Learning to play guitar is road travelled by many but mastered by only a select few. It is an enduring journey where an obsession with the fine detail is the only route to success. Like mastering playing the guitar the actual construction of an acoustic guitar is an art form in its own right.
Unlike playing the instrument few learn how to make a guitar and fewer still master the craft. Avalon Guitars in Newtownards is home to some of the finest guitar luthiers in the world, this bold statement isn’t mine but the endorsement of a number of the world’s best guitar players.
I have been visiting the Avalon guitar workshops for over twenty years and the same faces remain, masters of the fine detail they are the unseen artists behind many of the best guitarists and singer songwriters.
Head over to the Avalon website to see a catalogue of world renowned artists who take their hand made instruments from a small factory in Newtownards to the stadiums of the world. Artists like Katie Melua, Van Morrison, James Morrison (no relation to Van), Karima Francis Tom Baxter and the unique sound of David C Clements heralds from Avalon acoustic guitars, it is an exhaustive list.
During a recent visit to the Avalon workshop I decided to create a photo essay documenting the journey from timber to fine instrument.
The morning was an education in itself, I knew it was a finely tuned process (excuse the pun) but I didn’t truly appreciate the sheer amount of skill, care and detail that is invested into each instrument as it makes its journey around the factory.
I think the term ‘hand made’ has been diluted over the years by the mass production market, be under no illusion, these hand made guitars are actually made by hand.
I admit I did expect to see a plethora of manned machines or automated processes but what I found, in reality was a pure crafted process where luthiers pour hours into each instrument with exceptionally high quality control standards.
Each instrument that leaves the factory is seen as a reflection of the luthier and they truly strive for perfection.
I was shooting RAW and converting each image to mono to draw out the detail of the woodgrain.
Anyone who has played a hand-built Avalon guitar will be familiar with the tone and personality each instrument has to offer. A tone finely crafted with each cut of highest quality woods imported from around the world.
There is well over a century of experience amassed between the Avalon luthiers, along with their matchless abilities as individual craftsmen it was clear that each has a true passion for the acoustic guitar.
The years of experience have resulted in the creation of a tonal quality that is desired by many aspiring guitarist. The refined guitar design combined with only the best woods result in a remarkable instrument that will last a lifetime and become even more refined with age.
I was shown the whole process from the arrival of the timber, cutting, shaping, construction and the fine art of guitar finishing. It is a remarkable journey that is quality critical regardless of the time it takes to achieve.
It will come as no surprise that given the weeks of craftsmanship it takes to construct an Avalon acoustic guitar and the high quality materials of which they are built they are an expensive instrument.
Such an expensive instrument should be seen as a lifetime investment and as I made my way around the factory I came across a number of Avalon acoustics in for service, adjustment and refinement.
It was a remarkable opportunity to travel on the journey of guitar creation in the Newtownards workshop. It made me wonder where the next generation of guitar maker is going to come from. These guitar luthiers are masters of the hand tool and chisel blade and fortunately these skills are passed on through the newly created lutherie school that occupies the same premises as Avalon Guitars.
If you are interested in the Avalon range I would highly recommend you check out their website. If you are looking for the ultimate in acoustic guitar tone then these instruments are truly hard to beat.
As for the photographs, I think this mono portrait of Ernie one of the talented luthiers at Avalon guitars has to be my favourite of the visit. The experience of making my way around the workshop and observing each stage of the creative process from wood to instrument was a privileged education.
One thing that struck me was the luthiers behind the guitars, the characters who invest hours of hard work in the fine detail of these magnificent instruments.
The Avalon luthiers are masters of their craft, they pour over the fine detail of each instrument they create and work together as a tight knit team.
These luthiers have well over 150 years knowledge and experience of guitar making. They know every binding, can identify every piece of timber by the grain, I was sincerely in awe of their knowledge. They each have in common the desire to create only the highest quality instruments. They study each piece of wood to ensure only the highest standard of timber makes its way into an Avalon guitar.
Respect the Timber
I underestimated their appreciation for quality when I made the (big) mistake of asking one of the luthiers to hold one of the “sticks” that sat on a shelf in the kiln. I don’t think I could have used a worse word to describe the timber given their reaction and they didn’t let me away with it.
These luthiers create hand made instruments respected by musicians the world over. The list of famous guitarists and songwriters who turn to an Avalon acoustic guitar is exhausting. To this team of master guitar makers each instrument is part of the Avalon family, they send them out and often lovingly customise, restore and service instruments over many years. I’d swear they know each one just by the type of wood or serial number.
If you want the ultimate in acoustic guitar then if it is made by the Avalon team you most certainly have an instrument of impeccable quality that is built for life. Better still if you can get to home of Avalon and see the guitars and the master luthiers first hand – it is an experience you won’t forget.