My silver Fender Stratocaster in all it’s glory
I was born in Guildford in 1957, at St Luke’s Hospital and am still living to this day, in Guildford. I was brought up in Guildford Park which is just by the main train station, so as a kid all I could hear was the sound of train whistles going past my window. It’s also very close to the town and I went to the local primary school then onto Park Barn, the secondary school nearby.
I have one brother, 3 years older than me who is quite different in many ways. He was the brainy one who did A levels and then a degree. I was more creative and just wanted to draw and play music.
I have drawn ever since I could hold a pencil. I loved sport as well, swimming was my big sport. I swam a lot but drawing was always the highlight. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t drawing. Then when I was about 11 I got my first guitar which I asked my parents for, for Christmas.
That’s me in the middle with my Dad and elder brother on holiday in Bournemouth
I wasn’t influenced by popular music by Elvis or The Beatles, I was a bit too young for that. Within me there was just something that wanted to play the guitar. So that Christmas I was given a very cheap guitar from Woolworths. It wasn’t worth much then and it isn’t worth much now.
My mother looked after the home each day and my father worked for the Gas board. He would play the accordion. All through the war, he carried it around with him wherever he went. How he managed that I’ve got no idea. He was in the army and just played it for fun during any silent moments. He wasn’t a great musician, he just enjoyed playing it.
So there I was at 11 years old with my first guitar and no idea how to play it. At first it killed my fingers, literally making them bleed because it was such a cheap guitar with steel strings. A beginner should never learn to play on a steel string guitar. They need a nylon string guitar, it’s much more forgiving. But I broke through the pain barrier and was taught to play by a music teacher at Parkbarn School. She decided she wanted to teach a guitar group though didn’t know how to play herself! She signed up for guitar lessons and was teaching us one week behind her lessons. As she was learning, she was teaching us which looking back, was pretty amazing. I learnt enough to strum a tune and from there I started to write songs.
Playing guitar is all I ever wanted to do
I didn’t learn to read music, I just learnt guitar chords. I’ve never really got to grips with sight reading and notation. I kind of ‘wing it’ really. When I was learning it was the era where you played what you felt. It was the classical musician who studied and wrote intricate compositions. I didn’t want to play anything classical, I wanted to play pop, rock and folk music. In that sense I didn’t need to read music and just wouldn’t have gone down that path.
Leaving school I looked around for a job. Music and art were the two things I loved. I didn’t think I was good enough at music to find employment in that area and there wasn’t the outlet for it. In those days everyone went to the Careers Office in Guildford. I left school at 15 and headed there. They sat me down and said “What do you want to do?” I said “I don’t really know but I want something artistic.” They gave me 4 sheets of paper to look through listing hundreds of jobs. There was one advert for a hairdresser which I thought sounded quite creative. I got on the phone and was told I could start Monday…it was that quick! That’s how it went in those days, in 1972.
So I worked in the hairdressers for 3 months and hated it. I quickly decided it wasn’t for me and returned to the Careers Office. Out came another list, among which was a picture framer over in Godalming. The Careers Officer contacted them and again I started the following week. I caught the bus the next Monday and stayed with them for 6 years! I learnt all about picture framing, focusing mainly on mounting and the decorative side. It was a big company, who employed about 25 people, delivering across London and the South East, which was quite unusual for picture framers. We did a lot of work for the big galleries in London. I just worked in one department and enjoyed it very much, it was very creative. That’s where I got my grounding for picture framing, but I never lost sight that all I wanted to do was play the guitar.
Playing at the school assemblies and Westminster Hall
I was playing music more and hoped to find something musical I could do full time. I had become a Christian when I was 17 and all the songs I wrote became songs about God, something with a twist in it. I wanted to use my musical talent to serve Him and share my faith through music.
