Saturday, 22 August 2020

Why is Britain a country which has failed to honour and say "Goodbye" to its old Prince of Luthiers and Master of Guitar Makers, Chris Eccleshall ?

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It is ironical that Chris, the consummate guitar maker of should die at the age of 72 on the same day as the consummate classical guitar player, the 87 year old, Julian Bream. Chris who worked as a luthier for over half a century, made custom-built acoustic and electric guitars also produced a standard range of solid body electrics under the name 'Electric Lady.'  He also made solid-bodied electric mandolins, acoustic mandolins, mandolas and bouzoukis and was an authorised repairer of Martin, Gibson and Guild guitars and received the blessing of Mario Maccaferri to make reproductions of his Selmer-Maccaferri jazz guitars.

What is even more ironical is that, whereas Julian's death has been marked hundreds of comments on twitter and obituaries in both the 'Times' and 'Guardian', Chris' death, by contrast, was marked by just two tweets and no obituaries.
The tweets where from 'Mansons Guitar Shop' and another which said : 'It is with great sadness that we announce the passing of Dartington Morris Man and luthier to the stars, Chris Eccleshall. He will be very much missed.' The fact that Chris was a self-effacing craftsman and not an assiduous entrepreneur, goes some way towards explaining why he often either, didn't get the credit, or the remuneration for his inventions and by the same token has been given no credit with his passing.

Chris was born three years after the end of the Second World War in the Spring of 1948 in Gosport, Hampshire the s0n of Doreen and Leslie, a Royal Navy officer and attended one of the secondary schools in Gosport before he moved into the Sixth Form at the new Brune Park Secondary High School in 1965. It was in his school years that he taught himself to make musical instruments by studying guide books for the construction of guitars, dulcimers, mandolins and banjos. In addition, he studied photos in catalogues and sketched different models and after he'd his first guitar, found himself commissioned to make more for his school mates.

After leaving school at the age of 18 he started an apprenticeship as an aircraft maintenance engineer working on aircraft engines in the Fleet Air Arm's shore establishment in Gosport at HMS St Vincent. However, after 9 months he decided engineering was not for him and left to "hitch-hike around for a while". Later he acknowledged that his acquired metal working skills : "Stood me in good stead. The grounding it gave me in metalwork has helped put me in a position where I can make almost everything for the guitar myself, including bridges for electric guitars and truss rods."

His travels took him to Hastings, where he became assistant to John Howard-Lucy, a well-respected violin maker. John was quick to recognise Chris's talent and later placed him at the age of 18 with W. E. Hill and Sons of Bond Street, which, founded in 1701, was one of the oldest violin houses in the world and at the time, was the number one violin company in the world.
He stayed with Hills for three years serving his apprenticeship and, in the process, found himself working on violins worth as much as £15,000. Chris worked under the guidance of master craftsmen, including Grandfather Hill and was taught the skills of restoration, fitting up and bridge peg fitting. He also had the opportunity to work in the guitar department at the Victoria and Albert Museum and after three years, with his apprenticeship complete, he was a qualified 'Violin Maker & Restorer'.

He left the company at the age of 21 in 1969 and moved to Ealing Strings at Ealing Common, London, mainly to work on violins, although any guitar brought in for repair would inevitably be passed to Chris. His interest in the guitar was such that he spent most evenings making guitars in the shop's upstairs workshop and finishing them off at his nearby roof garden.

At the age 23 in 1971, he decided to branch out on his own and acquired two garages further down the road, which he converted into workshops and made a start with a handful of tools and his final week's wages from Ealing Strings. He recalled that he "had to get through the barrier of not just being 'Chris down the road who knocks up guitars now and then', but to be accepted as a professional guitar maker who knows what he's talking about and gives value for money." He was working 10+ hours a day, six days a week, at a time of which British guitar makers were unheard of and was one of the first to win recognition, along with Tony Zemaitis and John Birch.

In these early days he was heavily influenced by the guitars of the American companies, Martin and Gibson when making his flat-top acoustic guitars with the archtops drawing inspiration from Gretsch. He was also influenced by John Bailey whose guitars were well regarded by the folk musicians at that time.

He gained the blessing of the Maestro of guitar makers, Mario Maccaferri after being commissioned to make a replica of a Selmer Maccaferri guitar. Chris recalled :  : "Louis Gallo asked me to deliver the first guitar to him and invited me to his house for a meal. I turned up with the guitar and walked in to find Maccaferri himself sitting there. Louis had invited Mario to dinner. I was a bit nervous, to say the least, but he liked the guitar and gave me his blessing to make some more. So I suppose you could say that I was officially sanctioned by Mario Maccaferri to make his guitars."

