vaughan wringing the neck on his Strat during ‘Texas Flood’, you can hear the bridge springs groaning, or Bert Jansch playing ‘Angie’, lots of extraneous noise that give the track atmosphere and attitude. Listen to Peter Green playing ‘Oh Well’, so perfect.


Where do you create your art?

I have a workshop at home.

Who are your favourite creatives?

Hieronymus Bosch, Dylan, George Harrison, Roger Waters, Roy Harper, Reginald Mitchell, Lennon & McCartney, Alan Turing, Barnes Wallis, Sydney Camm, John Steinbeck, Hideo Kamimoto the list could go on, all highly creative people.

People you admire?

My wife, who no matter how she feels, gets up and goes to her school where she does her best to give young kids the best start that she can.

What’s your strongest memory of your childhood?

Seeing two Vampire jets collide and crash in northern England when I was about four years old.  Two men were killed.

Something you couldn’t live without?

Wife, Son, Guitar and Dog.


Jim Mills




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