When the acclaimed singer Adele was in Glasgow recently, she popped into a guitar-maker’s workshop in the south side of the city and was so captivated by the look and tone of one of the hand-made instruments, she bought it on impulse.
The instrument builder is Jimmy Moon, an iconic maker of fabulous musical instruments, but also a serious Scottish businessman who exports his hand-built “products” around the globe.
He also feels the daily stresses and strains of running a small business which actually makes – and sells – guitars.
If Scotland is a land that prides itself in its musical heritage in rock, pop and other forms of music, then it hasn’t really done much to encourage its indigenous instrument makers.
In spite of this neglect, Jimmy Moon is one of a rare breed of top-level makers who has a roll-call of professional players who swear by his guitars.
Over the years, Moon Guitars has fashioned electric instruments for Texas, Simple Minds, Del Amitri and Big Country.
More recently, Jimmy and his team have concentrated on acoustic instruments for the likes of Paolo Nutini, Coldplay, Steve Earl, and his Signature guitars for Scotland’s bard Dougie MacLean and Canadian rocker Bryan Adams.
Jimmy Moon has flourished because of his meticulous attention to producing the best possible guitars, using the finest seasoned hard woods.
“Adele is playing one of our maple cutaways,” says Moon proudly.
Adele fans will know that the Grammy and Brits awardwinning singer is currently recuperating from a throat operation, but her fingers are fine, and it’s been reported she is loving her new Scottish-made guitar.
So how did she hear about Moon Guitars? “She was on tour and she came into the workshop to have a look around.
She was playing at The 02 Academy along the road at the end of September,” says Moon, a slim and rugged looking Glasgow craftsman dressed in jeans and green-and-black checked shirt.
There was also another helpful connection, because Jimmy is part of a musical dynasty – his youngest daughter Rose is Adele’s agent, while daughter Arlene manages Coldplay, and brother Brendan manages Paolo Nutini.
“Musicians are craftspeople in themselves and they appreciate the effort – and hardship – that goes into making an instrument,” says Moon.
“They are making something because they love it. That’s like us.” Moon Guitars have been exporting guitars all over the world for 20 years. “One went to Australia last week and we’ve got one going to Dubai next week. People find out about us. We don’t produce millions. We’ve a following in the US which is famed for guitar-making with the likes of Martin and Fender. America is a funny country though; they don’t understand shipping. We can get someone wanting one of our guitars who doesn’t understand the customs costs. Their own home market is massive, so when we get an order from a US customer they don’t realise they have the international shipping costs and the state taxes, which all go on top of the cost. However, a lot of people have Scottish roots and they like the idea of playing an instrument made in their ‘homeland’. Moon Guitars makes around 150 instruments a year, which included the standard, custom and master series guitars and mandolins.
Moon Guitars are not cheap, they start at around £1,400, while the master series rises to £3,200. A Dougie MacLean Signature model will set you back £3,013. A mandolin costs around £700.
“We have made electric instruments and, for example, a few years ago we made the electric banjo for the Scissor Sisters, but the focus is acoustic,” says Moon.
“We’ve made a lot of specialist instruments for professionals, but we also make for ordinary people who want something specific.
“The Royal Academy of Drama and Music – now the Conservatoire of Scotland – does a fantastic course in traditional music. We see a lot of the students from there who play two or three acoustic instruments. They like our instruments.
“At the moment, it is a hard sell. In the recent boom years we couldn’t supply enough shops and they were screaming out for us. It was great. It might seem a lot of money but it is not expensive for a hand-made product which lasts a lifetime. It’s an inheritance piece.” Turnover in the boom time was nearly £400,000 a year, but things are tighter today, and orders are harder to find, reflecting the general economic downturn. Moon started making dulcimers in a farm workshop on Arran in 1979 when the Firth of Clyde island was a buzzing colony of alternative living and Glasgow hippies.
He met and married his wife Joan who comes from the island and she has remained a central figure in the Moon Guitars’ success story, looking after the finances and marketing.
“The idea was to make a fortune, but we’ll settle for weekly wages,” he laughs. What made you become an instrument maker? “Stupidity,” says Moon, with that wry Glasgow humour that means he loves what he does, but wants to downplay its merits.
His father, also Jimmy Moon, was a confectioner in Govan in Copeland Road, near Ibrox Stadium.
“I started when I was 15 and we saw a television programme on John Pearce making an Appalachian dulcimer. It was just a straight bit of wood with three strings. Me and my buddy thought we could do better than that so we got the saws out and started making them.” He had a good laugh twanging the strings and then put it to one side.
He went off and served his apprenticeship as a toolmaker in Fulton’s in Johnston who did jobbing work for Burroughs, IBM and Roll-Royce. This was pressed tools and jigs and fixtures.
“It taught me layout and how to do that end of it,” says Moon. “There was a lot of trigonometry which I was useless at during school, but because I saw the practical use of it, I grasped it fairly quickly.” He then ended up in Paisley Technical College in the mechanical engineering department as a technician.
“This opened my eyes to other materials. I saw how to engineer in plastic and wood, opening up a whole range of ideas in my head.” Jimmy Moon is a musician himself who can play most fretted instruments, but he is best known as a double bass player in a bluegrass band and in a Glasgow swing jazz band called Rose Room.
He says: “I met Joan over in Arran and we got married. The only job I could get was on a farm and I don’t have the build for heavy farm work, so I started making instruments. There was a great craft industry in Arran at the time. The farmer we worked for let me build a workshop on the side of the house and I started picking away at night time and getting some sales. Then some repair work came in and it grew so that eventually I had to move to Glasgow.”