In fact, Chris said that the 'Maccaferri Gypsy Jazzer' was the most difficult of all acoustic guitars to make :"Its a real challenge to do it the way Maccaferri designed them. They're arched over the braces both back and front and then they have a real sharp cutaway. It's a sod of a job and can only be done by hand."

Chris spoke poetically about his work : "The different woods give you different tonal qualities. Rosewood is a very hard wood. When it's sanded smooth, it's a very reflective wood and gives you a very sharp sound. Mahogany is a more absorbent wood, giving you a nicer middle tone. my personal preference is for a mahogany guitar because it gives a nice warm sound. To me, rosewood guitars are a bit too clean and harsh. For classical guitars, it's probably best to use rosewood to get that clearity. For an all-round guitar, if you want to play flat-picking or finger-style, I think mahogany will give a better sound. It's a matter of splitting the difference." He also treated wood with reverence as can be seen in his shaping the neck of a guitar.

The amount of time he took to build a guitar would vary : "If the finish is tricky. I can spend three days on the woodwork and three weeks on the finish; building up the lacquer, colour staining and polishing it. It's probably the trickiest part of the whole operation, because its got to be so good."

In 1975 he recalled that when he struck out on his own  : "It was terrible for the first six months. I was living on egg and chips for months and I had hardly any money. But word gets around and I started getting work. Rory Gallagher was the first main customer. He phoned me up at home one day and said he had a lot of stuff that needed sorting out, so that was about two month's work in itself. The word gets around because you'd get a couple of roadies coming round with repairs, and they'd meet other roadies at gigs and tell them, and so it would go on. Since then, of course, it's snowballed and I can pick and choose now."

 At first the work for Rory involved rebuilding guitars, but he became Rory's favoured guitar technician from 1971 to 1985, rebuilding and re-fretting his revered and battered Sunburst Fender Stratocaster 18 times. He was also responsible for disabling the Strat's vibrato mechanism using a wooden block, a modification he was also commissioned to apply to Eric Clapton's 'Blackie' which he first played in 1973 and through to 1985. Donal Gallagher has said : 'It meant so much to my brother that another craftsman could appreciate his guitar-craft and comprehend the fine detail Rory was requiring.'

Rory, who was just two months older than Chris, could be an exacting client.
When, on one occasion, Rory's Fender Esquire guitar was damaged by airport baggage handlers it was handed to Chris for urgent repair. To save time he was forced to use polyurethane rather than lacquer for the finish, which had a green tint when lit from particular angles. Rory wanted it urgently enough that he collected the guitar himself on the afternoon of the gig and when he saw it lit at just the wrong angle by the rays of the setting sun, he said : "Oh my dear boy, I don't want a green guitar!" When Chris had explained the situation, Rory got interested in the possibilities afforded by the guitar being modified when refinished and asked Chris : "Could we make it a black guitar and could we make it a three-pickup guitar?" 
Chris subsequently fitted the Stratocaster pickups supplied by Rory and refinished it in black and he used it when he played 'Souped up Ford' on the 'Old Grey Whistle Test' in 1976. As well as repair, Chris made a number of instruments for Rory over the years, including this black electric mandolin. Rory's brother, Donal has said : 'Key to Rory's search was the 'true' amplification of his musical instruments, in particular, when endeavouring to have his italian mandolin playing "Goin' To My Hometown". At first he played through a microphone, the mandolin was competing with the hand-clapping and foot stomping fans tattooing out the underlying rhythm of the ballad leading to maxed out microphone squealing with feedback. So Chris produced a solid, electric mandolin for Rory a a first of its kind, this allowed my brother to be more abitious in both his stage and studio use of the instrument.' 

In his first 5 years in his own business, he made over 140 guitars and repaired more, which he described as a "soul-destroying job, just correcting other people's mistakes." What he meant was the misuse and wilful destruction of guitars on stage : "I made a few guitars for 'The Sweet' and one only lasted a week. It came back in about 7 parts. I did some repair work for Pete Townshend, but no way will I build a guitar for him. I know how it will end up." In fact, Chris did go back on his promise and did build one guitar for him. He made about 12 guitars for 'The Sweet', both acoustic and electric, including Andy Scott's double-neck and a black Gibson J-200-style acoustic for singer Brian Connelly with a silver pearloid Everly Brothers-style scratchplate.

These were the years in which he made the 'Eccleshall Scimitar' and 'Excalibur' shaped with outward curves, rather than the inward curves of traditional electric guitars derived from the rounded classical guitar. He also made his 'Eccleshall C-Model' acoustic guitar as a classical guitar for steel strings and his his 'Special' was a variant of this.

