Rosie Heydenrych luthier and founder of the Turnstone Guitar Company
Rosie Heydenrych is the founder of the Turnstone Guitar Company, a seriously skilful young lady who in a short time, has earned a reputation for constructing acoustic guitars of the highest quality and build with a slight twist in her designs that catch the eye. I asked Rosie how and why she thinks Turnstone has reached such heights in a relatively short time, when some brands take decades to be accepted in such a competitive market.
“I guess it’s because I’ve studied business and marketing at university and therefore had a good grasp of a brand from that point of view”, says Rosie “But what I have learned from guitar making is that you can develop a brand to look as great as you want, I know how to develop a good and informative website as well, but your reputation is based on the work that you do, so it’s important what people say about you and your guitars to get ahead in this industry. My guitars have to be the ones to do the work and hopefully I am doing the right thing as far as building is concerned.
My interest in guitars began when I was at school. My sister played guitar and I played a saxophone which I felt was quite laborious. I watched someone playing guitar on the tele and they seemed so relaxed and that is what I wanted. I took my sister’s guitar and with two chords started writing songs. She was annoyed that I was using her guitar so my parents took me to the local guitar shop and bought me one and I taught myself. It was more of a song writing tool rather than learning technique. In my University years, that guitar went everywhere with me. We created a band of course and real highlight was playing the Cavern club in Liverpool.
After university I moved to London where I kicked off my career working in offices, I had a quarter life crisis,” laughs Rosie, “I didn’t want to be at a computer and in an office all day so, although I didn’t particularly want a career as a musician, I knew I wanted to be around music.. I was always very good at making things especially with wood, even at school I did wood working instead of sewing, which helped with my skills and knowledge. Classmates gave me things to cut because I was good at it, especially on the band saw, I guess it was me right back then and it’s since flourished and come out.
I attended an evening acoustic guitar course at the London Metropolitan University and something seemed to just click. But there was so much to learn and the learning curve is steep.It often required a high level of skill that I didn’t yet have, but I just had a desire to keep learning and get better like I never had before in my life. Even though at times I felt like it had got the better of me, I persevered and that determination has driven me forward to this day. I asked my evening course tutor if he could put me in contact with someone for more work experience, he put me in touch with a lady called Celine Camerlynk who repaired guitars in London’s Denmark St. I was still in my office job but managed to work voluntarily for about a year with her on a Saturday and did as much research as I could, which included going to guitar shows to meet other luthiers from where I got in touch with a talented guitar maker who said he was looking for an intern to work with him three days a week, so I made the decision to go part time with my office job.
My mentor said that he’d teach me to build a guitar that was going to be much better than the one I built in the evening class. So I discarded that guitar and started over. I worked for him for two years, the first year for two to three days a week and thereafter I became a part time student, during which time he advanced my skills, but unfortunately we fell out quite badly after two years and he said he did not want his name to be associated with mine.
So after my training, I decided at the beginning of 2015 it was time to start getting out there and let my guitars do the talking.”
So how are you accepted in what is a male dominated area of guitar making?
“It can be strange at times, especially at guitar shows where my husband is also on the stand with me. There’s often an ‘oh’ when people approach him first and he says I’m the builder. My angle on it is, yes there may be sexist attitudes still around but I haven’t experienced it. They look at me with a little surprise and apologise but I just laugh. It’s just people’s perceptions but as you say, women have been associated with crafts for many years and there are no physical reasons why a woman can’t do this job. Perhaps women might even have a better eye – in a design sense – to piece all the different elements together.
What do you think makes yours a high end guitar so special and individual?
“The key is the attention to detail where high end guitars shine. . I want the inside of my guitar to look just as good as the outside. That’s not just because I want people to peer into it and say how neat and tidy it is, I actually think it sounds tonally superior with the detail.
For example, on the inside back of my guitar, I use an X brace design and that’s contrary to the ladder bracing that you often see. Not only is this different aesthetically, it’s also quite striking visually, whilst giving the structural integrity required with the least amount of bracing possible and giving the back a ‘lively’ role , compared to a heavily rigid back, which acts more like a reflector. As I’m taking material away from the X brace, I’m also tone-tapping throughout the process and listening to how the tone changes as I remove material.
There are also many different construction methods within my soundboard bracing that you might not find on other acoustic guitars. I basically split my soundboard into bass and treble side bracing, providing each side with strength but in slightly different ways. I use higher density woods on the treble side for example. I want the guitar to be responsive over the entire tonal spectrum.
In more general terms, if the player likes or warm rounded tones, I might recommend a cedar soundboard or, European or Sitka spruce for a more feisty, trebly and reflective sound. I currently have three models and each one is braced differently, the smaller model T-S, for example, is going to be a bit tonally tighter on the treble because you don’t have the bigger soundboards to get the boomy tone of a bigger guitar, so I will adapt the bracing plans to suit the different models.
