The first time I met Forest Young was at the Midnight Mission on Skid Row, where he had been living for about a month. A tall young guy in a Pantera T-shirt, he looked intimidating at first but had a gentle, low-key air about him. He introduced himself as a guitarist and guitar maker, and said all his guitars had been destroyed in an apartment fire that had also left him homeless.
Despite his circumstances, Young spoke with optimism and obvious pride about his built-from-scratch and hand-painted lost instruments. “I'm definitely going to do it again,” he said. Once he was back on his feet, he hoped to launch his own line of custom guitars.
That was a little over a year ago. Now, amazingly, Young is not only building guitars again — he's a graduate of the very demanding Guitar Craft Academy at the Musicians Institute. He has a roof over his head and a workshop at a friend's house in the Valley. And earlier this year, he made one of his first sales to a professional musician from Orange County named Matt Sanders — better known to his fans as M. Shadows, lead singer of the hard rock/metal band Avenged Sevenfold.
“It was a dream come true for me,” Young says now, speaking by phone from his father's house in Orange County.
Young's interest in guitar making began in high school — when, he says, an abusive stepfather smashed a guitar over his head for playing it too loud. “I had to get a bunch of stitches and stuff. But that’s what got me into making guitars — I was looking at the broken pieces of the guitar with blood all over them, and I tried to put it back together. So on my own I tried to learn how to do it.”
At first, he worked with kits purchased from sites like BYOGuitar.com. “I did about 10 of those when I was younger.” Eventually he got into woodworking and building from scratch. But he also got into “getting loaded” — his preferred term — and his life began spiraling out of control.
Young says the trigger to the “series of unfortunate events” that left him on the street was an ex-girlfriend who secretly dosed him with 100 hits of LSD. Sometime later, an unattended candle was the suspected culprit in his apartment fire (fortunately, no one was hurt), but Young claims to have been so high during this time that he really doesn't remember the details. “I was wandering around on the streets and I wasn’t sure what was going on,” he says.
After the apartment fire, he tried to move in with the stepfather who once smashed a guitar over his head. Instead, they got into a confrontation that led to Young's arrest. “They basically said, go to rehab or go to prison,” he says. “So I decided to go to rehab.” That landed him at the Midnight Mission, where he joined the shelter's 12-step program and, after successfully completing six months, was given the opportunity to enroll at the Musicians Institute.
His parents, who had all but given up hope on him, supported their son's newfound sense of focus. “The whole thing with my family was, ‘OK, Forest, you’ve been kind of a screw-up for the past four years, so here’s your chance. What do you want to do?’ I said, ‘I want to work on guitars.’” His mother is helping him pay off his student loans while he looks for full-time work, preferably for a guitar manufacturer or at an instrument repair shop.
The connection with M. Shadows came about through Young's father, Jerry, a landscape artist who was doing some work at the Avenged Sevenfold frontman's home in Huntington Beach. Intrigued by Forest's story, Shadows invited Jerry to bring his son over. Young showed the singer photos of his handiwork, and an impressed Shadows offered, “Man, if you build anything cool, show me.”
A month later, Young returned with two freshly built guitars. After jamming together on them for a while in Shadows' studio, the musician offered to buy one.
“I think at first he wanted to buy it off me just to help me out, but then he ended up really liking it,” Young says shyly.
Shadows confirms this. “I just liked how it sounded,” he explains. “It felt really good. It had a great distortion, a lot of liveliness on the pickups. I just really enjoyed it.”
In fact, Shadows says, he wound up writing much of Avenged Sevenfold's latest album, the just-released The Stage, using Young's guitar. “It has a great, nice, warm tone that I found pretty comforting, I guess, when I was writing.”
Young calls it a “huge honor” for his instrument to have played such an important role in the creation of a major rock band's music. “It’s still a little surreal for me,” he admits.
The 25-year-old guitar maker builds the bodies and necks of his instruments from scratch, using materials from House of Hardwood in West L.A. His childhood friend Joe Hatton helps out, the two of them working together in a makeshift workshop in Hatton's backyard. He says it's a “cool transformation” to be doing something constructive with a former co-conspirator from the wild years that contributed to his eventual homelessness. “Instead of asking his dad, ‘Hey, can we have 10 bucks to go get loaded?' we’re asking, ‘Hey, can we borrow the band saw?’”
After he finishes a guitar, Young likes to “wear them in for a little bit” by playing them. “The grain needs to relax, so the vibration helps it.”
Among his more recent projects, Young collaborated with Sacramento painter Emily Reese on a Day of the Dead–themed guitar. They met through mutual friends and Young was immediately drawn to Reese's moody, highly detailed artwork. “She nailed it,” he says of the recently completed guitar. “I love what she came up with.”
The Day of the Dead motif was Young's idea, but beyond that, “He gave me a lot of liberty on this one for how it looked,” says Reese. “It was really kind of organic, the whole process.”
For Reese, a graduate of the art school at UC Santa Cruz who works mainly in acrylics, it was her first time painting a guitar. Now that she's more comfortable with the techniques involved and feels she has a better grasp of Young's aesthetic, she wants the next guitar she does for him to look “a little more grotesque or beautifully decayed. A little bit more evil.”
And yes, there will be a next one, both Young and Reese say. “Me and Emily are actually planning on doing a whole line,” Young says. “I just saw her yesterday and gave her another body to work on.”
For now, their first collaboration remains unsold — as does the Flying V-style guitar he made at the Musicians Institute and another he half-jokingly calls his “rehab guitar,” the first he and Hatton built together while he was still living at Midnight Mission. But for the first time in many years, he's confident that he's on the right path and proud of what he's accomplished.
“When I went to school, I was like, my life depends on me passing this class. The teachers were so hardcore, it definitely gave me a run for my money. But I did it.”
You can follow Forest Young and his guitars on Instagram.