Pancho’s Gear Porn
Warren Arlen Roth Signature Custom Telecaster

Arlen Roth Custom Tele

Feast your eyes on the first entry at Pancho’s Gear Porn. This sweet tone machine was built by Don Warren of Warren Guitars. It’s an Arlen Roth Signature Custom Tele and was the first lefty guitar Don ever built.

I guess it’s safe to say that this was Don’s first Custom model built off the AR Tele platform. In this instance the Custom aspect would be the tortoise binding and matching pickguard. This beauty was built in 2008 in Don’s Greenwich, NY workshop.

I discovered Don’s work through a confluence of two events. The first was my desire for a lefty Nashville Power Tele – a 3 pickup Telecaster that may or may not have a humbucker in the bridge. Fender only offered these as righties from the Mexican factory(or the dreaded Custom Shop). The second was reading a late 2007 issue of Vintage Guitar that featured an interview with Arlen Roth, a true Master of the Telecaster.

In that interview Arlen mentioned that numerous independent luthiers had attempted to copy the neck profile of his beloved ’53 Tele but only Don Warren succeeded. Upon further research it became very apparent that there is far more ‘under the hood’ of this Tele than is apparent from the outside. Much more than what three single coils and a 5 way switch would imply.

The Warren company motto is ‘Experience Tonal Freedom’. It’s refreshing in today’s hype riddled world of guitars that a slogan or motto actually means just what it says.

Don is admittedly anal and ever obsessive over each of the many factors that contribute to quality tones and moves against the mainstream in providing a huge variety of choice tonalities in every single guitar he builds. No one trick ponies here.

This was my first ever custom guitar ordered from an independent builder. The retail cost of $3000 plus an extra $100 for binding work actually gave me pause after I placed my order. While I did have emergency expenses crop up soon after placing the order I also started in with thoughts akin to buyers remorse and contacted Don about postponing the order. In all honesty part of my thinking was along the lines of “Just what would I get for all this money that I couldn’t get in, say a similarly custom ordered G&L?” Since G&L’s are still handmade in the US and they build such a fine Tele type I started to feel I was just too impulsive racing to call Don after reading the Roth interview.


Warren Guitars - Arlen Roth Tele Custom At this point Don ever so patiently began to point out the distinct differences in his work than anyone else’s, whether they be corporate or independent. I am so happy beyond words that I kept my place in his work log.

Although Don had never built a left handed guitar he saw no reason to charge any more than what a regular righty would cost.. so we were on the same page from the get-go...

The actual construction process did indeed take longer than a righty and presented Don with unexpected challenges. For instance, since he has all of his hardware specially machined for him he realized he would have to machine a special bridgeplate for the lefty bridge pickup. Don says the sky’s the limit when it comes to finishes and colors. Find a color you like or particular finish style(sunburst’s, solid color, transparent etc.) and send him an example you’ve found somewhere and he will dial it in for you through e-mail.

Swamp Ash Finish I chose a discontinued color from Fender called Desert Sand. I wanted enough of a percentage of the color to show as the dominant color but still allow the cool grain pattern of the swamp ash body to show through. I sent him a picture of a Fender Tele that had a solid desert sand finish from an old catalog. He promptly found the exact color match and sent back about four samples of desert sand in varying degrees of transparency. I selected the one at 65% color.

Check out the results for yourself.

He was hesitant at first when I requested the tortoise binding. The main reason at the time was that adding even that small strip of binding removes wood for plastic. Notice closely that he doesn’t cut out any wood on the back for the control cavity. All of his personal electronic mojo is painstakingly housed in the narrow control channel directly under the controls themselves.

He uses a multi-stage drying process for the body and neck that is in effect similar in spirit to tap tuned woods. He offers a nitro cellulose or custom poly clearcoat finish and has interesting insights into the current craze of nitro top coats. After hearing Don’s insights concerning nitro cellulose I opted for the poly clearcoat. The three single coil pickups are specially designed for Warren guitars in association with Lindy Fralin.

The bridge single coil is wound slightly hotter. These single coils simply sing. The control pots and 5 way switch is where Don’s mystical(read ‘practical’) quest for tonal freedom is realized. Joe Barden pickups are available for an added charge.

Arlen Roth Signature Custom Tele I was told to expect nothing less than the finest Tele quack and twang, Strat glassy chime, and Les Paul humbucker crunch and grind, and that these would just be the beginning! I had no doubts about the Tele and Strat tones but it’s been my experience that coil tapping for humbucker tones is virtually a contradiction.

