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Sure, Rob Chapman is an excellent guitar player. If you have even a passing interest in the instrument, you’ve likely seen him (along with “Captain” Lee Anderton of Anderton’s Music Company in the UK) review countless products through their thoroughly entertaining and honest YouTube videos. And yes, Rob fronts a pretty excellent prog/rock/metal outfit called Dorje (new album in the works, he assures us). If the story stopped there, that would probably be enough, right? Great chops, cool band, likeable bloke, tons of YouTube followers watching you demo awesome products from the world’s best manufacturers. What more could you want?
Well, that wasn’t enough for Chappers, and luckily we as guitarists can reap all the benefits. Enter Chapman Guitars: the first (to our knowledge, anyhow) collaboratively designed production line of guitars in the world. Not content to merely have his own signature guitar model, Chapman enlisted the aid of his massive (200,000 followers and growing) YouTube army to co-design an entire range of instruments, and vote on which features they wanted most in what would ultimately become the first Chapman guitars. Cut to: several years later, several model numbers in (plus a newly announced bass) and you’ve got, in our opinion, the best value on the market today. Retailing for a scant $499 USD, the Chapman ML1 (see our review in this very issue) is a stunning axe all around: fit, finish, playability, tone, looks – you name it, at $499 this beast rivals guitars 3-4 times the price.
It begs the question, “Why hasn’t anyone else thought of this before?”
We had an opportunity to ask this and more of Chappers himself as he was gearing up to do a clinic tour in his native England. Here’s where we pick things up…
For our American readers who might not be familiar, can you give us a quick rundown of your background?
I first started playing when I was 16, so I was quite late to the guitar. My father was a flamenco guitar player, so the last thing I wanted to do was play just because he did. My uncle, though, he played Sabbath, U2, and other things that I really liked. So when I got my first guitar at 16, the second I hit a big D Major chord, I realized this was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. The break really came for me when I started doing session work for Universal here in the UK. The drummer in my then-band went from being a pizza delivery guy to director of marketing for Universal Records.
That’s a big jump!
Yeah, took him a while [laughs]. So anything guitar-related, he threw to me. The first project I got was to transcribe Yngwie Malmsteen Live in Leningrad. It was horrendous. I love Malmsteen, but that carved me a new set of ears. It’s ridiculously fast to begin with, but on that live stuff he just really lets go. So that was the first session I did, it was on a DVD and was quite a big deal at the time. I cut my teeth, professionally, in the session world. Gave up my day job, taught guitar, worked worked worked. And I made a video for MySpace, and someone said it was really good…
MySpace, that takes me back! Did that lead to your YouTube work?
Yeah, I started making videos, and I really enjoyed it. I kinda got addicted to it, I think.
Most people know you from your product videos with Lee Anderton. Did you know him before you started demonstrating gear for his store’s YouTube channel?
No, I was making demonstration videos for a different store entirely. Lee had seen these videos, and they were looking for someone to do videos for [Anderton’s]. He literally called me up and said, ‘I’d like to hire you, how much do you charge?’ [laughs] At the time, I was really enjoying making the videos for this other store, it was very high-end stuff. But I went down and met with Lee and immediately it was pretty obvious that he and I were going to be the best of mates. We both have the same stupid sense of humor, and neither of us took ourselves particularly seriously, but we always took the gear seriously.
Did you dub him “The Captain”?
We launched with ‘Greetings, I’m Rob Chappers’ and ‘I’m Lee.’ And I said, ‘Stop! Cut! You can’t just be Lee, man. You’ve gotta be CAPTAIN LEE.’ A couple of months later, came to me and he said, ‘I understand what you’re doing. This is branding.’
Part of your popularity is definitely due to your rapport with one another and your honesty when it comes to the products.
It’s a really difficult line to tread…I’ve been in situations with some companies where they’ve sent an emissary to literally stand next to me to give me the ‘clear’ or ‘not clear’ on things that I could say. It’s not a comfortable feeling. I’ve only done that once or twice when I felt the product needed the exposure for one reason or another. But if I don’t like the product, I tell Lee I don’t like a product, and I don’t review it. I have done videos before where I’ve had to say the products were bad, and now as a product owner myself, I’d be like, ‘God, I’d like the chance to reply…’
But sometimes a company will bring out a product and you’ll think, ‘Why does this even exist?’ I’ve got enough followers now that I owe it to them, because they’re saving up their hard-earned pocket money to buy gear. I’d be doing a giant disservice if I just made up some rubbish and said a product was good.
We want things to be fair; there needs to be good karma throughout the whole process.
Absolutely. And did Chapman Guitars come out of your YouTube series?
It was just one of those random, strange things that happens.
So you didn’t set out to start a guitar company?
No, I mean who ever thinks that they’ll end up owning a guitar company with their name on it?! That’s just one of those things that doesn’t happen. I was just a session-playing teacher who had a band that toured, and got offered a signature guitar from a company here in the UK. It completely blew my mind. So I ran back to YouTube saying, ‘Wow, I’ve been offered a signature guitar. And we’re gonna make, like, 50 of them!’ [laughs] ‘But you guys are the ones who are gonna buy it, so let me know what we should make.’
