I made two electric guitars for the school band in 1964. They were playable. And then, apart from some tinkering with pickups, frets, action adjustment, I stuck to playing the guitar for the next fifty years. I like to think that my best qualification as a guitar-maker is this: after fifty years of playing all kinds of guitars, expensive ones, cheap ones, I know how a guitar can or should sound.
Having quit my philosophy course at Bristol when I realised the limits to the rational understanding of anything, I launched myself into music, playing in bands, original material, covers, rock, blues, folk, singer-songwriter. Supporting myself of course by ‘real’ work - carpentry and building, then landscape gardening. For a couple of years, I also wrote gardening articles for womens’ magazines, as well as a book on organic gardening.
An unusual back-story for a luthier, guitar-maker, call it what you like. A lot of guitar-makers have an art, engineering, or furniture-making background. My carpentry work was not bespoke cabinet-making, rather more as-quick-as-you-can, on-site, work to a price. But I have an eye for detail - as a child I made miniature clipper ships complete with rigging, gunports with tiny guns - and my approach to writing and recording songs was craftsmanlike rather than wild rock-n-roll. So the change to working to the nearest tenth of a millimetre or less wasn’t that hard.
I started with an evening class at London Metropolitan with Nick Pyle, rather slow progress, then spent a week in Wales with ukulele-maker Pete Howlett and saw just how fast you can work if your living depends on it. We made, sprayed and strung up a tenor uke in five and a half days. I then did two years part-time at South Thames College with Mike Hobbs who seems to know everything about making guitars. Also how to rectify terrible mistakes! I then treated myself to two one-month courses, first with Richard Osborne who makes steel-string guitars and mandolins in Wales, and then with Pablo Requena in Malaga, making a classical guitar. All of these teachers have different methods, and I’ve taken something, that’s to say a lot, from each of them.
I use hand tools as much as possible, because I like them. I also work freehand wherever possible, for the same reason, and also because making and setting up jigs to use with a router can take longer. I confess to a fear of routers. One slip and you can ruin weeks of work. But I do use them for certain operations because it’s simply the best way. My first guitars were made almost entirely with hand tools, but now I have a band saw and a couple of sanding machines, which takes the slog out of some of the work.
My workshop is above the studio of my wife Almuth Tebbenhoff the sculptor, in a converted church hall in Southfields, South London.