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A-Z of British Guitar Craftsmen (Part 2)

Article from Making Music, December 1986

Part two of our countrywide survey of all the Best in Brit luthiery — Manson to Zemaitis.

John Lewis concludes his round-the-country study of our favourite custom guitar builders. Today we give you M to Z, and a pickup selection.


(Contact Details)

...are unusual in that they enjoy equal notoriety for their own acoustic and electric lines, and for their custom work. The Kestrel bass is a less aggressive Aria SB in shape with an unusual but very sensible inset strap button. The new headless Phantom and recent guitar shape are refined versions. They are fitted with Armstrong or EMG pickups and German hardware. Their range of acoustics are among the best in their simple form and can also be among the most extravagant, as with the much photographed three and four neck models which are also in the third area of work, custom orders. Whereas makers of this quality with their own lines to sell (Wal, Jaydee, Overwater) need publicity and reviews etc, many of the top makers who just do custom work (Giffin, Gladden) assume a much lower profile. Manson encompass all aspects of their trade with equal enthusiasm, resulting in them being the most accessible of the top flight custom makers.


(Contact Details) by James Moon in the workshop above his shop, they're largely unknown outside Scotland, but this is no problem with enough trade and working bands coming out of Glasgow to keep him busy. He makes any guitar but favours standard American types with EMG or Duncan pickups and Kahler or Rockinger trems. His prices start at around £450, although for anything but the most basic, you'd be more likely to pay closer to £700. He also carries out a full repair service and numbers Big Country, Lloyd Cole and John Martyn among his customers.


(Contact Details) by Chris May offer two guitar shapes, one of which known simply as the Overwater Active Guitar is the more familiar bass shape. They are probably less well known than Wal, Manson, and Jaydee, but are within the same quality bracket. Chris pays tremendous attention to detail, so that as well as immaculate heel-less thru' necks, good (Armstrong) pickups, comfortable contours and all the things you would expect from a quality maker, there are touches like graduated fret wire, getting thinner as you go higher up the neck, and subtly profiled fingerboards making Overwaters a pleasure to play. Although only one main shape is offered, any variation in wiring, pickups, finishes, etc is available, as also is a C tuned bass.


(Contact Details)

...contrary to rumours, he has not gone out of business within the last year. He has however had a difficult time, largely at the hands of others. He started his business in 1978 and is therefore one of the more established makers and has a high reputation for the craftsmanship shown in his work, although more of his sales are in Europe than in this country. Problems came with a new range of instruments with moulded graphite necks, but the company contracted to produce the moulded necks came nowhere near Ashley's expectations. Pangborn was forced to let down his distributors, has suffered considerable embarrassment and has lost money, but has now become involved with a new moulding company and should have instruments available this year. He is also still making guitars and basses to custom orders out of wood and this area of work is as healthy as ever with Phil Manzanera among recent customers.


(Contact Details)

...Paul Tebbutt has been making Pilgrim bowl back guitars, good instruments in their own right and a serious alternative to the famous but expensive Ovation, for some years and in increasing quantities.

At present he and his team of three are producing 25 to 40 guitars per month and are currently introducing a new top of the range active 'Mayflower'. I can't help but wonder if their recent move to FCN hasn't lost them the factor of elitism. I don't know. Certainly they are as good as ever.


(Contact Details) a guitar maker who has recently set up a course in guitar building, of 12 weeks duration, at the end of which the student will have been provided with group teaching and individual guidance, tuition on design, selection of materials, care and maintenance of tools, jigs and devices, instrument construction setting up, finishing and polishing. Guidance also comes on workspace, tools and materials, and the student should hopefully have made an acoustic guitar (steel-strung, classical or lute). There would certainly seem to be a need for such a course as courses in furniture making have been about as close as the potential guitar maker can get to his/her metier. The course fee is £895.


(Contact Details)

...a two man team whose orders tend to be for standard shaped guitars and basses, prices for which start at around £300. They also find they are doing relatively well with headless basses at the moment. Given the choice, they use Schaller hardware and Armstrong pickups and see all customers at the workshop. They also do a lot of repair and customising work including work for local shops.


(Contact Details) a one man operation which started as a workshop and has become a shop as well to meet local demand. Kevin Chilcott was taught by Chris Eccleshall (see last month) between '80 and '82, since when he has been making custom guitars, but only set up Royal Guitars in November of last year. He has been surprised by his workload which is about 90% custom building although all repair work is taken on. When I spoke to him, he had several orders including Strat, Rickenbacker and V copies. All work is done for customers coming directly to the shop.


(Contact Details) probably the most northerly of makers in the country and with a specific portion of the market. Sinton is a custom maker but nearly always makes 'Strat' and 'Tele' type guitars (in body shape only, as each one is different) and solid mandolins, a couple of which are soon to be shown for the first time in the US and for which Armstrong winds special pickups. These sell mainly into the Scottish country scene. Prices start at around £400; Sinton also does a great deal of repair work particularly on Ovations and assembles a cheaper range of Double Eagle guitars.


