She’s here…

August 20, 2011

Well, I’ve been banging on about her since January and, on Wednesday, she finally arrived.

Sybil has been just over 6 months in the making in the workshop of Dave White and he has produced a beauty.

She is different from my other guitars in so many ways – the two most obvious are that she is a 12 fretter and those frets are multi scaled.

So, just so that you can see, what she looks like, here’s a pic


Oh, sorry … She’s in bed.

Inspirations and Aspirations

June 17, 2011

Being a Scouse Catholic I have to assume that, somewhere in the dim and distant past, there’s a bit of Irish in me. One of my sisters is the ‘family researcher’ and I’m sure she mentioned it somewhere along the line.

I’d be happy with some roots to the Emerald Isle (as much as I’d be happy with a link to Scotland and Wales) because I love the music that comes from there so much.

There’s one particular musician whose music moves me. Considered by many to be Ireland’s national composer, Turlough O’Carolan was a blind (aren’t many of the best musicians blind? There’s hope for me yet!) harpist who lived from 1670 – 1738. Well, according to Wikipedia he did!

His melodies are sublime, his harmonies hit heights and move souls … he was not bad at what he did! And he had a few things in common with me:

1. He was short sighted (well, actually he was blind but let’s not quibble)

2. He wasn’t much to look at (if the contemporary pictures are to believed) 

3. He wasn’t much of a singer (based on the fact that he mostly wrote tunes, rather than songs)

Trouble is, a harp has many more strings than a guitar so, surely, the music won’t transpose.  Well, fortunately, good music is good music and, whilst it doesn’t transfer directly from harp to guitar, there are people who are able to interpret an O’Carolan tune well enough to keep respectful to the original whilst altering it to suit their own instrument and style.

One such person is Keith Chesterton. I’ve never met Keith – though I know a bit about him… he;’s a retired dentist, he plays guitar in his church worship group, he is generous with his time and money, and he is a great guitar player. His arrangement of the O’Carolan tune “Eleanor Plunkett” is both an inspiration to me to sit down and do some serious work in practicing, and an aspiration – to be able to play with such soul!

So, this weekend I’m at the URC Learning and Resource Centre in the Lake District for a course. I’m taking my guitar and, in the quiet moments (and there must be some!) I’m going to try and work this out.

Wish me luck!

The Milk Of Human Kindness..

June 8, 2011

I lurk in/frequent an acoustic musician forum  for folk that play or enjoy or build (and sometimes all three!) acoustic instruments like guitars, mandolins, Bozoukis and the like (even the occasional banjo – but mostly it’s musical instruments 😉 ). It is my first port of call for advice on matters musical and, I hope, I contribute to the forum as well as just receiving advice and information from it. Every now and again we have a ‘forum project’. This can be anything from a songwriting session, to a get-together or, more likely, a project that invites us to do our own interpretation of a song or a musician and pst so that others can hear and learn. They’re tremendous fun – we;’ve ‘done’ the Eagles, Beatles, Christmas.. loads of stuff. It’s a great place to virtually hang around with some nice friendly people.

I have learned, at some cost, that unless you have a really good case then guitars and airlines don’t mix. I am extremely wary about taking my ‘good’ guitars on planes – well, I just don’t do it any more!

S0 I was faced with something of a quandary with regards to this summer’s Kids and Youth camps in Israel/Palestine. Music can be an important part of these camps, singing songs and hymns – learning them as well as teaching them – music provides a bond and a focus. It can calm down and it can energise and excite and I really wanted to take a guitar with me this year.

But what would be best? A travel guitar can sometimes fit in the overhead locker which means it can be taken as hand luggage on some airlines which would mean I could look after it, or maybe I should get a cheap guitar with a good flight case?

Naturally I turned to the Forum for advice and started a new thread explaining my quandary.

As expected, I received lots of useful advice and tips and then one member, out of the blue, suggested a new type of forum project – a “let’s pledge money so that Leo can get a guitar which he can leave over in Jerusalem with Jerusalem Arc for future camps and leaders to make use of” project.

I was really touched. I thought I might get enough to get a cheapo guitar and a good case, or maybe buy one over there (which would mean I could get a better guitar as it wouldn’t need a flight case.)

You need to know that most of these people have never met me. I know some of them through passing on the Traveller or Taran guitars on their roadtrips and, of course Dave White is building me my 50th birthday present guitar but most don’t know me from Adam. And have no links with religion, church or faith – but do have a belief that music can help kids and young people express themselves, and a strong desire to share their love of music.

