Melvyn Hiscock Interview. | 2010 | Feature Article
TT: Hi Melvyn, thanks for taking the time to speak to us, especially with your busy schedule. I was wondering how you got to writing a book on how to make your own electric guitar?
MB: It might a sound a little funny but I was just in the wrong place at the right time, or something like that. A guy in Portsmouth asked me how to make a guitar and I told him it was easy, you went to the library, got the book out and made one. He told me that he had tried the library and there was nothing so I told him that he had obviously not looked hard enough, and to go back and try again! He did and told me there really wasn’t anything available and he thought I should write one. I thought that was a stupid idea, but not long afterwards I met a guy who had written a book on mathematics and had made some money and I thought that perhaps it was not that stupid and idea after all!
I looked around at other books and spoke to a few people, who encouraged me, and I called a publishing company had told them I was thinking about doing it and that there was not much else on the market, and they accepted the book over the telephone! This was a bit of a problem as I had not written a word at that time and had no idea what I was doing. Fortunately, having no idea what I am doing has failed to stop me doing all sorts of fun things so I went to see them with a rough idea in about early 1984 and they gave me an advance and suddenly I was writing a book!
MH: No craft background really. I had started playing guitar when I was 13, my first was a Classical for my 13th birthday. I had a Saturday job when I was about 16 working in a store in Portsmouth that sold a bit of everything including guitars and I got my first electric about then, it was the body and neck of an old Futurama and some really nasty pickups. I think the scratchplate was a bit of formica. There was just no information about then, nothing in the magazines and no books. There was a magazine called Guitar that was primarily about Classical players and jazz that used to occasionally have some stuff about electric guitarists and they had an interview with a young guy in London that had built his own guitar with his dad and was in a group (it was ‘groups’ then, not ‘bands’!) called Queen. This was probably late 1972 and just before ‘Keep Yourself Alive’ came out. I was fascinated.
I also had a cheap Hendrix compilation album where there was a picture of him at the Isle of Wight with the black flying V and I was also into Wishbone Ash and so wanted a V. I thought that if this guy from London could make a guitar then I could to. The fact I had no skill, there was no information around, no sources of materials and most of my dad’s tools were blunt (dad was a plasterer not a woodworker) didn’t stop me so I started murdering a piece of Sapele I had scrounged off my dad. I failed, very convincingly to make a guitar!
By about 1975 there was a magazine out called ‘International Musician and Recording World’ and that had some more technical articles in and I had discovered an ad in the weekly paper called ‘Sounds’ for a company in Eastbourne that actually sold guitar parts. You could get Japanese copy stuff or genuine Gibson and Fender and the genuine stuff was very expensive. I had discovered a source of fretwire, there was a store in London called Centrepoint Music and they had a roll of fretwire! I used to buy it mail order. The young shop assistant there was a guy called Chris Bryant who now has a successful shop in Charing Cross road, he used to call me ‘Fretwire Melvyn’ as I was the only person who ever bought any! To think I have known him almost 35 years is scary.
By then I was doing stuff on my own guitars and those of friends and I had added a third pickup to my Shaftesbury Les Paul copy. I had also worked out how to keep dad’s tools a little sharper and I think I had discovered a book at school about making classical guitars that had the fret formula in. It was a case of picking up information, some of which was wrong, wherever you could find it.
By about 1975 I had made my first usable guitar and sold it to a friend. It was a through neck double cutaway based on half a Les Paul, flipped over to be symmetrical. It was around this time that more information was becoming available, Stephen Delft was writing in ‘International Musician’ and companies were just starting to make aftermarket spares, companies like Di Marzio and Mighty Mite were bringing things onto the market.
TT: Now that’s a name I haven’t heard in sometime- I remember when Stephen was selling guitars out of his flat before he left for New Zealand. Were the articles back then good enough to form a basis for building?
