In the birthplace of rock-and-roll, it's only appropriate that guitars used to create the iconic Memphis sound be, well, made in Memphis.
The St. Blues Guitar Workshop on Marshall Avenue unveiled their latest line of locally produced, customized electric guitars at the National Association of Music Merchants Show in California last month.
St. Blues used to import guitars from Korea, but the new line is made solely in the Bluff City. The company headquarters at 646 Marshall hosted an open house last Friday and Saturday at which guests had a chance test out the new guitars.
Greg Mitchell, the company's lead technician, said the line has attracted new customers from as far away as the Netherlands, Europe, and Asia.
"Seventy percent of our business has been from overseas. A lot of that has to do with [the guitars] being made in Memphis," Mitchell said. "When you go from an $800 guitar to a $2,500 guitar, your market share changes and your clientele changes. The clientele who you were trying to reach with your Korean guitar will come out of the woodwork to find you because [the guitars are] now made in the States."
More expensive material and paint are being used for the new guitars, which retail for $2,200 to $2,500. St. Blues sells customized versions of four guitar models — the Bluesmaster, the 61 South, the Mississippi Blues Master, and the Blindsider — to musicians in genres ranging from country to jazz.
Andrew VanWyngarden of the Grammy-nominated rock band MGMT is among the musicians who purchased a custom guitar from St. Blues. VanWyngarden had the company create a sea-foam green, yellow, and red "61 South" guitar with a tortoise shell pick-guard. The guitar also has the phases of the moon inlaid in its fingerboard.
"I wanted them to make something wild-looking," VanWyngarden, son of Flyer editor Bruce VanWyngarden, said. "They make guitars in their own way. It feels good to have a guitar made in Memphis."
Mitchell said St. Blues makes guitars any way a customer desires, and they allow the customer to watch the process from start to finish.
"You can see us take it from the raw body and watch us put the binding on, sand it, and seal it," Mitchell said. "You can come back and watch the painting. There aren't a lot of guitar companies that let you do that."
Besides the customized electric guitars, St. Blues is carrying new cigar-box guitars, priced at $235.
Mitchell said the company is also planning to bring back bass guitars by spring. The company made bass guitars in the 1980s but stopped when St. Blues went dormant until 2005.
"We're not just another music store that sells guitars," said TK Keckler, head of quality control for St. Blues. "[We don't] have aspirations of becoming wealthy in the guitar business. We're interested in being a service-oriented guitar boutique business."
A renovation in 2011 added a new showroom, history wall, and gift shop to the building on Marshall. Patrons can also sit at the new "whammy bar" and watch as guitars are being constructed.