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A-Z of British Guitar Craftsmen (Part 1)

A guide to who they are, where they are, and what they do. Your first step to a handmade guitar.


You won't find them marked on Ordnance Survey maps, but some of the most imaginative and skilled guitar makers live in Britain. John Lewis tracked down the better and lesser known exponents of wood and wire for Making Music's craftsman's guide.

CUSTOM GUITARS, once an extreme luxury or oddity for the "star", are now a genuine alternative for many players who would formerly have bought Japanese or American instruments. And they're British, oh patriotic ones.

To be sure, there is a history of "greats" among British Guitar Makers like Burns and to a lesser extent John Birch (for whom JayDee personage John Diggins once worked), but there's never been such an upsurge of interest in producing and owning hand made instruments as we're witnessing today. The variety of ranges, in both price and style, is as wide as the factory-built makers can offer, and the possibilities are infinite — as infinite as a guitarist's imagination or purse.

Nearly all small builders work to their own highest quality, and as it takes a certain amount of time, effort, materials and tools to build a guitar, there is really no such thing as a cheap range. So if your choice is limited to budget six strings or basses, don't expect to be welcomed by the custom guitar market with open cheque books. But when you consider your next guitar, it could be a different matter. The number of British guitar makers is still on the increase, although there must be a saturation point.

It may already have been reached.

Sadly it's possible that some makers will have ceased production by the time you read this, but with the cost of foreign instruments remaining as high as the pound is low, and with musicians seeking individuality from an industry that increasingly worships at the altar of standardisation, there must be room for people who make guitars that players yearn for.

I wonder if the fact that a recent make of German bass assumes the name "Warwick" as opposed to, say, "Stuttgart", is an indication of the health of British guitar making. Certainly the general feeling in the cottage is one of optimism. A school of guitar making has been started, and there are two shows in November (London and E Midlands) to promote the cause of British guitars.

There are many makers setting up business all the time, so this is (inevitably) not a complete list. It is as thorough as space and time allow, so for those we missed. Sorry.

KEVIN ARAM

(Contact Details)

... is best known for his high quality small bodied classical guitars, selling for between £660 and £1200. The narrower fingerboard on these is attractive to steel string and electric guitarists, hence his occasional semi-acoustic custom models. He also makes larger bodied classical guitars and small bodied steel strings from £500. He works alone and therefore has a relatively small turnover. He does have some stockists, mainly specialist classical shops, but sells about half his instruments direct.

JERRY BIX

(Contact Details)

...makes solid electric guitars and basses, (about 70% guitars) usually in conventional (Strat or Tele) shapes with flamed or birds'-eye maple tops, usually thru-neck, often with Armstrong pick-ups and the common Schaller/Kahler hardware combination. He has been established for about seven years and has several known pro guitarists among his users. He doesn't work through dealers, feeling that this way he will produce a smaller number of guitars but of a higher quality. Prices start at £450 but around £600 would be more usual.

RALPH BROWN

(Contact Details)

...has been building guitars full time for about five years, mainly steel strung acoustics but also more unusual instruments, a cutaway thinline electro-acoustic with Ashworth transducer for Brendan Croker and a baritone guitar for Martin Simpson. He is also planning to build some resonator guitars. His instruments are generally £500 to £1000 and all his orders come on a word of mouth basis as he works through no dealers, with the exception of Gruhn Guitars of Nashville.

CHANDLER

(Contact Details)

...used to import Schecter parts and assemble them into fine custom guitars, how they are put together being obviously as important as the parts themselves. Their distinguished clientele included people like Pete Townshend, Def Leppard and Mark Knopfler. Recently, without really changing their operations, they have switched emphasis to the Chandler name. They still assemble standard (in terms of shape) custom guitars, but with no link to any specific parts manufacturer, so the logo now is Chandler. They are also active as importers and retailers, all orders going through their own retail outlet, as well as repairs and customising.

