STRINGFEST 2020 SNEAK-PEEK
IN APRIL 2020, THE TASMANIAN TOWN OF DELORAINE COMES ALIVE WITH LUTHIERS, WOOD SUPPLIERS AND MUSICIANS FROM THE APPLE ISLE. HERE’S A SNEAK PEEK.
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.”
ROBERT MACMILLAN DANIEL BRAUCHLI
BILLY TARRANT STUART PHILLIPS