Bill Jancar, Kelly Butler and the First Act Custom Studio:
The new high-end 12 and the guys who brought it to life

Bill Jancar and Kelly Butler of the First Act Custom Studio

An Interview with Philip Snyder

Life offers all of us opportunities; we just need to be open-minded enough to recognize them.

On a trip to Boston in the summer of 2007 I paid a visit to the First Act Guitar Studio to find out more about the company with the seemingly enormous advertising budget. Who exactly was First Act and what type of guitar company bursts onto the scene with full-page color ads and entire calendars in major guitar publications? I could not resist the temptation to check them out in person.

What I found more closely resembled an art gallery than your average Guitar Center or mom & pop's music store. The airy decor was uncluttered without a zillion guitars on stands and amps stacked to the ceiling. Judging by the wide range of custom shop instruments hanging on the walls I quickly recognized that this was a company with an open mind... one that would possibly be open to the idea of building a 12-string bass. I introduced myself to a salesman and explained my idea. I was impressed with his enthusiasm and the respectful treatment I received. He quickly offered me the contact info for Kelly Butler, then Chief Luthier of the First Act Custom Studio. Upon arriving back home I contacted Kelly who showed great interest in my idea. Over the next few months we kept in close contact bouncing ideas off each other about what the 12 should be like. 

Not long after the project was under way Kelly connected me with Bill Jancar, another talented luthier at First Act and the guy who was appointed to bring the 12 from concept to reality. Some time later Kelly left First Act and Bill took over as project manager for the 12. While Kelly can be given a lot of credit for paving the way for the 12-string bass to be built, Bill must be given equal credit for doing the building. This bass would quite simply never have been made without either one of these fine craftsmen and their enthusiasm for the project.

So who is First Act anyway? The story is an interesting one to say the least. With humble beginnings in a Brookline, Massachusetts basement, First Act has grown to being a widely recognized name in little more than a decade. Beginning with a line of starter instruments sold in Wal-Mart stores across the country, First Act believed that they could keep players of all skill levels on board if they continued to improve the quality of their instruments all the way up to the professional level. In 2002 the company lured master luthier Kelly Butler away from the Gibson custom shop to create their own custom shop in Boston. In 2005 they opened the First Act Guitar Studio on Boylston Street in the heart of Boston's popular Back Bay neighborhood.

The First Act Custom Shop has built instruments for such noted players as Rick Nielsen (Cheap Trick), Adam Levine (Maroon 5), Brad Whitford (Aerosmith), Ginger (Wildhearts), Martin Gore (Depeche Mode) and Michael Sweet (Stryper). Recently, First Act has gained attention at the national level by partnering with Volkswagen for a series of commercials featuring Slash (Velvet Revolver) and Nigel Tufnel (Spinal Tap). 

What interested you in building this 12-string bass?
Kelly Butler: I think it's always a good idea to try new things and expand your base, or bass as the case may be. I played bass for 15 years or so and have always been interested in the 12-string bass as well as the 8's.

Bill Jancar: I'd never built a 12-string bass before and it was an original and new body design. I've never played one either. I thought it would be fun and challenging at the same time.

What were your initial design concerns in building this bass?
Kelly: Stability, playability and tone. We really needed to do some research.

Bill: My biggest concern was neck dive. Being unfamiliar with the 12-string bass, I felt it should have normal balance comparable to a normal electric bass or guitar.

Custom Creamsicle 4-string Delgada built for Al Barry (Avril Lavigne)

The Delgada is a First Act production model 4-string bass.  What did you do differently with the 12-string version? 
Kelly:  Well, the Delgada is a bolt-on with a narrow Jazz-style neck. This 12 is a neck through with a wider neck profile and utilizes a different style of truss rod and neck reinforcement both in carbon fiber rods and particular laminations of the neck woods and very particular grain orientation.

Bill: The body design was flipped upside down, the bout narrowed, lower horn shortened, and it was designed around a neck through laminate maple blank with mahogany wing blocks. The 4-string Delgada basses are 2-piece alder bodies with maple bolt on necks.


Early Photoshop rendering of the reverse Delgada 12-string bass

Tell me about the body and neck and why you chose the tonewoods you did.
Kelly: Listen, there are certain things that have already been proven to be winning combinations. Why screw with success? Maple, rosewood, alder... you can't really mess that up. The real trick with creativity is being able to create within very narrow parameters. With that in mind we used very traditional materials to create a very non-traditional instrument.

Bill: I wanted to use a maple neck through blank because of its strength to stand up to the tension that a 12-string bass has. The neck through will also allow better tone transfer through out the entire bass. Luckily, we had a laminate from another project leftover that was maple and walnut; three pieces of maple and two of walnut sandwiched together. The mahogany wing blocks seemed like the obvious choice to counter the hard maple. The mahogany gives added warmth to the tone.

A 12-string has a tremendous amount of tension on the neck. Tell us about the neck construction.
Kelly: We used a 5-piece laminate of rock maple and walnut. All are quarter sawn.

Bill: The 5-piece neck is constructed: 1" maple,
" walnut, 1" maple, " walnut, 1" maple. There is an ebony head veneer with white binding (12į pitch in the headstock), a rosewood fingerboard with white binding (12" radius) and two dual-action truss rods which are accessible at the body. Having access to the truss rods at the body was a big deal to me; It seemed more user-friendly rather than at the headstock having to battle all those strings.

