Monday, 15 September 2008

Cheltenham Unplugged

I went to the Acoustic Guitar Show in Cheltenham last Sunday. Now this is nothing exactly abnormal for me because, as you can probably imagine, I go to a lot of guitar shows; but this time I was a man on a mission. I'm in the market for a new acoustic guitar, you see…
Let's face it, the acoustic guitar market can be split into two distinct houses: factory made and hand made - although arguably there are subdivisions like companies whose main output is factory made but who have a hand made division or custom shop.
What's the difference? Factory made instruments tend to be cut out by a machine using some sort of computer guidance and then the various bits are assembled by a largely automated and consequently indifferent process. The woods involved are rarely top notch, either, even if they sound like they are in the brochure. If you're thinking that wood is wood, think again - there are many different grades of tonewood and it's often the norm for the cream of the crop to go to the hand builders. So it's a conveyor-belt nativity for a factory made acoustic, but seeing as this is how a lot of cars are made, it's not necessarily a bad thing overall. I've played some very satisfactory guitars that have been made in this fashion, for instance.
Hand making is altogether a different ball game, though. Here, an instrument is totally bespoke - the wood is of the highest grade and very carefully chosen, cut to size by hand, glued, braced and essentially crafted into existence with love, skill and care by a master luthier.
The difference in tone between these two manufacturing disciplines can be quite pronounced, too, hand made instruments often being louder and sweeter. Naturally, they have a price tag to match - you could bring home an acoustic in a box for under £100 if you shopped around a bit, but a custom build is going to set you back more like £2500 - and that would be the no frills option! Once you begin talking exotic or rare woods, the price starts going up even further.
At the show in Cheltenham I met up with some old friends and waved and smiled at a lot more, too. I spent a brief few seconds saying 'Hi' to Gordon Giltrap, passed the time of day with luthier Patrick Eggle (who I've known for years) but the lion's share of my day was spent talking body woods and tone with Roger Bucknall from Fylde guitars. Roger makes some excellent instruments and I've just ordered one - I'll give you the details when the build has begun, but it should be ready early in the new year, just in time for me to begin recording a new album. 
Of course, I tell everyone that getting a new guitar is pretty meaningless for me these days because, after all, they're just tools aren't they? But I have to say that I'm really excited about this one!

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