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From garage bands to garage business: Meet MPLS Instrument Company

Tony and Jake of MPLS Guitars
Tony Emanuele and Jake Swogger are the founders, designers and builders of MPLS Guitars. (MPR photo/Luke Taylor)
  1. Listen Jake Swogger and Tony Emanuele describe the beginnings of MPLS Guitars

    Jul 27, 2016

“When you build guitars, you’re a sander,” says Jake Swogger, co-owner of MPLS Instrument Company. “That’s always the joke.” He’s laughing, but he means it, and he should know; he and his partner, Tony Emanuele, have made more than 30 guitars since starting their business in Swogger’s garage. They’re one of only a few boutique guitar companies in the area, and they’ve made guitars for musicians from Ed Holmberg (Bloodnstuff) to Zak Sally (The Hand, Low).

It all began when Swogger and Emanuele met each other through their bands (The Umbrella Sequence and The Nina and the Pinta, respectively) years ago. “In every scene, you get the five or six bands who are just playing the same incestuous shows over and over again,” Swogger says. “That was us.”

They eventually left their bands, getting married and moving on, but the creative impulse stuck with them. “We had been going back and forth about what we wanted to do with our creative selves,” Swogger says, “and we had talked about making amplifiers and pedals.” But while those markets are fairly saturated, Swogger and Emanuele saw open space in the boutique (small-business) guitar industry. They gave their garage-made guitar a try, chugging through several iterations to arrive at today’s design.

“We run on anti-offsets,” Emanuele says, explaining their instruments’ look. “What’s really popular with guitars right now is an offset guitar, which is like a Jazzmaster-style guitar. [But] we go down the symmetrical route.” Swogger adds, “We deliberately went away from script logos. We deliberately chose bold fonts.” All in all, they describe their design as “different enough”; “If you’re an artist, you want weird stuff,” explains Emanuele.

Customers have a few options for customization, and both Swogger and Emanuele are proud to have built a “dream guitar” for Ed Holmberg of Bloodnstuff. “We did single-pole pick-ups for him,” says Swogger, and they built in three inputs. But the pair try to stick with a menu-based system, in which they offer different scales (25-inch, 28.5-inch, 30-inch, and 34-inch) of the same product. It’s more practical, more cost-effective and much quicker (their order-to-finished-product target is about three months).

In addition to Bloodnstuff, MPLS Instrument Company have made guitars for Lutheran Heat, Holler House, and the Blind Shake. “We’re working on a series of videos with local musicians right now,” Swogger says. They add that they’d love to work with Bruise Violet.

Both Swogger and Emanuele are beer fans, stocking their garage’s mini-fridge with cans of Summit EPA (Swogger’s “favorite beer of all time”) and Coors Banquet. When asked about the similarities between craft beer and boutique guitars, Emanuele calls beer “an interesting industry, mainly from a brand perspective. Mainly how you control the brand.” He says, “We de-emphasize craft, and that’s not necessarily because we don’t think we’re doing a craft. It’s just because it’s becoming oversaturated.” He does see some lessons in how companies control their taproom and aesthetic.

“Tony’s a marketer,” Swogger cracks, and he’s grateful for his partner’s savvy. The two balance each other out, and while Swogger might be doodling new guitar designs, Tony leans toward the pragmatic side. The former says, “We’ve always worked really well together in that way.”

MPLS Instrument Company is a small business in spirit and in practice, but Emanuele and Swogger hope to keep growing it together. Their DIY M.O. has pushed them to learn new skills and solve their own problems (“We built a CNC machine off plans we found on the internet,” Emanuele says, matter-of-fact). Using those skills, they’ll continue to grow. “We’re very competitive people,” says Swogger. “We want this to be what we do.”

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