John Marlow Instruments. | 2010 | Luthier Interview
TT: Thank you for taking the time for this interview, John. Could you could share with us how you started as a luthier?
JM: When I left school at sixteen I went to study at the Huddersfield College of Music’s M.I.T course (no longer running!) for two years. In the first year I made an eight course Renaissance Lute, in the second a steel string guitar (martin 0014) and a hammer dulcimer. I graduated with a diploma and the prize for the best work produced that year on the course. Enclosed cutting from the local rag!
I was then head hunted by my teacher from Huddersfield Bill Dinsdale who was already an established Luthier at the time working out of Oxenhope. Bill wanted to form a workers Cooperative of guitar makers in Haworth, so with myself and Allan Ingham we begun the three year experiment of Opus Workshops Ltd (flyer included).
Although we had a few successes with our designs and ranges of instruments (particularly the electric mandolin designed by Allan, which I continue to make myself to this day), I felt the other two members both of whom had very young families at the time, couldn’t give the required effort needed to get a fledgling business off the ground, so at this point I decided to go it alone.
I set up a small workshop in the grounds of my parents house and begun making small batches of instruments (guitars and mandolin family primerally) whilst offering my repair services to local dealers and shops. I was selling about six to eight instruments a year through Ivor Mairants prestigious shop in London at the time. Also in the last year of Opus I had begun teaching a guitar making course at the then Dewsbury college, which has continued to this day and now attracts students from across the North of England.
TT: I noticed you build a fair few types of instruments- maybe you could share with us your build philosophies?
JM: My build philosophy is an on going process of experimentation with both materials, designs and an a dialogue between the needs of the customers and trends within the industry at large. With the guitars and mandolin that I make I tend to use backs and sides that have a softer more mahogany like texture, as I feel that rosewood (revered as it is) gives a very bright punchy sound which on a purely acoustic level sounds too new and unplayed in for a long time into the life of the instrument.
Every time I read the revues in guitar magazines and cross reference this with what my customers are saying, it becomes all too apparent that sound quality is too abstract a concept to talk about objectively. With steel string instruments the consensus comes down firmly on a need for a warm balanced tone (something akin to being played in) against loud and bright. Most people just plug the thing in if they want loud!. Ive given the same instrument to two different players and got a completely different opinion regarding the sound and feel, so who’s right?. If your able to keep a stock of two or three instruments to put into the musicians hands then leave them to decide, this works for me!
TT: I see- how about top woods or any new woods you may particularly like?
JM: For the soundboards I’m quite happy with the old favorites Sitka spruce, Western red cedar, Engelmann spruce (I if need something stiff) and European spruce for nylon stringing. Backs and sides, I prefer mahogany as a tone wood but of course it looks really bland for the most part. So anything that has simular sonic characteristics but has more figure, American black walnut, imbuia, figured cedars, koa, English cherry (though you struggle to gets sets large enough for guitars, but for mandolins),Purpleheart, padauk, quilted maple to name but a few!
Mahogany or mahogany variants for the necks, and ebony fingerboards are a must. I do laminate the struts with rosewood or ebony fillets if I’m trying to keep the weight down but don’t want to compromise on the structural integrity, particularly on my nylon stringed instruments which can have soundboards thicknesses down to about 1mm at the edges of the lower bout. Also its always nice to keep off cuts of anything really tasty for head veneers (see enclosed pictures) or small inlay parts.
I’m pretty sure the tonal characteristics of many yet undiscovered woods are going to be perfectly acceptable to the instrument buying public. The payoff will be whether or not manufacturers will be able to convince future generations of musicians that these timbres are worthy succesors to the likes of Brazilian rosewood which is of course already commercially extinct and so has already become a legendary commodity amongst luthiers.
TT: With the scarcity of some tonewoods, do you see a move to 3/4/ even more piece backs becoming more widely accepted?
JM: I don’t see why not. Glues are a lot better than they used to be, and it worked well enough for a lot of early musical instruments, they even managed to make a feature of it!. As long as the back is braced sufficiently and enough of a curve can be induced to reflect the sound back out they work just as well in my experience.
TT: And how about finishes for your instruments?
JM: Most of my contemporary instruments are finished in a two pack lacquer that is applied very thinly over many coats, cutting back heavily between batches. I also offer French polished tops for classical guitars and early music instruments. Finally micro mesh oiled finishes which admittedly don’t offer a great deal of protection from ware and tear, but do allow the woods to breath as it really only conditions the surface of the materials without sealing it as a traditional lacquer does.
TT: And of these, do you have any one favourite finish?
JM: The two pack is probably the best all round finish. Its hard waring, sprays very easily, doesn’t yellow too much with age, and sinks really well to a very thin coating. I’ve been using this stuff now for over twenty five year and apart from the odd bloom (when its been really cold!) it stands the test of time!
TT: And do you find the other finishes discolour with time?
JM: Polyester lacquers age particularly badly (they’re also pretty dead acoustically). I don’t think anyone minds on an old Martin or Gibson if the bindings and purflings are a bit yellowed. French polish and oil varnishes age well esthetically but dont offer enough protection from the continuous contact that a guitar has with the player. With instruments such as violins having a shoulder and chin rest and an unvarnished neck, none of lacquered part of the body ever actually makes contact with the musician, so their finishes can survive centuries. Guitars are bear hugged to the body, you just cant play one of these things without waring it out!
TT: Some builders like to leave out filling out the pores so the grain shows through- how about yourself?
JM: Although grain filler does make life easier for the finisher because you can get away with far fewer coats the disadvantages are that it flattens the iridescent qualities of the figure. You can’t achieve those stunning rippled backs you see in the publicity photos if you use a grain filler. Also if you use a black white black pufling on the bottom of the bindings that isn’t plastic then the white absorbs the colour from the filler making it look muddy at best.
