Don Worthington

Chester man makes custom guitars at new downtown shop

Jonathan Levister at his new music store and custom guitar-making operation in Chester, Experience Custom Shop.
Jonathan Levister at his new music store and custom guitar-making operation in Chester, Experience Custom Shop.

Peek inside the doors of the shop at the top of the hill in Chester if you want to see craftsmanship.

There are hand-built display cases along each side of the store, parallel to Main Street, rising almost to the ceiling. They once displayed the best handcrafted jewelry.

In the middle of the store are back-to-back grand pianos. Their highly polished black finish reflects their golden interiors. While they are silent, it is not hard to imagine a virtuoso romping through a rhapsody or coaxing a concerto and even practicing a simple etude. Even Chopsticks would sound like a symphony on these pianos.

In the back of the shop, Jonathan Levister crafts another stringed instrument. While smaller in scale, it is of no less quality. Levister’s goal is to have the strings vibrate through you when they are struck or strummed. His instruments become part of those who play them.

Levister crafts custom solid-body guitars so well that his lifelong friend Caleb Turner says, “He pulls a piece of art out of a piece of wood.”

Turner and Levister grew up together, learning about music from the praise band at the Word and Spirit Ministry in Chester, where Levister’s dad, David, is the pastor.

They learned to play guitar and bass from the members and how to play the praise band’s songs – special songs written to accompany the Rev. Levister’s sermons. They also learned to sing, something that wasn’t easy for Levister.

“I sounded like a Beatles reject,” he said. He now sings lead on about 90 percent of the praise band’s songs.

As a teenager, Levister became curious about the guitar and its sound. It soon became his passion.

He sanded the neck of his Aria guitar because his hand was sticking on the finish. He then removed all the paint. He changed the pickup, which captures vibration of the strings and converts them into an electrical signal.

He still has the guitar, now on display at his downtown shop.

At 20 he started an online music store but soon realized the price he paid for items was what other, larger online retailers were selling them for.

At 22 he built his first guitar. “A parts-caster,” he quips. He purchased the parts separately and assembled them. “It cost me about $600 to $700 to build it. I sold it for $420.”

His obsession grew. No longer did he want to assemble parts and copy someone else. He wanted to build a guitar of his own design.

“I went ghetto,” he says. Ghetto, as in he lacked the proper tools and made use of what he could get his hands on. “My first body was a disaster. I threw it away, never used it,” he said.

Other, finished guitars followed, but it wasn’t until Levister joined Keith Freeburg and his piano shop in Henderson, N.C., that he understood the precision needed to make the best guitars.

Levister came to Freeburg with a mechanical aptitude but knew nothing about pianos.

“I learned how to do it by doing it, and if I did it wrong, I did it again,” he said.

He learned that while the piano is a big instrument, its tolerances are measured in thousandths of an inch. He learned how to adjust the key mechanism, which has between 19 and 21 moving parts, depending on the piano. “There are 12 adjustments you can make, and you do that 88 times. It has to be perfect,” he said.

He transferred that precision to building guitars.

He mastered “tap talk,” the simple plunking of a piece of wood. It has the make the right sound. Too muted and he lets it age. “If the wood doesn’t ring, I won’t use it,” he said. Korina, also known as Limba, became his wood of choice for guitars.

He designed his own guitar body. The curves are aesthetic but the gentle slope in the top of the guitar isn’t. The slope almost automatically brings your fingers to the strings and supports your wrist. Lots of work with a hand chisel creates the slope.

Levister understands his own limitations. He sends wood to John Benson of Lockport, N.Y., who makes his necks and custom pickups. They are twin sons of different mothers. Both have exacting standards for guitars.

Sending the necks to Benson allows Levister to control his costs. His custom guitars sell for around $2,500. Other custom guitars sell for about $8,000.

The result, said Caleb Turner, “is when you pick up one of Jon’s, it feels like it becomes part of you, you feel every vibration.”

It also passes another critical test. Even though it is designed to be amplified, the guitar still sounds clean and projects when played acoustically.

It comes alive when plugged in. Its sound can be “big and beefy,” similar to what a player might get from a Les Paul guitar that weighs between 10 and 12 pounds. Levister’s weighs a comfortable seven pounds.

Then comes every guitarist’s challenge – getting the right tone.

“Everyone is chasing the tone,” Turner said.

“It is the one thing you can’t catch,” Levister said. “The sound you want is constantly running away from you.”

Levister, now 27, opened the Experience Custom Shop several months ago, intent at first on just having a place to build custom guitars.

But he also wanted space for at least one piano. His skills as a piano tuner and repairman help support his family and his guitar obsession.

He almost rented a smaller spot next door but prayed, asking what God wanted for him.

“As soon as I prayed, everything opened,” he said. His current space became available, giving him room for several grand and upright pianos. The back of the store is his guitar workshop.

Now that he has his own shop, his goal is building five custom guitars annually. His problem in the past has been that every time he builds a guitar, it sells. He couldn’t build up inventory.

He’s sold one grand piano and believes there is a market in Chester for more.

“Every day,” he said, “is now fun. If it makes music, I can fix it, or know someone who can fix it.”

Don Worthington: 803-329-4066, @rhherald_donw