I'm gonna make you a guitar... Geoff Gale lives up to the promise. Tony Bacon pinches the blueprints.
On the reverse of the technological coin that's given us all enough electronic hardware to make BScs almost a necessity, is the craftsman instrument maker — not the eccentric little guy in the white overalls turning out a work of art once a year, but people like Geoff Gale, a guitar maker aware of the fact that he's working in 1978 and, most important of all, aware of musicians' needs.
Not that this awareness is too surprising; Geoff's background is in semi-pro Bristol bands — a bass-player - and 'the whole of this thing has come out of that,' he explains, 'of actually wanting to play and wanting to have an instrument that does the right kind of thing'.
Geoff's knowledge of the actual mechanics of guitar making stems from his time at college in Bristol where his sculpture training taught him a great deal about working with all kinds of media. 'I was lucky really because I was actually undergoing a training in using machinery, although it was for sculpture, that I applied to this,' he says, waving his arms around at some of his guitars nestling in racks at London's Classical Guitar Gallery, where we met to talk about the past, present and future of Geoff Gale guitars.
With Geoff is Mike Maxfield, the second half of the two-man team. Geoff makes the guitars, Mike handles the 'financial and promotion' side of things. And it all works very well. But first a little history.
Geoff: 'It all started at art college, doing sculpture, playing in college bands, and not being able to afford the massive retail prices in the local store; going away, thinking about it and applying whatever knowledge was there, and making a guitar, that was it really. I made a guitar and a bass and used them for about six months, then a couple of guys, separately, asked me if I wanted to sell them — so I did.'
This was all some seven years ago, and from that time onwards Geoff started to make guitars for whoever wanted them, repairing guitars for local stores, customising guitars for those who needed that service — all very much a local scene developing rapidly from a small circle of bands and friends. And his abilities were all home-grown.
'It was all learning from handling known makers' instruments and repairing them, finding out how they were constructed, applying the kind of knowledge I had at college to that. There's a wealth of information that's available to you at college, if you want to find out about anything-metal technology, electronics...'
Repairing guitars in those days threw up an awful lot of pickup modification - remember this was before the days of Di Marzios and all the rest. 'It was all either rewinding existing pickups,' says Geoff, 'or getting hold of Gibson or Fender most of the time.' This was made a lot easier through a company called Cass Music, based in Eastbourne, who bought a lot of stock from Fender and Gibson around 1973 and made them available to people like Geoff for spares - the normal avenues of supply were very dry then.
All this experience in repairing and customising guitars, handling a large volume of instruments, constantly learning, brought about a change which occurred nearly a year ago when Geoff decided to introduce a definite range of his own handmade guitars - the designs evolving directly out of the earlier period. 'I was drawing, trying to come up with new ideas,' remembers Geoff, 'and at that time I met Mike (Maxfield) who saw the red Phasar guitar, which I took to the Trade Fair last year, and we decided to take it from there.'
Which brings us to Mike's involvement. British 60s music fans will remember Mike as the lead guitarist in Billy J Kramer's band, The Dakotas ('One of those Liverpool bands,' says Mike, 'Brian Epstein and all that...'). Mike has been a pro musician for about 15 years, in fact, and jumped at the opportunity to be involved in Geoff's operations. 'Geoff was in a band and a friend of a friend, I s'pose that's the most polite way of putting it, was in the same band. He said this guy makes all the guitars in the band, so I went down and heard them - at the Greyhound in Fulham Palace Road — and they were great. So I asked if I could get involved. It's worked very well because Geoff has all the designs, but there are so many guys who will put money into something and they'll expect an immediate return, the business angle comes into it all the time. I wanted to do something that involved guitars, or involved music, and this seemed to be the best way of going about it.'
So, with the guitars more clearly in context, I asked Geoff if his attitudes and techniques had changed much since he first started.
'Not very much, no. I established what I thought was essential and right with electric guitars, which came out of various early Gibsons and Fenders that I've used. I tried to adapt that to what I'm doing now, which nobody else seems to be doing.'
