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Ian Pemble: Tom Waghorn’s expertise for the perfect guitar

If you want a guitar that’s really special, completely customised and uniquely yours, Bristol’s Tom Waghorn is your man

Tom Waghorn

Tom Waghorn

If you want a guitar that’s really special; an instrument made from a choice of woods, types, shapes and designs, completely customised and uniquely yours, Tom Waghorn is your man.

It will cost you upwards of £1,800 for an acoustic one, but at least £300 of that goes on materials and Mr Google tells me this is the going rate – a quick search found only one quote less and a few that were more.

Your new guitar will also, of course, play like a dream. Sadly many of his customers think their’s is so precious they hardly ever take them out to play them, but hopefully this will change. After many years of juggling income, workload and time, to deal with set-ups, maintenance and repairs, Tom has passed that side of the business on to his in-house experts and devoted himself to doing what he always wanted to do – make guitars.

And he’s talking to a few bands and musicians about them playing his guitars and, for want of a better expression, making a noise about how good they are.

Where were you born and all that stuff?

“I was born and brought up, I still live, in Nailsea, and I’m 36.”

Straight to the point, how did you get into making guitars?”

“By mistake. I went to art college and was disenchanted. Part of it was the tutors’ excitement over collages and other bits of modern art. I wanted to do intricate painting, but they wanted messy brush strokes and using bits and pieces of glass you found in the street.

“My problem has always been, if I’m doing something, a piece of art – that’s it. I don’t do half a dozen drawings in different mediums working towards the final piece. But they wanted to be shown each step of the process. But I always had a clear idea in my mind of what I wanted to do.

“So I left, took a year out – this was about 1995 –  and got a job at Hobgoblin Music on Park Street. They used renowned local luthier Phil Davidson who did repairs for the shop, and made musical instruments – they sold some of his mandolins and banjos. One day I took some instruments round to his workshop to be repaired. And from the moment I walked in – he had the body of a guitar in his vice and was scraping down the binding… It was just amazing, like an instant ‘wow!’. I was mesmerised and realised this was what I wanted to do.”

That’s brilliant… but I assumed you’d have a background in some sort of woodworking rather than art?

“You’ve still got to have the hand-eye co-ordination for painting and drawing. And drawing is a big part of designing a guitar. I might have a clear idea of what it should look like, but I still have to turn that into a drawing first.

“Anyway, having seen Phil at work I told the manager and ended up working four days in the shop and one with Phil while he showed me how to do the repair work. Not a formal apprenticeship, I swept the floor and made the tea and ran errands.

“Then one day I I turned up and there wasn’t anything to do, so he said, ‘why don’t you build something’. It was a bit of a shock, but I thought, ‘yeah, this could be great’.

“I started with a travel guitar but lost interest and soon moved on to building a full-sized acoustic. From there I made more and more when I got the chance, which meant about one a year!”

At this point you’re still with Hobgoblin, was the guitar making starting to take over?

“Yes, it became harder to work in the shop, knowing that I had this other skill that I wanted to develop. Luckily the owner agreed to order some mandolin-family instruments from me to sell in the shop. So with help from Phil I designed instruments that were handmade but affordable.

“The idea was for me to build a batch of four or five within a few weeks; mandolins are quite simple instruments compared to a guitar. But unfortunately I overcomplicated the design, so instruments I should have made in two or three weeks, actually took a month or more. Financially it didn’t work out. I couldn’t make money out of the mandolins because they were too well made.”

(If you have a Waghorn mandolin, hang on to it – it might be worth more than you think.)

“Besides, my heart was in guitars anyway. I don’t play mandolin, it’s not the sort of instrument I really wanted to make. And I already had a few private orders for guitars…”

Where did they come from?

“One of my earliest workshops was at the Clevedon Craft Centre and I got some ‘passing trade’ orders, plus a few sold through Hobgoblin. Then I moved to Treble Rock Music – thanks to its owner, Steve Treble – as an on-site tech while working on my own stuff.

‘During that time Simon Bamber joined me (self-employed, I couldn’t hire anyone then), and I taught him how to do set-ups – now he’s running his own business, still under the same umbrella, as Si. Co Setups. And l later I took on someone else, again self-employed, to teach them the repair side of things.

“Then the Evening Post did an article on us and the writer asked me where did I see myself in few years, and I said, ‘I’d like a bigger place’.

“Soon after I got a call from Anthea Page, who runs Radio Dialect, who’d seen the article and wanted to interview me and she said, ‘have you found anywhere yet?’. It turned out she and her sister had bought 1 Mill Avenue, on Welshback, where we are now, and had done it up as flats – the radio station is in the basement – but they had a junk room going spare. She said, ‘we think it will be perfect for you’. And I looked at it, with those lovely Georgian sash windows, and I couldn’t quite believe my luck.”

So you’ve finally arrived at this posh address, four years ago. Does that bring us up to date?

“Pretty much. Except I’ve now got Dave Rowlinson working with me, he’s been doing repair work for a while and is incredibly good.”

Can you explain about a ‘set-up’? I only realised recently that even an expensive, off-the-peg, straight-out-of-the shop guitar might not sound or play right.