So, 24 hours after the ‘project’ was suggested, I have pledges totalling more than £450! A bit of research into guitar shops in Israel suggest that, far from leaving Jerusalem Arc with one guitar – I’ll be able to leave them with at least 2 (and strings, capos, straps …)

What do these folk want in return? Nothing, absolutely nothing. “A few pictures would be nice – maybe a recording”


The milk of human kindness does not run dry. Occasionally, in places where you don’t really expect it to, it overflows.

Many, many thanks, folks. you’ve asked to remain anonymous, but you know who you are.


UPDATE: I have now got a total of £600, plus some strings and a humidifier 🙂

I Don’t Do Craft, Me …

April 1, 2011

But, fortunately, the Luthier who’s building my new guitar, Dave White, doesn’t just do craft – he does it superbly.

And building a guitar isn’t just about glueing some bits of wood together and adding strings. It’s about bending wood to the right shape, individually siting and shaving the support struts on both the back and the inside top to make sure that they are placed not just where they can add strength to the build but also where they will bring out the best of the tonewoods on which they are sited. For that you don’t just need tools, you need artistry and a 6th sense.

Dave reckons it’ll take about 3 months to complete my Sybil Iúr which should give her a few weeks to ‘breathe’ before being handed over.

The thing is, all guitars start off as a collection of bits of wood and other stuff. In three months’ time, Dave will have crafted me a guitar. This is what he’s starting with:

Good luck Dave!

Yew’ll Never Walk Alone – but Olive Would

March 23, 2011

You know my guitar? The one that’s being built for my 50th?

Remember how everything was sorted and I had decided on the woods?

I’d even decided on the soundboard inscription (Dave gets a quote, translates it into Gaelic and inscribes it on the inside of the soundboard – it can’t be seen; but you know it’s there). I’d decided on “You’ll Never Walk Alone”

Well, Dave White ( contacted me yesterday to let me know that the Tasmanian Olive Wood had arrived – along with a really nice set of English Yew – what did I think?

Well, I can’t make up my mind. this is what a guitar with yew back and sides can look like:

Yeah, I know, gorgeous, isn’t it? And Yew has such a ‘religious’ history – being planted in many church yards to ward of evil spirits.

It was also used to make English Longbows and is, I am told, the wood of choice for wands and ‘anti-vampire’ stakes.

It is a fairly rare wood to use in guitar making as the Yew tree doesn’t grow straight and, to get a piece that’s big enough for a guitar means that the tree from which it came must have been hundreds of years old – and most of them were cut down to make Longbows. I am reliably informed that it’s not a particularly easy wood to work with, either.

And there’s something quite edgy about playing a guitar that’s poisonous…

So, what do I do? Tasmanian Olive Wood (which, by the way, isn’t really Olive Wood – but when we sent our criminals over there, they just named it olive wood because that’s what it reminded them of most) or English Yew?

Below are the two samples – Olive wood on the left and Yew on the right. What do you think?

Olive Wood

English Yew

4,6,8 ..

March 21, 2011

The numbers above relate to the strings on my primary instruments. My ukuleles have 4, my guitars have 6 and the mandolins have 8.

There are a couple of numbers missing – my banjo has 5 strings (but is in such shocking condition that it doesn’t get played very much at all) and I don’t own a 12 string guitar (although, some day …)

But they don’t get lower than 4, right?

Wrong. The Russian Balalaika has only 3 strings – and so does the latest addition to my stable of musical instruments – a Cigar Box Guitar. Why is it called a ‘cigar box’ guitar? Well, ermmm, it’s made out of a cigar box.

I was visiting the guitar show in Haslingden, Lancashire last Sunday with Sara (she came along for the ride, really) and, whilst there were some lovely instruments on display, there was also a great deal of rubbish. The thing is, a lot of the ‘rubbish’ was trying to pass itself off as genuine craftsmanship (anybody else ever have a K guitar from the catalogue?). From the corner of the room came this incredible sound – really bluesy. I wandered over to see this ageing hippy type playing, quite literally, rubbish. A 3 string guitar made out of an old cigar box. He’d just added a pick up and a neck and he was off. It sounded fantastic.

Now, I’m not a blues player – and I’ve never been the sort to plug a guitar in to anything – acoustic all the way, that’s me. But this was different. This was just fun and recycling and music all rolled into one. we had a bit of cash on us so …

It (I can’t bring myself to refer to the instrument as ‘she’ yet) is made from a box of Montecristo cigars from Havana (sadly empty). The cigars cost £303.00. The guitar didn’t. It has a Mahogany neck and the fretboard is from reclaimed English Oak with a gunstock oil finish (25.5″ scale length). The only ‘new’ bits on it are the nickel silver frets, the machineheads, the bone nut and the pickup – even the volume and tone controls are old bottle tops.

