The new kid on the block, with a pedigree.

Lars Mullen for Gear News talks to Ben Court, the creative genius behind Joe Doe guitars. 

The metaphor ‘Living in a hamster wheel’ is often related to a mundane or monotonous lifestyle. For Ben Court, the clever guy behind Joe Doe guitars, running around in circles getting nothing done, couldn’t be further from the truth. 

“I can relate to that wheel,” says Ben, “It’s been a big part of my life for a long time.” Besides creating and designing Joe Doe guitars, Ben has been a Film and TV screenwriter for the last 25 years. “Generating ideas is what I’m best at, my brain never really switches off” he laughs. So it was fortunate that Ben started a collaboration with the Vintage® Series, with the first run based on the V52™ and V6™ electric guitars. It was the perfect outlet for him to express more of his ideas, and working within the Vintage® Series, Ben knew he was starting from a good place, as he explains,

“The quality and feel of the Vintage range is exceptional. For me to use the chassis of the V6 and V52 meant I didn’t have to worry about tonewood characteristics, finishing or the quality of the hardware, because Vintage guitars had already done the hard work for me. And unlike my custom builds, working with just two body shapes, the V52 and V6, limits me and focuses the mind, otherwise the hamster wheel will overheat and I’d end up designing guitars that are so far off the wall! So having limitations can be a good thing."

Ben Court previewing Joe Doe to the international press at Namm 2020 California, USA.Ben Court previewing Joe Doe to the international press at Namm 2020 California, USA.

"I started building seriously in 2017, because I wanted to combine my day job of writing stories with my passion for guitar building. It seemed like a strange car crash of ideas at the time, but the amazing response I received when I launched my first run of Joe Doe Custom guitars at the London International Guitar Show that year told me I was onto something. They all sold within a year so I immediately started working on the second run for the next show, where I was approached by Vintage guitars brand owners JHS. They liked the idea of each guitar being individual and how the designs are based on fictional characters who may have owned them.”

I love guitars that have a story attached to them, like the guitar Jimi Hendrix set alight at the Montreux festival and BB King’s Lucille. The origin stories of these guitars make them more than the sum of their parts - they become holy relics.

This is what I’m trying to create in my designs, where I imagine the character who would have owned a particular guitar, who they were and how, where and when they played it. You can read in-depth stories on the website describing each one, then the aesthetics, the artwork and construction all become self explanatory.”

Many of Ben’s ideas are like some of the best songs ever recorded and written on the back of a napkin in minutes, he continues,

“In script writing, you know when you have a good idea for a story because it will just unfold in front of you. If I have to push hard to make something work, it usually means it’s wrong. When I’m designing guitars I have no problem at all coming up with characters and themes, that’s the easy bit! Turning them into material form is the hard part.

Leslie ‘Lucky Buck’ Coal's guitars featured on his billboard topping single ‘Whisky For Breakfast’.

The idea for the Vintage Lucky Buck Joe Doe for example, came from my love of old 1940’s cowboy acoustic guitars. Gene Autry had a signature model made by Sears, Roebuck and Co in 1932, and I wondered who else was lucky enough to get their own name on a guitar…? Then the idea formed in my mind and Leslie ‘Lucky Buck’ Coal was born, and his imagined life story came close behind. He was a country guitarist who topped the Billboard Country Music charts in 1952 with ‘Whisky For Breakfast’ after which, he was reduced to singing jingles for cars and washing powders on the radio. Coal’s lucky break came in 2005 when his hit record was sampled on East Coast rapper Kalamitee’s track ‘Get Drunk’.

This guitar, which started life as the excellent semi-hollow Vintage 52 with an American alder body, now has a bound Saguaro cactus F-hole, double body binding and finished in Black with a lignum rosa fingerboard or Honeyburst with a maple fingerboard, both with the Lucky Buck signature running along the fretboard.

Inspired by 'Wall of Death' rider and guitarist Betty La Foy.

Inspired by 'Wall of Death' rider and guitarist Betty La Foy.

