Followers of our YouTube channel will know we are now fortunate enough to count Tom Quayle as part of the Dawsons family. This is excellent on a number of levels, not least because he’s a heck of a player.
Another reason we’re fortunate to have Tom is that he offers us the chance to gain an insight into life as a professional guitarist. The guy is quite clearly living the dream. Not only that, one of the guitar world’s most iconic brands – Ibanez – literally pleaded with him to make him his own signature model.
This, we thought, warranted further examination. We’ve all seen signature guitars and wondered what the back story is to their inception. With that in mind, we took the opportunity to ask Tom how it all works behind the scenes.
So, Ibanez then. How did that all come about?
Ibanez had, for a few years, been coming up to me and asking if we could do an artist deal. At the time I was working with a smaller European brand and I was very happy with what they provided me with.
But Ibanez was always my dream guitar brand, right from when I started playing aged 15. I used to stare at all the guitar magazines and look at my heroes like Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, and John Petrucci, and they all played Ibanez.
In January 2017, the guys from Ibanez did something a little different. They ushered me into a little room at NAMM, and said here’s a top secret, prototype guitar for a new series we’re bringing out called the AZ series. I played it and it completely blew me away.
I walked away thinking “that’s neat, nice to see Ibanez going in a new direction” and thought nothing more of it. Then, around a month later, an email arrived from Ibanez saying they were coming to Leeds, my hometown, and bringing with them a prototype guitar. They said they wanted to make a signature guitar for me, and would be bringing mock-ups and 3D models, and that they wanted me to seriously consider whether I wanted them to make me a signature guitar.
Honestly, I’ve never replied to an email so quickly in my life. The 15-year-old me couldn’t believe it.
So what happened next?
They came all the way over from LA to my house. It was quite surreal. They were doing all this Japanese bowing outside my house, then they handed me a guitar as a gift to me and we set about designing my guitar.
Tell us about the guitar.
It’s effectively based on the new Ibanez AZ series, but with personal tweaks for me in terms of the aesthetics and how it looks and feels. It’s largely the same as what you’d find in the Japanese made Prestige range but with my personal twist on the visuals.
Honestly, I didn’t have to change too much. Previously, when I was working with the smaller boutique brand, I would sit down with them and we’d discuss what I wanted, what features we could include and so on. With this guitar, it wasn’t like that at all. People might not believe me but the guitar was already so close to what I’d want that the only major input I needed was visual.
The AZ series reminded me of some of the high-end, boutique guitars you see coming out of the States. All stainless steel frets and roasted maple necks. What Ibanez has done is take those concepts and ran with them, and in the process created something of exceptionally high quality.
So with my own model, everything was pretty much in place. The hardware, the neck profile, the body shape, the tonewoods; it was all that I would already want from a guitar.
Aesthetically, I wanted something a bit more grown-up, if that’s the right phrase. I went for something a bit more natural looking, less over the top. I didn’t want a scratchplate. I opted for abalone inlays as I’ve always liked them. Other than that it’s very similar to the rest of the AZ range. They really nailed it the first time, so we didn’t actually need to change that much.
What finish did you go for?
The top is a wood called ‘monkey pod’ which is a hardwood similar to Korina, but it has a unique look to the grain. The whole guitar is completely natural. The roasted maple gives the wood a dark, chocolatey look which is really fantastic.
Talking generally, it must be hard for an artist to balance the aesthetics and performance of a signature guitar versus the cost. How do you approach that?
A lot of the time when people are designing a spec of a boutique guitar, they’ll go for really expensive tonewoods with attractive graining. This is great, but it also has a significant impact on the price that the guitar can later be sold for. So as well as aesthetics and performance, you also have to strongly consider price when putting something together from scratch.
How far do you want to go when you consider the final price?
It’s a real balance that does inevitably involve compromise at some stage down the line. You want to make things affordable, but then the AZ guitars are also seen as aspirational instruments so you don’t want to go too far the other way. It is, after all, a high-end guitar, made in Japan, using quality components. We feel we found the right balance with my signature though. It’s a boutique-level guitar and nobody’s going to feel short-changed.
When you’re designing a signature guitar, how much do you have to keep in mind that it’s not only you that will be using it? Different people with different shaped hands, for example, all need to be considered, right?
Absolutely. Concerning both performance and aesthetics, there needs to be a balance. With mine, for example, we’ve not plastered it with my logo or anything which overtly says it’s my guitar, other than a small signature on the headstock.
From a playability point of view, Ibanez is known for having very skinny ‘Wizard’ necks aimed at shredders and metal players. This is a much more traditional rounded C-shaped neck, while the body shape is much more comfortable than a pointier guitar.
The idea is that if you’re looking for a high end, grown-up guitar, this will suit any player of any style. It’s extremely versatile.
The new AZ range seems to make a slight change in direction for Ibanez?
That’s fair to say. They asked a bunch of guitarists, myself included, why we didn’t choose Ibanez over other brands. It was an aspirational brand when we were 15, but seemingly not now we’ve all grown up. Why is that the case? The response I gave was that it’s not that we don’t want to play Ibanez, its simply that the RG series – typically the highest quality that would be precise enough for what we need – were too pointy. They were too aesthetically specific for a particular genre. The overall pointiness was enough to make us consider other brands.
Now they’ve released this new range which is much more grown-up, that suits a particular level of ability. I love RGs and have owned plenty of them over the years, but the AZ series is just a much more classic, high-end line of instruments.
People are going to be interested in the process behind the scenes. What’s the ‘business’ relationship with you and Ibanez?
With a company like Ibanez; they’re so huge that there’s so much at stake. For the sake of everybody’s wellbeing – personally and professionally – it makes sense to have everything written down. There’s a contract involved and makes both sides feel more secure.
What requirements are there for you?
Ibanez is great in that respect. Clearly, I have to be seen to be playing my signature guitar but why would I not? It’s certainly not a chore. This guitar has been made, with my input, for me. I don’t see how anyone could see that as an issue. I want to play it all the time!
Personally speaking, you must be pretty happy with everything that’s happened?
I honestly don’t think there’s anything I could say to my 15-year-old self that would make me believe what has happened. I remember staring at the adverts in the guitar mags and just dreaming that one day it would be me. It’s both incredible and totally bizarre at the same time. I still can’t quite get my head around it, but I think that’s the way it should be.
Tom’s guitar is now available to purchase online or in store.
Journalist, PR and multimedia specialist. Write professionally on subjects ranging from musical instruments to industrial technology.