Friends create a company to build the guitars
of their dreams
The story of Custom77 Guitars reads like the screenplay for a buddy movie. Jérôme Rabetaud and JB Debiais became fast friends in tenth grade over a shared love of guitars and music. By the time they had entered University, they were studying electronics side-by-side during the day, and playing in a band together at night. As musicians and fledgling engineers, they spent much of their free time measuring and analyzing the performance of different guitars and amps. By 2007, they had accumulated so much data they decided to put it to work, and launched their own guitar company, Custom77, in their home town of Lyon, France.
Custom77’s first products were finely crafted copies of classic guitar designs. The partners wanted to create guitars that sounded like the best vintage instruments but were affordable enough to actually take out of the house for a gig. Within a year, however, they began offering their own original designs. Debiais says Custom77’s development mirrors the evolution of Japanese guitar makers including Ibanez. “They started in the ’70s making copies and then moved towards original designs that led to a strong brand identity.”
Custom77’s “brand identity” derives from a distinctive collection of guitars that reflect the tastes of the company founders. Meticulously crafted, the guitars are distinguished by off-set body styles that are simultaneously “retro” in appearance, yet very original. Complementing the unique designs is a level of workmanship that rivals that of the “Golden Age” of instrument making and specially designed hardware. The partners are emphatic that every guitar receives an extensive inspection prior to shipment, guaranteeing that it is ready to play right out of the box.
Rabetaud and Debiais feel that the Custom77 guitar line is a reaction to the industry’s misguided product development efforts. At one end of the market are the top-selling models that haven’t changed in more than 50 years. At the other end are newer designs that, in trying to appeal to blues, jazz, rock, and metal players, have lost any identity. “We’re creating original instruments that have a real sonic and visual identity,” says Debiais. “Without this uniqueness, we’d just be adding another guitar to a crowded marketplace.” The Custom77 Deluxe series is also benefitting from the renewed popularity of offset body styles. “It’s a great opportunity for us to stand apart from all the Jazzmaster copies that are flooding the market,” says Debiais. “Players are drawn to our guitars, and then they experience the quality and performance.”
Custom77’s flagship Deluxe series includes the Lust For Life model, released in 2008, followed by The Watcher, The Roxy, The Watcher T-Sonic, and most recently The Blackout, the London’s Burning Mark II and the Goin Steady. While each instrument has its own body style, they all artfully incorporate premium hardware from the likes of Bigsby, Kluson, TonePros, and Gotoh while using proprietary Custom77 pick-ups. For more price-conscious buyers, Custom77 offers its CS Series, which includes updated takes on classic designs. Most recently, the company introduced an entirely new brand, Third Eye Guitars, designed specifically for heavy metal players.
Debiais explains, “Our main customer base has been players between 20 and 40 years old who are usually fans of vintage gear. With Third Eye, we have reached a much younger group in the 15-to-25-year old segment who are fans of baritone scales and seven-string guitars. Recently, though, we’ve seen some of the Third Eye buyers purchase Custom77 Deluxe instruments as they mature or turn to a different musical style.”
In France, Custom77 initially sold its guitars direct to consumers online. Over the past five years, however, the partners have cultivated a strong network of retail stores. They are planning to use a similar strategy as they approach the U.S. market. Exhibiting at last year’s NAMM show, Custom77 signed up Amazon.com as a retailer. At this year’s show, they are looking to add specialized guitar retailers to the distribution mix. Debiais says that online distribution is only one part of a successful strategy. “In-store advice is a very important factor in establishing a brand,” he says.
The stagnant French economy has created an inhospitable environment for all local music companies. Compounding the challenge, Debiais explains, “France is not an entrepreneur-friendly country. There is nothing here that really supports new businesses.” Yet, he says that learning to operate successfully in a difficult business climate has its benefits: “If we can make it work here, we can make it work anywhere!”
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