The design of the Magnum guitars, for example, is very similar to that of early Les Paul Specials, but with the added facility of Di Marzio pickups. This range seems to be basically for traditionalists who want a functional but traditional-looking guitar — the Cobra range is similar, but with more modern styling. The Phasar, however, is something else.
'It's an attempt to produce a futuristic instrument with a general tonal facility,' explains Geoff, 'so it's still hopefully got a rich tone range and can have a built-in pre-amp, different tone unit — like a phase unit, MXR pedal for instance — that kind of thing.'
The bass version of the Phasar is the Pulsar, with a similar body shape to the guitar. The standard range of Magnum, Cobra, Phasar and Pulsar guitars and basses vary in price from just over £300 to just under £400, 12-string versions from £350 to £425, double necks from £575 to £650, and the custom models from £395 up to around £650.
As far as raw materials are concerned, it's wood that poses the biggest problem for the British guitar maker. 'The most important thing is that the wood is good,' Geoff reckons, logically enough. 'It's very difficult to get hold of — I think the problem is that it's such a minimal activity in England that people who import woods aren't aware of what's needed by people like us. So you have to get what you can get.
'You have to root around and find what's available, which isn't very much. And unless you're a big company you can't order in large quantities, because it's so popular. I get mine from Bristol, locally. I've got two suppliers who are sympathetic and let me root around in their yards.'
Geoff looks for wood that has obviously been in the yards a good time — usually he tries to pick pieces from the bottom of the pile, the premise being that if the wood doesn't give him any problems, then it won't give the eventual customer any problems.
'If it's not well seasoned then it's no good,' Geoff opines, 'so I'm very careful about that. Otherwise it's a case of choosing the kind of wood to produce the kind of sound that the customer wants. For instance a very dense, hard wood is going to give a very hard, brittle, trebly sound, whereas a lighter, less dense wood will give a more mellow sound.'
For one-piece necks, Geoff has found that Honduras mahogany or Canadian maple is his best bet, although for added reliability a laminated neck is a good first choice.
'Laminated's better because one piece of wood is easier to move than five pieces glued together,' Geoff explains. 'And also five pieces glued together looks better, more decorative, deco style.'
This style is brought to a culmination in the Magnum Deco Star custom guitar, a beautiful instrument at the top of the Magnum range, with the neck 'spliced' from Honduras mahogany, ebony and Canadian maple, and with walnut head facing plus an ebony fingerboard. In fact Geoff prefers to work with ebony for fingerboards all the time now - its advantages over the more traditional rosewood are its strength and its better looks.
'It's a bit harder to work with, though. It's harder to inlay in ebony than it is in rosewood — rosewood's a softer wood. But that's not really a consideration.'
With pickups and hardware the situation is reversed - there's so much available from so many sources. The theory, however, is just the same — use whatever's right for the job.
Geoff Gale: 'If someone wants a specific kind of sound, then we'll choose the pickup to do that. Di Marzio are the best that I've come across so far — they've only been available properly in the last eighteen months. Generally the situation is that people will try to describe to me what they want, either with a tape or a record, or somebody they've seen using a specific guitar. They have an idea of what kind of sound they want, what kind of instrument they want visually too, and I try to put all of that together on the custom guitars.' Basically, you can go to Geoff with any personal preference - each range has its basic models, but within that a custom instrument can be produced from it for a specific use. Naturally enough the extra cost depends on exactly what you want made but, as Geoff points out, extras are easier for an independent maker to consider than for a major company.
'Usually it comes down to a simple matter of hardware. If someone wants a pickup that is an expensive item, or they want a tone unit or effects box built in which is a hundred quid as opposed to thirty quid, then that obviously goes on the price. But when it comes down to making a neck wider, or a left-handed guitar, or anything like that, then it's no difference, because it's being made from scratch. The finish doesn't make any difference either, the only thing extra there is is the sunburst finish, because there's more processing putting the colours on.'
