Guitars and sonic soup: in conversation with luthier Gary Leddington

Daisy Game chats to luthier Gary Leddington about the joys of building a guitar…

“The main two types of wood that people build guitars from are Rosewood and Mahogany. Mahogany tends to be sweet, but maybe a bit trebly, and Rosewood tends to be a little darker…”

Listening to guitar ‘luthier’ (guitar maker) Gary Leddington talk about his materials is a rather wonderful thing; a panel of Rosewood here, a little Mahogany there – Leddington likes to strike the right balance.

I’m in the Leddington Guitar workshop – a space packed with parts, tools, and the heady scent of lacquered instruments – chatting with owner Gary about tree species, and the different sound the wood from each produces.

“This is European Spruce, so I would expect this to be a little bit more tender – a little sweeter – than some woods”, he continues, pointing to the top portion of an instrument perched on the studio counter. After European Spruce, Gary lingers on Sitka (“the sound tends to be a lot more pronounced”), before pondering the pros of a Spruce­–Rosewood combo: “It’s got that sort of lower, darker sound, maybe a little more complex, but in a more subtle way…”. One could go on, I’m told, but with hundreds of woods at a luthier’s disposal, it can be a little tricky knowing where to start.

Gary’s interest in guitar-making started way-back-when; he recalls watching a secondary school classmate knock up a rudimentary version of the instrument and wanting, even then, to give building a go himself. But it wasn’t until a career opportunity took him across the channel to Belgium, where Gary took night classes in stringed instrument building at the Centre for Musical Instrument Building in Puurs, that interest became practice.

This is European Spruce, so I would expect this to be a little bit more tender – a little sweeter – than some guitars

There’s a strong, active tradition of luthiery in Belgium, with several schools across the country dedicated to educating the next generation of makers. Having only been back in the UK for several months, Gary is yet to discover a similar proliferation of the craft in England; but the musician-turned-maker isn’t in the least concerned about the future of luthiery: “I definitely don’t think that luthiery is a dying thing. Especially in recent years, when there’s been a turn towards craft, and making, and that sort of authenticity…I’m not worried about it at all – I think it’s an alive and vibrant thing.”

That said, guitar makers aren’t entirely immune to the threats of an assembly line; their instrument is always, to a certain extent, ‘handmade’ (yes, a machine is able to knock up parts A and B, but a Real Life Person is needed to join the two together), allowing larger manufacturers, such as Martin, to celebrate their instruments as, technically speaking, handmade. But a guitar made entirely by hand is a different beast – as Gary’s instruments demonstrate. Coming from a contemporary art background (he studied Fine Art at Manchester Metropolitan University), the maker’s aesthetic tastes tend to be, in his words, a little “strange and abstract” when compared to those of other guitar makers, who often have a more traditional training in woodwork or carpentry.

The amount of time it takes Gary to build each ‘abstract’ instrument differs, but if there are no hiccups along the way then it’s around three to four weeks to put the guitar itself together and a further month to allow for the applied lacquer to cure.

That’s a fairly hefty timeline, I note; strange as it may sound, I’m curious as to whether Gary forges any kind of emotional connection with his instruments? They have long enough to get to know one another, after all.

“You get really attached to the thing – when its finished, it’s difficult to let it go”, Gary nods with a smile, telling me that things get stranger still when an instrument stays close to home: “Sometimes they come back – maybe they need a touch up, or a friend owns one, so you see it occasionally – and there’s a weird detachment that happens. It’s as if it has become its own thing, to the point where I don’t even believe that I made it anymore. It’s really strange: it becomes this complete thing that has its own life – or its own existence, or something…”

This isn’t the first time Gary has referred to his instruments as though they are, at some level, autonomous – or, at the very least, not entirely within their maker’s control: “Every guitar does sound a little bit different. Even if the same maker makes the same guitar with the same woods and the same body shape, it will probably sound a little bit different. Just because of the nature of – well, nature really; trees grow differently!”

Gary is a champion of all things unique, with his favourite projects being those of the sentimental variety. He gives us a sneak peak at his current make; in homage to its commissioner’s passion for Irish music, it features an emerald green rosette. Another instrument of which Gary is particularly fond uses a Morgan silver dollar belonging to the player’s grandfather as inlay.

When asked how he sees his career progressing, Gary’s answer is a humble one: “I would just like to continue making, and make a living from making. To me, that sounds like success. I don’t have any grand designs on world domination. It’s really just to be able to make the things that I love, and make things that are beautiful.”

Sounds like a good enough plan to me.

Gary Leddington takes commissions for custom guitars; he also makes guitar cases and picks |