Beautifully built by Bailey: handcrafted works of art made with an environmental conscience.
When did you first become interested in making guitars?
I have always made things. I love taking things apart and finding out how they work, sometimes even after I had put them back together again.
I got a standard nylon string guitar when I was about 12-years-old but gave up with my A Tune a Day book as no one taught me how to tune it so it went up into the loft. Down came the old classical but I thought the action was too high as it was a lot more difficult to play so I took the neck off changed the angle and glued it back on again! It worked fine after that… for me, anyway.
Around that time I happened to see a documentary on BBC2 about a certain guitar maker – Jimmy Moon making a guitar for some famous pop star or other. I was amazed that it was possible for a man to actually do that but I saw it with my own eyes. I think that had a major influence on me and I have since met Jimmy – he turned out to be a great bloke and gave me some good advice.
What were the first instruments you learnt to play and make?
I ended up swapping my telescope for the old Encore. I was obsessed with the playing of Dave Gilmour so I mainly played electric guitar when I was a kid. I couldn’t afford a Strat though so I upgraded to a Washburn G-Junior after that and wrote rock songs in our school band. I loved everything about that guitar except the name.
It was Patrick James Eggle who gave me my first break. I was very lucky to work with a lot of great guitar makers including Rob Williams, Trevor Wilkinson, Gary Levinson and many more who came and went through the factory including, of course, Patrick himself who obviously had a major influence on me. At this time I played an Eggle Berlin which I put together myself in the factory.
I also had a Yamaha “plywood special” acoustic which I used to write songs on and busk with. Back then we didn’t make acoustics at the factory and I was still mainly playing electric guitars in rock bands so I was happy with that for a while until it got stolen and was replaced by a cheap Takamine.
I was still playing this in 1998 when I set up Bailey Guitars with my partner Carol Davies. We also started to play together just for fun in an acoustic duo, she is a great singer and that started getting me more into acoustic guitar. I developed a steadily growing urge to make one but it was a challenge because this time I had nobody to teach me how to do it. I trawled the libraries and managed to track down virtually all of the books I had researched and began making my first design – the Bailey Bootlegger (then called the ‘A1’).
Soon after that I met Martin Taylor who invited me to demonstrate how to make guitars at his now defunct Kirkmichael International Guitar Festival (KIGF). This really opened my eyes to the acoustic guitar. After seeing the likes of Tommy Emmanuel, Preston Reed, Juan Martine and Martin play their stuff I thought: “Ah, that’s how you play the guitar!” I still make electrics but now specialise in acoustic and archtop guitars.
What are some of the greatest challenges in producing your arch top instruments?
There are tricky bits with any style of construction, with archtops I would say that most of the skill is in carving the top and back plates. They start as a bookmatched pair of wedges over an inch thick which are joined then cut to shape. The outside of the plate is carved first before the inside is scooped out with various planes until it resembles a (guitar-shaped) bowl. The thickness of material left behind is crucial to the tone and responsiveness of the instrument and can be tailored to suit the player – that is the fun part. What is really hard is dealing with all the other things that go along with running a business, thankfully I have my better half Carol to deal with the humans and the money.
How many hours does it take to produce a guitar once the wood has seasoned?
The fastest electric is about nine hours, but an average acoustic takes me around 12 working days plus resting and drying time. An archtop can easily take over 200 hours. A standard instrument usually takes a minimum of three months from design to delivery but depending on the spec and finish, it can take anything up to several years. Last year I invested in a ground-breaking CURE UV lacquer system which has enabled us to speed up the drying time immensely.
Do you have any particular favourite tonewood combinations and why?
I just love wood. I have some antique rosewood that smells like cherries and chocolate when it’s worked. I love the way each individual species has its own smell, feel and tone. My own guitar is East Indian rosewood and Sitka spruce. Since Amazonian rosewood has gone out of fashion I think that is the best combination to suit most people. Mahogany and Cedar would be the next choice.
