Work­shop: Waghorn Gui­tars

This month, we’re head­ing west to seek out a builder whose di­verse cus­tomers in­clude some of the bright lights of the tech metal and prog mar­kets – and get to meet one of his more il­lus­tri­ous sig­na­ture artists…

Guitarist - - Contents - Words David Mead Pho­tog­ra­phy Olly Cur­tis

tucked away in the back­streets of Bris­tol, away from the tourist thrum and bus­tle on the city’s main high­ways and by­ways, you’ll find Tom Waghorn’s work­shop. Neat, com­pact and fes­tooned with in­stru­ments in all stages of com­ple­tion, the ap­par­ent calm is in di­rect con­trast to the fact that Tom Waghorn’s or­der book has rarely been so full. Man­u­fac­tur­ing in­stru­ments that range from clas­si­cally de­signed electrics through to cus­tomers’ slightly more un­con­ven­tional fan­tasy mod­els, Tom’s work­shop turns out just about ev­ery­thing you can strum, pick or pluck. His gui­tars are used by a broad spec­trum of play­ers, al­though he has no­ticed that tech metal and prog mu­si­cians in par­tic­u­lar are fans of his work. “A big part of our cus­tomer base is the tech metal genre and djent – there are so many gen­res,” he tells us. “But mainly metal and through to prog. We’re also do­ing gui­tars in a clas­sic style and we’ve still got a good or­der book for acous­tics. I’ve al­ways felt I wanted to do any­thing and ev­ery­thing, there’s no par­tic­u­lar style that I feel like I wanted to cling to. Com­pa­nies like Gib­son or Ibanez make ev­ery­thing, and I’ve al­ways looked at those and thought it’s a great for­mula.”

One of Tom’s high-pro­file cus­tomers is Alex Hutch­ings from mod­ern-prog star Steven Wil­son’s cur­rent band. Alex’s in­stru­ments are cur­rently back at the work­shop for a mid-tour ser­vice and set-up. His cus­tom-de­signed gui­tars are among the most de­mand­ing Waghorn has taken on and so we were pleased to talk to the gui­tarist him­self when he vis­ited dur­ing our in­ter­view (see page 130).

But for now, we’re in­ter­ested in where it all started for Tom. What was it that made him turn his hand to the luthier’s art? “I ac­tu­ally fell into it by ac­ci­dent,” he con­fesses. “I went to art col­lege, think­ing I was go­ing to be do­ing some form of art, like graph­ics or fine art, got dis­en­chanted with it, took a year out and got a job at Hob­gob­lin Mu­sic on [Bris­tol’s] Col­lege Green as their gui­tar sales­per­son. I met their re­pairer, who also made man­dolin­fam­ily in­stru­ments, ban­jos, gui­tars – a guy called Phil David­son – and the day I went to his work­shop and had a bunch of in­stru­ments for re­pair, it was an in­stant, ‘Wow. That’s what I want to do’. So I ex­pressed my in­ter­est to the man­ager of the shop at the time and she said, ‘Yes, let’s ask him if he’ll teach you’. He was up for the idea, he was kinda get­ting sick of all the re­pairs we were bring­ing him any­way, and so I was work­ing in the shop four days a week and then do­ing a day at his work­shop – that’s how it started.”

Fledg­ling Maker

Dur­ing these reg­u­lar vis­its to Phil David­son’s work­shop, Tom’s skills as a re­pairer be­gan to flour­ish. But it wasn’t un­til he turned up empty-handed that he tried his hand at mak­ing an in­stru­ment from scratch. “I turned up at his work­shop one day with­out any work,” Tom says. “I wanted to go any­way, and he said, ‘What work have you got?’ I said, ‘Noth­ing’ and he said, ‘Well, how do you feel about build­ing some­thing?’ I thought that was way be­yond my ca­pa­bil­i­ties at the time, but my first project was a travel gui­tar, which was re­ally over­com­pli­cated – I should have gone for some­thing straight­for­ward. I had to de­sign it, make the mould… It took me a very long time be­fore I ac­tu­ally built the in­stru­ment and then it didn’t re­ally work

“My first project was a travel gui­tar, which was re­ally over­com­pli­cated – and it didn’t work out”

out. There were a lot of de­sign faults with it and to this day I haven’t fin­ished it!”

So what came next? Did he take on some­thing that posed less of a chal­lenge? “I ac­tu­ally moved on to a dread­nought acous­tic, that was the first gui­tar I ended up fin­ish­ing, and then I moved on to a cou­ple of clas­si­cal-sized steel strings af­ter that. I prob­a­bly built a hand­ful of in­stru­ments be­fore I de­cided I’d quite like to go into busi­ness for my­self. At the time we were talk­ing about the shop hav­ing a work­shop that we could start build­ing and re­pair­ing in­stru­ments from. But that didn’t hap­pen and I was get­ting more and more itchy – I had the bug and I just wanted to get out there and do it. So I went into busi­ness in early 2000 mak­ing man­dolin­fam­ily in­stru­ments for Hob­gob­lin Mu­sic ini­tially and that’s what gave me the leap into the job.”

