GLADESVILLE GUITAR FACTORY
A deep dive into the mind of one of Australia’s most respected guitar luthiers.
ISAAC WARE HAS BEEN WORKING AT SYDNEY’S GLADESVILLE GUITAR FACTORY FOR OVER A DECADE, AND HE’S LEARNED A FAIR BIT IN THE PROCESS. WE CAUGHT UP WITH HIM TO TALK ABOUT WHAT MAKES THE RIGHT GUITAR, AND, OF COURSE, THE RIGHT CUP OF COFFEE. WORDS BY ALEX WILSON.
“T here’s no typical day, really.” Luthier and engineer Isaac Ware is running me through his schedule at his shop. While there’s no set routine, he does have a go-to process to start off each morning. “I go to my desk with my music on, and I look at what’s on the to-do list,” he says. “I never quite know what’s coming, whether it’s body work, a refret, electronics or something else.”
To give you an idea of the workload, Isaac pushed through around 750 repairs the past financial year. He’s based at the Gladesville Guitar Factory: a long-standing business situated on the border of Sydney’s inner-city and its leafy northern suburbs.
Another crucial part of Ware’s daily start-up is the morning cup of coffee – a comfort (or requirement, perhaps) of the AM hours we can all relate to. Thoughtful and articulate, Ware runs me through how he provides a quality cup for everyone he works with. It’s a task he hasn’t been assigned, but has taken on himself as part of his pursuit of detail, quality and excellent process.
“I know the look, the smell, the taste and what it should be. And then there’s obviously other stuff like the temperature to get right, the texture in the milk…” Perfection in an espresso shot. “We have a beautiful Italian coffee machine, and I can’t deal with the idea of giving anyone I work with subpar coffee.”
One can’t help but feel this commitment to a great cuppa is a reflection of the same care he gives to any of the instruments that he comes across.
“I tend to get a bit funny about dirty instruments,” he laughs. “There’s a big box of latex gloves on my bench that gets used quite regularly. I’d say I do about five to six refrets a week, and I really enjoy that sort of work. I’ve been doing it for a long time, and it’s great to get deep into the process. I can also get quite into lacquer work or fixing electronics.” For Ware, there isn’t a ‘perfect’ guitar. The right instrument needs to be set up according to its own internal logic, and calibrated to the individual player. According to Ware, the first factor is that each guitar operates according to a specific geometry, set in place by factory
specs or a custom build. Then, once you’ve got your head around how the shape affects the sound, you need to address the other factors: wood, electronics and hardware.
These smaller details vary in a way that tends to pile up in larger differences. The upshot of all this is that, according to Ware, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to building or fixing your instrument.
“You can have two ‘identical’ Martin D-28s side-by-side,” he explains. “Yet in practice, they can be wildly different due to the small variations between them. You won’t find me setting up an instrument according to its specification list.”
This attention to detail and sense that each instrument has a unique character was reinforced with the three years he spent under the legendary Jeff Mallia, one of Australia’s premier luthiers. At first, Mallia was hesitant to take on a full-time apprentice, but he bonded with Ware over their shared backgrounds.
The two men had backgrounds as technicians – Mallia in medical technology, and Ware in environmental science and doing up old VWs – that informed their approach to lutherie and repair. “I wasn’t the best musician,” Ware confesses. “But Jeff started out as an engineer as well, so he understood where I was coming from.”
Another important part of Ware’s heritage is his respect for the tradition of lutherie itself – particularly as it applies to his work with acoustic instruments.
“Stringed musical instruments have been around for a long time,” he explains. “A lot of the basic development was done right in the early stages. In some respect, the work we do still needs to be tied to that understanding.”
He goes further, explaining his thoughts about a vintage Jazzmaster that wound up on his bench the past week.
“It was a 1958 model,” Ware tells us. “When I took it apart, I saw that every component on that instrument had the original date code from the year it was made. That was an instrument that’s been played in New York its entire life, and it has just now come to Australia. It held up all this time.”
To wrap things up, I ask Ware what advice he would give any aspiring luthiers, techs or guitarists simply wanting to get more hands-on with their axe. He nominates temperature monitoring as the key thing to watch out for – and as expected, he has it totally accounted for.
“In Sydney, we have such erratic humidity that I maintain my workshop at 45 percent relative humidity and around 20-to-25 degrees year round,” he explains. “That’s the same environment maintained in the factory that built your guitar, so I want that there if I’m gluing something, setting up a neck or doing any kind of testing.”
But ultimately, he leaves things on a humorous and philosophical note. “We live in a disposable society, and people are less and less inclined to work on or understand their possessions.
“The best way to learn is to do, and I always encourage my customers to learn how to do the basics – truss rod adjustments, basic intonation, those kind of things. You wouldn’t believe the number of people that come in and say, ‘Oh, my instrument’s not working,’ and I just pop it open and replace the battery.”