Lars Mullen: Interview with Seth Baccus, one of the UK’s finest guitar makers based in Portugal.
Mild winters and hours of unbroken summer sunshine, sounds like an idyllic setting to make guitars.
“It is,” Seth replies, “Although it can get extremely hot here so we have to keep a keen eye on the humidity levels in the workshop especially during the summer months. I’ve worked here as a luthier for about 6 years now, after re locating from the UK. It’s a beautiful country with kind people, good wine and lots of sunshine, it’s been a dream.”
Seth’s step dad is an expert in building acoustic guitars hence, the house where he grew up in Crediton, Mid Devon in the UK, often had a layer of sawdust, hand tools, racks of seasoned tonewoods and a constant stream of visiting musicians passing through…his step dad is world renowned acoustic guitar maker, Andy Manson. Seth recalls.
“I was in awe watching Andy hone his skills and would sit watching for hours. Looking back, I didn’t realise how much I was taking in about the properties and the performance of different tonewoods. I liked acoustic music, but it all changed when I started listening to bands like Nirvana and Guns and Roses. They really made me sit up and take an interest in electric guitars.
I started to play a little at home, then became totally obsessed throughout my early teens and at 15, I had a Saturday job just sweeping the floor at Andy’s acoustic workshop. As soon as I finished my A levels at 18, I got a job working for Andy’s brother Hugh, at Manson’s Guitar shop in Exeter, Devon.
At the time this was, and still is one of the biggest dedicated guitar shops in the UK, and it was no secret that I was fanatical about so many great guitars from so many brands. I got really into dating vintage guitars that came in, and filling my brain with as much info as possible. It was a different experience for me, I had 500 guitars to play on a daily basis.
Not only did I have the opportunity to be near them, I had the chance to play, feel and learn all about the craftsmanship and skills that make a great guitar and what the customer requires. I can’t begin to explain how important that has been to me as a luthier.
Well I can actually relay it back to some of those classic guitars in the shop, it’s almost as though the neck profile of a ’59 Les Paul or a vintage soft C Strat is imprinted in the palm of my hand, I know what it should feel like.
I can of course build a guitar with any profile the customer wants within the Seth Baccus Nautilus range, but as standard, I keep to the popular profiles. I do offer a style akin to a ’59, but with a little less on the shoulders, you still get the stability, depth and sustain, although it’s more comfortable as it’s less clubby.
I also learned the art of guitar tech’ing and repairs at Mansons and my first real touring experience was in 2000 with John Paul Jones and his band throughout Europe. In 2001 I tech’ed again with them in Canada and the USA, I did the whole tour bus thing, it was such an experience. I also worked for Muse but the biggest was the Led Zeppelin reunion gig. The first experience of the guys picking up their instruments playing Kashmir with three other people in the room was amazing. It was both exciting and nerve-wrecking sound checking the gear on stage before 20,000 people.”
Whilst enjoying the life of a guitar tech, Seth really wanted to pursue guitar building.
“I started building guitars just for friends to gain experience in 2003 with Manson’s head guitar technician Tim Stark. I was now learning from Tim, Hugh and Andy. This was such a mantle to refine and add my own characteristics within my own designs. At the end of 2009, I left the shop, went full time and set up Seth Baccus guitars and launched them in 2010 in the UK.”
“Andy though, wanted to live in a better climate and had his eyes on Portugal. I thought why not, let’s do that. I renovated my house in England and put it on the market. In Portugal we refurbished a house and made a workshop where, again, I started to work making guitars with my mentor, feeding off each other’s creativity.
I was very lucky that one of my friends knew about CAD drawings and was instrumental in helping me to set up in CNC machining. This was invaluable, as in those first few years in Portugal I was just building custom guitars. I built lap steels and all sort of hybrids with an assortment of hardware.
In 2012 I built my first single cutaway design which I was aiming to exhibit at the Mansons guitar show back home in the UK, it’s the guitar that has been in mind forever.
I was so pleased with how they turned out, the balance and how they sounded. It became very clear to me that this model, part of a Series that I eventually called Nautilus, was going to be the core of my guitar building. There are several stories behind that name, the short one relates to how much time I spend under water scuba diving.
I wanted to produce guitars that had everything I would want in a guitar, that wasn’t from a personal choice as again, I knew what players wanted after all those years learning at Mansons shop. Of course this is where the CNC machine came in, but it wouldn’t have been possible to come up with the same design without spending years with Andy learning how to carve by hand.
I never considered building anything less than top notched quality. This also reflected within the choice of hardware which includes Bare Knuckle pickups, Tone Pros bridges, CTS pots and Switchcraft switches.
I used fairly traditional timbers, as I’m familiar with their tonal properties. Most of my set-neck guitars have Honduras mahogany bodies and necks, maple tops and ebony or rosewood fingerboards. I’m also conscious that the woods I use are felled from sustainable sources within the FSC, I feel this is really important and don’t mind paying extra for this.
There was a lot of talk about wood at this year’s Holy Grail Guitar Show in Berlin, in October where I successfully exhibited the Nautilus Modern, Drop Top, Classic, Hollow Body and Special Reserve. The use of thermo-treated wood was big on the agenda and possibly the next big move within guitar building. Timbers are treated at certain temperatures to reduce the moisture content and therefore increase stability and durability. It also ages the wood by about 50 years, therefore increasing vibrations and transmissions through the cellular and pore structures.”
Seth Baccus Guitars not only look cool, they also have some innovative ideas within the construction, as Seth explains.
“There are several things that set the Nautilus Series aside from a lot of conventional electric guitars, within sound and playability. I’m actually building them with a Fender scale length, a little unusual for a humbucker loaded, set-neck guitar. I felt that the extra string movement in the shorter scale like on a Les Paul for example, is wasted energy and often the reason for muddy trebles and a loose low end. With that in mind, I decided to go one step further and experiment with bodies made from swamp ash, a tone wood more akin to guitars with single coils and bolt-necks.
I was absolutely bowled over with the result and my range of Nautilus ‘Modern’ will have swamp ash bodies as standard and as an option on other models. All the bright, twangy, snappy characteristics we associated with lightweight swamp ash are here with a huge but tight low end and fast attack. Players are going to be really surprised how it sounds and of course the versatility with split-coil humbuckers.
There’s been so much talk about the pros and cons of finishes, polyesters, lacquers and acrylic and so on, but to me none of them, especially paint, have a sound. For me, it’s down to how thin the required finish is applied. Over the last year I’ve moved to a thin polyurethane finish which I’m really pleased with, it’s very apparent when bench testing.
The guitars go through a very detailed set up and sound test to adjust intonation and listen to harmonics, usually through an Audio Kitchen Little Chopper combo for example, then it’s full on to make sure it can do what it’s supposed to at high volumes.
Warm climates, sand, sea and sawdust do sound idyllic for some, but Seth Baccus has decided it’s time to come home to the UK.
I feel I’ve served my time here in Portugal and now looking at relocating back in the UK, set up a workshop and expand my business with a small team of dedicated craftsman who are willing to work at the levels that I am.
I feel that my guitar designs have a place in the world wide market as a valued option to some of the bigger mainstream names. I believe I have designed a modern guitar that is also timeless within design, playability or tone. I know in 20 years I’ll be able to look back on these guitars and still be as proud as I am today.
From a maker’s point of view I’m always pushing for better. If someone asked what would be my best effort, I would always say it would be the one I’m making right now.”