Within a humble building, cowering from M6 traffic that roars alongside the industrial estate where it stands, the sweetest sounds may be heard in contrast. They’ll come from one of the guitars Roger Bucknall is creating, maybe even from an instrument that would set you back £6,700 to buy. Roger is an internationally renowned luthier – a maker of stringed instruments to you and me - whose achievements were recognised in the recent New Year Honours, when he was appointed MBE for his services to guitar building, music, and heritage crafts, to the delight of the Heritage Crafts Association.
His Fylde guitars are a unique export from Penrith, the Cumbrian market town perhaps more usually associated with farming and logistics, and they have been bought and played by rockers and pop stars such as Bob Dylan, Keith Richards, Pete Townshend, Sting, Blur and Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland of The Police.
In the hands of Martin Simpson, Martin Carthy, Gordon Giltrap, Nic Jones, and Davy Graham (in his lifetime) they’ve charmed folk music audiences. More than 10,000 instruments to date have been travelling testament to the creative brilliance practiced at Fylde Guitars. Roger’s instruments are valued for their tone, quality, style and ease of play.
Witness such tributes:
Pete Townshend: “A magic instrument.”
Martin Carthy: “The guitar was sitting in his workshop, beckoning me.”
Cliff Richard: “Fylde is just the best.”
Barbara Dickson: “I love my guitar.”
KT Tunstall: “My eco guitar!”
Today also he’s making friends with younger musicians coming up. “They call me Uncle Rodge,” he laughs.
“He’s very driven,” his wife Moira says. She’s the sentinel at the cyber gate, driving the firm’s administration from their computer in the office-cum-showroom, whose walls are festooned not only with completed guitars but rows of pictures also showing notable artists playing outstanding instruments from you know whom. Moira is also Roger’s “protector”, the customers’ first point of contact enabling Roger to beaver on in the backshop uninterrupted.
A one-to-one relationship with the customer even so, whether a professional or an amateur musician, is the driving force of the business. So besides shifting administration, Moira ensures that Fylde Guitars is run like a family circle for members lucky enough to possess one of Roger’s works of art – works of art, though Roger in fact is a qualified engineer. “And I am still an engineer,” he says proudly. “I love making things whether in wood or metal, and music means a lot to me too.”
This is an engineer however who, today, seldom uses machinery. This is also an engineer expert also on every aspect of wood – its variety, quality and potentials. Step into the dusty upstairs store in his workshop at Gilwilly Industrial Estate and you’re surrounded by every kind of applicable wood imaginable.
These come from many parts of the world, New Zealand and California especially. Apart from sycamore, little of the wood grown in this country is suitable, due to the climate here.
But wherever it comes from, the wood stands piled in all shapes, sizes and varieties. Many are good and precious woods gathered from unlikeliest sources - even from old Talisker whisky casks and disused snooker tables. Wooden shelving is stacked in abundance.
A key task long before building any instrument is to have available the right kind of timber bought at the right price. That’s often a financial challenge, since it must be in exactly the right condition and, of course, available in the first place. African blackwood, for example, is both difficult to obtain and to work with. Like ivory, some woods are now legally protected and no longer allowed for sale, which means trying to access the older remains that still are. Much of his wood stock is over 20 years old.
“It will all have its use,” he says, “even if many years from now. Building an instrument involves 200 processes and perhaps 100 pieces of wood of perhaps six or seven species,” he points out, describing two recent jobs completed: Falstaff (with colourful Brazilian rosewood back and sides, matched with thin red inlay lines), and Sinker (redwood top, snakewood bindings, neck laminated with rosewood and red lines).
They contrast sharply with the first guitar he made. That was in his father’s garage. He was nine then, using plywood and fishing line in the making, and pink flowers in the decorating. Its life was short. Born at Selly Oak, Birmingham, in 1950, Roger’s formative years were spent in the Midlands city where engineering then overwhelmingly meant cogs and fan belts and power. His father however, working at Cadbury’s chocolate factory there, was the envy of his son, for he was a chocolate taster. Roger in his teenage years did, however, get some engineering experience at the factory. On leaving Bourneville Boys Technical School, he read for his honours degree in mechanical engineering at Nottingham University.
