What do Martin Simpson Clive Carroll and Brendan Crocker all have in common? Other than being darn fine acoustic guitars players, that is… They all play Ralph Bown guitars, that’s what.
‘I built my first guitar – a classical – while I was still at school. Later on I did languages at university and spent a summer hawking that guitar around every guitar workshop I could find in Paris. I got to meet Robert Bouchet, Daniel Friedrich, and the Favinos; the whole experience fired me up. All my interests seem to come together in guitar making and it’s all I’ve done since. I was a start-up grant from the Crafts Council, which was a helped hugely in getting tooled up and off the ground to begin with. I started out building classical guitars, but the emphasis shifted over to steel-string instruments quite early on.’
‘I don’t have any formal training in woodwork. When I was young, I was heavily into aero-modelling and model making. In a lot of ways, guitars feel like a logical extension of that – working to very fine tolerances in wood – rather than cabinet making. I had to drop woodwork very early on at school, but there was a brilliant woodwork master called Graham Hall who gave me freedom to use the workshops during school, and even after. Being self-taught isn’t necessarily such a bag thing, as you have to figure out for yourself how things tick and one perhaps ends up with a more individual approach to it all. That said, I’ve been very fortunate to have had a lot of support and encouragement from some great builders along the way – Paul Fischer and David Rubio initially with the classical guitars, then Steve Phillips, Dave Gregory and Johnny Joyce later on with the steel-strings.’
‘I mainly developed my ideas about the different facets of building from the study of vintage and traditional instruments. I came up with some original bracing ideas for my long-scale baritone and ‘D’ guitars, but for the most part my bracing patterns have been conventional. I’ve always been trying new refinements, little details that can all add up to make a big difference, rather than trying to reinvent the wheel. Probably the most distinctive feature of my steel-strings is the use of the Spanish slipper heel for the neck-to-body joint. It’s a method I carried over from building classicals – it works wells for me. I have one or two machines for taking some of the donkeywork out of thicknessing, but pretty much all the final thicknessing and assembly is done by hand.’
‘Just about everything I build is custom-ordered. I build quite a wide range of shapes and sizes, although the smaller bodied fingerstyle guitars I’ve become associated with, such as the OM, remain the most popular. Rather than just build ‘stock’ models or specs, I try and offer a wide selection of timbers, bindings, purflings and inlays, as well as any custom neck requirements. It keeps it interesting for me and for a customer commissioning a hand made instrument, the bespoke element is an important part of the process.’
‘My waiting list is currently 12-18 months. Without the backlog, I could probably finish one comfortably in three months, including finishing, but that obviously includes some dead time. I’ve found it works best to have two of three instruments on the go at various stages, but there is usually just one I’m really focused on at any given time. I might sometimes double up where I have a couple of similar instruments to make, but I’m not able to batch build. I have my order book down to single figures at the moment for the first time in living memory and I really want to keep it there for now. It feels good to be able to build things on that initial wave of enthusiasm for a new order, plus I’ve reached the stage now where I want to be able to build a few more things that appeal to me on spec.’
‘Protecting endangered species is obviously a very necessary and worthwhile thing. It’s a bit worrying how the supply of woods, even the likes of mahogany, is now becoming problematic. I guess we have to accept it as inevitable. The restrictions implemented by the Lacey Act have made it very difficult to source certain materials from the US and I must be careful to ensure that all the woods in guitars I export there are acceptable. You have to account in the documentation for the source of every last bit of wood. That’s a problem for any individual luthier, because we’re so far down the food chain that any timber has probably been bought and sold half a dozen times before it filters down to us. It’s very difficult to account for its source. Really all one can do is try to buy responsibly sourced and sustainable wood in good faith from reputable suppliers.’
‘Customers tend to ask for the more traditional woods, though I am quite happy to experiment with alternative timbers and it’s clear that things will have to move in that direction anyway. Latterly I’ve used readily available woods such as Australian Blackwood, Palo Escrito, Padauk and Bubinga – all with excellent results. The hardest part can often be trying to get people interested in trying them out. I think players can be a lot more conservative than makers in that respect.’