Ivison Guitars is run by Neil Ivison who builds unique original instruments. Taking elements of the classic guitars of the ’50s using these to form new designs with modern playability and bags of style.
What got you into building instruments?
I have been playing the guitar since the age of 11 and obsessively tinkering with them since day one. Over the years I fell into guitar tech work and ended up touring the world for 15 years as a tech for bands. I decided to retire from the touring tech work in 2018 as I was away from my young family so much. I got a job with a pal building Scandinavian style wooden holiday lodges but the passion for guitars was constantly niggling and after a year, I started up a guitar repair shop instead. Around this time, I bought a mint 1959 Junior which I’d always wanted but, it turned out that I was scared to death to take it out of the house and gig it in case it got damaged and there just wasn’t much ‘fun’ in owning it….so I set about building one as close as I could to the original. I took the woodworking skills I’d learned on the lodges, endless hours of YouTube videos and studying books and I built a DC Junior replica.
I showed it to a few guitar-playing pals and they asked if I’d build them one, then another pal ordered one, then another and it suddenly dawned on me that with a little leap of faith, I had a potential luthiery business on my hands so I went for it and then got the bug big time!
I am still a musician and guitarist and I currently play with Ginger Wildheart & The Sinners.
Who/What are your biggest influences with instrument building?
As a player, I’ve always been a big fan of Gibson guitars and I make no secret of the fact that I am hugely influenced by what Gibson was doing in the ’50s, I love vintage guitars and have had more 50’s Juniors and Specials than I can remember so that is the obvious jumping-off point. I initially started building straight up 50’s Junior replicas with my own headstock but as I learnt my craft I felt I wanted to try something a little more challenging.
Plus, and I must give them a nod here, I was spurred into trying to do my own thing by Gibson’s #playauthentic stance….regardless of how it was delivered and then received, I felt that they did have a valid point, as at that time my guitars were all vintage accurate replicas bar the headstocks so it was a welcome kick into trying my own thing. So I sat up late one night with some sheets of paper and I came up with The Hurricane. So thanks to them!
I think there is such a strong boutique guitar scene now with some incredible makers doing interesting things; it’s such a great time to be a guitar player as everyone is catered for. I love what Tom Bartlett is doing with his Retrospec guitars and Damian Probett makes some inspired guitars too, I think they are wonderful luthiers and they inspire me as much as the vintage stuff these days.
What is your favourite part of the process of instrument making?
Definitely the neck carve. This is where the soul of the guitar is, it’s the interface and a bad neck carve can make or break a guitar. I think it’s a lot of the reason those old 50’s guitars are so revered; by in large the necks, all feel fantastic. I’ve been lucky enough to have 100’s of vintage necks through my hands over the years and they have the same ‘immediately feeling at home’ thing going on so I base mine on those – I’ve taken profiles and measurements from many of those old ones and that’s what I use as templates to carve mine.
How should potential new clients get prepared when buying a new instrument from you?
I think if someone is looking to buy one of my guitars, they will already have an appreciation of vintage guitars, I don’t do anything ultra-modern, they all hark back to those ‘Golden Era’ guitars. Obviously, my website is the first stop, I detail all the specs there and then they can get in touch directly if they have any questions or through one of my dealers ATB Guitars or Coda Music.
How would you describe your style of instrument building?
Definitely Traditional/Old School. I predominantly use African/Honduran Mahogany, Indian Rosewood, Celluloid plastics and Nitrocellulose Lacquer. I have, however, recently become more and more interested in sustainability so I’m currently working with my lumber supplier to source alternative woods that will give me the same sonic properties but ultimately come from an FSC regulated supply with less environmental impact. I’m only a tiny user of the end product in the grand scheme of things but I feel I should do my bit as much as possible and I’m sure many of my customers would feel the same.
Everything is cut, carved & finished by hand. I’ve just moved into a much larger workshop to be able to cope with orders and streamline the processes a little more. I’d not discount the implementation of CNC in the future either, some luthiers think of it as a dirty word but used correctly, I think the gains far outweigh the cork sniffing. I’d ALWAYS carve the neck by hand though, it’s my favourite part!
What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made whilst learning your craft?
Rushing! I made so many mistakes on those first few builds by thinking I could rush through it and it always leads to problems. The upside is that it was probably a greater learning curve working out how to correct them. Now, with experience, I’m not the fastest guitar builder in operation but each process is done right and not rushed so I hope the end-user feels it was worth waiting for…
Why do you think musicians should buy a luthier made instrument?
Well, gone are the days when you just had to make do with a couple of models that a company offered. I genuinely think we are in the golden era of guitar making; every style, taste & spec is catered for even by most of the major brands. But, a luthier made instrument takes that and personalises it further. I, and I’m sure it’s true of most other luthiers, hand select the wood I use so it has the right moisture content, a certain resonance, the correct grain orientation and then I go from there. I’m happy to work with a customer to dial in their exact needs. Every step of the process is handmade, hand-cut, hand-carved, hand-finished and, certainly in my case, only by my hands as I’m currently the only employee. I’ve seen various ‘factory tour’ videos where there are 100’s of guitars travelling overhead hanging on conveyor belts to the next part of the factory every day and it just seems so impersonal to me. I’d like to think that the guitar I bought wasn’t a potluck chance of being a good one, I’d like to think someone has taken the time to build it with the skills to take a lot of that ‘luck’ out of the build process and deliver a great sounding and most importantly, an inspiring instrument.
Do you have a personal favourite style of instrument?
Personally, I love single pickup guitars. They have that extra bite and resonance which is the special sauce for me. So Juniors and Esquires are my personal favourites.
What do you feel when you have to hand the new guitar/bass over to its new owner and do you ever want to keep them instead?
Nerves! The whole build process is enjoyable for me from start to finish but the time that the customer first sees and then handles the guitar is always the most nerve-wracking for me but so far all the nerves have luckily been unwarranted!
What would you want your legacy to be?
If I could be remembered for building great guitars that musicians enjoyed playing and inspired them to make great music then I’d be happy.
All the images article by David Libson-Hochenberg