John Purchase’s journey to making guitars in Tempe was a globetrotting odyssey propelled by spacecrafts. Originally from England, the aerospace engineer and his French wife followed work contracts to Germany, then to Holland and back to Germany, then to Canada, then to Maryland, and finally to the Valley, where they settled 25 years ago. In 2015, the retired Purchase parlayed his lifelong woodworking hobby into a professional luthier business, JFP Guitars. Modeling his designs on classic guitars by Gibson and Fender, Purchase uses exotic woods to create “Sonoran” electric guitars and has made 30 instruments so far. His handcrafted guitars were awarded an honorable mention at the Desert Woodcarving Show in Mesa in 2019 and are finding their way into the hands of professional players.
I grew up in England, and back then, in high schools, they all had a woodworking class, as well as a woodworking club on weeknights after school. That’s what got me going, apart from just fiddling around at home, and taught me how to use tools, do joints and things like that.
From the point of view of beauty, cherry wood – which is American or English – and black limba, which is African. With black limba, you get… a very bold, almost orange pattern in the wood grain, which is especially beautiful. Cherry wood has a reddish color, which darkens with age… Another wood I like is American white ash, which has a very distinctive grain. The drawback with white ash is it’s heavy. So, my personal guitar with the white ash body is actually hollow inside to get the weight down. The neck on most of my guitars is maple, because it’s a nice wood, good-looking and it’s strong.
Do any notable players use your guitars?
My teacher, Reggie Chavez, I gave him one of mine. He performs with the Phoenix College Jazz Ensemble, and he plays it there. I gave him a thin-line Telecaster that was black limba wood, and it had a very orange pattern on the back. Other than that, various groups have bought my guitars. I’ve not heard them, to be honest. What are they called – [French garage rock band] the HushPuppies? A friend of theirs bought two of my Les Paul-style guitars to give them. Do they use them? I have no idea. I’ve donated four guitars to Rosie’s House [A Music Academy for Children] over the years. They’re using those in their electronic music lab. Recently, I told Rosie’s House I wanted to give a couple guitars directly to students. They gave me two names and I gave them guitars… They’re senior players in the guitar group.
How do your skills as an aerospace engineer translate into making guitars?
The whole time that you’re building a guitar, you have to think about why things are being done a certain way, and all the time you’re falling back on physics and engineering principles to decide on the approach you’re going to take. I’ve always made stuff. In aerospace engineering, I was working on satellites, launch vehicles and manned spacecrafts, leading a team that was designing and building all those sorts of projects. Now I’m on my own, but I’m still designing and building stuff and figuring out the best approach. I usually make modifications to suit what I want to achieve.