at the end of last year had the good fortune to be interviewed by my old friend Danny burrows for guitar connoiseur magazine based in new york.
if you want the whole magazine I'm afraid you will have to stump up the money for it, however, just for you lucky people, here is the interview TEXT in full.
standing at the crossroads
THE PATH TO CREATIVITY IS PREDESTINED
Facetime blinks on my mobile with the call sign Blind John. It as funny story as to how his nickname came about. Something to do with showing up on a rope access job in dark glasses and being introduced by the foreman as the new blind climber – something like that anyway. It’s a good anecdote for the guy anyway – he was the most incredible climber; he’s a touch unhinged; and you can always expect to laugh in his company. I answer and John appears on my screen with the usual “Hey buddy…” He is dressed for the cold in tan work-wear bib, black sweater and is sporting a beard that is heading south and white like a hanging ice flow. The rain thunders on the shed roof as he works a piece of salvaged wood in his hands and shoots the shit, momentarily distracted by a chicken that scuttles in from the garden, out of sign of the camera. When I first met John he was a skater, partier, recovering climber and rope access guy. This is Blind John the guitar maker and it was an evolution that was always going to happen. You can’t hold creativity down.
What made you pause at the crossroads and choose the alternative path to the rat race?
I spent my adult life working all over the world and was completely caught up in the whole ex-pat, non-dom, chase the money BS. It wasn’t making me happy. In fact it was nuts. I was spending less than 90 days a year in the country, most of which I was shitfaced. I always had some sort of creative outlet in my life and suddenly I didn’t have one. I wasn’t skating, I wasn’t kitesurfing, and I hadn’t been snowboarding in years. I barely picked up a guitar, even though I owned a stunning Gretsch Electromatic! But I couldn’t put the job down, to the exclusion of everything else. Looking back I’m amazed I didn’t give myself a fucking heart attack. Something had to change and my mental health made the decision for me. It so needed to happen. So building guitars became my path.
Why guitars and what does making them mean to you from an emotional perspective?
I’m the sort of person who needs music and I’ve always been drawn to guitar-based music. My roots are in punk and blues and while I play guitars I’m a hacker. I don’t have the patience to practice the same thing over and over, I guess I play by ear. I find it easier to be patient when making a guitar than playing one. I guess there is some sort of instinctive appreciation that timber can’t be rushed in the working, any more than it can be rushed in the growing. The timbers, paint, pickups and recycled materials I choose for a guitar are as dependant on my mood and how I feel as any song I’ve ever played on a guitar. It’s become therapy, it quietens my mind. I live with a million thoughts at once and struggle to grasp any of them. My head is chaos at rest. Being in the workshop is one of the rare times I can focus, where my mind relaxes. I can follow a thought process without having to fight for clarity.
I’ve thought a lot recently about ‘why guitars?’ and I’m fairly sure its nurture rather than nature. Growing up in the seventies I had an indoctrination of early Keith Richards on 8-track while driving through north Yorkshire in my Dad’s green frog eyed Austin Healey listening to the Stones on 8 track. The Rolling Stones first album is still an album I play to this day. It’s all classic blues covers but from there the Pistols and the The Clash in the latter part of that decade formed the beginning of everything.
But, I always had a love of blues, and that dirty, swampy, slide in particular, but it was never a sound I could duplicate, as I didn’t really understand open tunings. That meant slide playing pretty much seemed like voodoo. Then I had some random YouTube playlist going and suddenly there was that dirty swamp ridden slide mixed in with some raucous punk like vocals. On the screen was this bearded northerner playing what can only be described as a ‘piece of shit stick-in-a-box with three strings and no frets’. The pick up looked like it was duck taped into place but the sound was glorious! The bearded northerner is a superbly talented punk blues artist called Hollowbelly. So,I began with a basic cigar box guitar, based on the classic ‘piece of shit stick-in-a-box with three strings and no frets’ methodology and went from there. I still love the simplicity of the three string fretless guitar as it forces you to be uncomfortable, out of your element, to do things differently and to simplify. I think there’s a masochistic side of me that’s always liked discomfort. That was the genesis of Blind Johns Guitars.
