I am a one guitar man! Apart from a brief dalliance with a lovely nylon strung Raimundo 112, the only six string for me is my beloved Washburn EA36, we’ve been together for the best part of 20 years when it replaced the Ovation copy that my parents had given me for my 16th birthday. I had fallen in love with a picture of the guitar in a magazine and was amazed to see the exact same model hanging in Strings, my local music shop. I reverently took it down and tried it, it was a perfect fit. Me and that Washburn have grown together, we are joined at the hip. I HAVE other guitars, I just don’t play them.
So when my friend John Hepworth contacted me recently to say that he would like to give me one of the guitars that he lovingly crafts by hand, I gave a cautious response that must have sounded like ingratitude of the highest order. I was touched deeply by this beautiful gesture and am not afraid to say that I shed a tear or two when I received his offer, but I was also extremely nervous: what if I didn’t like any of them? ‘Like’ is the wrong word here, after trying out hundreds of guitars over the years I know that no matter how sought-after, revered or expensive a guitar might be, it matters not one jot if it doesn’t respond to your touch, I suppose it’s more a case of the guitar ‘liking’ you. Indeed, one of the nicest guitars I ever played was a cheap ‘Spanish’ model that a mate of mine left behind at a party, he’d paid £5.00 for it, I used it for recording every song on the ‘Tennyson’ album and was very reluctant to give it back. So I’m clearly not being a guitar snob here. I was just simply terrified that on playing John’s guitars I would have no connection with any of them, I couldn’t just take one for the sake of it, what could I possibly do or say in such a scenario that would not make him feel terrible and make me look like the world’s biggest arse?
I explained my worries to John and he, gracious as ever, understood completely and told me not to worry but to just come and have a play with no obligation at all. And so on a misty mid-afternoon I made my way over to the handsome Old Rectory in Whitwell where John lives and has his workshop. I was greeted by his gorgeous wife Selena, a talented cellist and pianist and a wonderful host. Over coffee and cakes I got the sense that John might have been just as nervous about this as I was. Despite having worked with wood for most of his life, it is only in the last few years that he has begun making guitars, he plays a little himself, though being left handed he has not been able to play most of the instruments he has made and seemed genuinely unsure of their merit. It was therefore with a shared trepidation that we went into the library where he had assembled a selection for me to try.
Removing the first instrument from it’s case and handing it to me I was at first struck by how attractive it was, a nice selection of woods, classical proportions, and tasteful detailing. You only have to look at John’s home and surroundings to know that he is an aesthete with an eye for classic beauty, and it shows in his guitars. Extremely well made but with the odd slight imperfection (and I do mean slight) reminding you that this was not produced in a factory. As with everything, I am always deeply suspicious of perfection, and for me these human touches make them all the more attractive and real. On playing, it did feel like I was the first person to have done so, as indeed I was. All instruments need to be played constantly for months, years even, before they ‘settle in’, before the wood starts to resonate fully. My double bass is around 150 years old but when I bought it it hadn’t been played for decades and whilst it sounded good, there were issues; my luthier and I tried everything to remedy the inconsistencies: new strings, different bridges, everything, until finally we resolved to just give it time, and lo and behold, after a few months of regular playing it began to come to life and the sound began to even out until eventually it sang! So it was no surprise that this first guitar, having sat in it’s case untouched since being made did not play like a seasoned instrument, a slightly harsh sound that never seemed to be properly in tune, I began to worry that each subsequent guitar would feel the same.
And so, one by one, John handed me his creations to try, each one as beautiful as the last, with unique individual touches, each one based on a different style or model, and each one with it’s own personality and sound. After playing a few I came across one that had a much darker tone than the others which I quite liked but was uncertain as, just as I had feared, they all felt and played like brand new guitars, making it hard to judge. John showed me about half a dozen guitars in all, and when I had come to the end I had lost track of which was which and so I tried a few again and began to get a feel for each one. There was one particular guitar that had a quality that appealed to me in a way I found hard to define but it didn’t sound great and was going in and out of tune all up the neck, but I liked playing it. As our discussion veered off topic I continued to fiddle and play and retune this one instrument, and over the course of about 30 minutes, as John and Selina will attest, this guitar sprang into life. The more I played, the richer and brighter and deeper the sound became and the more it seemed to respond to my touch. Just like Harry Potter and his wand in Olivander’s, it felt as if the guitar had picked me.
I think we were all a little awestruck after our shared moment of epiphany, and I remember feeling slightly dazed as I left, looking back to see the Old Rectory disappear into the mist surrounded by trees full of cawing rooks. There were still a couple of things that needed sorting, stoning the frets and adjusting the bridge slightly so I left the guitar with John, and in the days that passed I started to worry that I may have made an error of judgement, fallen under the spell of the moment, and that I would be left with one more guitar to sit gathering dust with the others. I needn’t have worried, when I returned it was even better than I had remembered and I couldn’t wait to get it home and play it more, and I have never felt like that about an instrument! On leaving, John asked if I would give it a name, I’ve never done that to an instrument, not because I’m not sentimental, but because I’m not good with names, however I am quite good with numbers, and as this is the seventh guitar John ever made, I shall call it what it says on the label inside: ‘Number 7’.
I have returned to John once more with the guitar so that my daughter Alice could take the pictures that you see here, and on this visit I got to see the ‘other contestants’ again and give them a play. Not only was I reminded of how stunningly attractive they were, but they too seemed to have come to life since my first visit, they each played and sounded great and for just a moment I began to worry that I might have made the wrong choice, but that feeling passed as soon as I picked up my guitar and gave it a play.
So, what of my old Washburn? I do feel a little unfaithful because of the attention I am lavishing on Number 7, but for now at least it will remain my gigging instrument as I have spent a lot of time working on the pick-up system so that I am confident to be able to turn up and plug in anywhere and be happy with the sound, but for playing around the house, recording and writing, I have a new, beautiful partner.
I’m still not quite sure what I have done to warrant such a generous gift but I accept it with the warmest and most heartfelt thanks and recommend that you all go and have a look at Hepworth Guitars. Thank you John!!