Have you ever considered making your own guitar? Melvyn Hiscock, author of the successful book “Make Your Own Electric Guitar” is an expert in this field, offering insight into the art of essential luthery.
With his new book “Make Your Own Acoustic Guitar” hitting the shelves of our bookshops, it’s seems only right for Guitar Jar to catch up with Melvyn to ask him more about success of his first book and the challenges he faced in exploring acoustic guitar manufacturing methods.
… the book has sold somewhere between 100 and 120,000 copies…
- Hi Melvyn, before we get into the details of your books, can you let Guitar Jar readers know if you play guitar and if so, who or what inspired you to start learning the instrument?
Well, I was born in 1957, as were some very good guitars and as I was growing up a lot was happening in the world. I was about 7 in 1964 and at that age you begin to notice what is happening in the outside world and that coincided with Beatlemania.I was, and still am, a huge Beatles fan and in the summer of 1964 my older brother and I went to the Embassy Cinema in Fareham, Hampshire (which was pulled down and rebuilt as a McDonalds) to see ‘A Hard Day’s Night’.
As the lights came down the girls in there screamed and that chord came out. I was instantly hooked and really became a guitarist at that point, the fact I didn’t get a guitar until I was 13 was neither here nor there, I had the mindset from that instant and playing was simply something that was going to happen.
When I started playing it was on an old Czechoslovakian Classical guitar with an action that was measured in light years. I was playing all sorts of stuff very, very badly. I don’t have the patience to practice and I don’t have a natural ear so rather than playing what I wanted to play, I played what I could!
Later I worked in a horrible music shop in Portsmouth and assembled a guitar from bits that were hanging around and eventually saved up enough to get a Shaftesbury Les Paul Copy. Sadly there were not many people in my year at school interested in playing and the years above were far better than me and the years below had their bands so I didn’t play much then. I have been trying to make up for that ever since.
- Do you have a background in woodworking and guitar luthery?
Oh no, that would have been far too easy. There were tools around as my dad was a builder, well plasterer mostly, but there was a shed and there were some tools. I am sure my dad won’t mind me saying this but he’s not a natural woodworker! He was a good plasterer and bricklayer and that can be seen in his woodwork! He was the best I have ever seen at putting screws in with a hammer.There was NO background available in guitar making then. I tend not to call it luthery as it is a very over-used word. I have always taken it to mean ‘master craftsman’ but anyone that nails a Telecaster together out of Warmouth parts tends to call themselves that now, I opt to be different.
But, there was no one to ask, there were none of the magazines you see now, no Internet, you could not buy parts easily. There was a book about making Classical Guitars but that didn’t help my aspiring rock and roll supergods who wanted to make electrics. It was a case of dive in and make mistakes. I did eventually learn that screws don’t need to be hammered!
- Your first book, “Make Your Own Electric Guitar” has been highly successful, selling in excess of 120,000 copies. Can you tell our readers what inspired you to originally write your book and did you have any idea of how successful the book would become?
No idea at all, I knew I had a good format. That came to me one night at a party. I had been struggling with the order of how to do things when suddenly it popped into my head, separating fretting, truss rods and other parts and making three guitars that covered most of the styles and techniques.A guy I knew in Portsmouth asked me how to make a guitar and I told him to go to the library and get a book out. He actually went to the library and researched it and came back and told me there were none and I should write one. I toyed with the idea for a bit and then mentioned it to a journalist I knew and he introduced me to Blandford Press who accepted the book over the phone on a verbal synopsis. I was then sort of forced to write it!
This was in about 1984 and there were few computers then so everything was done on typewriters which made editing really difficult. There were a lot of bits of paper around with typed bits and red pen notes that crossed stuff out and had arrows showing where that bit should have been. I still have some of that stuff somewhere.
It came out in May 1986, so 25 years this year and Blandford had it until 1996. I wanted to do a second edition as I knew it could be improved and that sales were beginning to flag, but they would not do it. We had a big falling out and they told me that if I was so clever I should do it myself. That was a red rag to a bull and since I was working in publishing then it was quite possible, so I became the publisher as well and the second edition came out in October 1998.