I’ve had coil taps for humbuckers to act as single coils and I’ve never been too convinced about the integrity of the resulting ‘single coil’ tone. Don’s wizardry goes in the complete opposite direction! I had forgotten about the ability of the pots to be tapped in this guitar. When I took delivery at last I was in tone heaven for the evening simply by discovering what came out at each position of the 5 way switch and turning both the volume and tone knobs. At this point I had discovered at least 12 quality tones distinct unto themselves.

The next day I called Don to report my first impressions. After I gushed over how sweet everything I played sounded he asked about whether I found these by tapping the coils or not. Oh my God! I had forgotten the pots could even be tapped and got off the phone almost immediately to find what else was lurking in this monster. Don just laughed. By simply pulling up on one or both the volume or tone knob I found at least another 10 tones that are variants of the others but in a different tonal context. Some are ‘thinner’ low output tones while others are super fat high output type.

In addition to single coil Tele and Strat and then humbucker Les Paul type I found excellent P90, mini humbucker, and even Gretsch Filtertron tone types. I’m by no means very knowledgable about electronics but I can say that the tone and volume controls have serious purpose for every little increment they are dialed.

For a 25 ½” scale guitar the humbucker tones delivered are very convincing. However, the extra tension in a 25 ½” scale always seems to present itself within the quasi-humbucker effect. Truth be told, the humbucker tones are not really found by coil tapping but rather, by setting the 5 way switch in a certain position and then dialing it in with both the tone and volume knobs. I played my AR through a Vox AC-15, Marshall Vintage Modern 50W half stack, and an Egnater Rebel 20. They all delivered the goods brilliantly.

Kluson Tuners The tuners are vintage Klusons which have performed excellently thus far, only rarely have I needed to tweak them back in tune. Mine has the tusq nut. Extra time was added waiting on delivery as Don was sourcing nickel hardware at my request.

At last we come to my favorite aspect of the AR – the neck! Don uses a one piece maple neck for the AR model. I can now see why Arlen said what he did about Don’s neck work. It fits so comfortably from the very first handling and makes it so that you can’t leave it on the stand for any length of time.

I don’t know whether it’s dead on like Arlen’s ’53 but he feels that way and for me it’s like picking up my old ’71 Tele that I wore in the neck by playing it for over 20 years. That ‘old reliable’ sort of grip. A satin finish on the neck makes for smooth playing even with sweating hands. But physically, the icing on the cake is Don’s meticulous fretwork. I chose the medium jumbo style frets. He states that this is his favorite part of the whole build process and it shows.

The overall setup and intonation is second to none. The articulation of the strings is such that you almost release too many overtones, if that’s possible. I mentioned to Don that the overtones were like high quality champagne that never loses its bubbles and goes flat. It reflects the extreme touch sensitivity inherent up and down the neck. It reveals any inaccuracy of your fretting hand while almost demanding you try to control the overtones that jump out.

No matter what tone you’re going for this is one extremely musical guitar. Vintage tones, modern tones, YOUR tones! At the risk of sounding grandiose, playing a Warren guitar is a continuous journey of discovery.

At the time I took possession of my AR I had close to 65 electric guitars in my collection. After a mere 24 hours I knew for certain that this Tele is one of my top three axes, with these 3 alone covering most any tonal need. My Gibson Johnny A has a true hollow body tone that would be difficult for any solid body axe to ever capture. Throw in a dual humbucker SG or Les Paul for the high output wailing. Use the Warren Arlen Roth for everything else and pull it off in spades!

Don Warren Guitars

I asked Don what he sets out to accomplish with every guitar he builds. To paraphrase, he said that he hopes to enrich each players experience and advancing their personal musicality by providing them with an instrument that inspires them to go beyond what they’ve come to expect of themselves. Possibly even find the elusive ‘grail tone’ – the one we always chase in our head – right under our fingers on that maple fretboard. Kudos on a job well done Don, mission accomplished!

Keep on eye open at Pancho’s for the next few days as I will be doing an in depth interview with Don Warren of Warren Guitars and will publish it in the Pancho’s Rants section. For more in depth info about Warren Guitars and what other wonderments he has to offer please visit his site: Then give him a call or e-mail and waste no more of your precious time chasing dragons. He has a profound knack for deconstructing the hype and myth that we’ve come to expect and take for granted in the wonderful world of guitars. Stay tuned(you will if you play a Warren).

And thanks again Don!