It was pretty much the same for the Vintage Lucky Betty Joe Doe. The idea for this model came after I’d seen some original 1950’s film footage of an all female daredevil stunt group. They were strapping each other to the front of cars and driving through rings of fire, which I thought was incredible. So I took it one step further and imagined Betty and her crew riding the ‘wall of death’ on motor bikes whilst playing guitar riffs of the day.
The graphics on this guitar are similar to those seen on drag cars from that period, and on the back of the neck I’ve added an imaginary message from Betty’s husband wishing her well on every jump. It’s also the little extras that help tell the story, for example, in the case-candy for this model you get a ticket stub from one of her shows as well as a speeding ticket Betty was given long after she retired to Florida Keys. I guess she never grew tired of speeding!  

Joe Doe is actually 1950’s USA slang for a ‘blind date’. I’ve always been a fan of Americana, I love classic American cars, guitars, films and the Hollywood stunt guys from the same era, especially the old cowboy movies. There’s the almost compulsory dive off the saloon roof when the baddie gets shot for example, and I’m using that idea to build my first acoustic guitar.  

I’ve always been a tinkerer, I loved taking things apart when I was much younger, especially guitars. My first electric guitar was a sparkly red Encore but I wanted to finish it in black to fit in with my passion for heavy metal… so I stripped it back to the wood and painted it with Dulux. It was a transformative experience as I realised I could change things the way I wanted. This, for a man who was, and still is, never satisfied with anything, was quite exciting. 

I never take commission work because I have too many guitars of my own I want to build. For me, the best part of Joe Doe guitars is building a guitar and enjoying the creative process as ideas and mistakes happen along the way. Each guitar is a journey and when it's finished, the results can often be quite emotional.”

Joe Doe guitars are limited to only 100 models of each worldwide.
Joe Doe guitars are limited to only 100 models of each worldwide.

Vintage Joe Doe guitars are very individual and available in limited numbers, as Ben explains,

“From the hamster wheel to the finished product is quite a long process. At the moment there are 8 Vintage Joe Doe guitars in the series and I’m currently working on the next 8, which will also be available in limited quantities. As soon as the designs are complete, they’re sent to the amazing Vintage design team for construction. When finished, each Vintage Joe Doe guitar is individually set up by the Vintage ProShop Team and comes with a certificate of authenticity, along with those little extras in a luxury hardshell case.

In the case of Vintage Joe Doe Punkaster, which is based on a punk lead guitarist, there’s a ticket stub to one of his gigs. I imagined the owner of this guitar as a self-destructive punk lead player in the USA, being thrown out of his home town for being disruptive, ending up in Times Square, New York in 1979, working in a porno theatre by day and in a punk band at night. He smashes up his guitars at gigs and from the wreckage frantically builds another for the next show, hence the Punkaster body is half Vintage V52 and half V6, with porno theatre stickers and his groupie phone numbers on the neck.

‘Punkaster’ owned, destroyed and hastily reconstructed by Brandon Hicks.
‘Punkaster’ owned, destroyed and hastily reconstructed by Brandon Hicks.

When I’m designing the Vintage models I have to bear in mind that they’ll be built in a factory to budget and a schedule, whereas my Joe Doe Custom guitars I build in my workshop have no time limits which means I only make 3 or 4 year. And I can’t forget the day job of course!” he laughs.

“I sent one of my Joe Doe Custom models to a group of teenagers who were living in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Several had lost parents while scavenging for a living on landfill sites and were placed into the care of a charity called Moms Against Poverty. The charity encouraged these young lads to get involved in music, so they formed a heavy metal band called Doc Chkae.

Their story was heartbreaking but I loved that they were trying to improve their lives through making music - so I made contact with a charity worker and sent out a Joe Doe Custom guitar called The Wall Of Death. It was nerve racking as they have no real postal service. I just waved the box goodbye and hoped for the best and was delighted when I heard 4 weeks later that it had arrived safely and that these lads have since played a few prestigious gigs with it. The guitar is out there in the world and forming a story of its own which is rewarding.

Like most of the Joe Doe Custom range, the actual engineering and physics within the construction to deliver superb tone and playability, are indeed a challenge. Whereas with Vintage Joe Doe guitars I’m streets ahead, as I’m working with well-built models that already play and sound superb."