Voltarol - related music

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Entr'acte II

An intriguing (yet relevant) interruption to the Jugular Vein story (New readers start here.)
Life throws up (if you’ll pardon the expression) some surprises from time to time, as well as some strange coincidences. Regular followers of this blog will know of my long-time friendships with luthier (and ex- Jugular Veinist) Richard Bartram, and fellow blogger (and ex – Blue Fiveist) Leigh Heggarty, therefore it should not surprise you to learn that these two know each other. However, a few weeks ago Leigh was doing one of his regular stints in Pro Music International, the Ickenham music store, when a customer came in with a guitar that needed repairing. The customer said that this was a guitar that he had built himself, and added that he had been friendly with the well-known luthier Richard Bartram when he was making his first guitar. Within a short while the conversation had got round to The Jugular Vein and my blog. It soon became apparent that the customer had been an avid follower of the JV, as well as being very active on the same political scene as me, and that we knew each other.

Today I received an email from Leigh, attached to which was a note from said customer (see top of page), and a short essay about first attempts at guitar building which I now reproduce here verbatim. I have since spoken to the customer - or ‘Griff’, to give him the name I knew him by and I have promised him the lyrics of the songs that he requests in exchange for further reminiscences about the JV so – watch this space!

By Venlafaxine aka Griff

When I walked through Pro Music’s door clutching a guitar wrapped in a blanket tied with electrical wire, I didn’t know I was walking through a portal in to the past. Leigh took the box which I explained was hand-built by me way back, but had run out of steam to finish properly: “I had big trouble working the ebony, the fretting is all over the place, can you sort it out?” I mentioned that I had known Richard Bartram when he was playing with the Jugular Vein. We fell into conversation; he showed me the “Voltarol” blog, and suggested that I might like to write something…
It would have been about 1966 that Richard sought me out at a local folk club. He had heard a very tall friend of mine – who he dubbed “Fred Length” – play an unusual guitar. Length told him it was built by me, and that he too was building one. The box had a mellow sound and various faults, but looked immaculate in its French polish. Richard would have taken in the too-shallow rake on the head straight away; intrigued, he got me talking. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I was never really a musician, but then I’ve always had the feeling of not being cut out to be anything specific; more an observer who indulged his passions for this or that, until they were exhausted. But I had a useful background for such a project: father was a cabinet maker, mother was an artist; both preferred to make if possible rather than buy; we had a neighbour who was a French-polisher.
Length lived close by too, had played in a rock band as a bass player, and of course knew how to play in tune – a feat which at that time I found hard to master. We shared a common interest in Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, Bob Dylan et al. Length had a great ability to pick up and play near faultless copies of accompaniments and Instrumentals, from the above heroes.
Thwarted by financial cramp from having Martins, it was Length who first suggested that maybe we could build our own. I dismissed this at first but then got down to reading “Make Your Own Folk Guitar” by John Bailey, a well known specialist builder, and was soon won over. It didn’t seem so far removed from model aircraft (another faded passion), and I had some knowledge of engineering. I got started building a mould in plywood, Length craftily keeping a step or two behind, so he could use my experience.
Mahogany and cedar for the box appeared when prompted by a 2oz tin of Golden Virginia. Mahogany for the neck came from a Southall timber yard, rosewood for fingerboard and bridge was donated by a double bass playing uncle. My father took the materials in to work, where he got it thicknessed (illegally) on a drum sander, saving loads of work.
Mama did allow the temporary red-staining of our bath, while the sides soaked prior to bending. She also allowed Length, a gas fitter, to partially dismantle her gas cooker and connect it to a home-made gas poker. Thus we had variable heat for a steel tube appliance, made by me, as a bending iron. We spent ages coaxing the sides into shape, the wood steaming and popping, sometimes charring(!) if not kept sufficiently wet. With the sides held in the mould, everything else followed -eventually…
Getting back to Richard: Like us, he was no doubt inspired not just by a shortage of cash, but also by the thought of producing a unique instrument built to his preferences, and in defiance to mass production; this is romance with a capital “R”. At a more basic level he probably thought that if Length and I could do it then nothing was going to stop him! The only trouble he had was in marking out the fret board; I showed him how to use my vernier callipers, and soon after, the first of many Bartram guitars appeared.
Having passed on my limited knowledge, Richard reciprocated by showing me how to play better, But all that “diminished ninth” stuff failed to penetrate – still at least by now I could play in tune: Progress! And I could appreciate also that the neck on my box was too thick and the action too high. Beautiful finish notwithstanding, I took the spoke shave to the neck and filed down the saddle. I was getting to feel like an expert, luthier even. (romance!)
Interest in music waned when I became involved in an ill-starred marriage, but after her passing it revived. The early 1980’s saw me at Touchstone Tonewoods, buying at vast expense, pukka materials for my fourth guitar, which I fondly thought would be a magnum opus:
I’d spent a lot of time thinking about keeping the neck straight; pre-stressing from a truss rod seemed to be the thing. My analysis assumed that the ebony fret board would easily handle the direct compressive forces, whilst the inclined truss rod would counter the tendency of the neck to bow. The tapered infill piece (also ebony) over the truss rod, formed an ebony T beam with the fret board, providing additional stiffness. I chose a head tapered towards the end to keep the strings as close to the centre as possible, to limit any torsional forces arising from unequal string tensions. Voltarol, by the way, sold me machine heads from the shop that he once had in Uxbridge.
Setting aside sporadic work stretching across fifteen years(!) all went well until the fretboard, the very last thing. As mentioned, I just could not complete the job, so I wrapped it up and put it away. That was in ’98. It was not until this year I decided that even if I never play again, I wanted the box sorted out. It is symbolic of those years when I felt I could do anything. Stewart duly sorted it out. And yes, I am playing again – sort of…
To Voltarol: On the JV blog, could you please provide the words to Saki Drag, Hayes, Got to Move Again and the WWII air raid warden’s songs?
To Richard, Length: Please get in touch. You can email me at Mike Hopkins care of