Elec­tric Power

To be­gin with, Tom was mak­ing acous­tic in­stru­ments. We asked him what spurred him on into build­ing solid­body elec­tric gui­tars? “Well ini­tially it was just acous­tic in­stru­ments,” he says. “But I’ve al­ways played elec­tric, so that was some­thing I loved any­way. I sold my elec­tric, vow­ing to make my­self one – and didn’t! – but did a few de­signs a bit like the Ibanez Artist style, what we call our dou­ble-cut, that was my first de­sign. Then it wasn’t un­til af­ter 2008 that we got stuck into de­sign­ing more mod­ern shapes that were prop­erly ours.”

As we’ve men­tioned, the Waghorn work­shop is awash with all man­ner of in­stru­ments – in­clud­ing an over­sized SG-type model. “The cus­tomer’s very tall,” Tom tells us. “He loves that style, but a reg­u­lar SG-shape was much too small for him and so we’ve su­per-sized it.” This made us cu­ri­ous about what other things his cus­tomers have asked for. “It’s a tricky one be­cause we of­fer ev­ery­thing and cus­tomers find it quite hard to choose when the list is in­fi­nite. So they can ei­ther choose our shapes or we can mod­ify our shapes or

“It wasn’t un­til af­ter 2008 that we got into de­sign­ing more mod­ern shapes that were prop­erly ours”

we’ll take a clas­sic shape and mod­ify that, if they like. We tend to put our own twist on things, but it’s er­gonomics, playa­bil­ity and aes­thet­ics all rolled into one, re­ally.”

What was the most chal­leng­ing build he’s taken on? “I’ve got to say Alex’s gui­tars are up there be­cause he was quite a de­mand­ing cus­tomer,” Tom laughs. “Very par­tic­u­lar about his ac­tion, his sound, the er­gonomics, the way he plays, the ac­cess, the way it sits on a strap – all of those things were quite a task to get right. The pro­to­type wasn’t quite right, so we built on that and came up with his cur­rent model. So that took some time and process to get to where it is now.”

With so many phys­i­cal at­tributes to get right, Tom shares what proved to be prob­lem­atic dur­ing the build: “The ex­treme drop­top… it’s way big­ger than stan­dard, which does pose some is­sues. Bend­ing a piece of maple like that is tricky! The com­fort thing for Alex is key, he wants to feel like there’s noth­ing get­ting in his way. The prob­lem he’s had with so many gui­tars is that the bot­tom horn is in the wrong place, it doesn’t sit on the strap prop­erly, the arm cham­fer is not com­fort­able enough, ac­cess to the 24th fret – the pro­to­type had 26, but we re­alised that squeezed up the pick­ups a lit­tle too far and, there­fore, ton­ally it wasn’t the great­est idea.”

Tom tells us that some of his cus­tomers’ de­signs can cause him fur­ther dilem­mas when try­ing to de­ci­pher their some­what prim­i­tive draw­ings and turn them into fully fledged gui­tars. “It’s never a big prob­lem, but ob­vi­ously there can be some very rough scrib­bles. It’s quite funny, but we do have to re­design them with all the cor­rect di­men­sions and re­alise it into a proper play­ing in­stru­ment. But it’s all part of the fun of what we do.”

And, af­ter years of re­al­is­ing other peo­ple’s dreams, does he still en­joy his work? “It’s hard work and there’s al­ways stress in­volved when you’re run­ning a busi­ness, but I al­ways look for­ward to work­ing on things. I still get those days where I come in and think, ‘Right, let’s get started!’ www.waghorn­gui­tars.com

“We re­design the scrib­bles with all the cor­rect di­men­sions and re­alise it into a proper in­stru­ment”

1 1. The work­shop walls are lined with gui­tars in var­i­ous stages of com­ple­tion, the dreams and imaginings of Tom’s cus­tomer base – note su­per­sized SG-shaped in­stru­ment, top right

2 2. From ‘back of a fag packet’ rough scrib­blings to the more se­date, clas­sic de­signs, Tom will re­alise your wildest fan­tasies!

6 Two acous­tic gui­tars in the early stages of con­struc­tion made from pre­mium tonewoods – on the left a beau­ti­ful sinker red­wood top, on the right a finely fig­ured English wal­nut back Ev­ery in­stru­ment in Tom’s work­shop ben­e­fits from hand­craft­ing at each stage of its cre­ation

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4 3. One of the more in­no­va­tive fa­cil­i­ties in the Waghorn Gui­tars work­shop – a green­house makes an ideal spray­ing bay! 4. Tom started off his ca­reer as a luthier build­ing acous­tic in­stru­ments – these two gui­tars await their fi­nal coats of lac­quer

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