Shaun Lee, a small-framed man with dark hair and black-rimmed glasses, holds up an unusually shaped guitar.
“You don’t know what’s going to happen until you plug it in,” the 27-year-old entrepreneur says as he rotates the instrument and eyes the glossy motor oil can that comprises its body.
Mr. Lee is the chief production officer and co-founder of Bohemian Guitars, an Atlanta startup that manufactures stringed instruments with bodies that are custom-built using refurbished motor oil cans and vintage lunch boxes. Since launching in 2012 with the help of his brother and co-founder, Adam Lee, their vision gleaned inspiration from their hometown of Johannesburg, where local street performers played makeshift instruments improvised from materials such as oil cans and broomsticks.
While the concept isn’t new, Mr. Lee says the company is the first to bring it to scale. The company exports products to retailers and private buyers in over 50 countries including Canada, Australia, Spain and regions throughout the United Kingdom, and draws its largest foreign demand from South Africa, where the practice originated.
The Lee brothers have not merely sought to transform a street product into hipster gold. Rather, they have attempted to revitalize an industry that some say falsely rides the success of its 1950s and 60s heyday.
“The quality is drastically dropping, but they’ve developed names for themselves so that no one, really, is willing to admit it,” Mr. Lee told Global Atlanta regarding classic models from companies like Gibson Brands, Inc., which long dominated an industry that is now, as Mr. Lee says, “all out of whack.”
“It’s ridiculous,” he said, calling the industry antiquated. “We still have retailers who want us to send a fax,” he joked.
Stumble upon the average online guitar forum and a sentiment of anti-establishment outrage looms. Many customers oppose perceived price hikes and offshore manufacturing techniques used by large companies that disillusioned buyers say have lost their focus on service and quality.
Howard Paul, president of Savannah-based Benedetto Guitars, said he recognizes the frustration of contemporary consumers in the guitar market but does not foresee a full-fledged industry revolution anytime soon. Benedetto Guitars produces handcrafted, made-to-order instruments using decade-long cured wood with prices ranging from $4,500 to $55,000.
“While there may be a market for guitars made out of reclaimed woods and non-traditional materials, those instruments are never going to replace finely crafted instruments made out of traditional materials by highly skilled craftsmen,” said Mr. Paul, who called his company the “antithesis” of one that uses oil cans.
Mr. Paul likened the concept to a tofu steak replacing an aged, grass-fed porterhouse in a gourmet restaurant.
“They simply will never, ever replicate the sound of a traditionally crafted instrument,” he told Global Atlanta, regarding guitars built from unconventional materials.
But imitation is not necessarily the goal of Bohemian Guitars. Mr. Lee says Bohemian is going for something altogether different, explaining how basic principles of electromagnetics allow the different concentration of metals in each guitar body to produce an inherently unique sound.
The company offers two basic guitar lines in addition to their catalog of instrument accessories and apparel. The vintage series uses re-purposed oil cans for a one-size-fits-all approach, whereas the Boho series pieces together recycled metal for a custom pick.
“We would throw these up next to any guitar in the market,” Mr Lee says, observing how the cool, mellow tone of the instrument appeals to collectors, beginning players and touring musicians alike. “We’ve turned it into a real instrument.”
The Bohemian brothers have sold items to players in popular rock groups such as ZZ Top and Hozier and are developing gear for members of indie-rock sensation My Morning Jacket. In July, the company unveiled the first bass guitar and ukulele models, and the Lees say they hope to grow their catalog to include all stringed instruments.
To realize that ambition, the company will continue to rely on grassroots financial support from online crowdfunding that has carried it this far. After exceeding an initial fundraising goal of $20,000 with Kickstarter in 2012, the company has since enjoyed campaigns with Atlanta-based SparkMarket, Ohio-based Fundable and most recently with California-based IndieGogo to the tune of roughly $325,000.
With a fundraising base that draws support from donors in 52 countries, Bohemian Guitars thrives from an image that balances the nonchalance of a creative start-up with the dissidence of an industry underdog seeking to disrupt the currents of mainstream enterprise. The team consists of around 10 employees, one of which retains the title of “chief bohemian officer,” and touts a heady, company-wide philosophy that reads, “Real. Far. Out.”
Despite strong demand for their product, the brothers price their guitars based solely on the cost of materials and labor for fear of appearing too “greedy,” Mr. Lee admits. The cans are typically found online through private collectors and range from $10 to $100.
“We could say, ‘We will charge an extra hundred bucks because this can is so rare,’ Mr. Lee said, shrugging. “It’s important to be at a price point that everyone can afford.”
That inclusive attitude spills over to the company’s philanthropic efforts. The guitar makers donate their products to charity organizations around the world and plant a tree for every guitar sold thanks to a partnership with Trees for the Future.
Bohemian Guitars may be turning heads in the industry, but its unclear if that attention speaks to a passing fad or the makings of a genuine staple in an industry that’s slipping slowly out of tune with consumer preferences.
“We’re definitely starting to get noticed,” Mr. Lee says as he cradles a newly built bohemian guitar in his Atlanta workshop. “We’re that fresh, new company that is making a dent.”
To learn more about Bohemian Guitars, click here or watch the video below.