Not only do Alister’s initials come top billing but, more importantly, so do his finely crafted guitars.
Canterbury: home to literary artists, architectural geniuses and culinary aficionados. For 15 years it has also nurtured the guitar-building passions of the founder of perhaps the most desirable AA ‘club’ – that of Alister Atkin. With his reassuringly sharp and yet casual style, Alister shares his dream’s progression.
‘I made my first guitar at school as part of the CDT [craft, design and technology] project, and from that point I was hooked on it. I went to the London School of Furniture to study guitar making there. Dave Whiteman was my tutor. I was there for two years. I think only one person finished a guitar during that time. It was such a pity. The government brought in lots of additional parts of the course: maths, business studies, and so on. It may have been a good thing for some but it did mean you only had two days in the workshop. After this course I returned to Canterbury, where I rented a workspace from Andy Crockett. I tried to glean as much information from him as I could. I was there for three years and then I started a workshop in my garage, which continued for two or three years. By that time Andy had moved to another workshop, so I had moved around locally to lots of different workshops for about seven years. We’re closer to how Jim Olson makes guitars than Collings because of our production run. When we design our parts we know they are going to fit together properly. An example is my OM guitar. The neck on this guitar is pretty much the same as five of our other models, which is also true of Martin and Collings.’
‘I have been a massive fan of Collings instruments since the first time I played one – I saw them as the benchmark. They blew my mind. It’s rarely the case you come across something as good. In a strange turn of events the British distributor, Doug Chandler, rented an office space from us because he was building a house and needed somewhere to work from. We thus had all of the Collings guitars for Europe coming through our door and we got to look at everything. What an incredible advantage. It involved Bill Collings coming here, so I picked his brains in the workshop. He showed me some amazing ideas and ironed out lots of problems. He never gave me the answers but helped me look at the solutions, coming at them from another angle.’
‘My range started with making guitars I liked – dreadnoughts and OMs, which we got quite well known for and were about 50 per cent of what we made. As we worked for more and more years, I wanted to try a small jumbo because I liked the shape. I thought the OM was a bit big, so I made a smaller one. A lot has come from a love of Martin guitars and making those styles. I hated the look of the J-45 and thought it was ugly, but I loved the dreadnought, mainly because of Neil Young and Steven Stills. I saw Bruce Springsteen and Steve Earle each with sunburst J-45s, so I made some. You just do it because you can. I had no idea how popular they would be. We sell probably a third of our guitars in this model.
‘The Retrospective series came from when I was making out-and-out Martin, Collings, Santa Cruz boutique-style guitars. The acoustic guitar market has changed a lot in the last 20 years. Because we started using our own headstock, bridge shape, and stopped using traditional Martin features, I never knew how many customers I would be losing, so it was a conscious decision to make these pre-war-styled guitars.’
‘Our guitars are individually made using our CNC machine for our necks, emphasising our ethos of consistency and quality. We try to keep a lot of personality in there and use combinations that you don’t see on every guitar – for example, ebony binding and tortoiseshell rosettes. Our standard range sells well because they are not too in-your-face. We try to make a statement out of simplicity. We still build guitars with all the adornments – pretty much anything you want. Our deluxe range includes pearl rosettes and herringbone purfling. We keep it humble and let the guitar do the talking. We also do an AA, which is our own design. This is an OM-size instrument with a tighter waist but the same depth – quite English-looking, I think. It looks a little like a smaller jumbo with a tighter top bout.’
‘Machines bend the sides and thickness the wood. The bodies are made by hand. Finishing is always going to be done by hand. Nitrocellulose for us is of historical importance and produces a good sound. Our guitars will feel like an old Gibson or Martin in 30 years time. We only use CNC parts when we feel they surpass what we can do by hand, and this is possible when you put the time into refining the programs. I think there will always be quite a big handmade element of what we’re doing, but gradually parts of it will be shifted over to machines – but this isn’t a bad thing because we won’t allow it to be.’