Do you remember when you first picked up a guitar and though “this thing resonates with me”?
I remember getting a guitar for my birthday; I must have been nine or 10. It was a junior sized Spanish nylon strung thing. I loved it but was hassled to practice by my folks, which meant it got relegated to the corner for the next five years. Thing was I think I just wasn’t ready to commit to learning it. I do remember the awe that I had for a friend of my Dads when he played. He would always encourage without any sort of condescension or ‘look how good I am’ and I desperately wanted to play like him. It wasn’t until I was 15 that I picked it up again, learnt some basic chords and that was that. I was hooked.
Can you tell us a bit about your furniture making and design training that informed your practice?
I originally went to art school and trained as a furniture designer and maker. I had a brief and unsuccessful foray into graphic design but that got sidelined by a professional climbing career. Thats probably a book in itself, but I did however get a grounding in woodworking, manufacturing and the design process, and keeping a general sketchbook. The sketchbook is something I’m trying to get back in the habit of using rather than having a ton of bits of paper with scrawls on them and post it notes.
What musicians and guitar makers have inspired the look and sound of your guitars?
Jesus, there are so many. My musical taste is so eclectic it’s ludicrous. I think in terms of sound in cigar box style guitars my original influences were first and foremost Hollowbelly, then Seasick Steve and Jack White. I’ve been a White Stripes fan since day one. I think he is one of the most under-rated guitarists alive. There’s a documentary about Jack White called ‘This Might Get Loud’, where he builds a very rudimentary one string slide guitar (‘Didley Bow’) from a lump of 2 by 4, a pickup, two nails and a bottle of Jack. It’s brilliant! I love the rawness of it. In fact if anything is ‘raw’ I seem to resonate with it, which is probably why I’m such a fan of punk! I was eight years old when ‘Never mind the Bollocks Here’s the Sex Pistols’ came out. It was the Queens Jubilee year and I had never heard anything like it! My mother hated it obviously and told me I couldn’t be listening to it. But it wasn’t until I heard London Calling by the Clash that I realized that music spoke about the political mire the country was in. Thatcher was in power, there were miners’ strikes and power cuts and while I wasn’t old enough to really understand what Punk was, I knew I loved the music, I knew the country was a shitshow and more importantly I knew that music mattered. I think I discovered the Ramones at around the same time and my parents gave me a record player with all my Dads old 45s, so I went down the road of the Beatles, The Faces, The Who etc. All the classic 60s British bands.
Following that I went down the obvious track of absorbing as much guitar based bands as I could. I went from Aerosmith to Tom Waits, Miles Davis to Depeche Mode and couldn’t get enough of the late sixties, Hendrix, Joplin and the Doors. I even dabbled briefly in dance music in the 90s but when I got bored of taking Ecstasy it kinda lost its fun. The whole of the 90s and early noughts are pretty much a drink and drug fuelled blur if Im honest. But I guess into my forties and ultimately now into my fifties I’ve gone full circle with my love of blues and rediscovered all the amazing guitarists I had discovered in my late teens, like Blind Willie McTell, Robert Johnson, Son house and Skip James. But I’m still listening to The Clash, The Ramones, Led Zep, and The Doors. I also have a love of Jazz, with Miles and Coltrane still regularly listened to.
I also have an enormous love of good lyricists, the telling of a good story. Tom Waits I’m a huge fan of. Stories like Franks Wild Years still make me laugh. The live version of Burma Shave tells such a bleak story of middle-American white trash before morphing into a breathtaking version of Summertime. Michelle Shocked’s album ‘The Texas Campfire Tapes’ is also full of wonderful traditional folk stories. In terms of more modern storytellers I think Everlast (formerly the front man of the Hip Hop group House of Pain) is incredibly underrated and I love his lyrics, sometimes it makes me think of Tom Waits writing about middle American white trash now. I also listening to a lot of Brother Dege, whose slide playing is superb. I also have to mention a friend ‘David and the Devil’ and his early stuff under the name ‘Charley Hicks’; he’s an incredible guitarist and has a voice like the bastard child of Howlin’ Wolf and Tom Waits smoked 80 Marlboro for 30 years and after having his vocal chords replaced with a cheese grater started singing. The guy should be a mega star! His slide playing is sublime and his rhythm…. oh man.