The sales figure totals were never given to me by Blandford but totting up the reprint numbers and knowing what royalty I was getting provides a figure of about 60-75,000 and I have done almost 45,000 so it is somewhere between 100 and 120,000. I must have got something right!
I had lunch with Dave Carroll from Touchstone Tonewoods a while back; he and I have known each other for thirty years. My Touchstone customer number was in the low teens but I had been buying from the parent company before that so have been a customer of theirs forever. He told me he thought it must be one of the better selling books on guitars as a whole, not just about building. He may be right, I have no idea!
- Can you give an insight to how much detail you go into about the guitar manufacturing process? For example, do you cover aspects from helping readers to generate design concepts, through to understanding guitar electronics schematics, body finishing and setup?
The idea was to produce a book that was as much about how guitars were made as ‘how to do it’. I also knew that it was important that people made their own guitar and not one I was ordering them to make, so at the beginning of that has to be an understanding of how a guitar works and how it came to be like it is, understand the history or why it was designed, understand how they are designed and then you have a chance of making the guitar you want.Design was one of the hardest chapters to write as it needed to be logical and in the right order and the truth is there is no right order.
From then I covered some of the specialist bits, like truss rods which back in 1986 were discussed in terms that bordered on folklore, I wanted to explode some of the myths. I covered fretting and fretboards, wood and tools and then went into making three guitars which covered bolt-on, glued-in and straight-through necks, exotic woods, binding, one piece necks, twin truss rods, neck angles, faced bodies and sandwich bodies, carved tops and a few other things and then I had a chapter that showed how to mix those styles if you wanted.
Finishing and electrics were also done as well as trem systems and making guitars from parts.
- What were the most challenging aspects in writing your new book and embracing the art of acoustic guitar luthery?
Again it was finding the order that made it logical. Whereas on an electric guitar you can happily spend a day making the body, on an acoustic you are waiting for a lot of things to glue up and dry so you can glue some braces on a top, leave them while you thickness the back and glue that up, leave that and glue up the neck blank, go back and glue another couple of braces on the top, bend the sides, more braces, back braces, fingerboard etc.There was no point writing a book that said ‘glue on braces 1 and 2, now glue up your neck blank and leave it, now bend your sides and while resting afterwards glue up braces 3 and 4 on your top… It would have been chaos so I covered tops, backs, sides, binding, assembly, necks, and fingerboards etc as different pieces that can all be made while other things are happening.
I also tried to make it as logical and no-nonsense as possible. There is nothing in there on tap tuning for example as it is totally irrelevant on a first guitar as you have no idea what you are expecting to hear. It may well have a relevance when you have made 30 or 40 guitars but not on your first one.
There is, sadly, some real folklore attached to making guitars and sadly some of that is not only irrelevant on a first guitar, it is sometimes of very dubious value if you think about it and look at the science!
I just wanted to produce a logical and helpful book that would give you a good grounding in the subject so that if you want to go off and experiment more then you can.
- Do you tend to manufacture guitars whilst writing your books, to assist with the understanding of the concepts and challenges that can be expected by potential readers? If so, how many “prototypes” have you made whilst writing your latest book?
Yes, there are five guitars in the acoustic book but another couple were made to illustrate other things. One was a kit guitar, one from reclaimed materials (that was fun), a 12-string, a cutaway electro-acoustic and a resonator. I also have permission to use photographs from a visit to the Martin factory in Nazareth PA to show how they tackle the same problems. They use ordinary wooden clothes pegs to clamp the kerfing on a guitar just as you or I might as they are cheap and they work.
- Are your books suitable for readers who have limited or no experience of woodworking?
I wouldn’t recommend anyone with no experience at all dives into a big project; you can learn the basics quickly, and far more cheaply, building something else first.I do say you need to know the basics, how to cut to a line and how to look after your tools, but limited is OK. What is more important is the ability to understand why and how you are doing something. Most things I life are 90% common sense and 10% acquired skill.
