I made my first guitar more than 50 years ago. I was nine, it was made from plywood and was painted pink. It had flowers on. Oh dear.
I didn’t play guitar at the time, but for some reason I had decided to make one. It wasn’t a lot of use, but I suppose it started my interest in playing, all the wrong way round!
After that I made a canoe (went on holiday in it), a greenhouse (sold it), model planes and boats (crashed and sunk), and set fire to my sister (it was her own fault, and she’s better now).
I bought my first engineering lathe, and spent all my spare time making things. I remember curing resin in moms oven, soaking rosewood in the bath, and boiling linseed oil on the kitchen stove. My parents were very patient, and a little frightened.
At senior school, the woodwork and metalwork teachers let me do whatever I wanted, and I was often in the workshops when I should have been somewhere else, even after the school closed in the evening. I would turn up at physics class with some strange device I’d made, and the headmaster arranged for me to attend three short courses at international engineering companies ~ probably trying to get rid of me. I saw some amazing things and it gave me a real breadth of experience in manufacturing industry while it was still an important part of the UK economy. From one of those courses I came away with sections of aluminium helicopter blades, which are still around somewhere as rather odd sculptures.
I joined the local radio amateurs club ~ Morse code, red hot valves and big batteries. I heard about JFK’s assassination by short wave radio more or less as it happened from a radio “ham” in Dallas. At home I dismantled TVs, and built all sorts of radio devices, then someone invented semi conductors and electronics became a bit girly.
Along the way I had taken to actually playing guitar, and I made two more during my teens, they were rather more serious instruments, they weren’t pink, and I took one of them to university with me. Up to that point I’d intended to be an electrical engineer, but I heard an excellent lecture on mechanical engineering which changed my mind on the spot. It was a good choice for me, as I was (and still am) fascinated by how things are made. I won the place at university largely because I spent the initial tour of the buildings looking behind all the equipment and not listening to the tutor. When he asked if any of us knew what the equipment was, I popped my head up and said things like “it’s a breach block from a naval gun” or “it’s a roll forming machine”
It was a wonderful time, I had my tool kit with me, and I was given a key to the labs and the workshops. I played guitar and saw a lot of live music. I even went to the lectures. My final degree thesis involved vibrational testing of aluminium alloys. I was in the labs at all hours, and the experience was really useful later on. I spent my holidays in various engineering departments around Birmingham, including Rover cars and Cadbury’s chocolate factory!
I’d always wanted to work in medical engineering, but the only jobs on offer were in the defence industry. This indirectly involved killing people rather than helping them and that wasn’t really part of the plan. The one I went for was at a company making industrial tape recorders, and I got that job by talking about a model steam engine that was in the directors office!
The first year I spent as a technical writer. That was good experience, I produced a set of manuals for a seismology recording system. Very low frequency vibrations in the earths crust. Then I moved to the lab, where we worked on aviation black boxes, digital recorders and communications recorders for industry and government. In one way or another, we were usually dealing with sound waves, so the company sent me on a course in musical acoustics at the local university because they thought it might be useful. Little did they know! Once again, I was allowed free reign of the model shop after hours, and I took full advantage of it by starting to make little devices for guitar making.
At first I had a work bench in my bedroom, so I actually slept on a mattress amongst a pile of shavings, then I shared a house with an audio engineer from a Hi~Fi company (something else that was going to become very useful) and used the garage as a workshop. On one memorable night at about 3 am I got my arm stuck inside a very famous guitar while fitting a pickup. I eventually extracted myself using a crisp packet. Don’t ask.
My job was based in the buildings where Short Sunderland flying boats had been made, and the Hovercraft was invented and built just along the road while I was there. I obtained some lovely mahogany from old warships, and helped rebuild a crashed monoplane with aviation grade Sitka spruce. More wonderful experience, I don’t know how I fitted it all in. Being young must have been part of it.
I was playing guitar and fiddle a lot, and met everyone from those very early years of acoustic guitar. Soon I was getting orders for the guitars that I showed them, I was working overnight to get repairs done, and not turning up to work exactly on time.
Then I was offered help to set up a full time guitar making business on the Fylde coast of Lancashire (hence the name, its pronounced to rhyme with “wild”) and a whole new chapter started.
It was not easy. I made piano stools, violin cases, autoharps and lots of mistakes. There were fires and floods, thefts of equipment, instruments, designs and ideas, and all sorts of crises. I just kept going, and it began to come together. I had a strong background in all the right areas, I had built up some good ideas and I knew what I wanted to achieve. At this point, the only available guitars were American influenced, but the guitars I was making were very “English” ~ suited to the styles of the emerging players in this country.
Within five years I had a team of about 12 and we were making nearly 1,000 guitars a year, selling all over the world. There was even a brief excursion into making unique electric guitars that were quickly copied by others, and it seemed as if just about every star in folk, rock, even jazz, had bought instruments from me, but it had all gone too fast. Despite being very successful in organizing the actual design and manufacture, a combination of business and personal events brought me to an abrupt stop, so I started again by myself on a much smaller scale. I didn’t want to stop making guitars, but I did want to get involved in something new.
I was already a great fan of stick and ball games, and I played a lot of snooker and pool. (Sports that include bits of woodwork and engineering, and don’t get you sweaty, dirty or damaged!) I had an idea for an aluminium cue case, which the industry persuaded me to develop, and it became the backbone of a whole new business venture. Snooker and pool cues use the same materials as guitars, and the technology of keeping wood straight in a cue is much the same as making it bend in a guitar. The way a cue hits the ball has many similarities to a musical instrument. In fact cues are balanced and “voiced” in a similar fashion to guitar bracing, and like a cricket bat, a good cue makes a good noise! I had new ideas for cue designs and patented the first cue extension. A lot of the top snooker players used my products, and before long the business was very successful. At one point, a manufacturer from China visited me and showed me copies of my cues, complete with model names, and asked me if I liked them! I can’t remember quite what I did, but I’m sure the hospital has a note of it somewhere.
I had a good team to make the cues, so I took on some interesting consultancy work for a computer company, making assembly equipment, models and prototypes of digitisers, workstations etc. I helped make publicity films for the aluminium industry, and spent a lot of time rebuilding houses and inventing things. Have you heard of cold fusion? That’s not one of mine.
Eventually the wood dust and work load took their toll and I sold the business to reinvest in guitar manufacture. I’d never stopped making guitars, always keeping at least one corner of the workshop dedicated to it and at least one person helping me to build them, but I felt I had unfinished business, and set up a dedicated workshop to concentrate on guitars again. This time I had a lot more business experience.
Soon it was obvious that I was doing something right. I moved to the wonderful Lake District, with an idyllic home and a purpose built workshop. I’m able to use a lot of the experience and training that I have been lucky enough to receive, there are lots of new models and once again I’m selling to every area of music from all over the world. The team is the best I’ve ever had, and the instruments are the best they have ever been, and now I have some lovely pink wood that I must use for something. I’ll let you know.