So you sort of stumbled into collaborative design, then?
It was like second nature to me, to talk to people on YouTube. Overnight it was a huge deal. Everyone was excited and wanted to be involved. And we ended up making 500, not 50, and they all sold out. I have to take my hat off to Barnes and Mullins – the distribution company that owned a little guitar company that they were going to launch my signature guitar through. When they saw the response, they said, ‘We think you should release this through your own brand.’ They thought I should call it Chapman Guitars, it should be its own thing, and I thought for a few days about what that meant. Essentially, they had just given me a guitar company [laughs]. It blew my mind, that doesn’t happen to anybody.
Initially, the ML1 model was designed to be a platform for people to modify, right?
No one made a guitar before and said the pickups were intentionally the cheapest we could find so that you can swap them out and put aftermarket pickups in, which is what people were going to do anyway…
It’s funny, because I literally have an ML1 in my hands right now, and there’s not a thing I’d mod or upgrade on it.
Well, the new ML1s that are made in Korea come with pickups I spec’d out, and they’re really good. When I spec a pickup, it’s as simple as this: the factory has a manual as thick as my wrist with every pickup you could ever conceive of with all the variables, and you say, ‘I want this and that,’ and that’s what we did with Chapman. We ended up with the HSS set in the ML1…that don’t cost us a great deal but are really high quality. So with the new ML1’s, you don’t need to mod anything, unless you want to. It’s already great out of the box.
Yeah, they sound really great. Do you actually play these live?
Absolutely. I’m off on a clinic tour now, and I’ll take with me a couple of guitars. One will be my signature guitar with Seymour Duncans, and one will be one of the new ML3 Moderns, which comes stock with ceramic Chapman pickups that I love.
Is the Chapman line made in the same Korean factory as the PRS SE line? I notice a lot of aesthetic similarities, like the quality of the flame maple veneers and the natural wood binding around the edges.
That factory is known in the industry as pretty much the best, as far as Asian manufacturing goes.
We’re very proud of that. In fact we were very lucky to be accepted by the factory. Judging by the YouTube comments, you’d think that anyone can just contact a factory and start a guitar line, but it isn’t like that. These factories have an incredibly high work ethic and are passionate about what they do. They don’t want their name damaged by bad brands, so for us to even be considered was a huge deal. We probably are their smallest brand, and we are definitely the smallest brand to be able to use Seymour Duncan pickups, as well.
Well it shows. I believe you just sold your 5,000th guitar, is that correct?
Yeah, that’s a weird thing, you know? I just couldn’t believe it. We only have something like nine retailers around the world, including three in America. [editor’s note: after the interview, Chapman disclosed that they landed a deal with Thomann, a HUGE win for them in the European market].
Who do you have in The States?
So far there’s Riff City in Minnesota, RNA in Texas and Flipside in Denver. They’re all really small, but they’re all guys I really liked. It was very important to me to work with people I liked. Growing very fast is a risk for us, so the retailers that we took on had to have the right, energetic vibe. And they’re all like that. There was no consideration on whether or not their stores we the size of my flat. Didn’t matter. Did they give good customer service? Were they enthusiastic about the product? That was the thing.
I’m a little bit against massive corporate companies that are swallowing up the world; I like small, independent retailers who give great service and really care, which is why I chose to take on the [ones] I did.
As far as the future goes, do you still plan on utilizing collaborative design, or will there come a point where you start to design the models and put them out based on your own ideas of what features should go in them?
Collaborative design is really the central focus of Chapman. How can you lose? If you ask people what they want, and they tell you, and you make it, they’re gonna buy it. It would be foolhardy of me to just come out with a guitar that I designed and wanted to make and tell everyone to buy it. That’s what everyone else does. [editor’s note: at this point Rob declines to comment, in good fun of course, on my objections to the new 2015 Gibson Les Pauls.]
Basically, I kinda like being the guy who owns a guitar company and doesn’t know what he’s gonna put out. It’s sort of nice, actually [laughs]. There’s a magic in having 200,000 people come together to say, ‘This is what we want.’
Why do you think other manufacturers haven’t done anything like this before?
It’s a really scary thing. People could ask for things that are really expensive to manufacture. Generally, they could come up with things that I wouldn’t necessarily like in a guitar. Well, that’s my problem to deal with. But as a businessman, clearly if they want to buy it I should make it.
Editor’s note: at this point in the conversation, Rob and I lapse into a discussion on Marshall JCM800s, touring in our 30s and what you should look for when buying a guitar (hint, find a guitar that inspires you to play, don’t worry about the spec sheet so much). It’s clear to see why Rob’s work has been met with such success; he’s a likeable guy, he’s incredibly passionate about what he does, and he genuinely wants to innovate in a sector that we feel has remained stagnant for far too long. Special thanks to Matt Hornby at Chapman Guitars and the guys at Riff City Guitar for loaning us an ML1.