Steve Toon has a clear and simple ethic – to make the best guitars that he can, pleasing to look at, to listen to, and to play. But making guitars is not the only aspect of Steve’s work; he has recently relocated to bigger premises to accommodate the increasing amounts of repair work he is taking on. In an ideal world, any luthier would make guitars all day, but economics have a habit of intruding – paying the bills needs the steady cash flow that repairs generate, and Steve is perfectly happy to accept this aspect of his career. ‘Repairs give me a cash flow, which enables me to work on guitar building as well. Usually, repairs don’t take too long, and I work on a payment on collection basis, so that keeps things ticking over, and it allows other things to go on. The problem is that whether it’s a build or a repair, people want it done as quickly as possible, and it’s something you have to keep on top of to avoid too many instruments laying around the workshop. Most of the repair work I do is pretty simple and straightforward, and that work is always good practise for building. You get to see where things could have been designed better, or things have gone wrong over time. Some of the instruments I work on were built back in the 60s and 70s, and are hailed as major guitars, and I get to see some of the things that have happened when I am repairing. I get to see other makers’ mistakes, and carry that information forward into my building.’
The pleasure from building a guitar is to be found in playing it, and hearing the sound quality that separates a good guitar from a great one. But Steve is aware that his own ears are not the best judges here. ‘When I play a guitar I have made, and it sounds good to me, I know that the real test is to give it to a good player, and have a listen. When you play, part of your mind is concentrating on what you are playing, but when someone else is playing, you can listen properly to the sound and the tone and see if the player is having a struggle with anything. I guess the reverse is true as well, some builders are better players because they hear themselves play well, but don’t listen to what the guitar actually sounds like when someone else plays it, and that to me is essential.’
Steve’s guitars fall into three distinct categories – nylon string, steel string and gypsy jazz – any differences in the time they take? ‘The classical guitars take longer, I think it’s because I spend a lot more time working on the sound board to develop the instrument. I spend time on the fine detail, the rosettes take hours to make, and final finishing off the neck takes time, usually when everything else is more or less finished. In terms of hours, a classical guitar takes an average of around 75 hours to complete, and the others take around 60, not a huge difference. The French-polished ones take longer still, that’s a bit of an unknown quantity, and you don’t know how it will work until you get into it. This year I have decided to focus on building guitars of my own design. The Montpellier has been quite successful, and the lattice-braced steel string guitars are good to make because I think they have a superior tone to the average guitar. I will be working on those rather than the parlour guitars and the Landsdownes which are, in effect, copies of old models. My own designs have a bit of me that go out in every guitar I make, which is part of the reason for doing it, and I am having more success with my own designs. There are so many good guitars out there, that people are looking for something that is individual, that’s worth spending the money on. Classical guitarists who come to me and want to spend a lot of money on a high-end guitar are not interested in a copy, they want something specific to them, and that’s the market I want to move into now.’
Before a luthier even begins to build a guitar, he has to source the wood he is going to use – an increasingly complex procedure as Steve outlines. ‘Trading in wood for guitars is changing because of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species known as CITES. In the past, most people used Brazilian rosewood, European spruce or mahogany for necks, and so on, and now people are sourcing different woods. I have gotten rid of all my Brazilian rosewood now. If you can’t prove a sustainable source for the wood in a guitar, it can be impounded when you travel abroad, and you won’t get it back. I had rosewood I had got back in the 70s, and I haven’t kept receipts and so on from that far back, and without that paperwork, the problems start. I source a lot of wood from Germany and Spain, and some from the UK. It used to be cheaper to buy in Europe because of the exchange rate, but lately, the English providers are becoming more competitive as the currency values even out.’
Anyone approaching a luthier to build them a bespoke instrument has some ideas of how they want their dream guitar to sound. Conveying that to the luthier is a problem, compounded by the fact that hearing a tone is entirely subjective. ‘When people start to talk about tones, it is a nightmare!’ Steve agrees with a rueful smile. ‘Trying to interpret something in someone’s mind is just not possible. Everyone hears tones in a different way. Most people come to me because they have heard one of my instruments, and want some subtle differences, neck profile, string settings, and so on, which are easy to adjust. Tones are a lot harder. I am pretty good at achieving consistency now, even though there are still unknowns, you can still get something different, which is not a bad thing, just different. If someone was really not happy with a guitar that I made, I would consider taking it back, but that has not happened yet.’
‘Some people need to learn that an instrument changes over time, sometimes significantly, which again can work two ways. It can go from someone getting a new guitar and saying it was exactly what they wanted, and then over time, it changes, or someone who thinks the guitar is not how they thought, but over time it has changed into what they did want to hear. The reality is, as well as the guitar changing, peoples’ perceptions of what they think they want change as well. A lot of guitarists genuinely don’t have a clue what they want, and that leads to the acquisition syndrome, constantly buying guitars looking for an elusive sound, which cannot be found, if you don’t know what you are looking for in the first place. A new customer has to understand that a new guitar has to be played hard for at least a year to open up its full potential. Some steel string guitar players don’t last that long – they sell their guitar, and someone new has it for eighteen months, and brings it to me for a re-set or a minor repair, and it sounds fabulous, because it has had the time to expand and grow its tone which takes time. In the lifetime of a guitar, waiting a year for it to be made, and then another year for it to grow into its potential is not a long time, but some people don’t want to wait, it depends on the individual.’
And finally, some typically straightforward advice from Steve for anyone who would be interested in the art of luthiery – be sure it is a builder you really want to be, not just a player in a workshop. Steve outlines his route into the business, and the false impressions to be considered in advance by potential luthiers out there. ‘I went to college to learn fretted instrument making. I didn’t complete the course, I went to work in the music industry, but then I worked as a consultant and project engineer in the furniture industry, but I have always made guitars in my spare time. Eventually, I was able to go ahead and make guitars, and I am fortunate because I can do it because I like to do it. I do love it, and it is what I have always wanted to do.
‘You have to really want to do this. A lot of players think it’s a good idea to make their own guitars, but I think you need to assess if you want to be a player first, and a maker second, or the other way around. The other aspect is working alone, you are setting yourself up to work alone in a room all day, and that doesn’t suit everyone. I have to do my tax returns, do emails, repair my computer, prepare my accounts, there are loads of other things that go along with making guitars, and you have to be able to do all of them. A lot of people say to me that they want to make guitars, but what they really mean is that they want to come and sit in the workshop and play guitars and talk to famous guitarists, and enjoy the glamour of it all. You have to get your head down and get on with it.’