You may have never noticed it — there’s no sign and the front window is covered up — but there’s a budding guitar maker busily at work in the Eight Corners business district in Brookfield.
He may not be as well known in guitar circles as Dean Zelinsky, Grover Jackson or Gary Kramer, whose guitars have long appealed to players of the heavy metal persuasion. But that’s what 32-year-old Justin Atwood is shooting for as he works away, accompanied by his black cat, Rosette, in a storefront at 9214 Broadway Ave.
“There are a lot of micro-builders out there, but I don’t feel many of them are doing stuff that’s unique,” said Atwood, who converted the one-time office space into a woodworking shop with a small adjoining guitar showroom just inside the front door.
“A lot of their guitar designs are rehashed. I really want to do something different,” Atwood said.
“I don’t want to make another Strat or Les Paul,” he added, referring to the iconic and much imitated electric guitars made by Fender and Gibson.
Right now, Atwood is perfecting two prototypes. There’s the Cruiser, an electric guitar with a more traditional double-cutaway form but with a flashy contrasting gold and black finish.
Atwood completed the Cruiser I in 2013, and the axe has actually seen a couple of local stages in the hands of other musicians.
And then there’s the more radical Obscuris, a prototype in production in the wood shop. With a beveled mahogany body, the Obscuris fairly screams “metal.” Atwood says the design sprung from the imagination of a friend, Brian Czech, and that he’d like to complete the prototype soon.
“One of the big issues with prototypes is the design process and deciding on exactly how you’re going to build the guitar within your process,” Atwood said.
A graduate of Riverside-Brookfield High School, Atwood grew up in Riverside and caught the guitar bug at 15. He still has the BC Rich guitar he bought as a teen and learned to play at the now-shuttered Sound Post in LaGrange, before following some of the staff to A Sound Education in Brookfield.
Like most guitar players, he keyed in music that featured technical, complex guitar work. His tastes ran toward the heavier end of that spectrum — Metallica, Pantera, Soundgarden and Nirvana.
Atwood learned his craft at the Galloup School of Guitar Building in Big Rapids, Michigan, in 2005.
“I realized I could make a pretty good career out of this,” said Atwood. “And the more I’ve gotten into it, the more I’ve fallen in love with it, especially when you get into electric guitars and get into the engineering of it.”
For a short period, Atwood worked at DBZ Guitars, founded and formerly owned by Dean Zelinsky, the Chicago luthier behind such classic metal guitars as the Dean V and Z models.
It was while at DBZ that Atwood became proficient at guitar set-ups, and right now guitar servicing and repair comprises the bulk of Atwood Guitars’ business. Atwood says he’s done everything from repairing broken guitar headstocks to refinishing bodies to resetting necks and fitting pickups.
He moved into the Broadway Avenue space a few months after the Atwood family purchased the storefront in late 2009. Despite the low profile he’s maintained on Broadway Avenue, Atwood says business comes via word of mouth and through Facebook.
“Every year here things have been getting more and more built up,” Atwood said. “It’s really important to me to stick with it and not give up.”
The goal, said Atwood, is to be able to automate the guitar-making process in order to be able to fashion several necks and bodies at one time. While he’s open to making custom one-off instruments, Atwood said he’d like to be able to build guitars that are affordable for younger players, who will use them and not view them as collectors’ items.
“I really want people to play the guitars,” Atwood said. “They’re meant to be played and make music. I really want the guitars to be unique, but the playability is critical.”