In the world of premium handcrafted guitars, Farhad Soheili of FSC Instruments is one of the top names in all of New York City.
With over 24 years of experience as a luthier, the California native realized in his late 20s that guitar repair and restoration was what he had to rely on to pay his bills both before and immediately after moving to New York. He started building a private clientele in his new hometown so that he could launch a separate business building custom guitars for upscale collectors.
That was roughly a decade and a half ago, and now Soheili has put together a small team that does a variety of custom builds — both for private collectors and the general public through the FSC website — as well as some more readily available options like hand-wound guitar pickups and a pair of effects pedals. All of FSC’s products have garnered a reputation for merging the warm vintage tones that guitarists have been chasing for half a century with the cutting-edge features and precision only available on high-end modern guitars.
SPIN spoke with the artisanal instrument creator about crafting bespoke guitars, the differences in handmade musical gear, and delivering some offerings for the common folk.
SPIN: People seem to really dig the vintage sound and feel of a lot of your guitars. Is a lot of that because of how you make the pickups?
Farhad Soheili: It’s not just the pickups, but the pickups do play a big part in it. Every guitar we build — even if it’s an original-looking guitar in a shape that we designed — all use the same aesthetics in that everything is handmade. We do some machine cutting, but everything is hand-sanded and hand-shaped with a lot of the same techniques that would have been used by companies like Fender in the ‘50s and ‘60s. We use the same really thin nitrocellulose lacquer on our guitar bodies and necks that they used. The pickup winding is done by hand instead of by machine, and they’re very lightly wax potted, so they have that vintage tone and appeal. We always use as close as possible to vintage materials as well, such as the tempered wood. It’s treated and dried out completely, so it’s a new piece of wood that behaves like a 100-year-old piece of wood might after being played for decades. When you pick up an old guitar, it can feel and sound really loud and alive, and the wood we use can recreate that.
Considering how long you’ve been working on custom guitars, how do you make your work stand out compared to the other boutique instrument builders out there?
I think it’s the years of experience. A lot of people buy a router or a CNC machine and suddenly they’re building guitars. They can make fine guitars, but they don’t have the decades of repair, restoration, fretwork, and all of those other things. Having played so many vintage guitars through the repair work that we were doing for the better part of 20 years before we started building, that goes a long way in terms of the quality of work you do and what you know about guitars. You know how to make the fretboard feel a certain way and how to do the actual frets really properly. There’s very little learning curve when you have that much repair experience and have handled so many old and valuable guitars, so you can apply those aesthetics and techniques to your builds. There’s quite a difference between somebody who’s a seasoned luthier and somebody who just starts out building guitars.
In addition to the guitars, it seems like you’ve really given people a point of entry into the world of FSC by selling the pickups and pedals separately. What went into your decision to do that?
I always like to remind people that it’s called FSC Instruments, not FSC Guitars, even though most of what we do are guitars. I met this audio engineer, Ben Fischer from Tubular Audio, and he’s a genius when it comes to creating pedals. I’m a big tone-chaser myself, so I throw my ideas for pedals at him and he helps us make them a reality. I basically tell him what I want them to sound like, we do some prototypes together, and it gets released as one of our instruments. I don’t think we’re gonna do a ton of different types of pedals, but I love the two that we have — the KB-1 Overdrive and the What The Fuzz?! The KB-1 is based on the [Klon] circuit, but we added our own twist to it — a high-gain distortion option with a second footswitch. The What The Fuzz?! is based on a ‘60s Fuzz Face, but modified to have things like mid control boost, a bias knob, and high and low impedance options. That kind of stuff can only happen when you’re working with a really seasoned audio engineer. It helps expand the business a little bit, because our guitars take a while to make, whereas we can do several pedals in a day.
Seeing as you grew up in Los Angeles and then moved to New York, have you noticed a difference between the guitar scenes in each?
The main difference I see is that there’s a very high demand for good luthier work in New York City because there are so many people here in such a tight space. We’re in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, right outside of Manhattan, so there’s a ton of people right here, and a lot of them are guitar players — but there aren’t a lot of great luthiers. I can probably count the number of really good luthiers in New York City on my hands, and we’re pretty much all in really high demand. That started with repair work, which put us on the map, so then when we started building guitars, people already knew about us. In LA, that also exists, but it’s a lot bigger as far as distance goes, and I think there are a lot more people who do this kind of work. I just spent five months in LA to see my friends and family — and I was working a little bit to try to get some presence of FSC out there, but it was definitely a lot slower. I don’t know if that’s because of the decades I’ve been in New York, but I was posting a lot on our Instagram about being out there and it just felt like there was a lot less demand out there.