The custom instruments made by Somerville’s Equilibrium Guitars sound great—and they look out-of-this-world. “One of the guitars we’re going to be finishing up soon involves an inlay of a UFO abducting the pyramids of Giza,” says Dave Cohen, who co-founded the business with his wife, Mariann. Entirely self-taught makers, they’ve managed to amass more than 10,000 followers on Instagram, one of their main sources of both customers and inspiration. “There’s an entire culture of people that are constantly sharing and reposting—not just guitars—but building ideas and processes,” Cohen says.
But they also attract new customers out in the field. Both Cohen—who plays in local metal band Chuggernaut—and his wife are Berklee alums and musicians. “It’s a pretty wonderful thing to be in the position that we’re technically endorsing ourselves,” he says. “It also adds validity to the company when we’re out there road testing and playing our own instruments live, and people hear what we’re doing and really like the sound and the look of everything, and they ask us, ‘What are these guitars?’ Well, actually, this is us!”
Each year, the pair make between 12 and 25 guitars, commissioned by musicians around the world and crafted in their space at Joy Street Studios. A just-launched repair division (and partnership with Mr. Music in Allston) has allowed the couple to expand their staff—and to focus on their custom creations, each of which Cohen sees as a passion project. “I’ve always been interested in how the guitar works. Even as far back as when I was 13, I was interested in how I could potentially make my guitars sound better and play better,” he says. “My uncle was a huge influence for me because he had all of these old repair books and was a lifelong tinkerer. He showed me early on that you can do things yourself, and if you have an idea, you can go through all of those steps to see it completed.”
Cohen is open to any idea his customers bring to him (the aforementioned UFO guitar will also feature a montage of different career representations of Shaquille O’Neal). “My goal is to understand the source of inspiration and why they’re looking to get something from us, something custom, something different that they can’t just buy off the rack,” he explains. “So I’ll ask questions. If there’s a specific color they’re interested in, what is it about that they really love and how would they want to incorporate that? And if there’s a musician that they really love, what aspects of that would they want to blend into this?”
The custom guitars start at a base price of around $3,000 but can run more than twice that and often have Cohen hunting far and wide for special materials. Personally, he gravitates toward North American woods like buckeye burl—“It has this blond-and-gray mottled appearance that almost looks like smoke and bone mixed together”—and eco-friendly finishes, which they use in an in-house spray booth they built by hand.
“We’re trying to make the best use of the materials,” he says, “and also just trying to minimize our impact on the environment.” Equilibrium’s conservation efforts extend to a string-recycling program with guitar string company Adario, and they donate extra wood and decorative materials to the jewelers and artists who also work out of Joy Street Studios.
For Cohen, it all comes down to taking care and pride in one’s environment and one’s work. “I think these days there’s such a culture of immediacy and a kind of disposable mentality,” he says. “You buy something, and then you rebuy it, and it’s cheap and fast and easy. Fortunately, there are still people who are willing to invest time and money and resources in something that’s really cared after.