It looks a little forlorn next to my other instruments – but I know who I’d back if it came to a fight 🙂

The seller (‘chicken bone’ John) had a number of instruments on sale, from 1 string Diddley Bows to 6 string guitars. You can see some of his instruments (and buy them!) on his website

Like I said, I’m no blues player and this instrument is brand new to me but, to give you an idea of what it can sound like, I slaughtered a well-known tune.

THIS is what a well played CBG can sound like (played by Chickenbone John himself)

Hard to earn, Easy to lose

February 20, 2011

That’s what they say about trust – and we can see it in our relationships with those close to us, with strangers and with governments and decision-makers.

Some examples from my own experience:

I hoped that Roy Hodgson would bring some stability back to Liverpool FC, but I never trusted him to do so. Consequently, I was not at all upset when he left the club after 6 months having done nothing to earn my trust. He didn’t seem to share the expectations I had for the my club. It seemed as though he believed he was still managing Fulham (he even signed one of his old Fulham players as a left back in a deal that not a single LFC supporter thought was wise) and mid-table stability and, maybe, a good run in a cup, would be enough to satisfy everyone. He just didn’t seem to understand that we expected more. we wanted more. We wanted Liverpool FC to play exciting, attacking, expressive football. We got dull, negative, shambolic football with players seemingly scared to express themselves or to move out of the zones to which they had been allotted. Yes, he signed Raul Meireles, but then went on to admit that he didn’t know in which position to play him. Hardly the best way to develop trust between you and the supporters (and owners!) of the club. Consequently Meireles played 30 odd times under Roy Hodgson and score precisely 0 goals. Under Hodgson’s replacement, Meireles has scored 5 goals in 9 games ….

Aah yes, Hodgson’s replacement… Kenneth Matthieson Dalglish has always had my trust and I can’t envisage a scenario in which that would be lost. We seem to share beliefs. We seem to share a passion for the same things – free-flowing, attacking football that trusts the players to make their own decisions and use their own talents to the best of their ability and to the benefit of the team. Why do I trust him? Because since he came to Anfield in 1977 he has earned it.

He’s earned it with hard work, honest graft and a sense of humour and humility with which I like to think I can identify. No, he wasn’t able to keep Fernando Torres (no longer trusted) at Anfield but I’m not blaming him for that. Torres proved he wasn’t to be trusted and the love we had for him quickly turned. As the FC Barcelona fans said of Luis Figo when he left the Camp Nou for Real madrid “we hate you so much because we loved you so much”

And then there’s Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrat party in the UK … making promises about all sorts of things in the run up to the British General Election, not least about abolishing student fees to attend university, that earned my trust – and my vote. And how did he repay my trust? He not only failed to abolish student fees; he voted for them to be increased by a factor of 3! Trust a politician? Not me. Never again. What’s the old saying? “fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me”. I won’t get fooled again …

And, finally, there’s Dave White. You know … Dave White? No?

Maybe a picture will help … 

Still no idea? Ok, let me help you …Dave is a luthier (an instrument maker). He owns

He’s never met me. I’ve never met him. We’ve never even talked on the phone. But for 2 weeks he entrusted one of his guitars (worth £2100) to me. In fact, for 6 months, he entrusted the guitar to about 20 strangers who passed it around the country, having it for a fortnight, then meeting in pubs and car parks and houses to pass it on to the next person.

This is what Dave said about the venture:

“Working as a relatively new maker of stringed instruments it is very hard to find opportunities where players get the chance to try out my instruments. These are win-win opportunities as the player gets the chance to try a different instrument and as a maker I get some very valuable feedback that helps develop my instruments (good or bad it all helps and usually the bad helps the most even though it hurts a little at the time). I always keep an open welcome so that players can visit and play/chat but distance and location are obstacles. Guitar shows like Cheltenham are a good opportunity but it’s not easy to hear and respond to the instrument in noisy and busy surroundings. Another way that I have seen done in America is a Road Trip Guitar. Here’s how it works – the guitar maker makes an instrument and asks for players interested to take part. A “player chain” is formed based on geography and the instrument shipped to the first player in the chain who has it for a set period of time. They then ship the instrument on to the next in the chain and provide a review of the instrument and if possible a recording – this gives me the feedback and lets me see how the instrument responds to a range of different player techniques and styles of music played. If the chain is long enough then a “pit stop” with the builder is scheduled to setup the guitar again for any effects of its travels and send it on again.