D.W. GUITARS

(Contact Details)

...stands for Dave Winter who started making guitars around five years ago and formed the company within the last two years on a government grant scheme. If work slackens he plans to introduce his own lines, but at the moment he has enough custom building to keep him busy, with solid electrics from around £300 upwards (e.g. black Stratish, 24 fret, locking trem, black chrome, Armstrong pick-ups, £450), and acoustics from around £200 upwards. All orders go direct to the workshop as he has no agents, nor any real need of any as this would inevitably increase his otherwise quite competitive prices.

ANDREW DEMETRIOU

(Contact Details)

...makes solid electric, jazz, acoustic or classical guitars as well as doing repairs and renovating old instruments. He has built up a large number fr regular customers over the last twelve years. All his instruments, of which he makes a dozen or so a year, a commissioned personally and generally sell for between £500 and £1500. He says he prides himself on a high standard and I dare say he has reason to.

DOUGLAS BASSES

(Contact Details)

...are a two man operation at present developing a second conventionally shaped, one piece bass to be unveiled at the Midland show which will feature a sophisticated set of tone controls including eight pre-programmable voices on separate channels. Contact with John and John Douglas can be made direct, or through Foulds music.

CHRIS ECCLESHALL

(Contact Details)

...has a long established reputation and other makers are pleased if they can say they have worked with him at one time or another. Originally trained as a violin maker, he has made and still makes virtually any stringed instrument from a one pick-up (old Ned Callan pick-ups he bought in a job lot) electric similar to a Les Paul Junior and selling at a ridiculous £195, to carved-top, cello style guitars at £1600. He is also about to introduce three new ranges of his own, of which he hopes to have examples at the Barbican show. They include a headless (bass and guitar) with Staccato hardware and probably Draig pick-ups, and two guitars with the playing dimensions of a Strat but his own shape, and different pick-up combinations. These ranges go from around £300 upwards which makes Chris' work cheaper than most makers of the same quality.

EGYPT GUITARS

(Contact Details)

...more than any other maker, their fate is in the lap of the Gods. They assume a distinctive earthly form with three ranges; Kamak from £295, Luxor from £445 and Pharoah from £595. They descend in one shape (Isis) which can be reversed (Osiris), with bass versions Nefertiti and Nofretiti (No-fret). Colours are Anubis black, Cleopatra white, Nubian blue, Aurora tobacco, Rosetta red and Memnon (natural matt). Their recent trade show, where they were displayed on a pyramid in Dixie's suite, was their first, and through Dixie they have access to sufficient outlets. The entrails and organs of the guitars are of the almost standard Armstrong/Schaller/Kahler combination. Shape wise, they have certainly put all their eggs in one casket. Only the passing of the sands of time will reveal the wisdom of such a move.

FINGERBONE

(Contact Details)

...recently occupied the premises vacated by Manson and have maintained the quality of instruments being produced in Crowborough. The Fastback which is the more-or-less standard model, varies between £500 and £800 depending on hardware, wiring, finish, etc. and is characterised by an obsessive choice of wood. Several truncated Explorers have also been ordered and "the usual weirdness of course, like the 5 string telecaster with scull inlays". Paul Fingerbone favours bolt-on necks on guitars (but not so much on basses), as the harmonics can actually be improved ("if done properly") with no loss in sustain. The best timber is also hard to get in thickness greater than an inch, not enough for a glued neck joint or a sloping headstock, and bolt-on necks remain adjustable/repairable for longer.

FYLDE GUITARS

(Contact Details)

...were THE English folk guitars around the clubs ten years ago, and then they fell out of favour. It is a company which has fluctuated in size and personnel more than most. The creative force behind Fylde has also had some success with (I think) a locking snooker cue extension. However, their history, the singularity of which has not been fully revealed to me, has no bearing on their present range of professional acoustic guitars upon which their reputation primarily rests, plus mandolins etc and a solid electric. Prices are mainly in the £500 to £700 bracket.

ROGER GIFFIN

(Contact Details)

...is among the elite of the country's guitar makers, with a list of customers making a who's who of British guitarists. He has built a reputation among professional musicians on a word of mouth and satisfied customer basis, the hardest way but ultimately the firmest foundation for any small company. He offers no standard lines of his own realising that by definition a custom builder must take care to find out and build just what each customer wants. The fact that he has been doing it successfully in relatively hallowed circles for 20 years is an indication of how well he does it, but he insists the rank amateur gets as much time/care as the 'name' player. It is his experience that guitarists, in the main, are conservative and like instruments that "look and play like guitars" and are suspicious of technology whether new materials, complex hardware or electronics. He is still building more basic Strat types than anything else just because that is what most people ask for. He tries to infuse "taste" into his instruments (unless otherwise instructed) and uses Bartolini pick-ups and exotic woods to this end, but likes to use words like "modest" and "simple" to describe a good guitar. All customers come directly to the workshop as operating through dealers would increase his already high (you pay for quality) prices.

DAVE GLADDEN

(Contact Details)

...likes to maintain a low profile. He doesn't advertise. You won't see him with a stand at the Barbican Show. He works on the principle that if someone needs his services, they will find him. He imports his own wood, allowing greater choice of the best quality timber but sometimes uses phenolic (plastic, to be simplistic) fingerboards which he also supplies to other makers. Another side product is guitar circuits which he designs and makes for people to fit to their own instruments.

JACK GOLDER

c/o (Contact Details)

...was responsible for Hayman guitars and later Shergold guitars. Both companies failed, but the guitars are still well liked today. Although not marketing a range now, Shergolds are still available as custom orders through B & M.

GORDON SMITH and GORDY


both c/o (Contact Details)

...are the Tweedledum and Tweedledee of guitar builders. This is not to show any disrespect, they are both of a quality earning them considerable respect and (both their spokesmen tell us) considerable sales. Gordon Smith are made by John Smith, Gordy by Gordon Witham. Together they were Gordon Smith until about six years ago when they parted company with John Smith retaining the name Gordon Smith and Gordon Witham becoming just Gordon, and now Gordy. Gordon Smith makes Gibsonish guitars; glued necks, humbuckers, sometimes semi-solid, sometimes 'V's. Gordy makes Fenderish ones; bolt on necks, four a side headstocks, three pick-ups, etc. They are completely dissimilar, both use their own pick-ups. Between them they make a good, complete range from the £300s upwards. Don't mention in the same breath.

HEART GUITARS

(Contact Details)

...are one of the new names on the market with variations on the conventional Strat and Precision shapes. The headstocks are easily recognisable with a carved heart shape (without which they would look similar to old Hayman headstocks). The theme is continued with inlayed heart fret markers. Bolt on necks, Schaller machines, EMG pick-ups.

JAYDEE

(Contact Details)

...Birmingham based John Diggins is primarily known for his 'Supernatural bass range made famous by, among others, Mark King, and now making inroads into the U.S. market with new endorsee Jaco Pastorius. Alembic-ish in shape, but with a distinctive headstock, the range starts at around £500 and sports 3, 5 or 7 laminate necks, John's own design of bridge and tailpiece, the bridge mounted on a sustain block, and Jaydee pick-ups in a maple and ebony casing. Also notorious are his Hooligan and V-shaped guitars and he is relaunching a guitar first designed about ten years ago. Despite the traditional craft of which John is a master, his instruments are very modern, immaculate and with a 'hard, hard' sound. They are certainly among the best and are available through Mike Cooper Marketing.

KIF WOOD

(Contact Details)

...is about as close to the mainstream of guitar makers as his choice of habitat is central to the trade, but this butterfly breeder who was involved in the development of the legendary Dan Armstrong (Kent's father) sliding pick-up, makes some very attractive and unusual guitars. They draw from tradition but question every aspect of manufacture from an engineering standpoint. He is always attempting to develop his ideas further with a concern for visual effect and style yet commendable disdain for gimmicks. When he uses laminates they are made for him from selected timber, when he uses exotic hardwoods (one so exotic it has become totally unavailable since he bought his current stock), it is for primarily functional reasons but again carefully chosen. He offers acoustic and electro-acoustic 6 string, 12 string and bass guitars, a classical guitar, three types of oriental harp and is particularly interested in building unusual instruments. The more radical your idea, the more pleased he will be to design and built it.

