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Noden Workshop
Written by Lars Mullen

As a stringed instrument repair service, Noden Guitars have been operating as a family business for over 65 years, with Graham Noden himself now estimated to have worked on over 130,000 instruments. London’s Denmark St., has been the heart of the operation of this successful family run business since the early 80’s. Graham’s son Lowell Noden, talks about life as a guitar repairer in the big city, a history lesson on the legendary street and how he still enjoys repairing rare vintage guitars.

Re-building an instrument“There are distinct advantages being situated in the centre of the city”, says Lowell Noden. “We are exposed to a broad spectrum of different musical instruments, playing styles, the musicians themselves and their backgrounds. Having handled and repaired such a diverse range of instruments over the years, we have a great deal of experience and a broad knowledge base to draw from, hence Noden Guitars offers a wider range of services rather than specialising in any one area, we’re fully prepared for all and everything.

We can handle just about any guitar problem that comes through the door, from minor repairs to that full-on guitar rebuild or a neck reset on a vintage Martin for example. Most guitar work in general are usually set ups, re frets and electrical issues, but there will always be new problems and challenges, and you can be rest assured, if there’s a job you can’t do, there will be someone not far away who can, and then you’ll lose the custom. This is a good motivator to keep us on our toes.

Competition in Denmark Street and the surrounding area has always been fierce, even in these modern times when there are fewer luthiers in the vicinity, owing to the re developments that have been ongoing with London’s Cross Rail network system. There have been many untrue stories about the death of Denmark Street and it’s difficult sometimes to know where they are coming from, but most of us have been here throughout the developments.

A few guitar stores relocated from one shop to another during the work, but they’re coming back now to their original premises. We are five years into the development and there’s every indication that we will still be here and benefit from the expansion when it does actually finish. Denmark Street is an old and very characteristic part of town and arguably some of the buildings are showing their age, which is true of the area in general. As far as I can gather, a lot of these buildings including the one we are in were the first developments after the great fire of London around the late 1680’s. We haven’t been here that long, but operating out of our dusty basement since the early 80’s, we have seen a lot of changes.”

We are in leaner times for guitars right now, is this reflected within the repair business?

“I think it’s harder for the guys selling guitars to make money now, especially with the internet, but that doesn’t really affect us because we don’t sell guitars, we work on them, and you can’t buy repairs over the internet.

If you can’t sit down face to face with a customer who you intend to work with, you might as well not do the job. It depends on the work they want us to do, but for rebuilds and set ups for example, there are so many details we need to know about the player.

Re-fretting a guitarEveryone is different physically and will hold a guitar in the way they feel comfortable, they may have grown up used to a certain neck profile or the height of the frets they’ve gotten used to playing, even their left and right hand techniques.  All these fine details make a big difference when it comes to repairs and set ups. This is important information that you can only acquire face to face, so in that respect, we have the same approach that we had many decades ago.

The internet has helped in several ways though, the likes of tonewood, hardware and spare parts are all so easily available now. We purchase quite a lot from Tonetech Luthier Supplies, including  Jescar fret wire which is very good, I believe they have the only source in the UK. It all arrives the next day, it’s just so quick and convenient.”

So, we have the picture in our minds of a dusty 17th century basement with wood shavings on the floor, oil lamps and clocks ticking as you repair a variety of stringed instruments, rather Dickensian like?

Polishing a finish“Almost,” laughs Lowell. “It’s still very much hands-on down there, there certainly isn’t any need for computerised machines, in fact most of the instrument repair businesses, especially ours, is backward looking in the fact that nearly all the work is manual, with hand tools and the skills and craftsmanship that we’ve learnt over the years. The instruments, the tools and the materials may have changed, but the basic concept is the same.”

You must have seen and repaired many classic guitars, is the wow factor still there for you after all these years? Lowell explains,

“I’ve had the opportunity to work on thousands of iconic  guitars, but you know, after a certain number, it does become a little unromantic and they are really just…well, basically wood and plastic. If you treat it as an icon rather than a functional item, you are not going to look at it objectively. I still enjoy working on any guitar especially the expensive ones, but you have to be realistic about what you’re doing or else you can’t work on it. Working on so many legendary guitars over the years has given me many benchmarks on what actually does and doesn’t work within repairs and why they are used, to judge other methods and to separate from what is actually myth and magic.

Guitar Electrics RepairWhen I look first  at a classic guitar in for repair, I have to take into consideration the value of the instrument and through experience, I know the answer to the problem, rather than what others may think is the ideal solution. I think this is why a lot of the best guitar builders, certainly the most interesting, spend long periods of time repairing before they start building, which I feel is a better route to go because it allows them to use the knowledge they’ve gained to craft a better guitar. You can stand back and look and say, Ok, this was how it was done some 50 years ago and here it is today, how has it stacked up?

So yes, it’s luxury to come in early in the morning and play very expensive guitars very loud through very expensive amps, but they are just tools, they weren’t anything more than musical instruments when they were made, and other than their historical significance, they’re still no more than that now.”

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Lars Mullen

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