I build guitars in a style that I have gradually evolved over my making career. At first I just enjoyed the fact that I'd made a guitar at all and then, as more people began to buy my work and push the instruments to their limits, I gradually made subtle changes, seeking out an ideal balance of all the factors - a process that will probably only end with my retirement! Through this process I found a home in particular, though not exclusively, with the then just emerging modern finger-style scene and its ever expanding range of techniques.
All my guitars are sold direct with no middle-man involved at any stage so there is no inflation of the price to individual customers such that I can offer a trade discount to dealers and, as a genuine one person business, my turnover is small enough that even VAT is avoided.
Benjamin guitars are designed and made to be played.
I play guitar myself a lot and have set up and repaired hundreds of guitars over my career; my design choices are based upon my own very good understanding of what makes a guitar as playable and friendly to use as possible and as repairable and reliable as possible. I offer a full back-up service for every guitar I make and many professional players touring the world rely both on my instruments and trips to my workshop for maintenance by the person who knows them best!
Form follows function.
I use a simple minimalist stripped down building style; letting the lines of the instrument and the colours of the woods do the talking. I like to put my time into the voicing and set up of my instruments rather than adornments and visual features and quite frequently I gently dissuade customers from features and timbers that I feel will not add to the function of a guitar for their own personal needs or will not suit the style I build in. This said, if there is some aspect you have your heart set upon that isn't a part of my usual palette, I am usually persuadable as long as I feel the finished guitar will not be compromised in any way!
My current workshop is based in an old converted brewery building in the centre of Lewes, a beautiful historic town in the southeast of England. Lewes is unusual in the world of guitar making in that a small group of makers has developed here; each working separately but supporting one another and sharing ideas.
I now build in batches of around ten guitars, working alone over a year long cycle. Each guitar is generally a different specification and therefore individually considered throughout the process but I find this batch method personally ideal; it still gives me time for complete individual attention to each guitar and its voicing but also allows plenty of comparison opportunities and the repetition of each task several times (all be it subtly differently for each guitar) helps hone my skills without getting into more tedious mass-production mode.
I use a mix of hand and power tools - I pick the tool which does a job best and allows me to focus on the most important aspects of quality control and adjustment of the instrument's response. In my opinion and experience, being in control of the end result as much as you can be is the key to instrument making rather than one construction methodology or 'ideology' being superior to another. There are many ways to build a good guitar and, having played guitars by many of the world's most respected makers, I am confident there is no secret: just experience and taste driven design choices. Some parts of a musical instrument need to be very finely adjusted and very modifiable to gain ideal response from the particular materials and other aspects need to be done accurately and soundly for the long term life and functionality of the instrument but you might say that most aspects need to pay full attention to both of these aspects.
How to sum up 'what makes a Benjamin guitar?'...
The style of building my name has been founded upon is a guitar that strikes a balance between control and responsiveness. On the one hand; a loose tuning may be used or you might strum hard and the guitar will take it in its stride, on the other; you may use a subtle harmonic technique or a tapped note and the guitar's rich harmonic overtones will respond easily to give you a full, musical note. The way I achieve this is partly by very careful adjustment of all parts of each individual guitar and careful selection of materials but is also based upon the concept of an evenly tensioned instrument. I try to make all parts of the guitar's body as evenly weighted as possible such that the back and sides are not significantly more rigid than the top and there are not sudden tight or loose areas or parts of much higher mass than their surroundings. This allows the whole sound-box to contribute balanced overtones and colour and allows me to keep the sound-board controlled without losing response - it is somewhat equivalent to increasing the sound-board area across the whole guitar such that sound radiates all around and colour is added to the sound by the whole guitar in a rich and forgiving manner that isn't tiring to the ear. The even tensioning and weight distribution also helps lead to a more even instrument with subtler peaks and troughs in the response than many guitars and and a wide frequency response. This spread out tonal quality with its lively colourful overtones comes into its own when amplifying or recording a Benjamin guitar and makes for a 'friendly' playing experience that hopefully will help free you to play as you'd wish.
I built my first guitar starting in 1990, aged seventeen, on a table in my bedroom following Irving Sloane's wonderful 'Classic Guitar Construction' that I found in the local library (protect our local services!!). My parents were surprisingly tolerant of the wood shavings that made their way around the house! I was driven by my fascination with the instrument I had recently started playing and by my interest in designing and making; perhaps sparked by one grandfather, an aeronautical designer, who first showed me how to use a saw, my other grandfather who made me a beautiful shove-ha'penny board for Christmas one year and an uncle, then a builder of classic sports cars: all gleaming hand-beaten aluminium D-type Jaguar replicas! I proceeded to study 'Engineering Design and Appropriate Technology' at the University of Warwick, UK, whilst constructing further guitars in the holidays. After completing my degree I decided that the engineering world wasn't where my heart lay (although I do consider what I do now to be 'applied engineering' largely) and I sought out my first proper instruction in the art of 'luthierie', having by that stage made three guitars (two classical and one electric) more-or-less on my own.
I'm related to the designer of the classic red telephone box so hopefully functional design is in the blood somewhere!
I discovered someone locally gave steel-string guitar making lessons and made my first contact with Jeff Chapman. Jeff, based in Brighton, grew up in the same small town between Brighton and Lewes as I had and had been making guitars for nearly forty years. Over the period of a year and a half I spent weekends in Jeff's workshop (half his small flat was a workshop!) and built my first steel-string acoustic guitar, learning many construction techniques and ideas that I still use today. Towards the end of my time learning with Jeff I also started to gain tuition from Stephen Hill, a Classical and Flamenco maker at that stage based here in Lewes. Stephen ran and still runs a very successful workshop making in the great Spanish tradition and teaching fantastic month long making courses, now based in Spain. I have learnt a huge amount from both of these people, not just about woodwork, and would like to extend my thanks here. Jeff sadly died in 2014 - a truly unique man.
I first set up in my own workshop in 1998 after gradually going more and more full time renting a bench in Stephen Hill's workshop. Initially I made and repaired all sorts of instruments; acoustic and electric, but, as orders began to come in more steadily I gave up repair work and focused solely on building acoustic guitars with some pickup fitting work alongside.
My association with the world of modern finger-style guitar took off in ernest when I first met Eric Roche in 2002 and our collaboration over the few short years I knew him before he died lead to many further associations and perhaps helped kick-start the current modern finger-style (percussive) guitar 'scene' in the UK - a loose grouping of players and enthusiasts connected by a love of the music (and guitars) that now extends across the world!
Over the years I have designed many different models and have frequently redesigned or dropped them completely as my taste and experience developed. With the reopening of my waiting list in 2015 I present on this new leaner website the main wood combinations for each model that I feel bring out the best of the given design and I also present two new models. The model 'M' is designed to offer a rich midrange presence with very good separation, ideally suited to folk ensemble work, vocal accompaniment or celtic tinged finger-style and is debuted as my 150th guitar. The 'Concert' model is still in the conceptual stages but my ideas are developing rapidly. Essentially this will be a new departure for me; this guitar will have a very different tonal balance and response to most Benjamins; the emphasis will be on projection and piano-like clarity for solo unamplified performance. I will be putting up pictures as the first example develops over the next year!
The biggest challenge facing guitar-making in the very near future - in fact: now - is the dwindling supply of both traditional timber species and now even the 'alternative' species and I will be working to source more sustainable materials including using more native or temperate rather than tropical species combined with FSC and hopefully Fairtrade options for components that require particular properties that may dictate more exotic timbers.
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