Having studied musical acoustics, he first worked as a technical author for Racal Thermionic in Hythe, Hampshire, then mechanically designed industrial tape recorders from 1971. An enthusiastic folk musician too, he played guitar, mandolin, banjo and fiddle in local clubs. He mingled with professional musicians, later to become his customers and friends. All the time, his ambition to build musical instruments grew.
In 1973 he took the plunge. He moved to Lancashire’s Fylde coast and made a living with the launch of Fylde Guitars. With a friend he worked initially from the basement of a tailor’s shop in St Anne’s, putting up with banging on the ceiling if folk upstairs got upset by the “noise” below. Within a year they moved into an old cotton mill in Kirkham. For the past 20 years, however, Penrith has been the company’s home. At one point his business employed about 15 people to turn out around 1,000 simply made guitars a year, nothing like today’s sophisticated products. Now, even if you can afford a customised guitar, you may have to wait two years for it. “I changed the way of running the business deliberately,” he says.
“When I started the business guitars sold in this country were all from the USA. But I loved making things. I loved making music. And I wanted to challenge in quality what America produced, despite American guitar makers having the advantage of massive woodland growth in ideal climate conditions. For me that has meant market change, and a lot of other changes besides.
“We stopped running after turnover and contracted the business to become more focused on specific orders from customers. More than half the guitars produced now are to order, which means spending a lot of time with each customer. Today every guitar I make brings a new friend too. Many of my friends are musicians. I like to spend time with musicians. It’s an intensely personal business – no shops, no more advertising, and everything by word of mouth.”
Over the years, as live and recorded music has increasingly influenced European and American culture, Roger’s reputation as a craftsman grew. “My guitars have a ‘rounded’ sound whereas American guitars have a big, booming bass,” he told a BBC interviewer. He has in fact built not only guitars - acoustic, classical and bass - but also mandolins, mandolas, bouzoukis and citterns.
They’ve all had one thing in common; they’re acoustic. Electric pickups are an option but Roger himself is not keen on electrified guitars - “they’re just a plank of wood with other people’s hardware bolted on,” he suggests. Some of this antipathy may stem from the rise of electric guitars in 1980s rock music that temporarily dried up his orders. Undeterred, he diversified for a while, manufacturing cues in a business venture with Ray Reardon, six times world snooker champion.
From 1981 until 1992, he turned out the cues and their cases also. His Barracuda Sports firm made cases from aluminium extrusions and plastic mouldings, and cue parts from machined brass. Reardon used one of Roger’s cues in world championship finals. Steve Davis, who won a record 81 titles during his time in the sport, found one of his precious cues saved from destruction in a car crash, protected as it was by one of Roger’s cases. The iconic Alex Higgins too was a familiar figure at the workshop.
Roger sold the business in 1992 however and, in 1996, while seeking new premises and a more pleasing lifestyle, he relocated his business to the Lake District, and his home to a hideaway hamlet (“please don’t name it!) near William Wordsworth’s favourite lake. It’s a hamlet dating to Norse times, features a 1702 Quaker meeting hall and stands almost in the shade of Cumbria’s biggest Celtic hill fort.
The workforce of four now on Gilwilly Industrial Estate comprises, besides Roger and Moira, Alex Reay and Paul Ferrie. Roger, Alex and Paul prepare and shape the carefully seasoned timber at their work benches using traditional tools. “The skills and attitude of these people I work with are most important of all,” Roger says. “They make all things possible, nothing impossible.”
Alex, noted for his patience and calmness, has been eight years with the firm. Much of his work is done in the final stages, demanding long and uninterrupted amounts of his gift of concentration. Paul has been there seven years and a lot of his work, coming in the early stages, involves precision woodwork liable to be sometimes overlooked, since much of it will be hidden within the instrument.
Roger usually concentrates on individual custom orders, neck shaping and final assembly, but keeping personal control at every stage of a creation. He looks from a distance only, however, when the considerable sanding of an instrument goes on, since an allergy to some timbers used obliges him to avoid getting dust on his skin.
“Guitar making,” Roger stresses, “is hard physical work, not at all romantic.” But whoever plucks Fylde guitar strings plucks Roger’s heartstrings as well. “The pleasure guitar making gives,” he says, “comes from a job well done, and from seeing the final result in the hands of a satisfied customer.”
Built to order, and usually from a long waiting list, the small output adds to the value of each instrument. If anyone suggests to you that manufacturing is a lost art in this country, tell them about Roger, his 50 years-plus of experience, and his small but remarkable
team who support him.