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Don’t Fret

Tom Gauldin’s Southside Custom Guitars.

By Brett Levine // Photography by Beau Gustafson

Renovating a home can often lead to a second career as a house-flipper, but Tom Gauldin took an entirely different path. “I decided, ‘I’m going to do custom guitars,’” he laughs, standing in Highland Music in front of a wall with several of his creations. With no formal training in woodworking, he explains, “I just like to figure things out. I think old guitars are intriguing, and I’ve always thought of them as art.”

Being a guitarist, and loving the community around Highland Music, Gauldin had learned a lot about guitar builds, but he was also able to benefit from the skills of his friend and longtime guitar tech Billy Gallant. “I’m not sure if I would even be doing this if he were still alive—he really knew his stuff.” Gauldin made his first guitar a little after Gallant died. As he describes it, he brought the instrument in, and laid it on the counter. Don Murdoch, the store’s owner, eyed it quietly. Harold McCollum, the guitar tech, was a little more forthright. “This won’t work,” McCollum explained.

But after making some refinements, “it turned out that the first two guitars I built were actually pretty incredible,” Gauldin says. This was partly the result of how he thought about what he did, and partly because of why he was doing it: “I’ve always thought of guitar-building as an art; and I always wanted to see if I could make something that was better than what was already out there.”

So once he learned that he could construct guitars that played well, Gauldin settled into his basement workshop to refine his skills. When pressed, the trajectory of his learning curve becomes apparent. “When I first started, I didn’t even know how to use a spray gun,” he laughs, before telling the tale of a lacquer job that went terribly wrong thanks to a temperature change. But now, the process—and his patience—are more refined.

“My biggest challenge,” he says, “is that there’s not enough time in the day. I work when I see a moment, although sometimes I feel like I sit down with a cup of coffee in the morning, and when I get up it is four o’clock in the afternoon.” Still, what results from these sessions are custom-built guitars made to unique, but not necessarily personal, specifications. As Gauldin explains, “I build a lot of my guitars on the fly just because I always want to be learning, building, and working. I generally know what’s going on before I get in the workshop, but I like being able to think about how a certain wood will affect a guitar’s tone, or what the perfect pickups to use will be.” Even more interesting is how he approaches guitars that he thinks might not be perfect: “If I don’t like a guitar’s tone, I’ll take it to the boneyard”—which means disassembling it to reuse its parts in the future.

With his slow and steady approach—Gauldin estimates he has probably built 30 guitars over the last two-and-a-half years—output may be limited, but appreciation is growing. His instruments have ended up in the hands of artists including Aaron Lee Tasjan, Browan Lollar, Mark Kimbrell, Gary Edmondson, and Jody Nelson. “I just like to build guitars,” he says modestly. “I would make them just to stack them in my house.” Of course, he doesn’t have to, since players are appreciating both the feel and the sound of a Southside Custom Guitar. “I’ve always thought of Birmingham’s Southside as a place for young musicians to stretch their legs, and when I did my logo I was always going to have it say Birmingham, Alabama.”

Given the fact that each piece is unique, you would think that it would be hard to let any guitar go, and Gauldin admits he has kept a few. “There are some that I think are transitional,” he explains, “but even if I keep them I loan them out because they want to be loved.”

When asked if there are plans to increase production, Gauldin thinks for a moment before quietly remarking, “I never surfed, but I skateboarded, and I feel like a board-maker. I don’t ever want to lose the joy.”

You can find the joy too by running your fingers over the fretboard and hearing the sound of a Southside Custom Guitar, crafted with passion, love, and joy right here in Birmingham, Alabama. 

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