What happens when your cherished stringed instrument breaks down, or needs to be serviced? Or what if you wanted your dream guitar to be made from scratch? Enter Sunil Shinde. Shinde is a luthier (a maker of stringed instruments), guitar technician, and proprietor of S.S. Custom Instruments. Affectionately called the guitar doctor, Shinde has been working on instruments for two decades is the go-to-guy for all kinds of repairs. He takes on various guitar repair related tasks, like servicing, parts replacement, modifying, restoring, and refinishing instruments.
We had a chat with him at his new workshop in Charkop about the history of his work, his experience working on a wide variety of instruments, and his bespoke instruments.
Neerav Gupta: When and how did you first begin? Did you learn from anyone, or take any training?
Sunil Shinde: I have never received any training. Everything I have learned has been through practical experience. When I was young, I took apart radios and repaired them as a hobby. I wanted to do something practical and had an interest in technical things. During the summer holidays after my 10th grade, I wanted to work somewhere. This was in 1989 or 1990. My brother had been working at a photo studio. Shortly after, Salvadore Dias opened his music shop, Alberto Music, in the vicinity. It was by coincidence that I started working at his shop. I had begun to play a bit of guitar too.
I did not have the opportunity to practice any techniques on instruments as such. I learned a little about handling tools like wood files and cutters from Dias’ cousin, but I never had a guru, and never got any hands-on training. Dias did have some books on guitar repair at the store. I never read through them, but would refer to them from time to time.
Within about a month or so of working there, the quality of my work improved and it would surprise people. They would assume that I had been working on guitars for many years. I worked at Dias’ music shop from 1990 to 1995, and started working out of my own workshop in 1996. So, as of 2017, I have been working on instruments for 27 years.
NG: What sort of jobs do you undertake? What are the common problems people bring their guitars to you for?
SS: I undertake all sorts of jobs relating to servicing of guitars, like setups, and solving any problems that may arise in instruments. A common problem that guitars suffer from is neck movement due to weather changes. The neck of an acoustic or electric guitar may get bent, or in severe cases, warped. Electric guitars have electronic parts in them, which may suffer issues and may have carbon deposited on them. I service all these parts and bring them back to working condition.
I have never received any training. Everything I have learned has been through practical experience.
NG: What is the easiest kind of guitar to service and what is the hardest? What has been the most challenging bit of work that you have undertaken?
SS: People believe that working on an electric guitar is difficult. Actually, I find those instruments comparatively easier to work with. Acoustic guitars, on the other hand, are difficult to work with. People wrongly assume that acoustic guitars are sada or simple guitars and don’t need much work. Musicians who are experienced understand that working on an acoustic guitar can be tough. But there are also musicians who may not be knowledgeable about such things.
Working on electric guitars is a technical process. For many instruments that I have worked on in the past, I have needed to do some research. I have to use different techniques on each instrument. There are many types of challenging jobs. Repairing a guitar with a neck that has broken in many pieces is difficult.
You might think that I get a specific type or certain types of instruments if you look at my posts on Facebook. But the truth is I get a wide variety of instruments to work on. I avoid publishing photos of everyone’s instrument through my profile.
NG: Some have criticized your rates. They say that the work you undertake can be done at cheaper rates and with quicker turnaround times with other guitar technicians. What is your response to that?
SS: I solve the problem in one go. For other technicians, it may take multiple visits. What is preferable? I have developed my skill over time and have practical knowledge, not just theoretical knowledge. If my work wasn’t reliable, wouldn’t I have shortage of work? People are aware of this, and respond accordingly. And not just musicians but hobbyists and casual players also consider my services. I have received instruments that have been botched by others. Some musicians have given their instruments to others for jobs, but had to be brought to me for final repairs.
There are other reasons for my rates too. I keep the instruments right here in my cabin. Instruments are safe and are taken care of. Another reason is that even though I recently set up this new larger workshop, I decided to stay in the same area and retain my older rates. I could set up a shop somewhere else, but if I did, I would have to increase my rates to accommodate the higher rent costs.
NG: People from around the country bring their equipment to get work done. Have you ever marketed your services?
SS: I have never marketed my services. I had begun building instruments right back in the 1990s. My work began as soon as I started working at Dias’ music shop. Word soon spread through word-of-mouth publicity and people got to know of my presence. In 2011, I began posting photos of the instruments I’d worked on on my Facebook profile. Sunny Dsouza [manager at Bhargava’s Musik] set up my profile and helped me initially.
