Contemporary takes on classic design
The culmination of decades of guitar experience brought Christian Hatstatt and luthier Kei San Yatsuzuka together in service of one goal: creating the greatest hand-made electric guitars with the finest materials and components available. Their company, Magneto Guitars, has been producing guitars both subtle and stunning utilizing a unique combination of innovation on classic guitar design and “old-world” craftsmanship. In this interview, founder and designer Christian Hatstatt talks about the development of the Magneto guitar line.
Magneto Guitars – Interview
1. How did you get into luthery?
It all started with music. My parents introduced me to the piano at age 6 and I discovered the guitar at 12 while seeing the Beatles on B&W television. At 15, I started to design some guitars as I wanted to become a luthier. At the time I had a strong interest into original designs. However, I had to finish my school first and then started playing gigs.
I started to tear guitars apart when I was 16, then I came to do the simple repair things, fret jobs etc..for a local music store. I was always looking for some fancy pickup wirings and electonics at the time. At 21 I had the chance to start to work for a local repair shop called “Guitars by Levinson” in Basel, Switzerland. We did service and distribution for many brands and they also had their own brand. I kept on doing my regular gigs as I was passionate about music and I aways believed that music remains the most important of all things.
2. Has your background in repair affected your guitar designs?
Well it all depends…guitar repair is an art on its own but guitar design is a bit different. The recurring problems you see on mass produced instruments such as poor intonation or the use of unmusical materials (which just do the trick visually but not tonally) give you clear indications of what to avoid. A cheaply built instrument needs four times longer to set-up [than a better made instrument] (and then you still cannot pretend it is perfect). As a repair person, you get to play a lot of instruments and start to recognize the elements which make an instrument better. Some of those details are things like applying the finish as thin as possible or making necks with single truss rods and to getting them perfect from the beginning etc.
So all of this helped to develop a vision on what should lie beneath the surface of the instrument. Guitar design is aesthetics combined with technical apects such as woods and mass which define a final result in tone. One specific detail you can see on our guitar is the fact that you can set the neck within seconds. There‘s direct access to the truss rod nut and no plate to remove.
3. Other than sounding cool, how does the name Magneto Guitars relate to the company in terms of philosophy, mission, etc.?
A good question. In most cases, people tend to refer to [Magneto as] a comic book character but it has a different meaning. To keep it short: a “Magneto” (short for Magnetoelectric Generator) is a device which turns mechanical energy into electrical energy in automotive engineering. We found that this is one of the best analogies to what an electric guitar is supposed to do. And yes, it also has to do with our retro/modern approach both in design and manufacturing as we basically build our instruments using the same methods as in the 1950s.
4. The Sonnet and The T-Wave both have bolt-on necks and yet the Velvet is a set neck, what was the inspiration for the Velvet?
Well the Velvet has always been part of the plan. While it is a set-neck guitar with 24 and 3/4 scale and 2 humbuckers, it is similar to the Sonnet and the Velvet guitars in many ways. It has to do with our general design approach. While our designs pay tribute to the classic shapes, we tried to go one step further and design body shapes that would have a strong influence on the tone of the instruments. This was inspired while talking to sound engineers, they always mentioned the fact that you had to put low pass filters on the guitar signals in order to have a better cut through the mix.
This was the beginning of some new research for me. I was after a new guitar approach to get more midrange [out of the instrument]. A few years earlier I worked on a guitar design and by accident, the body became smaller to what we originaly planned. After playing the guitars, we had this “wait a minute” feeling…the tone was very focused and the guitar had much more sustain [even with] the small body. A lot of this went into the Sonnet, the T-Wave and the Velvet. While you will see very little visual difference the bodies are generally light and the acoustic results are a rich and midrange focussed tone
5. The pickguards for the T-Wave remind me of high-end automotive design. Can you talk about the musical and non-musical influences on your design aesthetics?
I have a strong love for the 30s, 40s and 50s when European and American designers created post-depression designs which, at the time, had to express a certain modernity and create a new aesthetic (which basically all started at the 1925 Paris exhibition). To me this era expressed the great influence that european arts & design had on American arts & design and vice versa. However, I also dig other eras and arts like the 70s etc… It‘s interesting that when you listen to the music of all these periods, you can see the similarities with design and the social behaviours.
Another general rule of thumb I tend to follow is simplicity, which is not always that simple to achieve. I believe in the words of the famous French writer & aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupery, “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”
So to get back to your original question, the lines of the T-Wave pickguard are purely aesthetics, however, these aesthetics are achieved by taking material off the pickguard which is what I found interesting.
6. Have you designed any of the guitars with specific players or tones in mind?
Well that is very interesting as originally, I wanted to create a new tone-land with Magneto Guitars, trying to avoid to build a “better this” or “better that”. I wanted instruments which would have enough integrity and personality to inspire players to create new styles of music.
