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Guitar Gallery

Just over the brow of London's Lavender Hill — past Sisters Avenue, a shop advertising 'Cut And Blow-out', and Battersea Town Hall — is the London Classical Guitar Gallery.

But it doesn't just boast classical guitars. When Richard Manning first had the idea for a gallery which would offer handmade guitars to discerning musicians, he hadn't even considered the possibilities of including steel-string acoustics and electric guitars. But now the racks in his first floor premises — bursting with about 60 instruments when I visited — have every kind of guitar, going a good deal of the way to Richard's claim that he can get any kind of guitar made.

The roots of the gallery go back three or four years to when Richard was playing classical guitar, and decided that he wanted a better guitar. 'But I didn't like the music shops' approach,' he explains, with a sideways reference to London's Shaftesbury Avenue clique. 'So I asked my music teacher what he'd do if he wanted a new guitar — he said he'd have one made for him, handmade, but didn't know where!'

The premise on which the gallery is built, then, is to get all the British guitar makers' work together in one place, avoiding the retail mark-ups of the shops which would destroy the value of their handiwork. It's really based on the same lines as an art gallery — if a guitar is sold, the maker pays a 10% commission to the gallery.

'The criterion for the guitars here is that they must be of good quality,' Richard points out. 'They must be of real woods, no production stuff. And they must be literally handmade — one guy starts the idea and finishes the guitar at the end.'

So with his purpose clear in mind, Richard set about by putting an ad in Guitar magazine, inviting interested makers to participate in the idea — and received an astonishing 170 replies — making obvious the need for the venture.

'Then I met the makers and got these premises sorted out — but I didn't want a situation like the shop scene, I didn't want assistants demonstrating instruments with their views. These guitars are for discerning musicians, and it's their views that count. I try not to stress my own opinion when people come here.'

There are in fact a great number of aspiring guitar makers in Britain, scattered liberally all over the country. With the gallery they now have not only a national outlet for their work that will make the guitars economically attractive, but a focal point for activities and information gathering. 'They'll come here to see what's going on,' says Richard. 'They may have built up a local reputation, but when they're offering the guitars into a broader market, the quality needs to be better. So it's a place for the exchange of ideas — they meet here and discuss guitar making. In three months I've seen great improvements from the same maker; their guitars will obviously sound good, but little things will improve.' So the increased communication opened up by the gallery has practical effect beyond the obvious and natural exchange of techniques.

When I took a look round the gallery it had only been operational for a mere 14 weeks; and yet the range of instruments on show was quite phenomenal. There were electrics by Andy Manson, Geoff Gale and Mike Hobbs — I really fell in love with a Geoff Gale fretless bass (see above), but it was snapped up by a perceptive new studio, Archipelago, recently opened in Pimlico. A John LeVoi Macaferri 'copy' was there in all its magnificence, along with guitars from Nigel Thornbury ('a relatively new maker'), John Ainsworth ('he's just turned full-time luthier because we provide him with enough of an outlet'), Martin Fleeson, Bambos Zacharias ('a composer and player of mainly Latin American music'), and Tim Williams ('just left the London College of Furniture and moving to Bristol'). Prices range from £150 to £500.

New makers taken on by the gallery have to be in Britain: 'Sometimes we'll take a foreign guitar in part-exchange,' Richard reckons, 'but generally we're reluctant to do that. We can do part-exchange deals and can arrange hire purchase, obviously things makers wouldn't normally be able to do.'

So far the gallery has not involved itself with amplification and doesn't intend to, although there is some word of supplying Burman amps, from Newcastle. 'They have only three or four employees — we tested one out and were very impressed. But we don't normally supply amplification — we have an old Marshall valve amp for people to try out electrics, which won't give you the boosted performance that a new amp will, it'll give you a good idea what those pickups sound like.'

As a reflection of the interest shown in guitar making by budding luthiers, the gallery will soon be supplying all the raw materials required — Indian rosewood, walnut, Swiss pine, German spruce, cedar, mahogany, maple, ebony and all other woods, fretboards, machine heads: the lot. So it can really claim to be involved in the guitar making field right across the board — if you're thinking of making a guitar, if you're regularly making guitars and need a sensible outlet for your instruments, or if you're a musician fed up with production line guitars and want to find exactly the instrument for you, then contact Richard Manning at the London Classical Guitar Gallery, (Contact Details). In the meantime, SI readers can look forward to a semi-regular series on luthiers whose work can be obtained through the gallery.

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