Blueprint: Cream T Pickups
Another UK-made guitar brand is always welcome, but rarely are they conceived by a meeting of great minds that includes a grizzled USA rock icon and a ‘mad scientist’ pickup maker from Norway…
When we first heard rumblings of this project – the birth of a new guitar company – our interest was piqued, not least because of the names involved: Relish, PJD Guitars, Cream T pickups and the legendary Billy F Gibbons. This could be interesting!
The seed of the idea had actually started with the innovative and very different designs of the Swiss-based guitar company Relish. Tim Lobley, owner of Sound Affects in Ormskirk, takes us back: “I’m quite a fan of Relish’s pickup-swapping system, but, as a retailer, had some reservations about the guitar they were using as a ‘host’ for this new technology. On a personal level, I like the design, and I own one, but they just don’t sell in big numbers.
“In late 2020, I was talking to Silvan Kueng, the CEO and co-founder of Relish,” Tim continues. “He explained that the most likely next step for Relish was to try to get guitar makers to use the pickupswapping technology in their own guitars. I offered to ask around with some builders I knew to see if there was any interest. One of those conversations was with Leigh Dovey of PJD Guitars here in the UK, but he didn’t think it fitted in with the strategy of their brand.
“I’ve got to know PJD well and really admire their work; I think Leigh is a real rising star in the UK. The conversation then quite quickly turned to the idea of using their production facility to build a guitar for me with the Relish pickup swapping in.”
It’s certainly not unheard of for a retailer to market its own-name brand of guitars, quite often rebadged lookalikes, but Tim wears another hat as the sales and marketing director of Cream T Pickups, “a company I’ve been helping to build over the last couple of years”, he explains. “Cream T make their pickups at my premises here in Ormskirk, and they are going from strength to strength. Billy F Gibbons has supported us immensely; we have several signature models bearing his name and he genuinely uses them and has done so for over a decade.
“So between Cream T and myself we decided to set up a new company, Cream T Guitars, using that Relish technology, PJD’s building facility and our own sales channels. All we needed was a design…”
Cream T founder, Thomas Nilsen, has long harboured ideas to build guitars that show off his pickup designs. “Some people like my pickups but are hesitant to change the pickups they already have in their own guitars. Maybe I should have a guitar made as well, giving people an option to
“I’ve got to know PJD well and admire their work – Leigh is a real rising star” Tim Lobley
buy a guitar and my pickups? That was my initial thought many, many years back. I’ve talked to Billy about it, and many of the other artists I work with, but it’s a big hassle because I don’t have the tools and machinery and it would take too much [of an investment] to start that up.”
But once the possibility was in place, Thomas knew exactly who to call. “I immediately got in touch with my friend Billy Gibbons and I told him about it: a solution to make guitars! He was very keen to do something. He really wanted to get onboard, and said, ‘Why don’t we sit down and design a guitar together?’
“We took it from there, maybe for six or seven months, going back and forward: he has some ideas, I have some ideas… So he emailed me a lot of drawings and wanted my feedback and he wanted to see the ideas I had. It was just trying to mix all of that together.”
Tim picks up the story: “This was Billy the guitar designer not Billy the rock god that we all love,” he says, but that’s not as far-fetched as it might sound.
“The thing you have to remember,” adds Thomas, “is that I’ve been working with Billy for well over two decades now and we’ve been over the sketch table designing pickups a lot of times. There are a lot of pickup designs that we haven’t put into production yet after all these years: the look of a pickup, how to create some kind of new sound – without adding too much electronics or battery packs. So we have been working closely together already discussing design.”
As the many fans of Billy F Gibbons will know, he plays and has commissioned some pretty out-there custom guitar designs, but the Cream T project was always intended to be something with broader appeal.
“Billy was quite clear in what he wanted,” says Tim. “This was going to be very much a guitar for everyone to play as opposed to a way-out signature model that was all about show. It had to be high quality, eminently playable and accessible to the masses.”
The months went by until we were shown a glimpse of the first prototype,
“Billy was clear this was going to be a billyguitar to play as opposed to one that was all about show” Tim Lobley
which clearly adhered to the design brief: a far from out-there guitar with plenty of classic references.
“After all these years, you get to know a lot about guitars,” reflects Thomas. “If you take a pen and draw a guitar that you might think is original, when you do some research I’ll bet someone else has already made it! I think all the shapes are done [laughs]. It’s really hard to come up with a brand-new thing. So when I reached out to Billy, we said, ‘Why don’t we take some elements from classic designs, mix them up and create something new but with historical roots?’ So the design we’ve come up with has elements of Les Pauls, Telecasters and much more.”
And what about the headstock style, we ask? “Billy did the headstock design,” confirms Thomas. “He went to the table and drew that. I really like that Martinesque headstock.”
Tim explains what happened next: “With funding in place and contracts drawn up, Leigh set about producing the first prototype – and he got very close, first shot. This was in mid-May 2021. Billy gave us a lot of feedback from this prototype and quite a few things were changed: the controls, the tuners, chambering, the binding… Leigh then went on to produce the second prototype – the one you have. It’s a great improvement on the first one, but there’s still some work to do.”