KINKADE BROS

(Contact Details)

...are best known for their attractive acoustics (including those black ones the Stranglers use), acoustic basses (one of which U2 recently purchased) and jazz guitars (as used by Frank Evans), but they also do a lot of local repair and electric custom work. The most popular acoustic model is the Kingsdown which sells for a (relatively) modest £355. They are available through Mike Cooper Marketing and so have several outlets throughout the country and will be at both the Barbican and Midland shows.

CHRIS LARKIN

(Contact Details)

...has been making guitars on the west coast of Ireland for about seven years, doing custom work including solid mandolins but also making his own range of guitars and basses to a high quality, utilising attractive woods (including the shamrock inlay of bog oak on the headstock of all his instruments), on a body shape which is distinctive without trying too hard, contoured so that the laminates add sleakness to the lines. Pick-ups are made by Kent Armstrong to Chris' specifications and any pick-up/wiring variation is possible. He is most pleased at the moment with his active basses and Asad (all singing, all dancing) guitar with a single coil set between two humbuckers giving virtually any tonal variation. He has a growing reputation and list of users, but as yet only a half dozen or so outlets in this country, and is hoping to be at both November guitar shows where he will be showing a new five string bass.

JOHN LE VOI

(Contact Details)

...is an acoustic maker with no advertising or marketing, but whose name is surprisingly widely known outside Lincolnshire where he lives and works. He offers a full range of steel strung acoustics as well as mandolas etc and even celtic harps, but his most distinctive guitars are Maccaferri types which sell for £500 to £600. He has limited outlets but a wide reputation.

GEORGE LOWDEN

(Contact Details)

...has been making acoustic guitars for about twelve years now, building up considerable sales and reputation in the late seventies largely in Europe, which resulted in him moving to Japan, retraining Japanese craftsmen and considerably expanding his production and range. He has recently moved back to Ireland and has restarted in a new factory (which should not imply complete mechanisation by any means). Although the quantity he can now produce is far greater than most other makers, this appears to have resulted in no drop in quality so far.

BRYN HISCOX

(Contact Details)

...is one of the most revered of makers, inspiring from reviewers comments like: "the best possible buy that you will ever make" and "there just isn't anything better that I have played". He makes a small range of bowl-back instruments, made to his own design using traditional lute making methods of building up the back with strips of timber, usually rosewood and maple. The quality both of materials used and of Brynn's workmanship result in instruments to covet, typically priced at around £850 which includes the just being launched fibreglass Hiscox lite-flite' case.



JOHN HULLAH

(Contact Details)

...used to work for Fylde. It is not really the first thing he would have you known about him but it does give a kind of pedigree. As you might expect, he makes a full range of acoustics (6, 12, mandolin, bouzouki, acoustic bass) which start at around the £500 mark for a standard 6 string. He also makes solid electrics which he calls Ionics (two models) and a bass which is also available headless. As well as Armstrong, he uses EMG pick-ups and has recently started using UKGs. When I spoke to him he had just been commissioned to make a twin neck headless bass, fretted and fretless. He is increasing his number of stockists, with about a dozen at the moment.

Next month M (Manson) to Z (Zemaitis)


Series

Read the next part in this series:
A-Z of British Guitar Craftsmen (Part 2)



Previous Article in this issue

Roland Digital Doctors

Next article in this issue

Private Skives


Making Music - Copyright: Track Record Publishing Ltd, Nexus Media Ltd.

 

Making Music - Nov 1986

Topic:

Design, Development & Manufacture


Series:

British Guitar Makers

Part 1 (Viewing) | Part 2


Feature by John Lewis

Previous article in this issue:

> Roland Digital Doctors

Next article in this issue:

> Private Skives


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