Custom guitar designer Brad Wilson makes the ultimate birthday present

Wilson in his workshop.
Brad Wilson had exactly one week to finish his custom-design guitar for a commissioned birthday present and, at that moment, he was thinking about starting over. The guitar still needed a camouflage paint job, a Colorado design for the pick guard, a painted neck and all the wiring -- basically, it needed everything. But the stencils weren't sticking to the wood, the edges of the paint spots kept running together, and the prospects didn't look good.

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Born and raised in Texas, Wilson speaks with a subtle drawl. His workaday clothing -- holey blue jeans, sweatshirt, beanie and boots -- and soft-spoken, "aw shucks" manner belie a quick and curious mind. Wilson is not a luthier; he does not fabricate the body of the guitar, and he is quick to praise those craftsmen who do. The services he offers are purely design-based. He takes a pre-cut body and customizes the design according to his client's specifications or according to his own personal preference -- which is how this all began.

"Mine's more a niche market: decorative, wall-hanging art," he says. "They can play it but, you know, if you'd been playing for twenty years, I'd probably say, 'I'll make you a cool-looking one that can be a tribute to something that means a lot to you.'"

His first custom-designed guitar came from listening to a Mastodon album, Crack the Skye. He decided he wanted to design a guitar with a variation of that cover. It was his first go-round with guitar customization, and he ran into more than his share of problems.

The "Crack the Skye" guitar, affectionately called "The Czar" by Wilson.
"I hadn't done anything like it, and I made a lot of mistakes on this one," he says, pointing to the bumpy texture of the paint. "Basically, after you paint it, you're supposed to seal it with the same brand. But I didn't seal it with the same brand, which is a big no-no. So right after I sprayed it, I hung it up to dry and literally watched it crinkle on me. It took about thirty minutes and a couple beers until I was like, 'it actually looks kind of cool.'"

Wilson estimated that the Mastodon guitar took him about three months to complete with all of the sanding, painting, design-laying and assembling, but he chalked it all up to a learning experience, and his other efforts have gone more smoothly...until the Colorado guitar.

The Colorado guitar is for Justin Van Sickle's twelfth birthday. His sister, Devin, designed the guitar from start to finish based on her brother's likes. The initial design called for a Denver skyline, but when that got complicated, they eschewed it in favor of camouflage.

Benjamin Smith
The pick guard for Justin's "Colorado" guitar.
Wilson's fledgling business, Wilson Custom Guitars, is indicative of the do-it-yourself ethos in today's young professional world. Wilson works out of a studio in the Wazee Union building, which houses a host of other creatives: painters, photographers, musicians, dancers, designers. Most are young, some are established, and some are trying to break through, but the atmosphere they work in is one of mutual respect, encouragement and collaboration.

Wazee Union houses all varieties of artists and creatives.
"Everybody here is extremely helpful. If you ever need anything, everybody does it," Wilson says. "When my buddy Brandon [Kelloff, a graphic designer] makes these graphics for me, he does it at little-to-no cost."

Kellogg printed the graphics that Wilson used for his second and third guitars currently on display at the Retro Room and Scruffy Murphy's in downtown Denver.

The Retro Room guitar designed by Wilson is a nod to Buddy Guy's dotted guitar.

Continue reading for more photos.

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