MH: Well, the actual “make a guitar” articles were some time in coming but there was some stuff about set ups and things. I think I had already made stuff by the time I saw the article on the whole guitar. There is a limit to how much information you get into a guitar magazine, the size of the articles is only ever going to be about 2-3000 words so you would need about two years to get a decent sized book and people would get bored waiting. I had found some other books, Hideo Kamimoto’s book on repairs was good, the Irving Sloan books on making acoustics were excellent and there was the Donald Brosnac book on making solids but I was of the opinion that there was not enough background information in them. Brosnac’s book had also suffered from some pretty poor photograph reproduction that made it hard to see what was happening. I knew when I did mine that the photographs had to be of good quality and it had to be a little more in-depth.
By the time I came to put pen to paper (it was all longhand to start with and those notes are still hanging around somewhere) I had worked alongside Roger Giffin for a bit and he was very, very generous in what he taught me. He is also a very, very silly man and we used to be helpless laughing sometimes but still get loads of work done. I have no idea how we managed that. Anybody who was anybody used Roger and so I got a brilliant grounding and got to see, and play, and work on some very interesting stuff. Most of what I know is down to Roger. However, I tell him that it is most of what I owe is down to him!
MH: I think they are great, some are better quality than others. They can offer a good grounding and lead to making complete guitars. Even a simple kit of something like a Tele is going to teach you something. If someone is intent on making a guitar they will do it, making something a bit easier in the interim is only going to add to the final experience.
TT: I see, but I understand things like finish work may be quite suitable for “out sourcing”?
MH: Possibly, it depends what you want as a finish! Some people are happy to have it oiled and natural if they have made it. There is a lot of information about finishing, some of which is pretty good, that was not around years ago. There is more choice too, but If you really have to have a Candy Apple Red guitar then you are going to need to learn to spray well, use the right equipment and get the correct materials or, like you say, you pay someone else to do it!
TT: For the home builder with limited experience and equipment, which finish would you recommend? French Polish?
MH: Ha, no, to do French Polish properly takes years of experience. It depends on what you are after and what you are working on. If you are making an acoustic then you are probably better off using Tro-Oil instead of French Polish on a first guitar, it is a little more forgiving in my experience. If you are making electrics then a whole different set of circumstances apply. French Polish is not really ideal on a solid. Most people want colours, you can do Fender-style bodies in car spray and get a decent finish. If you want a three tone sunburst then you need spray equipment. For basic solid guitars oil and wax is a good way to go if you want the beauty of wood. Of course if you have made it from something like poplar then you are probably going to want to hide the wood!
TT: There is a perception that acoustics are harder to make than electrics- would you disagree?
MH: You can make anything difficult if you do it wrong! In both cases you need to work accurately and plan ahead. I think that 10% of any task is acquired skill and 90% is common sense. In both cases the alignment of the neck to body is very important. I have seen a lot of solids where the neck angle is just not right, with bridges routed right down into the body and I have seen acoustics with neck angles that are too shallow and the bridges are way too low. It is the same problem on a different guitar.
Some people seem to think that making the neck and truss rod are the hardest part of building an electric and bending body sides the hardest part on an acoutic. Both are pretty straightforward if you think it through and plan ahead. You also need to remember there is way more information about now than there was way back when I started and some of what you read on the internet is even quite good!
MH: RUN! Get away while you are still sane….. But buy my book first!
Seriously, the more important thing is know what you are trying to achieve. I met someone once who wanted to be a guitar maker as it sounded like a good job. That was just cloud cuckoo land! Guitars are not complicated. There are some things that can appear complicated and some people might try and make everything look complicated to make themselves look better, but the bottom line is that it is a number of strings suspended over a means of altering their pitch and amplifying them. That is it. In a nutshell, everything else is whistles and bells. As long as the strings are supported and anchored properly, all the relevant bits line up and it is made of reasonable materials you are a long way there.
