A Masterclass In Metal
An insight into the world of JAMES TRUSSART and his famous custom guitars, handcrafted in Los Angeles.
AMIDST the visual onslaught that is the NAMM Show, there was one booth that had a strong pull from the very first day, an understated booth whose only backdrop consisted of simple wooden panels. Here the product does all of the talking and yet silently invites you to check it out. Like stumbling across a guitar Narnia, once lured in, it will compel you to return. This is the world of James Trussart Custom Guitars.
The first thing that grabs your attention are the steel textures of the guitars on display, some richly engraved with paisley and snakeskin designs, some with rusted finishes, others with distressed metal and copper verdigris. Antique silver roses, tribal patterns, antique copper bamboo engravings, one simply more astounding than the next. The finishing on each is exquisite, the definition of detail is stunning. Lines like the SteelCaster, SteelTop and SteelMaster are a combination of a wooden body and a steel recessed metal top (chambered Alder, Mahogany, Sugar Pine are just a few options on offer). By contrast, in the SteelDeville and SteelPhonic ranges, the body is made completely of hollow steel, the former boasting an intricate latticework of precision cut metal.
“I still get new ideas. I'm always excited to play with different materials and technologies from different eras.”
The visionary luthier behind these is James Trussart. Originally from Nancy, France - a region famous for its violins, he first started building dulcimers then later turned his attention to guitars. James spent many years in Paris experimenting with his designs, often leaving instruments outside on the rooftop of his workshop to rust in the elements.
After some time in the bayous of Louisiana he eventually moved to the US and is now based in Los Angeles where his rusting and finishing techniques have also evolved into a more complex alchemical process. The bayou influence is evident in the Steel Res O Gator guitars, suitably named for their alligator engraved and paintwork effects on a vintage steel guitar shape. Today, I'm given some insight into a few of these instruments by his master builder, William Raynaud.
Raynaud had heard of the Trussart guitars back in his native France in the early 90's, was introduced to James at NAMM 2004 and has worked with him ever since. It is evident that he has a genuine passion and pride for this work and the complex process that goes into creating each piece and notably, not once does he mention that he helps to do so.
“The SteelTop was the first one and has been around for about 15 years, then James came up with the Stratocaster wood and metal that was actually made for Bob Dylan, which is when he came up with that driftwood finish. People liked it and he just kept going.”
So does Trussart also have a metalworking background? “No, not at all. James has always been interested in textures, metal and rust, he started with one guitar and it just evolved from there. The SteelDevilles are really special, there are only a few made with this very industrial-looking grille.”
As you might imagine, these works of art don’t come cheap considering the time it takes to make each one but then, they are all made to order and there are probably 30 hours at least in each guitar.
“It’s a lot of work, the finishes, the etching, the engraving, the silver, each of them is a piece of art and require a lot of hours to get it all just right. There’s the chemicals to give the ageing finishes, for example on the Res O Gator with the patina when the copper is aged to look like it’s been in the ocean for 20 years. It’s all unique stuff and intense craftmanship.”
Starting from about $4500 and depending on options like engravings, add up the type of wood you want to use, the type of finish and so forth and you can easily run into five figure sums.
“Some wood is really hard to find nowadays, flame koa for example, so that will impact upon price," he explains, lifting down a SteelTop with an exceptionally rich, deeply reflective amber glow. “This one is a koa body with maple sandwiched in between, with all the engravings and finishings, it’s running for around $9000.”
Acacia Koa is the largest endemic tree in Hawaii - the species exists naturally nowhere else in the world. It’s the figuring that sets Koa into a league of its own, giving the wood a three dimensional, reflective quality akin to the chatoyancy of a tiger’s eye gemstone. It’s rare and as a tonewood it’s much sought after for musical instruments.
As with the SteelDevilles, Res O Gators and SteelPhonics, the SteelCaster Bass is also currently completely made of metal but perforated both front and back although there are plans for a wood and metal bass line very soon.
“People love the basses. We don’t advertise enough for them because it’s another market. James has a lot of ideas, it’s just hard to get to do everything. It’s a small company.”
Although there are different lines of guitars, these do not appear formatted to which Raynaud agrees, “yes, there is a collective line but each guitar within that has its own unique personality."
Somehow you would expect these to be pretty heavy given the all metal or metal/wood combination, yet surprisingly they weigh around 7-8 pounds depending on bridge and pickups, the basses are the heaviest as they are larger.
All quality parts used are made in the USA. The bridges are standard TonePros, the pickups are made by Arcane Inc who are based in North Hollywood close to Trussart’s shop. These pickups are all hand wound with a serial number on the back and are made in collaboration with Trussart to match the finish of each individual instrument which then carries both the Trussart and Arcane Logo, adding to the overall quality and custom feel.
Needless to say, Raynaud never thought that he would one day be working with James in Los Angeles on the very guitars that hooked him back in France.
"It is an amazing feeling and I am so grateful, knowing I’ve been part of the team for many years now and able to work on such amazing instruments that are each time a different beast."
And his favourite part of the entire process? "I just LOVE when the guitar is all done and setup and I can finally spend a little time playing around with it, discovering its soul."
But what of Trussart himself? What continues to inspire the man that has successfully established this brand and brought his dream to life?
"Well, it looks like I'm still passionate about building these unique electric guitars!” he replies. “I still get new ideas. I'm always excited to play with different materials and technologies from different eras, just for one simple reason: I'm a dreamer, there's nothing I can do about it. I go to Africa and I bring back a tribal engraved pattern, I use my alligator rusty pattern as I do often miss New Orleans or I walk by a bunch of tattoo shops in Echo Park…that's why everyday, we're building a different guitar - only one. Me and my team are not able to produce more and the result is sure different from what's happening in a factory building 100 to 5000 guitars a month.
"You can compare me more to a custom bike or hot rod builder who's more concerned about the quality and uniqueness than the quantity. We put a lot of TLC in these and they are costly to build, but the minute you plug in one of my SteelCasters, SteelDevilles, SteelPhonics etc - you'll figure out what I'm trying to explain."
This is custom shop at its finest where each instrument is a one-off with numerous hours of pure craftmanship poured into each and every one. It’s perhaps for this reason that the whole booth resonates with a vibe of something you can’t quite explain, some intangible intrigue from a collective body of work more fitting to an art gallery but which has its own niche here in Los Angeles with its roots in French culture and worldwide reputation of quality instruments of amazing tone.
James Hetfield, Bob Dylan, Geezer Butler and Tom Morello are just a few of the names on the client list, with Hetfield collaborating on the newer SteelX model. All Trussart guitars come with a signed certificate of authenticity but essentially they carry the authenticity of someone who creates from their soul. The end result, as they say in France, 'c’est du dernier chic!'