An electric guitar with a solid mahogany body and neck took him between 30-50 hours work and was marketed at £50-80. They were also the years he was involved in a competition with fellow
guitar makers, Tony Zemaitis and John Birch, as to who could get their outlandish guitar designs onto 'Top of the Pops' during the 70s heyday of British glam rock. Chris himself said at the time : "It's great to see 'Top of the Pops' and see guitars I've made. It's nice to realise they are being used. I put a lot of time and trouble into making them, so it's nice to see people taking them out and using them."

In 1975 Chris told 'Melody Maker' : "David Bowie has got a 12 string of mine and I made that star-shaped guitar the 'Glitter Band' used on Top of the Pops." His gold coloured guitar was destroyed in a baggage-handling accident and a second, silver one was made by John Birch to replace it. "Then I did one in the shape of an axe, which I believe went to Alice Cooper. I've done repair work for Eric Clapton, Mud and Wizard. Sometimes guitars come through for repairs and I don't even know who they belong to. Then I see them on tv and I realise I'd been working on them the week before." Chris described the electric stick guitar, commissioned by Patrick Campbell-Lyons of 'Nirvana' as "a plank with two pick ups." Paul Weller used his Eccleshall TV Model for the Jam's 'Down in the Tube Station' in 1978.

Additionally, Chris made guitars for Dave Davies, Davey Arthur of 'The Fureys', 'The Levellers', 'Echo & the Bunnymen', 'This Picture', 'The Men They Couldn't Hang', 'Steven Woodcock', Richard Stilgoe and Richard Digance.

In the mid 70's his connection with Townshend brought him into contact with the American David Shecter of 'Shecter's Guitars' fame. At the time, Chris was very interested in the Telecaster style, but wanted to do something a bit different. He recalled : "Between me and David, plus Pete Townshend and a couple of other people chipping in, we came up with the idea od a bound-edged, flat-topped Tele with figured maple from and birdseye maple neck. David went back to the USA and made the tele-style guitar and Pete eventually bought six of them and then came the 'Schecter-Pete Townshend Model'. It could just as easily have been the 'Eccleshall-Pete Townshend Model'."

It was a good example of Chris, the non-pushy craftsman loosing out to the hard-headed businessman. He told 'Guitar Magazine' in 1996 : "Sometimes it makes me really furious. You get Fender saying 'You can't call your guitar a Strat or Tele, because it's not', but they quite happily use my ideas, like that maple-topped guitar and say it was their idea."

In the early 1980s, Peter Hook, playing in 'New Order', recalled that he was dissatisfied with Gibson guitars. Interviewed in 2017, Peter said of its replacement : "I've got Yamaha electrics with a Gibson body and because it's hollow you get great feedback. So I can use the body to feed back like a guitar. So I've used those, by a guy called Chris Eccleshall, since 1982, live. So I use the hollow bodies live because of the feedback, because they're as raunchy as fuck."

In fact, Chris made his 335-style bass, a unique hollow-bodied instrument for Peter, Eddie Macdonald of 'The Alarm' and Simon Gallup of 'The Cure'.

This was a time when Chris struck a licensing deal with the Japanese-made brand Kimbara to make and distribute an Eccleshall-designed Stratocaster-style guitar. He travelled to the Japanese factory to supervise the setup and was pleased with Japanese engineering standards.

For the late John Perkins he crafted the world's first electric sitar using hickory, ash and rock maple. It took three years to make and John said : "I came up with the idea to have an electric sitar and asked Chris if he would make one for me. He is a perfectionist and agreed to make it as long as I was willing to wait." 

Over the years Chris worked with many apprentices and assistants and trained and advised other luthiers including
George Lowden and Kevin Chilcott. Always inventive, he didn't receive credit for placing guitar neck's truss rod in an alloy U-channel and later regretted that he hadn't patented the idea and the first sideless hardtail bridge for a Telecaster without the original design's raised edges and pioneered the rectangular solid machined steel block bridge saddles.

In 1986 Chris uprooted from his Ealing and moved his business to Dartington and a few years later moved his workshop again to Buckfastleigh. In 2008 Chris and local timberman and guitarist Eddie Cameron created a series of hand-made co-designed guitars to a standard design and marketed under the name 'Electric Lady'. They were based on the Stratocaster, but with locally sourced timber and British humbucking pick-ups, the two coils used to "buck the hum" or cancel out the background interference. His last workshop move was to relocate to Totnes, Devon.

Chris once said :
"Making guitars in the UK is really hard work. There's very little glamour and you don't make much money. I'd have been better as a window cleaner."

Thankfully, because of all the pleasure his instruments gave their players and their audiences over the years, he didn't become a window cleaner and deep down, he probably wouldn't have wanted it any other way. 

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