- What are the most important tools needed in approaching the challenge of manufacturing your own guitar?
A brain. Simple really, you can go and buy all the clever labour saving tools and things that StewMac sell and still make rubbish guitars (and that is no criticism on Stew Macs stuff, which is great), likewise you need to remember that Stradivarius made violins with no power tools, not even a Dremel! More important is that you know how to use what tools you do have and how to keep them in good condition.
- How many hours do you think it would take for an individual, who has basic woodworking skills, to manufacture an acoustic guitar based on your latest book?
I am going to shy away from answering that because it can be a bad thing to think how quickly you can make something. You need to take your time so that the parts have time to settle and you need to take your time when doing it. If you are planning the edges of a top and you have it 95% right it will probably glue OK. Get it 100% right and you KNOW it will glue OK and probably not split. You could easily spend a week, full time, making jigs if you were so inclined, it will make the final tasks quicker.I remember at Giffin Guitars in the mid 1980s we had a student come and help. He went on to do very well; he was Paul Herman who worked at Wal and with Charlie Chandler. He was only about 17 and Roger gave him a D’Angelico of Eric Clapton’s to work on. He stood and looked at it for about ¾ of an hour before he told Roger what he had decided to do.
It was impressive on someone his age, speed was not the essence; care and planning were. He did a very good job too.
- Have you ever mentored anyone who subsequently matured into successful a guitar luthier?
Well, with that many books sold I do tend to hear about people that got started due to me. I would guess that most professional guitar makers have a copy somewhere!I hope it carries on I need to maintain my aviation habit. I don’t tend to mentor anyone directly as I don’t make that many guitars and I spend more time on the publishing side of things. I do give out a lot of advice though.
- There seems to be a great appreciation of Avalon guitars currently on Guitar Jar. Are there any established acoustic guitar manufacturers that you are particularly fond of?
There are so many variables; it depends on the guitar and what you are doing with it, ragtime or folk, bluegrass or whatever. You can make two identical guitars and they will be different. I have enormous respect for Martin having seen for myself what they do and I have to admit I have not seen Avalon guitars, perhaps I should get out more! For UK makers, my fave is Dave King, although don’t tell him as I would never admit publicly that I like him, we are old friends and so hate each other in that old friend way. He does make some stunning guitars though.
- Your house is burning down. What’s the one guitar item you would save?
Difficult to say, my 1961 SG/Les Paul standard?, possibly the ’62 SG/Les Paul Junior that is a monster, my own semi Les Paul I call Doris and which is a great fun guitar or my box of vintage P90s…
- If you could form a super group using famous musicians past or present, who would you have on drums and why?
Good question, good drummers are so important. I have a good friend called Dave Allon who I have played with on a number of occasions and when playing with him you just get so much more time to do things, so much freedom. If he were more famous then I would say him as he is also a very, very silly person who makes me laugh like a nutter.I think John Bonham really. Good twacketty drumming is great. I played with a guy called Steve Weis once, he was Louis Bellson’s drummer in the big band, he was superb to play with and also not a grown-up.
- Lager or Cider?
I love Cider but it ruins my digestion (I am yeast intolerant) but also turns me into Vivian from The Young Ones, I just go nuts and silly. My local does some great ciders including the wonderful 8% Biddendens, that would have me headbutting passing trains.Lager is way too chemical in this country; I get headaches, even when drinking it, not just in the morning so I would stick to beer and red wine. But then, I am getting on a bit. Again my local has 7 bitters on at all times and all are excellent. I was drinking one last night called Stout Hearted and jolly damn good it was too.
- What’s the plan for you for the next 12 months?
Get back on my feet, the new book has taken a lot longer than it should and since I am the publisher as well as the author, I don’t get paid while I am writing it or producing it, I need it to sell. So I need to earn some money and then I can think about the next project.
For more information about Melvyn Hiscock’s books, please visit: