For the second edition of the Journey, we caught up with Jason Banning of Banning guitars to learn more about his guitars, specific models and some of his company’s history.
How long have you been building guitars? How did you get your start?
I built my first guitar in 2004. It was a stratocaster kit that I got for my birthday from my inlaws. I remember thinking that it was a nice gift, but I didn’t expect it to sound or play nice. To my surprise it turned out sounding and playing better than a lot of my big name guitars. I enjoyed the process so much I started reading books on lutherie, watching instructional videos, and just went for it.
I started building guitars for friends and of course for myself. Soon I was building guitar bodies and selling them on ebay, and started taking custom orders.
Working full time in a precision machine shop gave me access to a lot of great tools and provided me with a lot of knowledge that directly related to wood working. After working at the machine shop for 15 years the business slowed down and I was only working 20 hours a week if I was lucky. I had bills to pay and a family to support so I had to make up the money by building guitars. Before I knew it I was blessed with so many orders that I quit my full time machine shop job to build guitars full time.
Give us a quick run down of some of your most popular models.
Some of my most popular models are my Betty Mae, the Heartbreaker, and Penguinita.
The Betty Mae is a Jazzmaster shaped body and offered in both solid body and semi-hollow construction. Pretty much any pickup configuration. The Betty Mae finish was first developed for a customer that wanted a finish for a guitar that was being built as a tribute to his Grandmother (Betty). He wanted an organic looking finish to resemble the colors of the flowers in Betty’s garden. I developed the “Betty Mae blue” nitrocellulose lacquer finish that we now offer in all different colors and it’s really taken off.
The Heartbreaker and Penguinita were both born out of my love for mixing different classic designs into a single hybrid type guitar.
The Heartbreaker is a Ric meets Tele style guitar. I built the first one for myself as an experiment. I wanted to see how close I could build a T style in construction and sound to a Ric 360. I was really surprised after I built the first one that it actually sounded better than my Rickenbacker 360, and it played nicer too! We now offer the Heartbreaker in different colors and different pickup configurations.
The Peguinita is a Gretsch meets Tele style guitar. The first one was built for Rick Matthews (Matthews Effects). It borrows some design aspects from a Gretsch Penguin and is set to a classic T-style body. We build these now in both solid body and semi-hollow construction, and all different pickup configurations as well.
You seemed to have transitioned from more traditional body shapes and style recently, what brought about that change?
I think it’s a pretty natural progression for a luthier to learn their chops on building all the classics… but for me- my passion has always been in arch tops and original designs. I think and feel I’m finally in the position to slowly start offering some original design models, and I’m really excited for them.
What have you learned about business over the last year or so?
I’ve really tried to focus on the production side of the business this last year. I’ve been working hard on improving every step of the building process, trying to make it both more efficient and make a better product. I’ve learned a lot and feel that I’m building better guitars now than ever before.
When you’re not building guitars, what do you like to spend your time on? Any hobbies?
My main hobby has turned into a business… I still love building and working on guitars!! Which makes it difficult to differentiate between work and play at times.
I love spending time with my Wife and two sons. It’s really important to me to spend as much time as possible with them. I also love playing music with the worship team at my church. I’ve recently been focussing on getting back into playing guitar again and trying to use these talents to glorify God.
What would be your advice for someone who wants to get into building guitars for a job?
I would tell them not to expect to ever make a million dollars at it! It has to be something that you love and are passionate about or else it won’t work- no sane person would do it. I put in way more hours than I ever did working a full time job, but in the end it is very rewarding to see something that you have built grow. If you are serious about it then go for it. Don’t give up!
How do you balance offering so many custom jobs with making sure you’re getting enough done to pay the bills?
That’s a tough one. I think I’m still learning that one!
I’ve recently decided to start offering less custom stuff due to the amount of work that is involved. I’ve come to find that most musicians are fine with having limited options on a “custom” guitar, and by limiting these options you can be both more productive and offer a better product. I’ve also learned when to say no, and turn down work. Sometimes the amount of time involved to build something might not translate into enough money to make it worth your time.
Has any part of your build style or philosophy changed from the start? If so, tell us about it.
I think when I first started I was just trying to build as many guitars as possible. It was hard for me to say no to work. I would build anything anyone wanted. I learned the build process 100% by hand, the old school way. I think this gave me a great foundation.
I’ve learned a lot over the years and feel like I’m a lot more focussed on making a great product now. I’ve recently started using a CNC and feel that it’s really allowed me to make a better, more consistent guitar. It also allows me to do things that I could never do by hand. I view the CNC as just another tool, but it has really been a game changer for me.
How can we find out more about your company?
You can check out our website BanningGuitars.com, and follow Banning Guitars on Instagram and Facebook.