Australian Guitar - - Contents - WORDS BY PETER HODG­SON

In April 2020, the Tas­ma­nian town of Delo­raine comes alive with luthiers, wood sup­pli­ers and mu­si­cians from all over the Ap­ple Isle. Here’s a look at what’ll be on show.

Luthiers know that some of the world’s finest tonewoods for the gui­tar come from Aus­tralia’s oft-ig­nored haven of Tas­ma­nia. Tas­ma­nian black­wood is par­tic­u­larly revered, but the en­tire state is home to beau­ti­ful tonewoods sal­vaged or sus­tain­ably har­vested by lo­cal pro­fes­sion­als that are fas­ci­nated with the art and craft of gui­tar-mak­ing – and with a great re­spect for the land.

And while many of those tim­bers find their way into gui­tars the world over, many stay right at home in Tas­ma­nia to be crafted into in­stru­ments by Tas­ma­nian luthiers and played on­stage by Tas­ma­nian play­ers. Stringfest is a cel­e­bra­tion of those Tas­ma­nian tim­bers, luthiers and mu­sic, tak­ing place in the town of Delo­raine from April 17th to the 29th. Artis­tic direc­tor Nick Weare has a re­sume packed with work in the arts: he’s worked at the Film and Sound Ar­chive, in ra­dio and in the mu­sic in­dus­try for most of his life (and is a heck of a pho­tog­ra­pher too). Weare founded the fes­ti­val to cel­e­brate the peo­ple of the Tas­ma­nian mu­sic com­mu­nity just as much as the mu­sic and in­stru­ments the com­mu­nity pro­duces.

The best way for Aus­tralian Gui­tar to get a feel for this be­fore the ac­tual fes­ti­val was to spend a few days driv­ing around Tas­ma­nia with Weare and fel­low jour­nal­ist Michael Smith, meet­ing the folks who are mak­ing it all hap­pen. Here are a few of them...


Owner of Tas­ma­nian Tonewoods, Robert MacMil­lan has worked with tim­ber for over

50 years, op­er­at­ing a tim­ber sal­vage busi­ness sup­ply­ing wood for cus­tomers world­wide – and if you hit up the gallery on their web­site, you’ll see an im­pres­sive client list in­clud­ing War­wick, Peter Combe, Tar­rant Gui­tars, Riz­zolo Gui­tars, Tay­lor, and – soon, at least – Fender, who re­cently placed an or­der for a run of 50 Fender Cus­tom Shop Tele­cast­ers fea­tur­ing Bob’s Tas­ma­nian black­wood.

“I’ve got a lot of wood,” MacMil­lan says.

“Enough to give you a woody. A lot of clients love Tas­ma­nian black­wood be­cause it’s a rel­a­tive of koa – they’re both aca­cias – and koa comes from Hawaii. It’s a beau­ti­ful tim­ber. Think about it:

Hawaii, warm cli­mate. Tas­ma­nia, cold cli­mate. So it’s slower-grow­ing and denser.”

MacMil­lan’s not as fast on his feet as he used to be, as he bat­tles arthri­tis, so he’s brought in boat­maker Matt Stevens to help out one day a week for the heavy lift­ing. “This guy has saved my f***ing life,” MacMil­lan says. “Peo­ple say to me, ‘Why don’t you go to the Men’s Sheds and find an old bloke to help ya?” I said, “No way, this guy is so good!” He’s amaz­ing. I’m go­ing to leave him five mil­lion dol­lars in my will.”

MacMil­lan picks out a prime piece of wood ear­marked for a man­dolin sup­plier, and has Stevens demon­strate the sheer pre­ci­sion needed to run off a piece of tim­ber in­tended for high-end in­stru­ment sales. Be­lieve it or not, some in­stru­ments fea­tur­ing MacMil­lan’s woods have sold for up to $25,000.

Be­fore we leave, Stevens shows us a Telecaster-style gui­tar he made for his sis­ter, fea­tur­ing woods from MacMil­lan. It’s a gor­geous gui­tar, and me­thinks Matt Stevens will be one luthier to keep an eye on in the not-too-dis­tant fu­ture.


Alaskan-born Daniel Brauchli is an­other luthier

mak­ing in­cred­i­ble Weis­senborn-style in­stru­ments – but that’s just one el­e­ment of an ex­tremely re­fined, world-class ap­proach to luthiery in­cor­po­rat­ing things like car­bon/wood com­pos­ite braces, locked-bridge de­signs to re­duce phase can­cel­la­tion and in­crease dy­namic range, and a unique tech­nique where the sides of an in­stru­ment are shaped to fit around the top, elim­i­nat­ing the need for bind­ing and giv­ing the in­stru­ment a more sculpted feel.

Brauchli ap­proaches the gui­tar as a sen­si­tive, ul­tra light speaker box. His web­site is a vir­tual en­cy­clo­pe­dia of his re­search, find­ings and the­o­ries on sound, and his in­stru­ments are made from Tas­ma­nian tim­bers such as black­wood, eu­ca­lyp­tus, King Billy pine and western red cedar.

Among the in­stru­ments Brauchli shows us on our visit are an acous­tic bass with the most im­pres­sive low-fre­quency pro­jec­tion we’ve ever heard in any­thing smaller than a dou­ble-bass, a mini gui­tar that sounds mas­sive, and an in­stru­ment that ap­pears very close to his heart: the cit­tern gui­tar. In­spired by the early English gui­tar, the cit­tern gui­tar is a teardrop-shaped in­stru­ment (the bal­ance means you have to play it with a strap) with an ex­tremely pure, dy­namic, three-di­men­sional sound. It’s hard to de­scribe in words, but it’s al­most like if an acous­tic gui­tar was a fe­male vo­cal­ist: the sound isn’t as bassy as a gui­tar, and yet the fre­quen­cies that it does project are ut­terly haunt­ing.