“Don’t forget this is a collaboration between us and PJD,” Thomas reminds us, “and they have never made a guitar like this before, so this is a test for them and a way for them to learn how to do it properly. That’s good – and they’ve really risen to the challenge.”
PJD’s Leigh Dovey was ready to put his skills to the test: “I thought it was a fantastic opportunity, but I knew it wasn’t going to be the easiest of guitars to design and build as it went quite far away from what we currently make at PJD.
“After a lot of discussion, drawings and emails sent back and forth, we finally had the idea, and it was my job to gather all of this into a fully working instrument!” No pressure, then…
“I personally love the design of the guitar,” Leigh tells us. “Billy and Thomas had a great vision with it. It’s a kind of Telecaster/Les Paul Junior mash-up with all the bells and whistles: full binding from top to bottom, pearl inlays and a stunning flame maple top. Getting the main CAD design work is always so crucial to a new build as it denotes how easy or hard the subsequent guitars will be to build.
“We had originally agreed on two prototypes before going into production,” he continues, “but since completing the second prototype you have there, we all agreed that a third prototype is a must to iron out any little design features that we aren’t fully happy with. It’s a fairly complicated build, particularly that pickup swapping, so it’s essential that it’s perfect.”
Full Range Vision
The design and prototyping process is complicated further by the fact that we’re not just talking about one Cream T model.
“We decided early on that we had something with the design,” says Tim, “so we wanted to offer it with both the Relish pickup-swapping technology but also with conventional fixed pickups. We also wanted to differentiate between the models for the everyday player and what Billy wanted to fulfil his own stage requirements.
“So we essentially have two variants to the overall range: first, the more regular Standards and Customs; and then, second, the BFGT Customs [as in Billy F Gibbons and Thomas]. These will vary from the regular models with BFGT signature chambering, a single-piece Joe Glaser Music City Bridge ‘Stud Finder’ intonated wrapover, and binding on the body, neck and headstock. Also, the BFGT models have no toggle-switch pickup selector, just a volume for each pickup and one master tone control.”
Thomas explains the unusual control setup: “Billy mostly uses the bridge pickup and on his models he doesn’t want the toggle switch, just the three controls. He does use the neck pickup, but it’s so rare – that’s why we went with the controls you see on the prototype.”
The regular models will feature a pickup selector toggle switch but still have the dual-volume/master tone setup.
“When I meet up with the artists I’ve been working with, they are playing Les Pauls, Strats, Telecasters,” says Thomas, “and they come back to me saying they love their guitars, but if they only did this or they only had that it would make their jobs a lot easier. You have to remember these artists are playing so many gigs – pre-pandemic, of course! – when they’re in their normal touring mode and travelling all around the world. They have to deal with different temperatures, different humidities. One thing, though, a lot of Les Paul players really hate those four knobs! That’s the feedback I get: we only need three knobs [individual pickup volumes and a master tone]. But they love the Gibson Les Paul, of course!”
From Sketch To Stage
The prototype pictured in our studio photography here arrived just in time for our first gig in 10 months. It certainly achieves its ‘classic-looking’ aim. It’s a great weight (3.56kg/7.83lb) and feels like an old friend, though the non-toggle-switch style of the control layout won’t suit everyone.
“The guitar you currently have there is a kind of diamond in the rough,” Leigh reminds us when we chat, post-gig. “It has the feel and aesthetic of what we are aiming for, but is in need of some subtle refinement… as I’m sure you agree!”
We send off a list of ‘random thoughts’ on the prototype to Tim and Thomas, most of which they’re in agreement with and have already been noted for the third prototype. But, overall, it’s that classic look and feel that impresses us – and unlike some of Billy’s previous custom designs, this is a fur-free zone and doesn’t spontaneously start to rotate mid-song!
“My dad said something similar,” says Thomas. “He’s a guitar player and if he’s going to play a guitar it has to be an ES-335 shape, a Telecaster shape, a Strat or a Les Paul. He was very worried that I was going to be involved in designing a ‘new’ guitar. He said, ‘Oh no, I will never buy it!’ And that did inform the guitar we came up with. I told Billy the story and he said, ‘Okay, let’s take a classic design and tweak it a bit.’
“When we had the first prototype ready I took a picture of it and sent it off to my dad,” Thomas continues. “His response? ‘Wow, I want one!’ He’s a very conservative vintage-guitar man, but he actually likes this one. That was my test. I said, ‘Do you think very conservative vintage guitar players will like this?’ He said, ‘Yes!’ You still have this vintage design when you look at it – it’s tweaked, but it’s there.”
“A lot of Les Paul players hate those four knobs! We only need three knobs” Thomas Nilsen
While you’ve been reading this, prototype #3 is already being evaluated. Cream T guitars are set to go into production in September 2021 and are expected to retail from £1,999 for the regular models and from £3,499 for the BFGT models. Of course, we’ll bring you the exclusive first review… as soon as the paint is dry!