Jonny Kinkead of Kinkade Guitars ranks among the most prestigious guitar makers in the UK, building a small amount of flat top guitars from his Bristol workshop.
‘By the time I was 16 I had built an acoustic bass for myself, although I started fiddling with guitars when I was 11. This would have been around 1970, I suppose. It wasn’t until I had left college and wondered what to do with my life, however, that I started building six-string guitars out of real timber – the acoustic bass was made out of plywood. I was living in rural Dorset around 1976 when I started luthiery, having discovered that there were suppliers in this country that sold wood that was suitable for guitar building.’
‘I was a student architect, largely getting an education in design, I suppose, more than anything else. An architect’s training goes on for bloody years, but we’d had enough of each other after about three. At the time I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be an artist or a builder of something or other, but I focused on luthiery for a while. The guitars I built were initially for myself but people were very nice about them, telling me they sounded great. I was surprised when people told me that they sounded like American guitars. I investigated further while continuing to make guitars and showing them to people. As I continued to show more people, I got a lot of feedback from some good players. One I remember was Isaac Guillory; he invited me round to show him my guitars and thought they were fabulous. He asked how much they were – not that he ever bought one! He was, however, very complimentary and said that I should keep doing it. These experiences fuelled my desire to give it a go as a job, especially since I thought it would be more reliable than being a painter.’
‘The models were based on American shapes, I suppose, but in those days I didn’t have access to all the American guitars. It was more a case of having a picture of a Gibson J200, for example, and then designing a guitar that looked something like that. Likewise with the OM shape. I never drew around guitars, though, despite liking certain aspects; I wanted to individualise them. I’m a firm believer that these traditional shapes have evolved over time because they actually work. All I’ve ever done with my guitars is take the American shapes and tweak them a bit.’
‘I was around guitars as a teenager and so I knew what was inside them simply by putting my hand inside. I adjusted the guitars that my friends and I had, shaved the necks down, repainted them, made them play properly; I knew how to make a guitar work a bit better as a 14 or 15 year old. The next thing was to build on from scratch. I think there was a little booklet that I came across called Make Your Own Folk Guitar or something like that – it was a black and white, hand illustrated pamphlet that showed me that there was an X-brace inside the instrument. Apart from that, it was a case of making it up as I went along and learning experientially – making one far too light and one far too heavy and observing what that did to the tone and sound, then making another with adjustments. As soon as I had a workshop where the public could come in, which was probably around 1979, people would bring in American guitars that I could examine much more carefully and use that information. I suppose that my guitars are Gibson and Martin amalgam, in terms of the philosophy of how to build guitars.’
‘I’ve established my own range of instruments now. If you look at the website, there are photographs of maybe four or five shapes – they are the standard shapes and what gives a guitar its name. The Kingsdown model, for example, retains the body dimensions and scale length of a Martin OM but with options of mahogany or rosewood back and sides. You can have it decorated, more or less, as you want. That’s the case for all the models – but people can and will order totally custom guitars as well. I made one last year for (Portishead guitarist) Adrian Utley that was based on a European parlour guitar idea that he had; he said he wanted a nylon string guitar and he showed me something he liked and asked if I could make him something like it. I came up with a shape that was based around these old instruments and that looked European in its headstock and bridge shapes. People will come in and ask for originals in the truest sense and I’m happy because it’s interesting work. I did another for a Celtic player a couple of years ago who wanted a couple of extra frets at the bottom. He told me that he liked playing in DADGAD but he wanted to slide the capo down two frets so the open tuning would be CGCFGC, and when you then proceeded to put the capo on the second fret, you were back at DADGAD. I redesigned the guitar for him and made it work.’