There are decisions made in pivotal moments in everyone’s life that changes the course of their lives.
For East Vancouver-based guitar maker Billy Bones, it was when the high-end furniture making shop he was working for went under several years ago.
At that point, he thought about the things he loved: Pinball, motorcycles, and rock ’n’ roll.
“I thought I should do something with rock ’n’ roll with my life,” Bones said, who also plays guitar in Vancouver-based garage-punk band The Vicious Cycles.
So after he finished a guitar-building course in Calgary, he launched Sparrow Guitars in 2004.
Learning how to craft a guitar is one thing, but trying to enter a market with such established giants like Gibson and Fender is another mounting challenge. He looked for a way to enter the guitar market where he could find a wedge.
“What I came up with is graphics on the guitar,” he said. Inspired by ’50s “hot rod greaser culture,” his line of guitars features pinstriping, flames and high-quality custom graphics.
Although Sparrow Guitars’ brand was built on flashy graphics, it was important to Bones to build a reputation for good, quality guitars.
“At first, I’d always hear, ‘That looks cool,’ but now people are adding, ‘And it’s a really good guitar.’”
He said the goal from the start was to produce a guitar that a kid can afford to play and that’s going to sound great.
Bones said he tries to keep costs down without compromising quality by outsourcing some of the production while keeping the assembly in Canada.
He’s currently looking for cost-effective ways to produce the guitars entirely in Canada.
Sparrow offers five models of guitars with fairly traditional body shapes, which retail for about $500 to $1,800.
Sparrow has grown from producing 200 guitars in its first year to 1,200 in 2008, and expects to double its output in the next two years.
“I basically put everything I had into this company,” he said. “For the first three years, we were throwing money into a big hole.”
Building a presence for the brand has taken time, he says, but it’s beginning to pay off with 2008 marking the first year he turned a profit.
The 34-year-old Bones says learning the business was not without its hurdles. Many retailers expressed interest in his guitars in the first year, but would tell him, “I love those guitars. If you survive the next three years, I’ll buy a ton of those.”
The first three years was like the rite of passage into the business.
Today, his guitars are sold in North America, the United Kingdom, Europe and Australia, and Sparrow is endorsed by rockers like Duff McKagan of Loaded — formerly of Velvet Revolver and Guns N’ Roses — as well as noteworthy punk bands like NOFX, Anti-Flag and D.O.A.
Endorsements have been vital in building brand awareness, said Bones, because in this industry, one guitar player influences other guitar players.
“A lot of people, a majority of guitar players, want to play what their rock heroes play. They want to get that same sound.”
Go to sparrowguitars. com for more.