Mike agrees: 'I mean, you can't go to a major company and say: I want Rickenbacker pickups on your Gibson guitars, can you? We were asked for a 12-string with the neck slightly wider than standard, and we can do that at relatively no extra expense.'
Geoff again: 'Whereas a big company with a production line obviously has to consider taking that one instrument out from the production line and all the costs involved in doing that. So economically it's not feasible for them to do it, it would cost a bomb to order one specially - as it does, in fact.'
So do they think enough care goes into production guitar making? The question is greeted with a certain amount of silence, and a few comments like 'We don't want to offend anyone', which is fair enough. But any definite opinions?
'Not really,' says Geoff. 'I mean I would praise the mid-50s and 60s Gibsons and Fenders because I think they're excellent instruments. And that's it really. Rickenbacker are a company that are out on another area completely, they've got their own distinctive sound.'
I suggest that production guitars are a product of their own manufacturing techniques, that they are the way they are because of how they're put together.
'Well I think what you say is true,' replies Geoff. 'The product is the end result of all those considerations that go into its manufacture, and it really depends on the company — some companies are fastidious when it comes to quality control and others aren't. That's down to a buyer beware situation, the customer really has to check out what he's buying beforehand.'
The big event on the Geoff Gale horizon at the moment, however, is the possibility of launching a budget priced guitar that will get 'proper' distribution in the UK through retailers. I ask for more information.
Mike: 'That's a whole new thing that's come upon us in the last couple of months. Our main idea has always been to make and sell guitars — individual, custom guitars — direct to the customer. We have been approached by distributors, so we've had to rethink our total idea of what we want to do. Do you get yourself involved in all the big business thing? It does involve a lot of hassles, you know: finance, borrowing money. At the moment we're running along quite happily, we don't owe anybody anything. Whether we want to get involved in that is another thing. But there seems to be such an interest in English guitars, European guitars, whatever, they're at last realising that we can make guitars in this country, people are prepared to pay for them, and so maybe we will start producing this budget range. We're not going to compromise.'
Interesting stuff. If the idea comes off, the guitar is planned to retail at around £215 — a very attractive price — and will be basically a Magnum design, but probably with a mahogany body (rather than the current rosewood), a one-piece neck, and will retain a 24-fret board and two pickups — though it's likely that it'll feature Gale-designed pickups and bridge piece.
'It could start happening in six months,' Mike reckons. 'I think it's up to us, whether we're satisfied that we can produce the guitar and we're happy with it. Then we're under way. Certainly if the demand's there we'll try to do it. But all of a sudden you've got to start thinking in hardheaded business terms, saving pennies almost here and there, to make it a competitively priced instrument.'
Indications are that if the Gale 'budget' guitar does eventually appear — and circumstances would seem to be in its favour - then guitarists can be assured of a full-quality instrument. Obviously the budget guitar would not be geared to the same amount of flexibility that's available in the standard and custom ranges, but this diversity would doubtless improve Gale's already well-honed closeness to musicians and their needs. As Geoff points out: 'The idea of the new guitar is to produce a budget priced instrument that is still of a reasonable quality, that will compete with others within that price range that maybe aren't necessarily that quality. There are other instruments within that price range that we don't think sound good enough, not really. So we'll find out, won't we.'
If you feel like finding out now, you can get in touch with Geoff at (Contact Details), or with Mike Maxfield at (Contact Details). Alternatively, a selection of Geoff's guitars can usually be seen at the London Classical Guitar Gallery (see SI Sept '78, p13), (Contact Details).
The last word to Geoff, of course: 'The most satisfying thing about all this is to actually see a guy using my guitar on stage, live, doing what he wanted to do, what he wanted me to do with it. One thing that I really appreciate is seeing the guitars being used; they're not collectors' pieces for walls, they're not hanging up doing nothing, they're actually out there. I hope that they'll all be like that.'
STOP PRESS: A distributor has now been arranged for the 'production' guitar discussed in the feature — they are Maskell/Barnes Music Serve Ltd, (Contact Details). Watch News for further details.
Interview by Tony Bacon
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