I never put out an ad for my workshop or never asked any client to market my services. They would tell their acquaintances on their own accord. In the music industry, word spreads fast if your work is good. And also if your work is not good. I’ve been lucky that my work has been good.
NG: What about building custom made instruments? When did you start making guitars on your own? What wood do you usually use? Do you use any Indian wood for your guitars? How long does it usually take to craft a guitar from scratch?
SS: People would place orders, and I would build the instruments. I used to work openly, and soon word spread. Back then, instruments were hard to find in the country and it wasn’t possible for everyone to buy instruments from abroad. The luthiers who made instruments in the city were okay, but my work was different. People were pleased with my craftsmanship, and I got many orders.
I use mahogany or swamp ash wood for bodies and Indian rosewood for fretboards. I order these woods from abroad for my builds. I haven’t used an Indian wood for bodies yet. Some people have experimented with Burma teak in the past, but that isn’t good for guitars because it is a very dense and heavy wood.
It usually takes about 15 to 21 days for a custom build made from scratch. I used to take a month or two earlier, but now I’ve brought it down to under a month.
NG: Why would a musician buy a custom guitar made by you, as compared to buying ready-made instruments? What value are you adding to the instrument?
SS: Good question. Tonal and sound quality of a guitar is important. Guitars made abroad, like in China, aren’t of that good quality. Not everyone can afford to buy high-end American instruments which have high-quality Alder or Swamp Ash wood. I take the same wood used in these American instruments and create customs instruments. The sound and build quality of a custom instrument cannot be matched. The instrument can also be made to suit the player’s technique. This is not possible in a ready-made guitar.
In the music industry, word spreads fast if your work is good. And also if your work is not good. I’ve been lucky that my work has been good.
NG: What is your relationship with Ehsaan Noorani [guitar player and music composer] like? What has been his contribution to your work over the years?
SS: He loves music and guitars. Guitars are very important for him, and they mean the world to him. I have been working on his guitars for years now, and he trusts my work. I quit working on guitars briefly after ’95. This was before I set up my own workshop. At the time, I had been working on his guitars for five years. After I quit, he was not satisfied with the work he got done by other technicians and prompted me to resume looking after his instruments and also start my own workshop.
In 2008-9, I was facing some problems. When many people know about you, they believe that everything is okay in your life. But not everyone knows what the truth is. Ehsaan sir was also surprised to know that I was facing problems. He assumed everything was fine with me as I was quite busy. Financially, he helped me in minor way. But his major contribution was when he offered to order tools and parts for me from the US. He ordered guitar tech’s tools and parts that were not available locally. Occasionally, he would order parts on his own without me having to ask him. Not everyone thinks for other people in this way. And he did it so that it would help not just me, but even other musicians in the community too.
He suggested I begin posting my work on Facebook and other social media so that people can know that even complex jobs can be done.
NG: Why did you move to a new workshop? Is there anything different that you will offer at the premises? Where do you see your work going into the future?
SS: The rent agreement for my old workshop was getting over at the end of 2016. That prompted me to shift to a new place. The old space was somewhat small and cramped. The new space is larger, and it is easier to work here. My cabin is larger too. This has been the 4th or the 5th time I have shifted my premises and I have remained in the same area. This time, the workshop is on the main road and will be easier for people to find.
I am happy with my progress at the moment. I have managed to retain the clients I had when I first began and I now have new clients. I am expecting instruments from Hyderabad, Ahmedabad and even Dubai.
NG: How would you recommend people keep their instruments in good and playable condition? What is one thing you dislike about the guitars or people that come to your workshop? Or want them to keep in mind before coming to you?
SS: The best way to keep an instrument in shape is to play it regularly. Because if an instrument is played regularly, the player will change strings and use it regularly. If an instrument is not used for a while, it may develop problems. Some major professional musicians may not have time to maintain their instrument themselves, hence they send it out to me for regular servicing.
Another thing is to avoid believing superstitions about instruments. Some may suggest detuning the instrument, or removing strings when not in use. Because of this, instruments with a weak neck or truss rod may encounter issues. An instrument should always stay tuned to pitch. Cleaning and wiping your instrument after every playing session is helpful too.
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