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Guitars and their heritage

Confessions of a luthier

(First published in Guitarist magazine, issue #467)

Why do some some guitars sound special? Alex considers whether there’s maybe more to it than meets the ears...

This month the repair ‘department’ at Alex Bishop Guitars has seen the satisfying completion of a number of restoration jobs. As anyone who has dabbled in this field will know, guitar repair work is often riddled with unforeseen niggles. Manufacturers use a differing variety of designs, materials and methods to construct their instruments so you can rarely predict with certainty how a job will unravel each time.

Included in my roster of recent repairs are a substantial rebuild of a 1970s Yamaha, an overhaul of a 1980s Japanese dreadnought, and the resetting of a neck from a 1960s Martin Colletti archtop. All the clients are unconnected to one another though a common theme runs through every one: each owner bought their instrument new, and all are fixing up their instruments on sentimental grounds.

You don’t need me to tell you that a guitar is more than just a guitar. Whether it is battered and bruised from a hard life on the road, or a well looked-after bedroom guitar, we all know well that bond between player and instrument. Playing guitar is about so much more than just hearing a sound. It’s the feel of the neck, the lustre of the finish, perhaps the smell of the wood. It’s also about the story.

When I moved into my first workshop in London, I used to visit Deptford market regularly. For a cash-strapped, aspiring luthier it was a great place to look for cheap tools, sometimes instruments, and always local paraphernalia. One week I picked up a 1984 copy of the ‘Jazz Express’ for 20p, because it featured UK gypsy jazz legend Diz Disley on the cover, performing at Soho’s 100 club with a youthful looking Biréli Lagrène. Diz is playing a beautiful Selmer-Maccaferri style guitar and - since these were my guitars of choice - I decided it had to go on the wall of my new place.

It was several years later, when I took one of these kinds of guitars in for a service that I made an interesting realisation. The guitar in Diz Disley’s hands in the photo bore many similarities to the one lying on the workbench in front of me. Despite the granular black and white photo, it was possible to make out a distinctive rosette and an unusual fretboard dot layout. I made a couple of enquiries and was able to complete the chain of five or so previous owners right back to that moment at the 100 club, 30 years ago.

The guitar changed in an instant. Its sound seemed to resonate more fully, each note inspired the next more effortlessly. Whilst I would love to take the credit for some extraordinary set up work, it seemed to me that it really took on this new lease of life because of it’s newly-discovered heritage.

But it’s not just old guitars that can have a story. I recently wrote about my enjoyment in building a guitar entirely from reclaimed wood, each piece of timber having already lived a life as a dining table, roof beam or floorboard. I believe the unique sound of this guitar has to do with more than just the mere translation of vibrations through wood and air hitting the ear. The human brain adds to this sensation the entire context surrounding the player too: the feel of a performance space, the reaction of an audience, the uniqueness of the instrument.

It was dwelling on this important aspect of guitar building that I decided this month to commence a new life-long lutherie project. Not long ago I decided I would attempt to visit all of the 50 ‘Great British Trees’ and I’ve visited four of them so far. Spread far and wide across the UK, these trees were selected by the Tree Council in 2002 for their noteworthy magnificence. Some are ancient, or especially enormous, and several are historically significant. So, it only seems fitting that I should build a guitar to represent each of the trees that I meet on this dendrological pilgrimage. My hope for these guitars is that they too will develop their own unique history, and inspire generations of players to come. Wish me luck!

Copyright (c) Future Publishing Ltd

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