TT: Would there is a problem with pore sink though?
JM: When the instrument is first polished the lacquer fills the pores completely. Its only as the thinners evaporates from the varnish that it begins to sink and at the same time really harden, this curing process takes years to complete (some makers maintain that it never fully stops sinking).
TT: And this is different to the orange peel effect right?
JM: Yes. Orange peel is a term from the spraying process, which occurs due to the pressure of air coming out of the gun giving a finely dimpled effect on the surface. This is removed when the top coats of lacquer are flattened and left to harden before before polishing.
TT: So if one sees Orange Peel on a new guitar, that signifieds the top coats are not appropriately flattended and hardened?
JM: That’s right. Its more than likely a feature of a really cheap guitar. The far Eastern markets are making finished instruments to incredibly tight budgets and somethings got to give!
TT: I see- would you have any advice for guitarists on how to care for their instrument’s finish?
JM: Meths or surgical spirit is good for removing general crud particularly off the fingerboard, and bridge (where grease builds up from playing). Other than that all purpose furniture polish is fine for keeping instruments clean, its what I use to remove the polish residue after the initial buffing on the machines before final assembly.
TT: And how about care of instruments in general? I am sure you’ve got some horror stories…
JM: I know it sounds obvious, but get a hard case for the instrument, the sturdier the better!. As a repairer/restorer you get to see some terribly battered pieces, usually having being inadequately packed for their journey over seas. Also its very common for tops to get busted when getting them out of the case and the lid closes! Always hold the case open as you’re getting out the guitar.
Be aware of changes in humidity and temperature too. Classical string player no all too well the difference subtle changes in these can effect the instrument drastically. Get a dampit if you’re going to travel with the thing, and let the instrument acclimatise if possible before just getting it out and starting to play, it could make the difference between a cracked top!
TT: Thanks for that. How about your aesthetic design? I’ve noted very clean, neo-modern lines to your guitars..
JM: Guitars and mandolins are a sensuous shape to start with so aesthetically a lot of the ground work is done for you. Most people in the market for a hand made instrument expect there to be an element of flair in the building process, but are primarily concerned with the look and tonal potential of the timber involved. If you can balance this with how it performs then everything else, birds or dragons up the fingerboards, abalone round every available edge, a bridge or nut with perfect intonation or the latest pick up system etc is just window dressing. The timber has to sound as well as look good. Individual design is a subjective point, but less is definitely more as far as I’m concerned.
TT: How about your double hole model- where did the inspiration for that model come from?
JM: It started with a baritone guitar that I made a year or two ago. I’d read a few articles relating to how sound holes work better further up the body in relation to the pitch of the guitar, see a slack key guitars. So what better extreme to put this concept to the test than to make a baritone which of course is really low in pitch (bottom string is a 74!) and has a much longer scale length than a conventional instrument. I found that it worked remarkably well, it sounds like a piano! So just repeated the experiment on conventional guitar models, until I found the loudest positions for the sound holes. They do work particularly well with dropped tunings, and I find that the more experienced a player is the more likely it is that they’ll at least drop the bottom string from time to time, if not go for full key drop tunings. (enclosed J. peg)
TT: Do they significantly change the way you brace your top??
JM: Yes. It frees up quite a large area of vibrating top where the sound hole would normally be, (ordinarily quite heavily plated and braced) below the waist remains more or less the same. The area around the upper bout holes just needs to be able to sustain the downwards leverage of the fingerboard.
TT: And in terms of tonal benefits? More power? Better projection?
JM: I think there is a minor problem with all the guitars manufactured in this way. They do have a distinctive tonal characteristic but as sound in general is a very subjective field it really all boils down to the individual. We’ve had over one hundred and fifty years to get used to the guitar producing its sound through the traditional hole at the end of the fingerboard, so of course some people are going to find it a bit weird! They do sound different! My advise to anyone wishing to buy one of these instruments is to try one out first, its not for everyone!
TT: I see and I was wondering if you had noticed any differences between the UK or european builders and the Americans? Having come through a fairly formal teaching system I am sure you have come into contact with many instruments from various countries?
NB: Not really, we all seem to be heading pretty much in the same direction as far as design and specs are concerned. Making an instrument that’s well balanced and loud seems to be the order of the day. Also the net now allows communities to keep up to speed with all the latest news. The development of the acoustic guitar seems to be quite a dynamic one, as both companies and individuals are still happy to move things around and try new designs. But there’s also been a lot of success from people sticking to very traditional designs and technologies, so its not always about pushing the envelope! I guess the main problem is that most of the guitar playing public are still quite conservative in their tastes.
Problems like it may take a long time to convince players that rosewood isn’t necessarily the best wood for backs and sides, but it will come, hopefully before the stuff becomes commercially unavailable! I suppose the challenge for builders at my level is to have enough to say that’s different from the output of the large scale producers, keeping it fresh and the quality really high.
TT: Thanks for that John. Maybe before we let you go, would you have an advice for folks, particularly in Europe and the US looking to custom order an instrument?
NB: The best advise would be to know what your looking for in the first instance! Any luthier worth their salt should be able to pretty much make you whatever you want. However I have had some ludicrous suggestions come through the door over the years. In principle a fairly standard model of guitar is going to suite most players, pickers, strummers, accompanists etc. Its not that often (if ever) you get asked to design n make a Picasso guitar! (linda Manza for Pat Metheny). As a player its important you know what your going to need from the instrument, body size, width of fingerboard, neck profile, electronics, cutaway, sound! etc. Also try a good few out so you get a feeling for what you dislike as well, there’s a lot of very subjective things to consider……………happy hunting!
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