As far as guitar makers, there are so many that I love and follow on Instagram but couldn’t name. But they all inspire me to be different and break the rules. I’m not a ‘Fender Custom Shop’ kinda guy, even though I’ve an enormous love of the Telecaster. Its probably my favourite guitar. In fact, one of the wonderful things about making three and four string guitars is that there are no rules, anything goes. I imbue the same philosophy in my 6 strings. I’ve seen guitars made from a toilet seat, washboards, shovels and even a microwave oven! I don’t go that far but I still try to be as different in design as I can be, while keeping it functional, playable and saleable!
Why is the recycling and repurposing of old woods important to BJG?
I see so much timber wasted, discarded and skipped. It makes me sad. I try and steer clear of anything exotic that’s not renewable or fair trade and there is so much that can be recycled or up-cycled back into serviceable instruments. I had a piece of Rosewood that was once a piano leg which gave me a dozen necks and fingerboards, and an enormous lump of oak that came out of a 200 year old barn that’s given me fret boards, boxes and more. People don’t realize the timber that is contained in old furniture. So many skipped sofas have maple frames! I recycle and up-cycle as much as I can and scope dumpsters every time I pass one. Can you imagine the stories told, the secrets whispered or the clandestine meetings had in and around that timber? I’m somewhat of a romantic at heart and like most romantics a total cynic too.
Is there a resonance that you look for in wood?
Some timbers are just not cut out for musical instruments they are too soft or have a ‘dead’ resonance. It’s not just limited to hard versus soft, after all Balsa wood is a hardwood, its about rates of growth but not hardness like you would imagine Some timber you just wouldn’t use if you wanted certain acoustic characteristics. Some timbers you can touch it and feel it, others not so much. I’ve seen master luthiers in documentaries using a pitchfork to check the resonance but I don't have access to that sort of personal stock, so resonance is driven more by availability. I see in pictures so I’m more aesthetically driven, sometimes inspired by a single piece of timber for the whole guitar or sometimes its an idea that’s not related to timber, that might be purely influenced by a picture, a word, a style, a box or an idea for a finished paint job. Sometimes it comes from something so ridiculously removed from what the final piece is its insane. But I have a couple of superb dedicated suppliers of timber that I use. One only supplies timber felled in London exclusively from trees that have come down naturally or old stumps. Another sources timbers from forests where again the trees have come down naturally or felling waste that would just be left and another who is local to me that I try and use the most - Big thanks and shout out there to feelgoodwooduk.
And bringing that idea full circle what resonance does your past as a climber, adventurer, skater and general punk bring to your finished guitars?
I’ve had one hell of a ride and I’m lucky to still be here. I’ve been to amazing places and seen some amazing things - mile long pods of Orca offshore West of Shetland; the curvature of the earth from the Summit of Aconcagua; I’ve walked in the footsteps of the great alpinists; seen the midnight sun in the arctic circle; seen whale sharks the size of buses off the coast of Ghana; and waterspouts dancing in the Caspian sea. But I’ve had downsides as well and like the Buddhists say, “everything that has happened, had to happen for me to be here now”. This is something I’m trying to believe and be deliberately positive about. I think the resonance is in the fact that I’m still here over the odds and I’m building these instruments with the intention of other people putting their stories into them. I also still very much have the ‘skate and destroy’ attitude that is still as much a part of my ‘general punk’ thinking. I think I’ve always been a pretty fucking angry kid but now I can see it and channel it across more positive areas of my life. I’ve become known for my ‘relic’ style guitars that have often been described as ‘Punk’ and I guess they are. There is a huge correlation between punk and the whole ‘no rules, build one in your kitchen’ ethos that pervades the home made music, cigar box scene. You don't have to wear red and black bondage trousers and sport a green Mohawk to be a punk. In fact some of the most punk people I know probably don't even know they are punk!