We worked together in making decisions regarding hardware and pickup choices, as well as all other elements of the instrument. Now that the 12 is finished how do you feel about what we chose?
Kelly: The Lace pickups we chose for this instrument help keep things clean and un-muddy (is that a word?). The clarity and bite are excellent. The other hardware is tried and true. For this first 12 it seemed like using fairly standard stuff with our own design made the most sense.

Bill: I would probably change the bridge to a hard tail, like a Schaller. I'd also use First Act proprietary bass pickups that are on the Delgada bass. They have a real boomy low end that most bass pickups don't have. The weight of these pickups would also add to the balance of the instrument. The Lace Alumitones have a nice sound but they're very light weight based on design and the 12 could have utilized the extra weight for a better balance of the instrument.

What choices might you change and what would you keep for the next 12? 
Kelly: I'd just like to do a few more experiments.

Bill: I'd keep the headstock design and neck through but probably make a completely new body design and pick up and hardware configuration. Also try a 34" scale. Try to solve the 12-string bass balance issue, ha-ha!

How long did it take to finish the instrument?
Kelly: Way longer than it should have. We kept having constant scheduling problems.

Bill: Off and on... 10-11 months. Work was done to the bass in between other projects.

Did you play any 12s before you began building this one?  If so, which ones?
Kelly: I'd messed around with the Hamers a bit.

Bill: I've never played any other 12-strings before.

How much does the instrument weigh?
Bill: 11Ĺ lbs.

"Bettie" guitar designed for Rick Nielsen by First Act - used as inspiration for the reverse Delgada 12

What do you think of the 12 now that it is finished? How do you feel about 12's in general now that you have built one?
Kelly: I think it's beautiful. A very striking instrument.

Bill: I'm very happy with it. Itís always nice to build something you've never built before and see it come to fruition. The 12-string basses are very unusual and interesting, an acquired taste. I do believe that I've become intrigued and would love to build some more.

Any temptation to build one for yourself?
Kelly: I would love to, if I would ever get the time.

Bill: Always a temptation to build something cool for myself.

Are there more 12-string basses in the works at First Act? Is it possible that First Act might add a 12 to their production line or will this remain a custom shop piece?
Bill: Currently there aren't, but who's to say in the future. At this point the 12 is a one-off custom piece.

What is the most unusual guitar you have ever been asked to build? What was the most challenging part?
Kelly: Each instrument has its own unique qualities. As such, it offers it's own challenges. I must say that they are all a true joy to see when they are done.

Bill: I'd have to say usually the art pieces. One had a white vinyl snakeskin top in which I attached it to the top using Tolex glue. I then cut the excess at the binding, made a radiused cap out of pickguard material that followed the outline of the whole body and attached it to the binding concealing the edge of the vinyl. That also connected the finished rim and binding to the unfinished snakeskin vinyl. The most difficult and enjoyable part of building these guitars would have to be figuring out the best way to execute the project.

Are finishes generally becoming more hi-tech or are the "old ways" still preferred? What are your favorite finishes with which to work?
Kelly:  For my money I prefer the UV cured lacquer. Excellent luster and shine, and also efficient and economical.

Bill:  Finishes are definitely becoming more hi-tech. We use multiple types of finishes, depending on the project; Nitro-cellulose lacquer with a catalyst, UV, Poly and water-based. We have also had requests to spray straight nitro as well. There are a lot of traditionalists out there who prefer the straight nitro to any other finish. I'm partly one of those people. The new water-based finish that I've worked with though (KTM-9) looked absolutely amazing. The process is a bit different (they all are) and intimidating, but once you get the hang of it itís fairly easy. The outcome of the finished product was spectacular.

I guess it's all personal preference and it differs from person to person, especially luthier to player. All finishes have their pros and cons, it depends on how much time you want to put into the guitar, and what you want out of the guitar.

To what extent are computers / CAD programs involved in custom jobs?
Kelly: The team here is very involved in programming and computer use. It's essential in today's world.

Bill: My custom projects usually don't involve computers / CAD other than custom fingerboard inlay from time to time. Having the fingerboard routed on the CNC saves a lot of time and allows me to work on multiple guitars in different stages. Since my projects are normally one-off's it would take too much time to program a CNC for one guitar.

The majority of our Limited Edition Models start at the CNC, some completed there. Other custom appointments are added by hand pending on what hardware or pickups were requested, i.e. special routes that aren't already programmed.

What is your favorite guitar design and why?
Kelly: Having grown up in Nashville I tend to lean towards the Gibsons, stylistically. As far as an overall fave... I don't think I could narrow it down that far. I am proud of the designs we have done at First Act however.

Bill: Having one favorite is too difficult. There are so many great guitars out there and too many different variations in aesthetics, comfort, playability and tonal ability. I enjoy picking the right instrument for the song - when I do finally pick the right one - that's my favorite at that given moment. That can change day to day too - from bass, acoustic guitar or electric guitar.

Finally, on Halloween have you ever built a guitar while wearing a chicken suit?
Kelly: I'm wearing one now.

Bill: HA-HA! No, Halloween is probably the only time I'm not wearing a chicken suit while building guitars. I try to use it to get free fried chicken. It works sometimes when I hang out in front of fried chicken shacks.

Thanks for taking the time to detail the process of building the first First Act Custom Shop 12-string bass guys! It is a beautiful instrument and we look forward to seeing what comes out of the First Act Custom Studio next!
Kelly: Party on dude!

Check out First Act's website