This Music Startup is Customizing Guitars and Creating an Entirely New Sound

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In late 2011, Adam Lee’s brother Shaun was walking the streets of his hometown, Johannesburg, South Africa, when he came across a group of local street musicians. The group had repurposed discarded materials into playable instruments—most notably a guitar with a large metal oil can where the wooden body should have been. Inspired by their ingenuity, Shaun brought the idea back to the states and together the Lee brothers had a prototype built by the end of the following February. A year later Bohemian Guitars launched on Kickstarter, bringing in more than $50,000 in pledges to build close to 200 guitars.

Two years later, Bohemian Guitars is thriving—in part due to the guitar’s distinct aesthetic. Like those Shaun found on the streets of Johannesburg, the guitars’ bodies are built either in the shape of a vintage oil can using recycled scrap metal, or, in the case of Bohemian’s vintage series, using actual repurposed oil cans themselves. But it’s more than just a unique look that has attracted artists such as Hozier, G. Love, and Shakey Graves to Bohemian’s metal cans. It’s the metal itself.

“It’s important to think of these instruments as a new class of guitar,” Bohemian CEO Adam Lee said. In a traditional guitar with a solid wood or composite body, the pickup only registers vibrations from the strings, which is then what’s amplified through an amp. “With our guitars, the electromagnets in the pickup are picking up vibrations from the hollow metal body in addition to the strings, creating a much richer and brighter sound, as well as a lot more flexibility in tonal range.”

Bohemian’s guitars are great for any level musician, whether you’re a first-time player or an international performer. Coming in at $299 for the base model, they’re below the market average guitar price, which Lee estimates to be around $430. Considering the sound quality compared to the price, one of Bohemian’s instruments would be an excellent option for someone’s first guitar—or their fourth. “Guitarists are notorious collectors,” he said.

Building on the initial Boho guitar’s success, the Lee brothers are expanding Bohemian’s offerings to include a ukulele and bass in addition to its flagship guitar. The new instruments, as well as an updated version of the original Boho, are available for order now via an Indiegogo campaign.

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“We’ve realized that even though our guitars are super affordable, it’s still taking time for a lot of people to get comfortable with the concept of this reinvention of a classical instrument,” Lee said. “The ukulele is on the rise among students and young adults—it’s a little bit easier to learn than a guitar, it’s lighter to hold, and it’s a great instrument to learn on and then move into the guitar category.”

On top of being a great move for Bohemian to increase its market share (“It’s much more affordable from an impulse purchase perspective,” Lee said), the Bohemian uke will be one of the first ever electric, metal-string, metal-body ukuleles on the market. Ukuleles are usually acoustic with a wood body, and while you can find electric ones, they almost all still use nylon strings. “We designed strings specifically for this instrument. You can use most any brand strings on our guitars, but this is kind of a new creation.”

Building A Better Guitar

The hardware space is one of the toughest to navigate as a startup. Unlike software-based companies that can simply push out bug fixes and iterate constantly, hardware builders have to spend months on design, prototyping, and securing proper manufacturing.

Bohemian suffered through its share of growing pains over its first few years of operation, notably underestimating the initial Kickstarter run’s popularity (resulting in Shaun hand-building all 200 guitars in the brothers’ parents’ basement) and an unfortunate incident with a shady manufacturing source that ended up costing the company around half a million dollars.

But Lee learned from the mistakes, now ensuring he owns as much of the supply chain his company uses as possible. Bohemian now operates with a just-in-time manufacturing model similar to companies like Timbuk2’s made-to-order messenger bags and backpacks.

Now much of Bohemian’s success is grounded in this elimination of the ever-hated middleman. It doesn’t have the distribution network of major guitar companies like Fender or Gibson, but it doesn’t need it.

Custom builds are a hot item in the guitar community these days, but getting your fiddle built exactly the way you want usually meant buying aftermarket parts and having a shop handle assembly. But what if you could order exactly the guitar you want and have it shipped to your door instead of having to make changes and modifications to some existing model?

“We have the ability to customize any guitar down to one unit,” Lee said. “Eventually you’ll be able to go on our website, design your own guitar—what color neck you want, what images you want on the body, what electronics and hardware you want—and we’ll build it just-in-time for you. You’ll have it in two to four weeks, and it’ll cost you less than $500.”

It’s an ambitious idea, but not really that far-fetched. Lee says Bohemian will source components from multiple suppliers, build custom guitars in Atlanta (where Shaun and most of the company’s small team is based), and then utilize factories in China for handling orders of the mass-produced entry-level models.

“We’re trying to obviously not commit to anything that we can’t fulfill, but we’ve got some systems in place that we worked really hard to build out,” Lee said. “It’s always been our vision to be a brand that gives you the flexibility and personalization of a custom shop with the low-unit-costs of mass production.”