In this latest instalment of Meet the Maker, I asked Manson Guitar Works’ Head Luthier Tim Stark how he got into this business and what made him want to be a guitar builder. Tim has built guitars for some of the world’s greatest guitar players, so his work has been used on stages and recording studios worldwide!
What got you into building instruments?
I’ve always loved music since I was little. My dad was a trombone player in the army and always played music at deafening levels when I was little. That lead to me playing various instruments throughout my childhood from the recorder, violin, trumpet and eventually guitar. My two loves at secondary school were music and design & technology. So for my A levels, I decided to build my own electric guitar. That’s where it all began really. It turned out ok. It was a bit basic, based on a Les Paul type design, but It worked and played in tune which was the main thing!
Whilst completing my A levels, I discovered there was a guitar making course at the Leeds College Of Music. I applied and started once I left school. I was in my second year when I overheard my tutor telling a couple of students in the year above about a job going in a guitar repair shop in Exeter. I applied, went for an interview, got the job, quit my course and moved to Exeter within a month to start as the tech at Mansons Guitar Shop. Best thing I ever did.
Who/What are your biggest influences with instrument building?
My first major influences were my tutors at college. Shane Haigh who owns and runs The String Surgeon, Glyn Evans of Mr Glyns Pickups in New Zealand and Ted Lee who was one of the first guitar modifiers and repair guys when electric guitars first started appearing in the UK. They taught me a lot in a very short time and were more than just tutors. They love what they do, like all us instrument makers, and that came across in lessons. Both Andy Manson and his brother Hugh obviously had a big influence when I started at Mansons Guitar Shop.
Seeing how they worked and some of the things their minds came up with was a constant source of amazement. Andy is like a Jedi Master when it comes to making instruments. Have you seen the Mermaid!!! Mind-blowing. I think he’s one of the finest craftsmen of his generation!
What is your favourite part of the process of instrument making?
I love most aspects really, but the design process was always one of my favourites. More recently it’s actually become the problem-solving aspect. How am I going to do THAT? You know? I get asked to do a lot of crazy things, but they’re the most fun and sometime’s frustrating parts of the build. But it’s great when it all works out and you see the final result.
Two of the most challenging builds I’ve had recently were both for Matt Bellamy. The Tron inspired guitar which had a blue light around the entire perimeter of the guitar had me scratching my head for a while. But after a couple of failed attempts, I got there in the end. It looks way cooler in the flesh. A lot brighter than it looks on stage. The amount of lights and video screens Muse use in their shows stops it from popping as much.
The other tricky one was another one of Matts. They’d had issues with midi drop out on stage, so his tech Chris Whitemyer asked if we could build a Digitech Whammy into a guitar. Now that, was a challenge! The electronic side of things was taken care of by our tech genius Ron Joyce. He’s developed all the major electro wizardry in our guitars for years. It was him that wired Matts original “Delorean” guitar with the internal Zvex Fuzz, Phase90, Piezo and Synth pickup. I had to make all the stuff fit and wire it up, plus figure out how to power it.
The Whammy is connected to our midi XY screen, a switch turns the guitar off, then the screen turns the guitar on as well as giving you -2 to +2 octaves depending on where your finger is on the screen. Very clever stuff!
How should potential new clients get prepared when buying a new instrument from you?
Most are well prepared, but sometimes don’t have the technical knowledge to get across their ideas. That’s where we can help. We can guide people with decisions on tonewoods, hardware choice, finish options etc. We do have a wide range of choices with electronics and finishes. Some people want everything in one guitar, which just wouldn’t work. So we have to help them to get as close to their vision as they can, without the final instrument looking or sounding like the kitchen sink has been thrown at it!
How would you describe your style of instrument building?
I think we’re definitely in the modern instrument genre, but it all stems from the classic designs that originated back in the early days. A lot of what we do involves lots of electronic modifications, from internal effects to visual effects. We have a few new things in the pipeline in the next few months, one project I’m very excited about. It’s a complete departure from anything we’ve done so far!
What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made whilst learning your craft?
I’d say my biggest mistake used to be not taking time to think things through. Even when you’re up against it with a tight deadline, you just need to take a step back and breathe. Going full tilt all the time can make you forget the simplest things, which leads to silly mistakes. It took me a while to figure that out.
Why should musicians buy a luthier made instrument?
There’s something more personal about having a luthier built instrument. For a start, most of the time you actually talk to the person who’s building your guitar. You also get to spec your instrument exactly how you want it, to the minutest detail. You can’t do that at the larger companies. It’s just a more personal experience from start to finish.
Do you have a personal favourite style of instrument?
I’m a (bad) bass player myself (he’s being modest, he definitely knows how to handle a bass- Jef), so I do love a good old Pbass. There’s just something about that instrument that you can’t beat. It worked back then, and it still works now! Guitar wise, I really love instruments that stray from the norm. The two guitars I’ve absolutely loved over the last few years design-wise are the Musicman St. Vincent and the Reverend Billy Corgan. I love the angles on the St. Vincent, and the plates on the BC just look awesome!
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?
I still get nervous. It’s always that feeling in the pit of your stomach, what if they don’t like it? What if I’ve not managed to get the details right? It’s both the worst and the best bit. I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve not had a return in my time as a maker.
What do you want your legacy to be?
Ooh, that’s a tricky one. To be honest, I’d just love to be remembered as a good guitar maker. I don’t think I’ll ever be classed as one of the greats. How could I be when you’re competing with people like Leo Fender, Les Paul and Andy Manson! As long as my guitars are still being played and making people happy years from now, that’s all I could ever ask for.
Main Image of Matthew Bellamy by Hans-Peter van Velthoven
Library images by Jolyon Holroyd and Tim Stark.