John Hunt - making guitars without fretting
Blues guitarists have always made their own instruments. The history of the music is littered with tales of how the great exponents, unable to afford a proper guitar, began by experimenting with fence posts and fishing line or planks from the barn and baler twine.
John Hunt’s experiments have been a sight more sophisticated but his home-made guitars have still emerged from stuff that’s been lying around, like the pile of Melody Makers, the former music industry bible, that went into his first self-build, a papier-mache semi-acoustic, or the solar panel that forms the battery-charging scratch-plate on his latest model.
The Deptford-born, Edinburgh-based Hunt was attending the London School of Furniture in the mid-1980s, studying on its guitar building night class, when the idea of using papier-mache came to him.
“I’d been reading in a book my girlfriend at the time showed me about how the Victorians made furniture from papier-mache and I thought, wow, it must be a lot stronger than I realised,” he says in his husky South London blues singer’s voice. “I had all these Melody Makers in the flat and I used to love reading about the guitars that were advertised. But I couldn’t afford to buy any of them, so I decided to turn these old newspapers into a guitar instead.”
Modelling the body on a Gretsch that he particularly coveted, he added the neck from a Hofner Marauder and knobs and pick-ups from various other guitars that he cannibalised, and presented his handiwork to his course tutor.
“When I told him what I was planning to do, he just laughed,” says Hunt. “So that made me more determined to get it right. Plus, it was the kind of course where the tutor would give you something to do that would take ten minutes and you’d spend the next half-hour trying to get his attention. So over the Christmas and New Year fortnight I put it together, took it in to show him what I’d done, plugged it in, played it and left for good. I’d only gone on the course because I wanted to make a guitar, so I’d achieved what I’d set out to do.”
His time on the course hadn’t been wasted. He’d studied all the different kinds of wood used in guitar building and although the body looks like an old music newspaper – you can still read the chart run-downs and small ads for musicians wanted – it has struts and a sound-post inside (“like a proper guitar”) and was built to withstand the tension that keeping the strings in tune puts between neck and body.
“It’s actually a really nice guitar to play, though I say so myself, and although at first I thought I’d paint it green, like the Gretsch I modelled it on, my girlfriend said, Nah, just varnish it. And she was right because it’s developed a nice patina with age.”
It’s also covered a lot of miles. An artist by day – his brilliantly distinctive paintings of bands and musicians line the walls of Edinburgh’s Jazz Bar – Hunt has moved around in pursuit of inspiration. He spent five years living in a shed on the Isles of Scilly and a similar time in Orkney before moving to the Borders and then, ten years ago, into Edinburgh. His guitar has always gone with him, although he didn’t begin mixing art and music until he found himself sitting in a club in New York watching musicians a few years ago and decided to ditch the landscapes and seascapes that he’d specialised in.
“It made more sense to paint musicians,” he says. “Between the people and their instruments you can combine portraiture and still life and at the same time, there’s an abstract quality in the light that they’re caught performing in. So you’re mixing three disciplines.”
Not that he trained in any of these disciplines – he was supposed to go to art college but went to Spain instead, he says – so he’s self-taught in visual art as he is in music.
“My brother, who’s nine years older, got into the guitar in his late teens and I got into it with him,” he says. “I started playing Status Quo numbers but then went back to the origins of the twelve bar blues form, listening to people like John Lee Hooker, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mississippi John Hurt. For me, that’s what the blues is all about: one person telling his story to a rhythm that bends with the narrative. I don’t have anything against blues bands as such but they can get a bit formulaic. You know what’s coming next.”
On his own gigs he’ll play a 50/50 mix of blues covers and his own songs, all of which develop through time and the telling of the story behind them.
“If you listen to a song like Bottle Up and Go, that’s an old song that somebody’s added a verse to or taken a verse from, changed a word or two here and there, to make it their own,” he says. “I’ll maybe change the rhythm or some of the lyrics every time I play a song, and that’s the way I imagine it was back when you had one guy playing in the corner while there was something cooking on the spit roast and people were dancing all round him.”
The bluesmen and women he’s talking about didn’t have the luxury of amplification or if they did, it was fairly primitive. As well as his papier-mache guitar, Hunt – it’s very tempting to call him Mississippi John – has developed what would have been a boon to his blues forebears, a guitar with a built-in PA system that runs on solar power.
“I didn’t set out to do it,” he says. “It was another happy accident. I started building an electric guitar a couple of years ago and then realised that you get these really good solar panels that are very compact. In fact, I used one for the scratch-plate and it charges the built-in battery pack so that I can play it continuously for fifteen hours. It’s great for playing gigs where there’s no PA and there’s a bit of background noise because I can plug a microphone into it and my vocals will cut across the chatter.”
It sounds like the kind of invention that should be patented but Hunt disagrees.
“I’ve only taken bits and bobs and put them together in a new way, a bit like the songs I sing,” he says. “I think it’s the first of its kind but I wouldn’t want to go into business – the body’s built from a B&Q shelf – and spend four years talking to lawyers. I’d like to build a more hi-tech one because the technology has moved on again since I made it but that would be just for my own use. On the other hand, if Gibson or one of the other big guitar companies wanted to give me a salaried consultancy job, I could be tempted.”
John Hunt plays at the Jazz Bar, Edinburgh every Tuesday.
From The Herald, December 16, 2010