“The cit­tern was ba­si­cally an Ir­ish bouzouki with ex­tra strings,” Brauchli says. “It was orig­i­nally a medieval in­stru­ment, and it was like a real folk in­stru­ment in the sense that it was very ac­ces­si­ble. But one of the prob­lems with cit­terns was that they be­came so ac­ces­si­ble, broth­els used to have them in the wait­ing rooms! So then they got a bad rep­u­ta­tion with peo­ple. But it ex­isted in lots of forms. I don’t know at what point the gui­tarra – the dou­ble-bout in­stru­ment that led to the gui­tars we know – came about, but the idea with that type of de­sign is that they re­ally were two cham­bers with the sound hole separating them.

“The good rea­son for a dou­ble-bout in­stru­ments is that there’s a smaller sound hole, but the body is big­ger, so it changes the ra­tio of body to sound hole. Whereas with my cit­tern gui­tar, the ra­tio of the body size is the sound hole size. So all I’m throw­ing away is the body fre­quency. And it’s only a tiny dif­fer­ence. Once you get used to that shape, it’s awe­some! The 12th fret is way past where the neck joins the body. And once you get used to the shape, it just makes so much sense.”


Billy Tar­rant of Tar­rant Gui­tars is well known for his Weis­senborn-style gui­tars, but he’s also a great luthier of acous­tic and elec­tric gui­tars, and a well-known re­pairer. Some of his work comes from some of Tas­ma­nia’s more en­thu­si­as­tic, but not nec­es­sar­ily ready-for-prime­time luthiers, who need a lit­tle ex­tra help to in mak­ing their in­stru­ments reach their full po­ten­tial.

“About 11 years ago,” Tar­rant ex­plains, “I was run­ning a fish farm in Vic­to­ria, and I had this silly idea that I’d com­bine wood­work­ing and mu­sic and make a gui­tar. I re­searched it and re­alised it was the sil­li­est idea I’d ever had – no­body makes any money out of it, but I just had to try it. That was 11 years ago, and I haven’t stopped yet! I still haven’t got it out of my sys­tem. The first gui­tar I made was an acous­tic, which I thought was the best gui­tar on the planet un­til I met an­other gui­tar maker who pointed out all the things I could im­prove on. Peo­ple are get­ting more of an ap­pre­ci­a­tion for hand­crafted stuff. They want things they can’t get any­where else; some­thing that’s just for them.”

On the day we visit, Tassie blues artist Gnarly Burl drops by to pick up his brand new Tar­rant mul­ti­scale acous­tic gui­tar – a fine com­ple­ment to his ex­ist­ing sta­ble of Tar­rants. “I’d al­ways been a singer, but I didn’t pick the gui­tar up un­til my 20s,” Burl says. “And the first gui­tar Billy made me changed my life.”

Tar­rant’s right-hand man Trent McCarthy (An “elec­tron­ics guru and rock god,” as Tar­rant de­scribes him) is do­ing some work on his own SG, bring­ing its pick­ups back to fac­tory spec af­ter var­i­ous mods and ex­per­i­ments over the years. If you’re in Tas­ma­nia – even if you’re there on tour – he’s the guy you want to call for your setup and tech work. The dude re­ally knows his stuff – as ev­i­denced by the ex­tremely geeky con­ver­sa­tion we had about pick­ups, pickup cov­ers, neck pro­files, bridges, Gib­sons and Ibanezes… Y’know, gui­tar nerd talk. Good guy.


Stu­art Phillips of String Worx Cus­tom Gui­tars isn’t a guitarist him­self, but as a skilled wood­worker and model maker with an in­quis­i­tive mind, he’s crammed his head full of knowl­edge about what makes a gui­tar great and what makes a guitarist want to play it. He’s a devo­tee of the Leo Fender school of ‘lis­ten to the play­ers’. And so although he makes ex­cep­tional elec­tric gui­tars, he’s cur­rently run off his feet with or­ders for ci­gar box gui­tars. Phillips’ ci­gar box gui­tars are ef­fort­lessly playable, and some in­cor­po­rate res­onators and mini hum­buck­ing pick­ups for a real down-and-dirty bluesy sound.

Phillips is a big fan of Tas­ma­nian tonewoods, and as the in­dus­try evolves, so too does his wood sources. “Tas­ma­nian sas­safras grows in the south-west, and the dark stain­ing in it is the re­sult of the fresh wa­ter get­ting in where a branch has bro­ken off,” he in­forms us. “An old sec­ond- or third-gen­er­a­tion log­ger told me the guys used to go out into the rain­for­est look­ing for cel­ery pine, a fur­ni­ture tim­ber, and they’d use the sas­safras trees as a look­out.

“The’d put a notch in it, put a plank in and climb it, so they’d be able to tell their team, ‘There’s a cel­ery pine 100 feet that way, and an­other one 50 feet that way.’ And now they’re go­ing back for the sas­safras with the notches in it, be­cause the wa­ter has got­ten in over the years and the stain is beau­ti­ful. The stain is ac­tu­ally the death of the tree; it’s the rot, but if it’s milled and tried in time, it’s a spec­tac­u­lar tim­ber.”



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