Voltarol - related music

Monday, 28 June 2010

The best laid plans…

I should have known better than to think that the job was finished (see my apologies at the start of my last posting). There were – inevitably – problems to be resolved that actually resulted in the biggest gap in my postings since I started this blog. However, I can say with confidence that no further work will be required on the last project as the book is now published and being well received, so unless another large job looms up to tempt me away again I shall be back to my regular postings. Yes. I know I said that last time.

Anyway, some time back when I wrote the first tranche of postings about The Jugular Vein, I was contacted by an old acquaintance from the heady days of the West London counter-culture scene of the late sixties and early seventies. Writing under the nom de blog of ‘Venlafaxine, AKA Griff’, he provided me with an audience based retrospective of the band, as well as a piece on the little group of guitar builders that emerged at that time and of which he was one. Richard Bartram - co founder of the JV - was another and he went on to become one of the finest luthiers in the country. I now realise it is more than a year since Griff supplied this second article and it’s about time I posted it. I have transcribed it verbatim from the original hand-written document but have taken the liberty of adding a few links where I felt they were appropriate. The photographs and their captions were also supplied by Griff. Here it is. (This follows on from where the previous one finished.)

by Venlafaxine, AKA Griff.

Buoyed up by the success of our first guitars, Length and I considered putting the experience to commercial ends. We were joined in this by Mike Hopkins – who made contact via Length’s girlfriend – and of course, Richard.
With No.1. Did I really look like that?

It wasn’t long before I started on No 2. Unlike the small-bodied effort which preceded it, this was to be a jumbo. Richard encouraged me to use more readily available, i.e. cheaper materials, assuring me that he knew someone who had even used driftwood retrieved from the Thames! I had even thought about putting an aluminium top on an old plywood guitar; no steel National, more an ersatz Hayes.

Anyway, the jumbo used regular DIY shop stuff: the top was of Parana pine, a wood lacking the hard and resonant fibres you get in spruce, and soft, but Length had used it successfully on his box. There was no French polish, just polyurethane varnish, but the finished article worked well enough.

Mike produced an ‘early’ instrument I think he called a ‘sarode’, a sort of lute, looking like an outsized flat-back mandolin with 12 strings. Clueless as to how to tune it, Mike set it up like a 12 string guitar – and that was what it sounded like! And when playing, it was difficult to rest on one leg, because its pear-shape encouraged it to slide off! Oh well…Mike had more success with the mandolin he built for John Barron of ‘The Jug Trust’.

We discussed materials a lot. I’m still not convinced of the need for good materials for the back and sides, especially when most folkies use playing positions which make plenty of contact with the (sound deadening) body. Classical musicians, looking for the maximum response from nylon strings, perform in a manner intended to leave the sound box as free as possible, but who plays like that?

Come to think of it, Length did! He spent ages learning Bach’s ‘Gavotte in C major’ and ‘Lute Suite in D’, so the folkies were much impressed and amused when his girlfriend appeared with a pile of books for him to use as a footstool, to facilitate the ‘correct’ playing attitude. Length had plenty of attitude, and this was pure showmanship. I don’t recall noticing any improvements in sound quality, but then folk clubs aren’t the ideal studio.

Richard by now was developing his skills in leaps and bounds. Regardless of the above and clearly looking to the future, he’d been buying expensive ‘instrument quality’ materials from Touchstone – a lot more than he needed for the odd one or two…

I sold the jumbo at the White Bear folk club in Hounslow to a busker, for the amazing (at those times) price of £50. I had expected to wind up with no more than £30. I was embarrassed when he said he knew it wasn’t worth so much, but insisted on paying £50 to encourage me (as if my ego was not already in overdrive!). Months later I saw him playing ‘my’ box at Les Cousins. The guitar looked a mess. Life on the streets is hard, but I felt upset and even more embarrassed over the £50.

No.3 was more properly No. 2½, because it was a joint effort with Mike, who got the order and specification. I think we used my jumbo mould, from which I turned out a complete and assembled back and sides, along with a roughed-out neck. Mike did everything else.

All very encouraging you might think, to make a living at it, but an analysis of our time showed the madness of that. We couldn’t chuck in the full-time salaried jobs we had, especially Mike, married with a child and a big mortgage. Also, I had deeper misgivings about exchanging fun for ‘work’, if you see what I mean.

For Richards it was different. As a bricklayer, he was well paid, and able to suit himself. So he laid bricks when short of guitar work or cash. Richard gradually built up a guitar construction and repair business, becoming more skilled and accumulating labour-saving equipment as he went along. Then came dulcimers and mandolins as well. It was a tremendous achievement, the more so because Richard didn’t stop working on the music.

With Length, Hayes 1970 
Length had a scooter, this was different: Triumph T110 engine, Norton frame, fibre glass petrol/oil tank etc.
The sexy looking front mudguard guaranteed wet legs if it rained. Somewhere inbetween flying and riding a horse.
Like the guitars it got me out of my head.

From 1969 came changes which tugged me away from music and guitars. I started a course in engineering drawing at Croyden. I was seduced into buying a new 350cc Ducati motorcycle. Tony Allen, (now a stand-up comedian and Hyde Park orator) organiser of the Hayes Folk Club, wanted to start a local ‘alternative’ magazine and got me involved in that in a big way. Then in 1970 I met my wife-to-be.

Also, in 1970, Richard left The Jugular Vein and, with the talented John Coverdale, formed the duo ‘Canticle’. They may have fancied my mellow-sounding No.1 to complement Richard’s brighter-sounding instrument. Anyway, John offered to buy No.1, but I preferred handing it over on loan for as long as he wanted it, complete with self-built hard case. I don’t really like taking money from people.

My head had clearly moved on, but when John handed back No.1 I was sufficiently moved to fill the gap where the centre joint at the back had opened, with violin purfling. This had happened because I hadn’t thought it necessary to cross-band the joint; silly boy. More fundamentally, the top had developed a distended area behind the bridge, and become concave around the sound-hole…

It had seemed a good idea (to me!) to make struts in the same material as the top, from the off-cuts, since they should have the same natural frequency. However, 3mm thickness is far too slender, and the depth of the struts was also insufficient. Unimpressed by my theorising, Length had shown far greater nous, groping the sound-holes of other people’s guitars to assess their strut dimensions! Even so, I suspect that my weak front may have been responsible for No.1’s softer sound.


Our little community of guitar-bashers was at an end. As far as I know, Length and Mike took no further interest in building. At some point in the late 1970’s I dumped No.1. You already know the protracted history of No.4. That leaves only Richard…