This past also brought some baggage with it; has music and the building of musical instruments helped you to confront your demons?
Im an addict and it turns out I’m also Bipolar and suffer from PTSD, Im not together yet but I’m getting there. I’ve suffered from depression all my adult life but it took a breakdown, change of lifestyle and vocation to realize I’d just been going through the motions and participating in a system I was not cut out for. I’ve had to confront a lot of my demons in the last three years but it's been the guitars that have kept me from losing it completely. Well that and my amazing and long-suffering girlfriend who is my rock. It’s her that I have to thank really; her patience and encouragement. I can’t ever explain how much it all means to me or how thankful for having her in my life I am. She’s stood by me through it all in the last 10 years and even with her own issues she’s never once faltered. But making guitars has become a therapy of its own. still is and I hope it continues to be. It’s given me clarity of thought and a creative outlet that’s been missing for years. It has allowed me to confront my demons too, especially where drink and drugs are concerned. I won’t say ‘I’m sober’, as the Americans are fond of saying, but I very rarely drink these days - a bottle of beer or couple of glasses of wine here or there and the drugs are out the window. A big change from a couple of bottles of wine a night plus, all washed down with half a bottle of scotch I used to do i the last 10 years. Im thankful my drug problems were predominantly in the 90s and pre internet, so many memories and so little evidence as they say, or they would be if I could remember! As the late, great Bill Hicks said: “It’s not a popular thing to say… but when I was on drugs I had a fucking great time!” and I did. That’s not an advert for my consumption of vast amounts of drink and drugs… it’s simply a statement of who I was at the time. Ive accepted it, now it’s time to move on.
How long are you putting into the making of each guitar?
It depends entirely on the guitar. Generally speaking a cigar box guitar takes less time than a six-string guitar. You often have the body made for you, although in my struggle to be different I’m now making the boxes so I can make the soundboards as I would a traditional acoustic guitar; it’s braced and almost floats on the edges resulting in a much louder acoustic sound and resonance. I did it once as an experiment and the results were so good I decided not to go back to my old methods of using old cigar boxes unless they are oversized and particularly striking in one way or another. I now try to combine the traditional stick in a box method with braced soundboards and backs. It gives a much more robust and clean sound while still containing the ‘rawness’ of a traditional acoustic CBG. Where six string guitars are concerned I have fallen into a ‘relic’ niche, so it can take eight weeks to complete a final finish using traditional Nitrocellulose paints, with a base coat, topcoat, gloss and relic’ing during and after. If it’s a 'cover over' style for instance like Olympic white over sunburst, you can add another four to six weeks. It also depends on the weather and how my hands are working. So factoring in my shitty arthritic hands I ask three to four months minimum for a custom order to cover all bases.
When you are making an instrument are you thinking about its future? I mean the future it might have? It’s value not in terms of money but its cultural and emotional value?
I’ve done the whole ‘chasing the money’ lifestyle and it didn’t suit so there is no thinking ‘Oh I’ve got this order and I’m going to make this much on it’… it just doesn’t matter. Having said that I do have to keep a roof over our head and food on the table, but that’s not really a factor on how and what I build. I do think about how it's going to be played, what sort of music will be played on it, how it will inspire the new owner, what stories will be told and melodies will be created. More so with the guitars that are not custom builds, as I don't have much, if any, interaction with the buyer. All you have is a location and a name so it means the world to me to get feedback. I get more interaction with the buyer of a custom guitar so I get more knowledge about their influences, what they want and try to work with them on all these aspects. I have seen some insane changes in my lifetime and in the last 20 years things have become completely mental with more change than in the last 200. But the essence of a guitar is unchanged in that time. That’s why I love my roots in 3 stringed instruments. The whole genesis of the music we listen to today is rooted in that. Slaves in American plantations would use anything they could get to make a Didley bow or a Hobo fiddle; I even once read a story about a man who would stick a saw blade into a barn door to play rhythms on the blade, using the barn as a makeshift amplifier. Genius!