(Contact Details)

...are a hi-tech, dramatic departure from the rest of the field, having a very distinctive appearance and being made in an entirely different manner from most guitars and basses since the necks are interchangeable. Prototypes of guitars and basses have been made but the only model so far in production is the Mg bass. The thru-neck is of a cast magnesium alloy, the body a fibreglass laminate. (National made a guitar in the Sixties with a fibreglass body and like Staccato, used aero-technological experience to do it.) The fingerboard is a plastic/carbon fibre mix with frets inset. If you want a refret — don't, just replace the fingerboard. They made a guitar string attachment nut, bridge and tuners are all to their own design, and would be good on any bass, as would the pickups which are made by Kent Armstrong (Chris Eccleshall is using Staccato hardware on his new headless basses). It compares with the best of wood in terms of playability and price, having some tuning advantages due to the rigidity of the neck.


(Contact Details) a well established acoustic guitar maker with two complete ranges of instruments plus a new and strange little 18in bass, still in the development stage but already much reviewed for its curiosity value. His acoustics, which are available in several body shapes, start at around £425 for a fairly basic rosewood and spruce bodied guitar with rosewood fingerboard, going up in price for cutaways, better timber, etc according to the customer's requirements. He also makes a range of glass-fibre backed guitars starting at £299, including an acoustic bass at £325. These are shaped like a conventional guitar, as opposed to the Ovation or lute style bowl back. All pickups used are Ashworth and it is with Ashworth that Nigel is developing the soon-to-be mass produced 18in Ashbory.


(Contact Details) feature a comfortable V profile neck with optional patented slanting frets (an idea once used by Rickenbacker). Replacement necks are also available for people who want the slanted frets but plan to retain their own body shape (and presumably that of their guitar too). David Robinson makes Veldt Roche acoustics and electrics from around £300 upwards and also does repairs and customising.


(Contact Details) all custom makers will build to order, but does have a standard range of three models starting at £360 for either bass (four or eight string) or guitar (six or 12 string) and going up to around £800 with the usual passive/active and fretted/fret-less options. Most orders, of which Wailes can handle about 20 a year, are for mid-range £500ish basses. The body shape resembles a Jaydee with a narrower waist and longer horn. Natural finishes predominate, as do Armstrong pickups and Schaller hardware.


(Contact Details)

...are one of the handful of makers who, in the years since the heyday of the best known Zemaitis users, helped establish the credibility of British makers. By concentrating on basses of more or less one style they have come as close as anyone to building a perfect bass guitar with special attention to woods and mostly their own hardware. Their list of 'name' users is impressive and long, and attests to the high regard in which they are held. A list of their unknown users, from Samoa to the US would give a truer indication of how they have carved a Wal shaped piece of the quality bass market.


(Contact Details)

...are one of the most widely available mid-price range British guitars with a full series from standard shapes to their own brazen 'Sluts' and active basses. While not all their guitars are out of the ordinary, Wilkes can be innovative — their percussive bass is a fretless with brass plates set into the neck to add edge to a sound often unobtainable on a fretless. (It works, too.) 'The Answer', another development of theirs, is a sliding two or three coil pickup system for Strat shaped guitars, and not just their own. The aim is to market it, manufactured by Schaller, to be fitted to any Strat or copy. It's now available in a bass (Precision) version too.


(Contact Details) an unfamiliar name if like me you don't move in the right circles. People who do and who own his guitars include Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Ron Wood, Bob Dylan, Dave Edmunds etc. The long list of users supports the view that Zemaitis started the trend towards handmade guitars. This is not to make him sound unapproachable as he makes for anyone, and does repairs (as well as building a single seat bi-plane). He is particularly known for engraved front electric and 12-string acoustics. Prices range from £250 to £2500, and (rare claim, this) there are Jap copies of his guitars.

An Easy Pickup

KENT ARMSTRONG (Contact Details)
UKG PICKUPS (Contact Details)
DRAIG PICKUPS (Contact Details)
ALBION STRINGS (Contact Details)

It will be obvious from the number of makers who use his pickups, how much of an intrinsic part Kent Armstrong has played in the current success of British guitar making. As well as winding pickups and bass pickups from £20 to £30 each, plus specials, from mandolin to string bass. On top of those he does rewinds on existing pickups. Another British pickup maker is UKG who offer rewinds plus a wide, innovative and distinctive range. They are also active in other fields of guitar promotion being the driving force behind last month's Barbican show where a new active pickup, called Draig was shown. If Armstrong are intrinsic to the solid guitar market, then Ashworth Electronics are indispensable to the electro-acoustic makers. Almost any quality maker of acoustic stringed instruments uses transducers made by Ashworth, who are also currently involved with Nigel Thombory in the development of the Ashbory mini bass. Another handmade British product which is endorsed by a considerable number of guitar makers is Albion Strings, based in Derby, hand-wound and used by Jaydee, Wilkes, Kinkade, Staccato, Hiscox and Larkin.

Other luthiers (I wasn't going to use the word but..) from whom I could solicit no response by letter or phone are: Robbie Gladwell, Boz Grimshaw, Robin Greenwood, Bill Paplett, Stefan Sobell and the Avant Guitar Co. I have also just been made aware of Bruce Cook, who used to work for Fylde, Matthew Carter, who used to work for Manson, and Mark Wilmott, who Dave Gladden said was "worth talking to".

Series - "British Guitar Makers"

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

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Making Music - Dec 1986


Design, Development & Manufacture


British Guitar Makers

Part 1 | Part 2 (Viewing)

Feature by John Lewis

Previous article in this issue:

> Swindon Recorder

Next article in this issue:

> Chord of the Month

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