Of course on the other hand, I always keep on coming back to the guitar tones which had a heavy impact on me as a musician: Jeff Beck, Larry Carlton or Wes Montgomery to name only a few. It is good for me to keep these tones in mind because I know that if you want to create new guitar shapes and tones, you have to respect its earlier incarnations
7. How do you feel your choice of components (woods, electronics, pickups, oiled bone nut, etc. ) contribute to overall design?
Oh yes…the components are so important in the process. In terms of woods, we work with selected sources in Canada for our maples and alders or India for our rosewoods, African mahogany etc… but woods are only one part of the whole thing. We use oiled cow bone for the nuts, cold rolled steel or brass for the saddles. The Sonnet and T-Wave bridges are custom made for us, basically we use all hardware made by Gotoh. We use CTS pots, CRL switches and Switchcraft jacks.
The reason [for using the best components] is simply that we want to built the best possible instruments and using non-musical materials would simply work against us.
8. What’s wrong with CNC (Computer Numerical Control) routing? And as a related question – why hand build?
There is nothing wrong with CNC other than the fact that I do not understand why high-end musical instruments should be built by machines. CNC is used in mass-production to produce instruments cheaper. Period.
People often believe that CNC gives more precise results. In my career I have seen many CNC made guitars which had neck pockets which could easily be filled up with your and my credit card.
Also, it is common sense, when you sell and instrument which is $2500, $3000 or $5000 – you should expect these to be built by hand by master luthiers. Otherwise the price makes no sense at all! Yet this is not always the case in the industry.
At the end of the day, luthery is an art and you need many years of practice to get to a decent result for either electric or acoustic guitars.
9. People that don’t have geographical access to your dealers would be reliant on ordering guitars based on the web site. For those who are interested in buying guitars in this manner, do you have any recommendations for what they should be looking for in a new guitar and what kind of questions they should be asking builders or retailers when ordering?
Feel is important. I think that a musician will feel when an instrument is right for him or her.
Then it always depends on what you are looking for. If you are looking for an instrument you can smash against your amps in front of the audience you may not want to invest that much!
Seriously, I may sound old school but I when I try an instrument I hold it against me and see if I can “feel it” – feel its vibrations. I never plug an electric guitar [into an amp] at first as I want to hear its acoustics first. Second is intonation. So many guitars have a bad intonation/tuning in the first 5 frets due to nut placement or set-up. The D chord on the 2nd fret often is a good way to check on this. This is tricky as guitars will need to play with pianos or synths which have a different temperament.
Then I look at details like the neck pocket, the neck, the nut, the finish, the frets, etc… If you plan to buy a guitar made by an independant luthier just ask him or her to show you how the instruments are made, what the machines are used and how finishes are applied. It takes them little time and in most cases, they are happy to do so.
There is one basic thing to remember; you must test a guitar and take the time to [thoroughly] test it. Every guitar uses a different piece of wood and will sound different, so you need to find the one that will sound just right for you.
10. What are the prices of the guitars?
They basically start at $2850 with the Sonnet and go up to $4800 with the Sonnet Custom, the T-Wave is $2890, the Velvet is $ 3995.
11. How did the guitars come to be built in Japan and what are the challenges and/or advantages of dividing the company geographically and building guitars there?
Well there were no economics involved in that decision. We are a group of people working on this and I have been making guitars with my Japanese friends for close to 20 years. We have so much in common that at the time [we started the company], there wasn’t even any other thought. As arrogant as this may sound, I believe that I work with the world’s best luthiers for Magneto Guitars and we take this very seriously.
The original idea of the “crazy guitars”, as my Japanese collegues often called them, was to make instruments for the European market. This is why I started to establish the brand in Europe first. Today we are in a position where we even sell those “crazy guitars” in Japan!
12. What do you think are the biggest misconceptions people have about being an independent builder?
I think that people have very few misconcpetions other than price. The fact is, you can buy a real handmade guitar for less than a CNC made model. It always comes down to one thing and that is trust. This is why the big brands invest so much in advertisement – because it creates trust. The independant luthier always needs to create this trust all by himslef and his work. He does not spend the big cash on mega marketing and big ads.
13. What is the wait time for ordering new instruments and what level of customization do you offer?
At this point, about 3 ½ to 4 months but we are now in a position where we always built some in advance.
In terms of customization, we keep very close to our originals but we can offer different woods (as long as they are legal) or different pickups or hardware etc..
14. What’s next for Magneto guitars?
We have many ideas for additional models but the Sonnet, the T-Wave and the Velvet are the core of our brand so for the time being we want to work on the 3 shapes we do for a while.
We were fortunate enough to receive endorsements from many great players such as Eric Gales and Bryan Baker. So basically our main concern now is to keep our quality top notch as we get additional orders and move forward.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts and time with us Christian! More information about Magneto Guitars can be found either on their website (magnetoguitars.com) or on Christian’s Guitar Maker building blog.