These instruments and the songs created were the beginnings of the blues: “The blues had a baby and they named it rock and roll,” as the late great Muddy Waters said. So culturally it's vitally important not to lose that history. Also with punk being such a formative influence, I can see the links between it and Cigar Box Guitars… Punk told people to pick up a guitar learn 3 chords, start a band and give the middle finger to authority. There were no rules and it was the disenfranchised, the angry, the people who felt forgotten who found a channel for their anger through it. This is still so important, but it’s in danger of being forgotten. Live music is being killed off, struggling musicians are forgotten as are all musicians of all kinds from punk to classical to dance music and it feels almost deliberate! Not only this but the appalling influence of throwaway culture and social media. I’m not saying ‘my’ guitars have more cultural or emotional value than they do but surely in generic terms a guitar has more cultural value than a social media celebrity who is famous only for having a big arse and a sex tape!
When you’re commissioned to make a guitar do you undertake a collaborative approach with your customer for its look, feel and sound?
Absolutely! That’s part of the fun. I try to gather as much information pre-build as I possibly can, what their vision is, if they have any specific requests etc. You need a baseline, so for me it HAS to be a collaborative approach. The last thing I want is to build a guitar for a customer and for them to then say, “I hate it!” I do send regular photographic updates so this hasn’t happened yet, although I still have my ‘more difficult’ customers. I’m still relatively unknown so I don’t have the customer or advertising base for people to say, “I want a guitar from Blind John,” as they would more well-known manufacturers. I’m still trying to get my name out there, building my base, advertising, getting reviewed, getting interviewed and sharing my passion. Bizarrely I sell more to the US than anywhere else, predominantly through social media. I’ve grown from a few friends on Instagram to over 2000 followers organically and I am so grateful to each and every one of those people who follows me, although it sadly remains to be seen for how much longer not just myself but others who rely on social media for business will be able to continue: The draconian terms and conditions being introduced on Facebook and Instagram are becoming simply farcical and an overreach of power in my opinion. So I will be looking for other ways to interact with my customers, building on my website and blog. But, I will adapt or die trying.
What qualities are you looking for in the hardwear you incorporate?
Quality, first and foremost. My guitars are made in the UK so I try to use as much UK built quality parts as I can to support small businesses. I use BareKnuckle Pickups in a lot of guitars now, as they are exclusively designed and made by hand here in the UK. So big shout out to the staff and Tim Mills who runs a great company (and is also an amazing guitarist). They have a great range of different pickups from P90s through to custom 7 string humbuckers (although I still think that’s one string too many) and everything in-between, with a superb range of custom options, from different pole pieces to bobbins and covers, which means I can tailor the look to the particular guitar I’m building, and best of all they sound incredible. Plus their customer service is brilliant. Underfluked also make stunning single coils, but due to Brexit he’s struggling, I really hope he makes it. In terms of other hardware I also repurpose vintage bits I collect, clean up or relic.
One of the more difficult parts of building good relics is finding good relic'd hardware or hardware I can relic myself. There’s a lot of Chinese stuff out there masquerading as ‘American made’ or ‘genuine vintage’ that is simply crap. There is obviously the genuine ‘vintage’ hardware but some of that can be ridiculously cost prohibitive. If it’s a new UK made pickup, made to look 40 years old or a genuine 50s American scratch plate or 70s Japanese tailpiece then I will use it if the quality is there. I can’t wait for lockdown to genuinely end and the big vintage markets to open up again to go scouring for bits.
Can you describe the place you work?
It’s a shed at the bottom of my garden, well two sheds joined together at the bottom of the garden. They leak if it rains and the wind blows the wrong way. They are draughty, damp, and cold in winter and like an oven in summer. I fucking love them! They’re mine. I don’t pay rent on them. I can work on my terms when I want too, I’m not forced away by different levels of corona virus restrictions. They are far enough from the neighbors for me not to get constant complaints about screeching routers or sanders. They are far from ideal but its my space, I don’t have to share it, I don’t have set working or opening hours and I wouldn’t have it any other way! They are as Punk as I am.