I would be a total fraud if I said I was good at woodwork whilst at school. To this day though, I still like working with wood and I’ve built a boat, although I seriously doubt if I have the precision skills required to make my own guitar. All I have to show for my timber talents is a shoe box that took 3 school terms to complete and the boat.
“That doesn’t matter,” says Mark Bailey of Bailey Guitars, one of the UK’s busiest guitar luthiers based in, Maybole, Ayshire, Scotland.
“We have people of all ages and skill levels enrolling to our ‘Build Your Own Guitar’ course at our workshop and more recently, joining our new online courses which I’m extremely excited about. The online courses offer the chance for anyone with basic skills to actually build their own acoustic, bass, solid bodied electric or jazz archtop guitar in their own home or workshop.
Many years ago I had a dream about how cool it would be to be able to teach people how to build a guitar via a video that I could beam into their own homes. I imagined taking them through the process from here in my workshop. Now of course, technology has caught up with us and thanks to the internet, students of all ages and skills are able to subscribe and enrol via our web site Bailey Guitars.
I have about 200 online students who can watch and learn how to make the guitars from the video on our web site after enrolling. This is so much easier for me than the hands-on course here in the workshop, where I can only really give my full attention to up to four students at a time. Although it’s the daily waft of fresh wood chippings and the whir of the band saw that does it for me.”
How long then for Mr Shoebox here, to complete an electric guitar?
“Here in the workshop?…5 days,” says Mark. I don’t think you heard me correctly.
“Yes I did. I’m confident that with me watching over, you can complete our most popular solid bodied ‘Bandsman’ 5 day electric guitar course, that’s starting from scratch to hooking up and rocking out.
We have people fly in from all over the world for this course, their planes are booked in and out so we have to meet the deadlines. I have to keep an eye on what they have in mind, if they are looking at intricate custom inlays, that’s going to take a lot longer, so has to be planned. In the workshop, I’m keeping an eye on them all the time as the work varies according to their skill levels. I might show them how to fit the first few frets then they are on their own, whilst filing the nut slots, may need a little more one to one guidance. Same with the neck profiles, I’ll do the first few strokes so they can see how it should be done, then leave them to it.”
Do you interview the clients before they enrol, how would you tell someone that you didn’t feel they had the skills to complete a course? Mark explain,
“It’s strange you know, I’ve never really had to do that, I think there must be some sort of natural filter, we get some very experienced people through here, including a fighter pilot and a major in the army, to some very young students straight from school who, maybe shy and lacking in confidence, and yet at the end of the course they’re happily working away with the band saw.
We use FSC approved wood as much as possible and I just keep the most popular for our workshop courses in stock. For the basic solid bodied electric guitar, we use mahogany for the body and neck, along with rosewood for the fretboard. For the first-timer, these are the easiest tonewoods to work with. Mahogany and rosewood are popular for the back and sides of the acoustics with spruce and cedar a favourite for the tops. Church pews of course are always on the radar, if we hear of a renovation somewhere we’ll be there in the van. Students also get the bug, I’ve had many who have paid a visit to their local wood yard and come up with a hidden gem or knocked on the door with an old walnut or cherry sideboard.”
Raw timber, no matter how old has to go through a process before it can be used for building guitars, how does this affect the people working from the online courses?
“It’s crucial that the wood is flat and straight, this isn’t a job for the people building guitars from our online course, so the kits they receive will have ready-made fingerboards and body blanks which have been through the planer in our workshop.
It’s the response to the online courses we launched in….that has amazed us. My inbox is full of people keeping in touch about how they are getting on and how pleased they are with their progress and results. Some folk are a little wary as to what tools are required. I’ve designed the construction of the guitars to be as simple as possible using just the basic tools necessary. I’m in talks with Bill Quinn from ToneTech Luthiers supplies, from whom we buy a lot of our tonewoods and hardware – we are soon launching a tool kit between us specifically assembled for amateur guitars makers.”
For those of us who simply don’t have time to enjoy making their own guitar either in the Bailey Workshop or online, Mark’s own models are some of the finest built in the UK.
“I like to think my guitars are amongst some of the best within the world of guitar luthiery and I’m proud of them all,” says Mark, “Especially some of the art deco jazz archtop guitars and the new Preston Reed signature jumbo baritone.
I was lucky enough to have some of the finest luthiers in the business as mentors, the likes of Patrick Eggle, Gary Levinson, Trevor Wilkinson and Rob Williams for example.
I had an epiphany for wood working at school, when I left I had many jobs in just 6 months but hated them all. At the time, I had just two things that I enjoyed the most, guitars and working with wood, so I thought why on earth don’t I make guitars?
Patrick Eggle Guitars opened up a factory in Coventry, I must have been about 17 at the time, I literally knocked on the door and told them I wanted to make guitars.
When I finally decided to go out on my own, I managed to get a credit card with a £600 limit. I bought the smallest band saw money could buy along with a tiny router and a few hand tools and built my first 60 guitars.
That was nearly 20 years ago when I set up Bailey Guitars with my partner Carol Davies during which time we’ve produced over 600 guitars, basses, and ukuleles through our custom workshop.
For me, there’s a huge reward when I see the light come on in their eyes when they stand back at the end of the course and see what they have achieved. I’ve had one guy say his guitar played ‘Like a fluffy cloud’. I’ve also had men hug me and recently a guy called up to say when he took his finished guitar home and opened the case, his wife burst into tears.
I’m just glad that I can say I’m part of it.”
For more information about Bailey Guitars and the workshop and online guitar courses visit:
Tel: 01655 883138