There’s was a band being formed through an organisation called Hildenborough Hall, which ran a big conference centre in Kent, in Sevenoaks and they were preparing for a big christian mission in London, during the spring of 1980. I applied and got a place in a band formed for that particular year. I spent a year touring round the south of England, based in a large house in the Kent countryside. It was an amazing year. We did a lot of prep work, playing in colleges and schools. Then we hit the 3 month mission and played to well over 100,000 kids, going into schools and playing at assemblies. We were quite a loud Christian rock band, that’s basically what we were, making a lot of noise. We would pitch up at 7am, set up the hall and hit it during assembly. Then we’d stay in the school during the day playing a lunchtime concert and in the evening we’d play another concert somewhere locally. We kept this up 6 days a week and finally booked Westminster Central Hall where we did a big gospel presentation. The program lasted for about 10 weeks covering different parts of London. Right at the end we took part in a big event at the Royal Albert Hall. It was such an amazing time.
Outside of all we were doing in the colleges and schools we played general gigs and stuff from Hildenborough Hall itself so as a musician it was a great year. I also met my wife there which made it even better.
My son Tom and I at one of our favourite guitar shops
I came back to Guildford at the end of all that and got together with a mate who I’d worked with before. He’d started his own picture framing business. I went to work with him for about a year or so. Things kind of muddled along, but I really wanted to run my own business and the opportunity came up to do that.
I got married in the meantime and somebody I knew who was working at Smithbrook Kilns in 1984, said “Why don’t you come and have a look, Smithbrook Kilns would be a great place for a picture framers.” When I saw it I completely agreed and thought it would be a fantastic place to start my business.
However, unbeknown to me about an hour later another picture framer had rung the owners of Smithbrook to apply for a unit. They were refused in light of our agreement. God has been in our business all the way through, it’s been a walk of faith really. I’ve been a picture framer now for 35 years.
Choosing the correct wood is very important
There comes a time when you realise you can’t do things like this forever. I’ve been wondering for the past 3 or so years what to do when I retire.
Although I’ve always played guitar, I’ve never really been passionate about it. For me it’s been a tool to accompany songs, as part of a band to deliver a message. My eldest son is passionate about guitars and just seems to know everything about them. I influenced him in this direction and he went off like kids often do, with the knowledge I imparted to him and added to it a thousandfold. Watching him blossom sparked something in me, he inspired me to look at the guitar again and start to see it more as an art form.
I began playing the electric guitar again.
The workshop – my converted garage
When I was in the band I had an electric guitar but I hadn’t really played one in at least a decade. I had sold my only electric guitar, my beautiful silver Fender Stratocaster, to buy another guitar in 2003. As these new ideas started to form in my head, I bitterly regretted ever selling that guitar. I tried to track it down.
I had part-exchanged it at a local guitar shop in Guildford and I approached them as I knew them quite well. They looked through their records only to discover it was actually stolen from their shop on Christmas Eve, 2003. Someone had bought it on a dodgy credit card, and the monies didn’t go through but it was too late as they hadn’t discovered this until after the bank holiday. They had never reported it and I thought that would be the end of it but never gave up hope. I thought it must be out there somewhere and kept trying to track it down.
I found a couple of copies of it on the internet. It was a particular anniversary version and only about 2000 of them had been made worldwide, in 1979 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Stratocaster. I bought it brand new that year to join the band. I found one or two identical ones on eBay. But thought if I want this guitar back I don’t want a copy, I want the actual one. So I said a little prayer and left it at that.
Building a Guitar
A few months later, just by chance, if there is such a thing, I looked again on eBay and one popped up, exactly the same as mine. It was silver, had the same case, and looked identical. When I compared it to my photographs, I thought that doesn’t just look like mine, it IS mine!
When I had sold it to the local guitar shop the one thing I couldn’t find was the certificate of authenticity. I later discovered it at home complete with the serial number. I rang the seller and we checked the details and they were identical. It WAS my guitar. Long story short he had bought it in good faith from a shop 3-4 months earlier, decided he wanted to sell it and we came to an agreement. I drove down to the New Forest straight away and picked it up. It was in exactly the same condition as I had sold it. Everything about it, all the things I had in the case were all still there. That prompted me to realise that God wanted me to play it again. I progressed from this wonderful journey and went on from there. I’m not the best at it but it’s what I love.