For acoustic guitars my good friend Dave King made a statement that I totally agree with (Although I would never admit that as people might think we like each other!) He said ‘If you make a guitar from good materials and put it together properly then it will sound good’ and he is right. You can spend ages reading about tap tuning and the complex interactions of various types of wood and most of it is totally irrelevant. There is no point worrying about tap tuning on a first guitar as you have absolutely no idea what you are trying to hear; you only get that with experience and in my experience, every supposedly clever – and sometimes mathematical – descriptions of the ideal guitar bracing and the interactions of various types of wood falls over at the first hurdle in that it assumes that wood is even. Any of us that have chopped trees up know that two planks from the same part of the same tree will be slightly different. For a first guitar it is better to forget all that – get into it later and even believe some of it if you want – but for a first guitar concentrate on the quality of the work, the accuracy of the joins and the alignment of everything. Even decoration and finish is less relevant, getting back to what you were saying earlier, as long as the rest of the guitar is good then that is an extra, especially on a first guitar.
For solids, it is important not to try to reinvent the wheel. Some people seem to want all the best features of several guitars on the same instrument. I love Fender Esquires and Gibson Les Paul Juniors but if you try and make one guitar that sounds exactly the same as both of them then you are going to fail and the guitar will probably bark at the postman. For solids I try to tell people to keep it simple and make it playable.
In all cases I try and tell people not to believe too much of what they read on the internet. There is a lot of rubbish about how different woods are supposed to sound and what you can and cannot use. The whole thing about certain woods sounding ‘dark’ is quite funny. What is dark? When I turn the light out the room it doesn’t sound any different! Ha! The actual wood used is relatively important, there are way more factors affecting the sound of the guitar than just the wood. Fret height, integrity of the neck join, type of truss rod, head angle and bridge type all make a huge differnece, even using different gauge strings will make a difference.
If you want to make necks then stiffness is the key so you don’t use a bendy wood like ash or elm. For bodies everyone seems to want to Honduras mahogany. I recently made some softwood guitars just for the hell of it. Douglas fir necks and cedar bodies. The fir is stiff and is fine for necks if you get a good quality bit and western red cedar makes good bodies! I have a fun guitar with a cedar body, fir neck and two TV Jones Filtertrons. That is a FUN guitar. The two neck laminates are also joined along the centre which is not the way you are supposed to do it either! I may make a guitar soon that goes against all generally accepted ideas in terms of wood used and methods employed just for the hell of it. It depends if I get time.
TT: Thanks again for taking the time out to speak to us. Maybe before we let you go, you can tell us where to get a copy of your book and if you had anything else planned for the future?
MH: Well, Make Your Own Electric Guitar is published by NBS Publications which is, essentially, me. However, it is a real publishing company with distributors in various places. In the US and Canada the main distributor is Trafalgar Square which is part of IPG Books who are based in Chicago (http://www.trafalgarsquarebooks.com). Their customer service is very good. In the UK you can ge them direct from NBS, email email@example.com or order from a bookshop. Most of the instrument supply people, like StewMac in the US, or Touchstone Tonewoods and David Dyke in the UK sell them by mail order, and if you are a business and want to stock it, drop me a line.
As for the future, I have to admit to being a bit sick of making guitars. I have done it for way too long and not only have the T-Shirt but have worn it out. There are things that interest me sometimes and I make stuff for myself but it has to be really interesting if I want to do it for someone else. I have been doing this for about 35 years and have not had any parole! I suppose I should get more into teaching or something but I have not been that impressed by some of the things I have seen being taught! Having said that I do have some things for sale at the moment.
In a few months time the long overdue Make Your Own Acoustic Guitar will be coming out, I am on the last stages of that at the moment. It is designed to cover most of what you need to know on a first acoustic. There are some very good books that are a little bit too technical in some aspects and I wanted to try to get back to basics. It is a 288 page book and in colour all the way through. I hope to get it on the shelves by late summer. Then I am going to have a rest and earn some money as being publisher and author I don’t get paid for writing it, and then I may start something else.
It would be wrong of me not to add that pre-orders on the book are being taken, just email me on the sales address.
©2009 Terence Tan.
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