I floated this idea with players on the Forum of “Acoustic Magazine” – a British publication –  and currently have just over twenty participants. At two weeks a stop plus shipping this will be a long haul. The guitar was made over in March/April 2010 and will its “Road Trip” will take place over the period April 2010 to March 2011. As all of my instruments have a name this one is going to be Samhain Taistealaí – “Samhain the Traveller”. This is my Grand Concert sized “Samhain” model and is a multi-scale instrument with 630-660mm scale lengths and a side soundport. Back and sides are Columbian Rosewood (Dalbergia tucurensis) that I got from Joel Thompson, European Spruce top, Malaysian Blackwood bindings, headstock veneers, fingerboard, bridge, end-graft and heel cap and a sycamore (maple) neck.”

He trusted 20 strangers with a valuable, hand-crafted instrument. He trusted us to look after it, to play it, to write objective reviews about it, to pass it on to the next recipient and, eventually, to return it to him unscathed.

Here is my review (taken from the Acousticlife forum)

Well, I’ve had the Samhain for just under a fortnight (passing it on to Fliss on Saturday) and I’ll be really sorry to see it go. Mind you, given that I’ve played it almost exclusively since I got it, my other instruments will be pleased to see the back of it).

I’m not as gifted in the technical writing as some of you lot are, constantly mixing up my saddle, lower bouts, bridges and purlings so I’ll try not to be too clever and just give opinions.

1. Looks. When I got it home and took it out of the case my wife (who is the arbiter in all things) didn’t like the look of it compared to my other guitars (a dreadnought and a 0003). She thought the upper bout looked a bit ‘pinched’. Whatever that might mean. For myself, I wasn’t keen on the headstock (a little bit too asymmetrical for my tastes) and it didn’t sit particularly comfortably on my knee (I do, however, have particularly wide thighs). This led to me holding it more like a classical guitar – which I didn’t find comfortable either!

I loved the woods used, and the grain of the rosewood was noticeably more pronounced than on my Moon 0003. The Sycamore neck took a bit of getting used to – I know it’s all about light and dark, but the contrast was a little too much for me at first, although I grew to love it as time went on.

2. Sound. This is where my wife smiled – she absolutely loved the sound of it, reckoning it was louder and clearer than my Moon although not as bassy as my Guild. She thought it filled a niche in my instruments and I agree with her. The sustain on harmonics, in particular, was long and pure. I thought it was clear across the range and, when tuned down to D the bass notes were pleasantly ‘grunty’. I wasn’t aware of the shoulder soundhole making any noticeable difference. I like the idea of the soundhole being offset (as in McPherson guitars) – I assume that would mean that the sound wouldn’t be blunted by fat arms getting in the way!

3. Playability. Having mentioned that I found it difficult to seat comfortably, I should counter that with my thoughts on the offset frets. For a predominant finger-picker these were a revelation – I loved them. I had expected to find them difficult to get used to but this was not the case at all. My only worry came with barre chords (or F – in which I play the bottom string with my thumb). I found myself having to bend my wrist uncomfortably to make sure I fretted the notes properly. The Samhain is much lighter than my spruce/Mahogany Guild D40, and about the same weight as my spruce/rosewood Moon 0003 and I would have like to have tried to play it standing up – but the fixings weren’t there to do that.

Overall, I would have liked the guitar for a wee bit longer (say, a lifetime). But whether the fact that I couldn’t get it sat comfortably for long periods (presumably because of the ‘pinched waist’) would eventually mean that it was played as regularly as my other instruments, I couldn’t say. My 50th birthday is coming up and, with a slightly wider waist and a cedar top, I reckon my wife might have had to be putting in a call to Dave (except that she doesn’t love me QUITE that much!)

Many golf clubs are now sold on the basis that ‘even off-centre shots fly straighter’. That is, if you mishit a shot, it shouldn’t damage your game too much. For this reason, and as a service to future players, I recorded a couple of pieces with deliberate bum notes included so that you could hear what she sounds like when your head moves faster than your fingers

Jesu, Joy Of Man’s Desiring/Crow River Waltz medley (J.S. Bach/Leo Kottke)

The Setting (instrumental – Ralph McTell)

and here’s the Samhain ‘Road Trip’ guitar itself, sitting in the middle of my other instruments (it’s a musical instrument photo – so I didn’t include the banjo!)

Why did Dave trust me? I have no idea, you’d have to ask him. I just know that such trust restored some of my belief in humanity that some others have done so much to erase.

And, if you’re in the market for a hand-crafted guitar, built to your personal specifications by a trustworthy man who knows the Luthier’s craft, well, you could do worse than considering giving Dave a commission!

Now, you’ll have to trust me when I say that I’m not being paid to say that 🙂