The four-string, flat-top mandolin was the instrument which got Moon Guitars into small-scale production; before this it was one-off instruments on order. In the meantime, he was watching, listening, reading the manuals and learning all the time.
“I was lucky with my early guitars – they worked,” he says. “They weren’t technically good but they functioned well and they sounded good. More importantly, they played in tune!” He attempted to get into a prestigious musical instrument-making school in London but was turned down.
“They laughed at me, but I’m a determined so-and-so and I just kept on at it, supported by my family. My father thought I was nuts. I had three daughters to bring up and I was working hard for very little and Joan had three jobs to keep it all together.” He worked long hours at the workbench and it began to click. The Glasgow rock scene took Jimmy Moon’s guitar to its heart.He set up in Glasgow in 1985 and ended up in Pollokshaws Road. He undertook guitar repairs and discovered there are ‘no rotten guitars, there are only rotten players.’”
Over the past 15 years he has worked to create the kind of tonal sound that might be expected in a concert acoustic instrument. His latest 0003CE model was given a five-star review in the November issue of the influential Acoustic magazine.
The reviewer said that the instrument was put together beautifully, perfect for playing and the “fingerboard should be a case study for students of instrument building”.
Moon Guitars Ltd is tucked in behind a red-sandstone tenement, up a cobbled alley behind the Bay Horse pub. There is a tiny music shop in the front, then a photo-lined office, where Joan is perched at the computer.
The office leads into the inner sanctum; a sawdust-strewn workshop with racks of planes, chisels and gougers, with a German band-saw from the 1950s (which is still used every day) and a more modern wide belt-sanding machine which buffs the raw timber into the requisite thickness, plus finer sanders to create the smooth finishes.
There are wooden benches, including the original built by Moon from driftwood on an Arran beach, with vices attached and underneath – among the wooden shavings and discarded blocks of mahogany – are the frames for moulding.
Up a few wooden stairs is another workshop for glueing and fixing necks and bodies and a heated cupboard where wood stock is seasoned. Then there is a dust-free room for spraying lacquers and polishing.
“We have some traditional woodworking machinery and some more modern hightech,” he says.
“There are no computer-aided cutting machines here; everything is done by hand and eye and exact measurements with rulers.” The most common wood used is Indian rosewood, bought in Mumbai. There are specialists who supply the guitar industry with wood for the backs and sides, including pau ferro, ziricote and black acacia. Then the sitka spruce comes from Canada and maple from Alaska. Moon Guitars makes only one or two guitars per week, depending on the intricacies. Someone wanting a pearl-inlaid fingerboard can expect to pay more, and it will take longer.
“That kind of instrument takes a lot of work,” says Moon. “The little things add an immense amount of time in terms of the decoration, although they add nothing to the sound. But people want a bit of glitter. It does work; at trade shows a guitar that we’ve dressed up will be first one to sell.”
Each wood has a natural ability to reflect or absorb sound, depending on factors such as the dryness of the wood and the density of the seasoned timber. Jimmy Moon has spent a great deal of time looking into these attributes to create an original sound.
“Some timbers are very flexible and have different qualities in terms of resonance for bass and treble sounds,” he explains. One of his bugbears is that Scotland’s colleges are teaching guitar-making as a hobby and not as an industrial process.
“This is our livelihood,” he says. “We have to be economical and look at what the guitar industry has to offer.
“We’ve got a great team – Steven Devine from Glasgow, who concentrates on the finished aspects of the guitar. I usually kick it off and finish it off. He’s been with me for 25 years, starting as an apprentice and still makes the best tea! The two other lads are Guillaume Benoit from Marseilles, although the French can’t rock ’n’ roll, and Innes Thomson from Fair Isle, who has been here for 12 years. They do the bulk of the work on the bodies.” They have all learned their trade watching the master at work.
So what advice does he give his team? “Hurry up! That should be ready yesterday. We work to deadline a lot, but you can’t really force the finishing, you have to allow the lacquers to cure properly before they can be polished.” Steven Devine says: “Individuals who have ordered guitars find it interesting to come in and see the workshop and see the progress of their instrument being made. The customer gets a buzz from that – because it is complicated from start to finish. It’s good to see the final instrument being made and played.” At 62, Jimmy Moon wants his brand and reputation to continue, but he says it’s getting harder to keep the business going in Scotland.
And if Alex Salmond or any of his Scottish government ministers are reading this, they should take heed.
“It’s becoming so hard to make things in Scotland, which is what we need to do if we are to get out of recession and build the economy.
There is so much legislation against what we do; the finishes that we use, the timber that we use, the glue we use, the plastic we use.” He says in India and China, craftspeople are able to churn out high quality products very cheaply.
Brazilian rosewood is an endangered species, so any timber has to be reclaimed through sustainable sources. “Then there is the health and safety, the fire precautions,” says Moon. “It goes on and on. And I think, ‘Why am I doing this?’ But we’ve put in so much toil and sweat, I don’t want to see it just vanishing.” What could help his business? “Taking the VAT of musical instruments would be a start.
At 20%, it’s hard on a hand-tomouth basis coughing up every quarter.” He still gets a kick when he sees some of his guitars being played by leading musicians and hearing the quality of the sound.
“I think about the hours I put into making each one,” he says. “You’ve got to take the time to make sure they’re perfect,” says Steven Devine.
“But we live in an impatient world,” interrupts Jimmy Moon.
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