“If a guitar is solid wood, for instance, woods move. Temperature and humidity can affect the top of the guitar. Generally new guitars straight off the shelf have what they call a factory set up, which isn’t really set up at all. I think they know that it’s going to move and when it’s being shipped from the factory it’s still settling down. It’s surprising how much a guitar will ‘move around’ when it’s still new.”

I mention my own adventures getting my guitars set up properly – and apologise for mine being cheap ones compared to his. Wrong.

“At Waghorn we pride ourselves that we don’t snub any guitars at all. We’re happy to work on any guitar. You get what you pay for, to a degree, but some cheap instruments do seem to set up and work very well, while more expensive guitars can be more problematical. If you spent less than £100 then you’re asking for trouble, but about £300 – you should be OK.”

You mentioned earlier that you don’t play mandolins, do you play guitar?

“I have played guitar and I come from a family of musicians. My older brother Ben is a jazz sax player, my mum is a jazz singer, my dad was a jazz musician, so music’s very much there. But practising is not my thing. I can play for at most an hour before I get extremely bored. I never got to the level my family did. My older brother is a phenomenal musician.

“I do still play from time to time, although I’ve never been in a band as a guitarist. But there are makers who don’t play at all.”

That is surprising.

“I know, because I think you really need to know how the guitar should be set up and feel. If you don’t play I don’t see how you can understand that.”

I looked at your price list and £1,800 is out of most people’s range. Who buys your guitars?

“A lot are guys in their 50s, someone who wants one for a 50th birthday present perhaps. They’ve been dreaming about having a special guitar all their lives and they want something personal to them because they can have custom inlay, maybe their initials on the guitar. They can choose the shape, decoration and finish – it’s unique to them. They may have other guitars that they play but they wouldn’t bring this one out – this would be one to keep at home and cherish.

“But there are some highly regarded local musicians using my guitars, Kit Morgan has one of my acoustics; Jerry Crozier-Cole, he’s got one of my electrics.”

What goes into making a really good guitar?

“With my acoustics the sound is all in the thickness of the timbers, the type of timber and how you carve the internal structure. It’s all about what’s going on inside.”

I’ve noticed cheap guitars don’t seem to be ‘finished’ inside…

“You’ll find with some guitars, and not only cheap ones, the braces are fairly rough and square, uncarved – and that doesn’t help with the sound. It’s all about how the top vibrates. The freer the top is allowed to vibrate the more response, and bass response, you’re going to get. If a top is too thick and the bracing is left high and unshaped, you’ll get a very rigid and bright sounding guitar. So a thinner top and sculpted braces are the key.”

What does the future hold?

“We’ve had a tough time in the past two years. The recession has hit and the usual customers haven’t ordered so many guitars. But I’m still busy with the back-end of previous years’ orders. There was a time when I had an 18-month to two-year waiting list, but that’s down to about 10 months.

“But I’ve taken on an employee, David Maclean, he’s my right-hand man helping me to make guitars, and in future I’m looking at having guitars on the shelf that people see – and buy! That’s something I’ve never been able to do before, apart from a few demo models. I’ve never had the time to make something for stock or for a magazine review.

“I have given all the set-up and repair work away to finally concentrate on making guitars, which is what I always wanted to do.

“Part of that future is ‘endorsement’ deals – endorsing a highly renowned musician or band.”

So ideally you’d like someone famous to be playing one of your guitars?

“Of course, you need that big break, and most of the successful guitar makers have got some big names on their books.”

How much would you sell the new off-the-shelf guitars for?

“About the same. We’re making an electric at the moment that will be around about £1,600, whereas the acoustics start from £1,800 and there’s an acoustic demo we’re working on that will be around £2,000.

How does that compare with shop-bought guitars?

“You can buy a Stratocaster from a shop for about £800, but bear in mind that it’s machine made. The quality is generally very good with a machine-made guitar, it’s very pristine, and the wood’s generally good too. But they can have slight issues with set up. They don’t have the extra touches that I would do to make sure it plays properly straight away. I wouldn’t let anyone have one of my guitars if it wasn’t.

“I always tell people to bring them back for any settling in issues, which I do for free, obviously, and I guarantee my guitars for life. If there’s an issue I’ll sort it out, not that there ever have been any!

“With a machine-made guitar… you could have 10 Martins or Gibsons or whatever on the wall of the shop and you might find one that stands out above all the rest. It could be that that sound board is particularly resonant. It might not be the tightest and prettiest looking sound board but because it’s slightly wider grained it might be more responsive.

“The problem with factory-made acoustics is they don’t have the attention to detail, the ‘thicknessing’ and the internal carving… They always look fantastic on the outside, but generally they tend to be over built, a little bit heavy. Somebody once said guitar-making companies aren’t run by guitar makers any more, they’re run by accountants.”

“I pride myself on being a guitar maker. It’s what I do. I make anything, any style. I see that as a challenge. I make electric guitars, electric basses, acoustic guitars, electro-acoustic guitars, classical guitars and acoustic basses. My first love – guitars are where my heart is.”

Contact: Waghorn Guitars, 1 Mill Avenue, Bristol BS1 4AJ, tel: 0117 927 2111; www.waghornguitars.com

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