Andy Manson has called from sunny Portugal and is telling me how he made his first guitar at the age of 18. “It was necessity more than anything,” he says, pausing and winding back the clock.
“I had a guitar and then I didn’t have a guitar and I didn’t have any money so I thought that maybe I could have a go at making one. It was a very primitive instrument. I made it in my dad’s garage with bits of wood and the tools that he had lying around. But it worked. I used to go busking on it.”
“I ended up at the London College of Furniture on a course called Musical Instrument Technology, which was really for piano makers and tuners. Even though they didn’t do guitar making they said it’s still strings, it’s still soundboards and we have furniture polish so come along and do your own thing."
There’s a lot of the quiet craftsman to Mr Manson – a considered way of speaking born from 45 years of impeccable attention to detail. An avid guitar player himself, Andy has made over a thousand instruments and is still experimenting with tones and configurations. When it comes to the science of luthiery, he says, “there are no secrets, only mysteries.”
“We have a very sharing worldwide community”, he says, speaking warmly of his fellow makers and the support he’s received on his Facebook page. Andy has built up an extensive bank of technical photographs showing his intricate process from beginning to end. Wanting to solve the mystery, I ask about his materials and how things have moved on from the scraps in his father’s garage and all that borrowed furniture polish.
“There’s quite a tradition to it. For smaller instruments like mandolins I use a maple for the back, sides and neck and then a spruce top and an ebony fingerboard. For guitars, some kind of hard wood for the back and sides, an Indian rose wood, mahogany, walnut or Brazilian rose wood, but that’s illegal now.”
He pauses again, seemingly troubled by the challenge of finding sustainable materials that match his reputation for quality.
“Nowadays, with so much consumption of exotic woods, some of them are endangered and some of them are strictly forbidden. I’m really keen to progress using just European woods. I mean the best apples grow in Kent and yet we import apples from New Zealand. It’s ridiculous. Keep it at home I say.”
Andy relocated to Portugal to enjoy the European way of life, the warm and relaxed conditions, perfect for guitar making. He tells me about his new workshop and how he shares the space with his stepson, Seth Baccus, who specialises in electric guitars and was a roadie at Led Zeppelin’s reunion show. That’s my cue to ask the John Paul Jones question.
“It was all very much accidental. John Paul Jones was way way back. Around 1970 or something. I’d just finished college in London and my parents were living in Sussex. Some neighbour said, “Do you know there’s a pop group that lives down at the bottom of the hill?” I thought I might as well wander down and tell them I can repair guitars or whatever. So I marched down and I knocked on the door and it was John.”
It’s the story I hoped Andy would tell me, one of rock and roll coincidence, echoing back to a simpler time. Another karmic mystery. Speaking to the man behind the Led Zeppelin triple neck and Josh Homme’s lotus archtop, it would be easy to expect an ego. Instead Andy is easy going and talks with that cool kind of mellowness. “They leave their names outside the workshop when they come to me”, he says.
Beginning so young put him in the ring with some of the best in the business. The mystery to be solved isn’t whether Andy will continue to make beautiful instruments, it’s how his skills will be passed on.
“It’s something that I often dwell on. I look back and I’ve actually taught a lot of people along the way. There is so much information out there already and everyone has their own style of doing things, but I’m keen to somehow put down in a book what I feel might be useful to other makers. You know, my stuff.”
Interview by Amelia Ebdon