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Nelson Instruments

In Search Of... The Magic Number in a Chat with Bobby Nelson


by Blake Wright - Gearphoria  (adapted by Team HC)


 THERE IS RARELY a time in the world of boutique guitar gear that the business and the artisan don’t butt heads. While the artisan just wants to be left alone to dream up, then conjure the ‘next big thing,’ the business needs to make doubly sure that the investment of time and money, as well as the return on the “NBT” is in line with keeping food on the table.

 It seems to always come down to a number. For Bobby Nelson of Nelson Instruments, that number is six. That’s how long the Northfield, Minnesota-based luthier has been building stringed instruments full time. Prior to the builder life, Nelson cut his teeth in retail, working for world-famous Willy’s Music in St. Paul. Prior to that, he spent six weeks at a Guitar Center, his stay cut short over ‘creative differences.'


Still earlier, he worked for Schmitt Music in Minneapolis — a gig that followed his studies at technical college.

Today, he uses an over-garage space at his home as his main shop. The room is chock-full of vintage, American-made tools stationed around its perimeter — saws, buffers and the like. Most are purchased in some form of disrepair, but Nelson isn’t intimated by the tear-down and rebuild process. That’s a good thing, because that is also what he is doing to his brand. Nelson is chopping models, scaling back his offerings across electrics and acoustics in an effort to right-size. “I’m kind of in the midst of a realignment… or a last ditch effort to make this work, because it hasn’t been,” confesses Nelson candidly. “The big things that I’m doing… kind of consolidating models, eliminating redundancies and trying to find ways to, you can say, increase profitability, but at the same time there is something I have been noticing, regardless of what the news says, I don’t know that the economy is really back. It’s really growing fast but people don’t really have a lot of extra cash. There is no shortage of people offering guitars, especially in the $2,000-plus range.

At this point, a lot of that stuff becomes a luxury item. And if you do something too far away from, say a Fender, people aren’t really sure if they want to spend that kind of money. So what I’ve been trying to do is dial in what I’m offering…trying to find ways that I can cut labor, being the biggest cost driver behind making anything so I can get prices really affordable.”


    ON THE BENCH: A Nelson Coquette gets its final dressing prior to being shipped to its new owner.


One route Nelson is exploring is moving to a satin finish as the standard versus a full gloss. The gloss requirements are more extensive and time-consuming, whereas the satin finish can bring the schedule down to days compared to weeks. Nelson is rebranding himself as a maker of hand-made, utile instruments — utilitarian guitars. Unique, no-frills, workhorse stuff. “It’s stuff you’re going to be able to afford,” he says. “Here’s something I’m working on right now. Some folks had said they would like to see what my take on an offset guitar would be. I’ve told people that I would burn the shop down before I would just do a Fender, or a Gibson. This is close enough. Bolt-on neck. It’ll have a different kind of pickup that I’m working on now. There will be a couple of contours added to make it comfy, but I’m thinking I’ll be able to offer it for$995 or $1,050.”


 Nelson’s plan is to start with a stripped down, no-frills base model with all of the playability one would expect. From there, items like gloss finish, different woods, tuners, pickups, would be a la carte. It is a different approach over a lot of boutique builders who charge upwards of $5,000 for one of their custom offerings. “I often sit back wondering who’s buying these?,” says Nelson. “Who’s paying $4,000 for a guitar? Great stuff I’m sure, but I want to go the other way. Not to cheapen out, but just become affordable. Something handmade and unique that doesn’t cost $4,000. The funny thing is… and this is me probably being a terrible business person… I’ll just tell people ‘no.’ Someone will ask ‘Can you this or that for my guitar?’ I’ll either say no I won’t do that, or at least tell them, you know, before you jump on that, think about it. That probably comes from my time at retail, where the last thing that you want is returns. Not like they can order a completely custom guitar then decide the don’t like the color and send it back, but the idea being telling someone, before they commit to that, are they even still going to like it in six months? Six years?”

COMING SOON: A batch of unfinished Cosmonauts, Nelson's take on an offeset guitar, in waiting.


The woodwork in Nelson Instrument  isn’t the only thing that is handmade. In fact, the only off-the-shelf items he uses are tuners and switches. He makes the pick guards, the pick-ups, the bridges, and the saddles. Part of the new strategy is actually limiting options available to his customers, with the idea being two to three options end in a firm decision faster than a dozen would. “Look at computers,” says Nelson. “Apple completely design the user experience. They have the vision. They spec the hardware. They put restrictions to what developers can do with apps to make sure the app runs smoothly. They keep it pretty tightly controlled. You can’t really pop open your MacBook and swap out the processor. It is what it is. You can customize it when you order it, but after that… it is what it is. With PCs, you can pretty much build your own. Everybody is always getting the faster processor, tweaking it, getting the bigger hard drive. If you think about it, that is how guitars are too. Nobody buys a Gretsch thinking I want to put P90s in this… or Jazzmaster pickups in it. You’re buying it because of what it is. Or a Rickenbacker… you’re not getting that and putting Strat pickups in it… or Gibson 57s. You’re buying it for the experience of what it is. If this is the conception of what a Nelson guitar is supposed to be, then changing this and that around, it is not that anymore. It’ a Nelson-shaped instrument that's no longer what the original vision was.”

US IRON: Nelson is big on vintage, US-built equipment. Examples can be found in nearly every corner of his shop.


There are currently about 120 Nelsons out in the wild, and the builder has high hopes for his new offset, dubbed the Cosmonaut. A stack of unfinished bodies were present during our visit. The guitar will be offered in three standard colors: Ruskie Red, Taiga Tan and Soyuz Seafoam. He also has big plans for his Paramount bass after a few new design tweaks. “I came out with that almost two years ago,” he says. “A friend and I designed it. It’s great, but I want to make some changes. I’m really excited about that. I’m going to have the electric guitars, but basses are going to be something that I put more emphasis on. The people that are buying basses from me are really ecstatic. They are seeing something in my products that they are not seeing in the marketplace. That’ll be a focus, as well as redesigning and revamping acoustic guitars.”


SHOP LOCAL: Nelson sources most of his wood locally from yards near Minneapolis. He genuinely enjoys wood experimentation having used Paduak, Pau Ferro, Osage Orange and Douglas Fir among others in previous builds.


Nelson also plans to continue to develop pickup models, with the next project being a reimagination of the classic Epiphone New York pickup. Currently, Nelson has three electric models listed on his website: the Grifter, the Provocateur and the Coquette. He also has one acoustic, the FT-27 and one bass, the Paramount, with the promise of more to come. “After a decade wrapped up into this I don’t think I could just walk away, but i t would have to become a strictly, time-limited hobby… a hobby-tunity,” says Nelson. “I ’m hoping it doesn’t come to that . That's why I’m in restructuring mode.


Around The Shop: A look into the luthier's lair ...


"Paring down the models. Getting costs low. Really trying to dial it all in. I hope it all works out , but I ’m not going to delude myself to the point of believing that the world owes me an existence doing this.” -HC-





Pride In The Product: Bobby Nelson looks like the proud papa holding his baby





Blake and Holly Wright are Gearphoria. They travel full-time in their 25 foot Airstream while writing about cool guitars and guitar accessories. Gearphoria is a bi-monthly free-to-read online publication. You can visit their website by going to www.gearphoria.com and while you are there, sign up for their free e-zine.


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Robert Lunte  |  March 20, 2017 at 9:03 pm
Very crafty. Beautiful guitars.
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