Joe Doe Guitars: A Screenwriter's Character-Driven Instruments Found On Reverb

Some boutique guitar manufacturers start producing guitars because they see a gap in the market or because they believe they can do it better than the big brands. For Ben Court of Joe Doe Guitars, it was way to continue to tell stories away from his day job.

Ben draws everything before starting a build

"Well, I’ve been writing with my wife for 23 years. Screenwriting for film and TV. We started off doing horror films and then moved in to psychological thrillers. Always quite dark. What we love is just telling stories, creating worlds and characters. That’s what we do."

"But because I’ve always loved guitars, I wanted to merge the two together. I’ve always liked artifacts, objects that mean something or have some meaning to them. There’s so many guitars like that, 'The Beast', there’s Hendrix’s Monterey Strat. All those guitars that have stories, I love that because they are more than just guitars."

"I wanted to build guitars that have stories in them, because I now know that there’s no difference for me playing an Indonesian-made guitar, a Japanese guitar, a Mexican guitar, a U.S. Custom Shop. The margins of difference are so slight, that when I wanted to start making guitars, I thought there is no point in making guitars on that spectrum of quality, because it’s so narrow that they wouldn’t stand out. So, what I wanted to do was apply my skills as a screenwriter to guitars that had their own unique story in them. So that’s basically what I’ve been doing."

The Apollocaster headstock

With guitars based on the Apollo moon landings, a Stephen King novel, and a Pac-Man arcade cabinet, Joe Doe Guitars are certainly unique, and Ben’s process for developing new models is very different from that of any other manufacturer.

"Every guitar starts with an idea of a character that would have owned the particular instrument, or inspired by a place or an event. So, they’re all of a period in time and each has their own specific character and elements of a story within them, sometimes on them."

The back of the Apollocaster features a replica plaque

"When we’re writing we can have 99 bad ideas and one good one, and that’s the same with the guitars. I have lots of ideas but only a few would suit becoming a guitar, and that’s—on a very, very shallow level—how it’s going to look. People suggest, 'Can you do a sci-fi Strat, can you do a Baked Bean Strat" and lots of very ordinary objects, and I say no. Those don’t suggest stories, because a good story hangs on a character, and that’s why the most successful ones I’ve made suggest that they have been owned by somebody. So, I look for the character that has owned the guitar and that’s how it starts. And from there, they would have done this, they would have had that made, it would have had this detail, they would have wanted these pickups. I’m custom making for a fictional, historical person in a way."

Ben works from three small studio spaces in Lewes, UK, each used for different parts of the building process. His current project, a tribute to Sister Rosetta Tharpe, is a Strat with gold hardware and three pickups, much like Tharpe’s iconic SG Custom. With the guitar almost ready to be pieced together, Ben has been waiting for the finishing touch, an ornate brass plate, inscribed with Tharpe’s name, to sit on top of the Jazzmater tailpiece.

"I draw everything before I make anything, because it’s much cheaper and it requires much less swearing to do it on paper than it does to sit and work it out with wood and spray. So everything is worked out on paper. I work out the decals I need, the colour schemes. Then I start thinking about the pickups. I’m now putting Bare Knuckle pickups in to everything and they are very helpful with helping me choose the sounds and configurations. Then basically it’s woodworking, spraying, decal work, swearing, more swearing. There are not enough swear words when you’re making guitars, really."

"I never want to sell any of them, really. But at the same time I want to make more so I’m happy with a one-in, one-out policy. There’s so much love in them. Not to sound disgusting, but they’ve got my DNA on everything. It’s just like our work. It’s very hard when we write scripts to hand them over. You’ve just got to do that to do the next thing. One thing leads on to the next."

The Waka Wakaster is inspired by The King Of Kong

"There was a great documentary on Netflix, The King Of Kong. Billy Mitchell, I loved the way he cheated on the video tapes. My idea for this was for a character who played Pac-Man back in the day. What made me think of that, after watching that documentary, was the dexterity you develop playing Pac-Man games. I just imaged your fingers must be so dexterous and so speedy. I thought, What guitar would that person have had if they were a Pac-Man champion? Well, they would have had a Pac-Man guitar and I thought, well that’s in the 80s, Ibanez had their RG series in the 80s, and so I made a guitar that a Pac-Man champ would have had made in a custom shop back in the day. So, hence the Pac-Man style guitar."

"It was easy to make. The best ideas are the easiest to make, they just kind of unfold in front of you. You don’t have to work too hard at them. And so I thought, it’s a Pac-Man arcade game, so the scratchplate, the coin slot (which is a pick holder), a relic’d neck like it is an Ibanez RG. They had some weird oil, or something about the way their necks relic—there’s nothing on them but dirt. And so I’ve relic’d it like an Ibanez from the time."

Ben plans to add copper binding to the Wall Of Death guitar

"I was in an antique shop in Lewes and they had a bit of cornicing from an old fairground ride, and I loved the way the paint had faded and chipped and flecked. And I thought that would be worth exploring. And I came across 'Wall Of Death.' I looked into it and they had lions in the cars going round and round and they had loads of female riders, which was part of the sell. And I suddenly thought, what if there was an imaginary rider who would have a guitar on them as they went round the wall of death. Blink, that’s it! And then it just unfolds. I’ve got the graphics, I’ve got the sound right for what that would sounds like, which would be very noisy, so I’ve got Bareknuckle Pickups custom made for that. And that picture in my head of someone with a guitar on the bike going round and round, I thought that’s who owns this guitar that I’m making."

The Apollocaster is inspired by the moon landing

The idea behind his Apollocaster was that "it was owned by someone who worked in mission control and was one of the technicians on the Apollo 11 landing. I like the idea that there would have been a band at NASA who had a celebratory party and this guitar was part of that. I just love the idea that someone who was a NASA nerd back in the day had a guitar made for them, and that was the guitar they wanted. So, it’s a late-'60s Tele design with all the detail in there describing the story of the landing and the conspiracy. It’s a guitar that belonged to somebody in 1969, and I’ve just plucked it out of history and have it available to sell."

Ben took inspiration from Stephen King for the Junkaster

"The Junkaster is based off of the character of Darnell from the film Christine and his junkyard pile that you could raid to build cars. So, I’ve applied the same idea of raiding his junk pile of guitar parts and putting together what I think is a pretty sturdy tele. I make all of these really fine details, that’s where I really spend way too much time. Each guitar is a rabbit hole in it’s own way, but I’m happy to fall down them every time because the fun is in the detail. In the movie there is a scene where Arnie returns back to Darnell’s garage and on the screen door of the garage there is a sign that says 'Honk For Entry', which he does before the shutter comes up. So, on the back of the guitar I’ve made that in to a backplate. Should you want to enter the electronics, you have to honk, which sounds wrong!"

With each Joe Doe guitar being unique, and each generated from one of Ben’s characters, the process of letting them go once they have sold is a difficult one.

"The first one that I sold, which was a Jazzmaster, was my favourite. The idea was that it was a retirement gift for a sergeant at the LAPD in the '60s, and that the precinct clubbed together to buy him a guitar. I was just tearing up when I sold that. It was really hard. But the guy really, really liked it, so that was fine. I love them all, and I have to love them to sell them. If I didn’t love it, weirdly, I wouldn’t want to sell it, because I would know that it was not up to par."

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