This is a general formula I have with all the models and their sizes but, it’s all down to the player too, where I will spend hours sat talking about neck and body sizes, playability and tone to orientate and tailor the guitar to their exact requirements. Tonewoods for the body obviously play a big part, I can offer a very wide range of exotic woods but again, I will ask what style do they play and what they enjoy playing, certain woods are obviously going to reflect better than others. If a customer is a dedicated jazz player, I wouldn’t recommend Brazilian rosewood because of the huge overtones, I would offer the choice of maple or mahogany for a more direct reflective note response.
I have to keep a stock of guitars for promotion and attending guitar shows, so there’s always going to be guitars floating around for the customer to visit my workshop and try them out. It would be better for people to come and try them personally even just to find out if the tone and the play-ability is OK for them. I will always have some in stock for demonstration purposes.
The Turnstone E-Series range is a signature series, for want of a better description, in that the models are made completely out of English wood inside and out. I built a prototype to see if I could do it and was so chuffed at the result. I would like it to be something that I become known for because I think English wood makes wonderful guitars. I’m very conscious of the situation with tropical tonewoods too, which are becoming scarce now. In the high-end market, timbers like Brazilian rosewood are still very much in demand.
I personally don’t think that using that calibre of wood automatically makes a good guitar, I think it comes down to how the wood is used. There are so many aspects of a guitar build that affect the overall tone, so I guess that’s why I was interested in the concept of the E Series. It’s certainly the most popular Turnstone guitar spec thus far. When you can put it into a nutshell and people say this is an ‘all-English guitar’, it’s great to know that all of the wood has come from England. One timber option includes wood called Bog Oak that was buried under the peat bogs in East Anglia for 5000 years and has been dried for 9 months by a guy who is passionate about bog oak. It’s black with beautiful streaks running through; it’s stunning and there’s also something quite special about playing a guitar constructed from wood so old.”
Fine, fine guitars, but what about those ‘Rosie twists’ in the designs?
“When you make things by hand, you have the flexibility to come up with and trial new things, you are not bound by machines. Whilst I pride myself on my clean and sharp workmanship, a few of my unique features have been developed already by other luthiers, therefore I cannot say that they are totally unique within my designs. The extra sound hole in the top side of the body for example, dates back to the 80’s when it was developed by renowned luthier Grit Laskin. This concept emits more of the sound inside of the guitar up to the player. This port is increasingly popular in the custom guitar world and as a player myself, I really like it.
Another subtle but effective touch, is the mini scoop cutaway inspired by Lewes based guitar maker Nick Benjamin. I usually use a slightly smaller cutaway than his to access the higher frets. The size can be optional, again depending on the player’s requirements or indeed, the size of their hands. The ‘scoop’ approach is great as you get additional fret access without compromising the volume of the soundbox too much. I have experimented with nitro cellulose finishes but I find that I now prefer polyurethane, as nitro cellulose is so thin, very easily marked and takes forever to apply. Unless someone asks for a certain finish, I’ll recommend the poly finish which, whilst still applied fairly thin, I prefer for longevity. A satin finish is also quite popular and can be applied even thinner if you like an open pore structure. To get that lovely glass-like high gloss finish you need to apply more lacquer. Once again, it’s all about weighing up what the customer wants, if you are all about tone and you want that guitar to scream from the rooftops, then you have to apply a thin finish – just enough to give a protective coat.”
For Rosie, working by hand really does mean just that.
“I don’t have any major electronic machinery in my workshop, just a few power tools, a drill a couple of sanders and a router, that’s it, the rest are all hand tools many of which I’ve bought from Tonetech. Machines of course can be quicker, but that’s not always what I want. Wood is a natural product and it all behaves and reacts differently, working with my hands, I can feel what the wood is telling me. It’s being able to understand through the hands feeling the wood, this I believe is what separates a good guitar maker from an average one.
As far as guitar care is concerned it’s vital that all guitars built to this level of expertise and quality are kept in a controlled environment. I certainly don’t teach my customers how to suck eggs, but humidity is often not on the top of their priority list when it comes to looking after an acoustic guitar. People often think a high-end acoustic is more stable because of the superior build, but they are just as, if not more vunerable than factory models as they are built to be more responsive.. I’ll often give away a hygrometer when I sell a Turnstone guitar to be kept in the same room. It makes them more aware but I don’t want to stress them out either. Obviously the guitar can take a little fluctuation of humidity but it is the extremes that are damaging. Other care is cleaning and the strings as well. I had a guitar recently that was back in for a 6 month check up and the strings hadn’t been changed from new. It’s just gentle reminders like that allow the guitar to perform at its best and customers to enjoy.
I always feel the latest guitar should be better than the ones before. I am constantly analysing and tweaking things with new builds. They are only small changes at this stage in my career, but I am constantly learning. In the future, I might trial a bigger innovation that builds attempts to build fundamentally better guitar, but at the moment I am just tweaking for the best possible results.”
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