Are there any tonewood alternatives to the mainstream which you have experimented with and what have you found the results to be?
We try to use FSC approved and native wood as much as possible and this has led me to some interesting alternatives – I’ve used everything from Adirondack to ziricote but still keep finding new ones to try. Most notably I made a version of our Bailey Bootlegger acoustic guitar with an ancient Kaori soundboard cut from a log preserved for 40-50,000 years in a New Zealand peat bog. I also have a small supply of Walnut which came from Kew Gardens, some spectacular Flamed Jarrah from Australia. Some Scottish walnut and sycamore as well as unusual natives like laburnum. My first priority is to make high quality instruments which sound, play and look good – not to make green guitars at the expense of those principles – quality with a conscience.
I am having a lot of success with reclaimed mahogany sourced from old church pews. It is very high quality and its antique nature makes it very stable, combined with a cedar soundboard top. I think each wood certainly has its own character but the most important thing to me is quality of construction and to make all the parts work together to create the best possible sound. Any idiot can buy a piece of expensive tonewood but it takes a little more effort to make a really great instrument.
Tell us a little about your collaboration with Preston Reed and how it came about.
Preston was one of the players at the KIGF which was where we first met. I actually had my photo taken with him but then didn’t see him again for a few years. Then he contacted me one day out of the blue in need of a new baritone guitar after breaking his old Ovation which was the main part of his act. He explained that he had seen my work, was looking for a local artisan to make him a new one and he admired our renewable and reclaimed green efforts. He was very specific and already knew more or less exactly what he wanted, so it is totally his design, I just had to build it and make it work.
How long do your workshop projects run for?
A few hours to several years! The longest so far is an original customer-designed Art Deco jazz archtop which took over 35 build days, spread over five years – it is the dream child of Steve McKeand of the Highland Hotclub based in Inverness. He paid a small amount monthly – we only have one rule which is you cannot have your instrument until it is paid for. This is a great way to commission an expensive instrument. On the other end of the scale, our two-hour Design Sessions are available for those who want to test the water. The end result is a working drawing which may or may not be then made into your dream guitar.
What is involved in terms of time and commitment from someone wishing to make their instruments under your masterful eye?
You don’t need any previous experience to build your own guitar. Our Build Your Own courses are normally five days. You can build an electric guitar in five days but if you want an acoustic it takes most people about 12 days. This year for the first time we are running Build your Own Ukulele over three days – this would be a great introduction to building an acoustic instrument.
This year we finished a ground-breaking five-string archtop bass which took around 18 months for Steve McCann and I to create – the result is stunning and the sense of achievement for us all is great.
Do you find there are any advantages in the making process being based in Scotland?
Yes, peace and quiet. I believe the place you are in imparts its character to the instrument. One of the things Patrick told me was that you can only make a real Spanish-style guitar in Spain. Locally sourced wood, air quality, humidity, temp are all environmental factors that may affect the result.
There is also plenty of wind to power my windmill and in the summer it hardly goes dark – those extra daylight hours also help the solar array power the workshop. We are connected through Good Energy and any surplus goes back to the grid. I believe we are the only guitar maker in Europe powered entirely by renewables.
What projects do you have planned for the future?
We have found a very unusual natural Scottish material which will be hopefully appearing soon on some of our instruments. We are tentatively looking for a few high quality outlets developing display in shops – Ayr Guitar being the first to display our new range (including ukes). We are also continuing to work with upcoming artists – Euan Malloch of Little Eye and the Acutones, and Melissa Kelly (and The Harmless Thieves) to name a couple who had a great 2012.
2013-2014 is our 15th anniversary year and we are making plans, including possibly taking the course to a college in Germany, and a guitar-building event some time in 2014 to finish the year off. We hope to get as many of our guitars together as possible in some kind of reunion as our players are now spread across the globe. Finally I want to do more work on making my news blog a source of useful information for anyone interested in making guitars.