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“…it’s more about producing that one-off instrument, using techniques that make your toes curl!”
Tell me about your journey… Were you a player first? What inspired you to take the plunge and build?
I try not to count, but I’ve been playing guitar on and off for the last 30 years. One of my main inspirations for picking up guitar originally was to emulate Jimi Hendrix – one of my heroes. Actually, I found that I just enjoy the whole process of making music, I know just enough to be dangerous.
I got into ukulele quite by accident; My neighbour had built one and showed me it about 5 years ago. He’d done a great job, and inspired me to wonder whether I could do it. I’d often toyed with the idea of making a guitar as a teenager, but I’d convinced myself that it was too hard. Here was something a little smaller… surely even I could manage this! Despite my lack of tools or training, I decided to give it a go.
I started out small by restoring some old Banjoleles that I picked up on eBay. That went well enough, but even so, it seemed like a big step to take it any further. It took a lot of encouragement from Daniel Hulbert and Julian Davies at Electric Ukulele Land before I finally took the plunge and committed to making my first ukulele. It was a hugely rewarding project. I’m really glad that I finally did it!
I find that for professional luthiers it tends to be more about making traditional instruments and developing techniques, jigs, etc. Allowing many uniformed instruments to be made as quickly and easily as possible. For amateur instrument makers like myself, it’s more about producing that one-off instrument, using techniques that make your toes curl!
In the beginning what was the building process like? Were there any unforeseen events?
My first ukulele was christened the “Kingcaster”. It’s a hell-fire red tenor-sized electric ukulele, that is loosely based upon a strat guitar I have. I took the rather foolish move of documenting every step on the internet. There you’ll find post after post… all the highs and lows… pretty much as they happened. I’d like to think that I didn’t keep any secrets.
The build process was hard. I tried to plan and think everything through up front, but I kept finding myself being caught out by my lack of experience. It seems that a winning smile doesn’t always guarantee success.
Even when I thought I knew what I was doing, I struggled with the logistics of actually making my vision a reality. It was fun learning, but I had to be prepared to redo lots of things that I screwed up the first time round. The two hardest things on this build were probably the electrics and the painting. Ironically, the frets went in like a dream. It’s a widely known fact that I hate fitting frets with a passion!
What choices were you faced with during the build process?
There were so many choices to make, starting from the size of ukulele, through to the types of wood to use, through to where I was going to place the pickup and what screws I would hold it in with. Everything had to be decided. I designed the ukulele from the ground up, so pretty much everything needed to be figured out.
Basing the build on an existing guitar definitely helped me to solve some of the design challenges. Likewise, the decision to make a Stratocaster, kind of pushed me down the road of using guitar parts (which in itself introduced its own challenges trying to fit them into a smaller body). I really, really wanted a beautiful instrument that looked like it was meant to be tenor size, not just a shrunken guitar. I don’t know if I managed it… but I reckon I got close!
What advice did you seek and where did you get it?
I took advice from my neighbour (the guy who’d sparked my passion in the first place) and from luthiers on Google+ and who I’d met through places like my blog. There was a real range of skills and advice. There are some great articles on the internet covering pretty much everything you’ll ever want to do. If you can think of it, there will be someone out there who has already got the t-shirt. Seek advice from people you trust, but remember that it’s your build.
What about the results of your first attempts at building? Were you delighted or devastated?
I was delighted with the end result. It surpassed my wildest expectation. It’s not perfect, but I got more right than I got wrong! There are aspects of the build that I would definitely do differently and that I’d hope that I could do a better job with, should I ever try it again. My problem is that I don’t seem to have the patience to repeat the same build twice. Maybe I’ll change that trend by attempting a mark 2 of my “Grand Poobah” acoustic ukulele? Yeah… don’t hold your breath!
How soon after did you do it again? What motivated you?
My memory is hazy, but I think that it was 6 months or so before I picked up my tools again, to make my “Shark-fin” travel ukulele. It came out of nowhere! I was just chewing the fat one day with Daniel Hulbert over ukulele designs and before I knew it, I’d mocked up a concept design that just had to be built. I am so easily lead, you wouldn’t believe! It was one of those moments where, I kind of had to try and build it, to see if it could be built. It could! YAY!
Where are you now with your luthiery and what do you see for the future?
Given that my workshop is really just a corner of my unheated garage, I guess I’m officially hibernating at the moment. I have no plans to build anything, though I’m quite keen on the idea of building a Cajon. I saw a great video this week on how to make a kazoo. Perhaps I’ll do that? Who knows! Whatever it is, I’m sure it will be different… Watch this space.
How about an insight into your luthier’s philosophy? Do you have a message to aspiring ukulele luthiers?
I’m a great fan of homemade things. I urge everyone to just try stuff, you never know what you’ll learn in the process. Go out and do things… Support the local artists in your area. Encourage, encourage, encourage! The crazier the better! Travel, read, be inspired and if anyone asks… I didn’t tell you to do it 😉
I’m terrible for taking my own advice, but I suppose the biggest things I learnt would be to take your time over your builds. Don’t rush. Don’t work when you’re tired. Be content to put things down and to come back to them. Be safe with the tools you’re using (always fear the router!). Success is not guaranteed.
Above all else… FINISH!
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