I began to think ‘What if I could build an electric guitar?’
One thing lead to another. I built a few guitars using parts, then ventured to see if I could actually carve a neck using a block of wood by hand and make a fret board. As I started to look into the idea, it lead to building a workshop at home, about a year or so ago. I have organised my workshop complete with some lovely tools, including a few electric ones, though mainly chisels and the like.
I want everything to be perfect. I want to build the best guitars in the world like no one has ever seen before.
Meanwhile, I’m still working at Smithbrook, but realise it’s time to sell the business. I tried to sell it through a national company earlier but didn’t get a sniff. I was praying about it just before Christmas last year 2018. The next day, my phone went off and there was a message from a colleague I hadn’t seen or heard from for over 25 years. He had worked for us as a lad. “Hi its Alan here, I’ve got a picture I want framed. I’m now living locally, and want to get out of the IT business. I wondered if you have a job for someone to manage your business?” I thought we’ve got more than a job going here!
Re-crowning is delicate work
We met up and talked it through. I explained we were looking to sell the business if he was interested. We all took it gently. It turned out that Amanda, Alan’s wife, had been a nurse for 30 years and was looking for a lifestyle change.
Amanda and Alan both wanted the same thing. They moved to a house in Loxwood, 10 minutes away from the shop. They had tried to buy a house previously, on the other side of Dorking but it fell through and they ended up here. Loads of little things started to fall into place and the net result was we agreed a sale which is currently going through, so as I talk to you, this is my second to last day!
Maggie, my wife, has been a massive support in it all. She worked as a teacher and supported me when we first started the business. She came in as a partner when we started our family. We’ve got 3 children, two boys and a girl, all grown up now. Two are married, one still lives at home.
Masking off before polishing the frets
Maggie’s been there for the entire time, in many ways she should be here having the chat too, she’s the heart of it all.
We incorporated the business about 15 years ago, she became a director and we’ve really run it together for the last decade and a half. It wasn’t her career choice, she loves children and people and being involved with them. We now have 2 grandchildren, that changes your view on life. You want to be with them and be a part of their lives.
It feels a bit self-indulgent in a way to start up a new avenue of creativity because it’s all-consuming. When I go into the workshop Maggie says I go in for 5 minutes, and it ends up being 2 hours. I lose track of time and can’t explain that because I’ve never really had that luxury before. Playing guitar, whether I’m practising or just having fun, I can zone out and lose half an hour, but building them, there’s so much fine detail involved I just get absorbed working with the wood rather than against it.
Grandchildren are always there to lend a hand
I never went to university but the University of YouTube has really helped me. There are many tutorials about the craft. I’ve learnt a lot through that. Self-indulgent it maybe. I’d love to think people will play my guitars.
So far I’ve worked on two other people’s guitars, repairing,re-crowning and setting them up. Another one I sorted for my son Tom, who works in many situations. He was playing it at a big conference and another guitarist who plays regularly at big events commented “That’s a nice guitar.” Tom said “Yeah my dad’s done some work on it, do you want to have a go?” He did just that and thought it was amazing and borrowed it for the whole conference, so Tom had to use another one!
There’s a lot of energy involved, which I believe is coming from God, through the Holy Spirit. It applies to the way I work and how I do it. I don’t always know why it works, it just does.
L-R, Maggie, me, Amanda and Alan the new owners
To create a good guitar takes a combination of elements.
There are certain rules, the measurements that have to be right, the distances between frets for example. If they are wrong, no matter how beautiful it is, it won’t play. Some woods are better than others, they’re called tone woods. You can pick the block of wood up, tap it and it makes a note. Different woods have different notes. You can tap one and it would be quite dull, maybe because it’s so dense as it’s a hard wood and has no air to it. Whereas another wood might have a softer feel to it, has a bit of space to it and when it’s tapped you feel the note, it resonates. I sit on the fence with this, I don’t know if it’s these woods that make better guitars, they should do, it stands to reason. But the first guitar I’m working on I wouldn’t call a tone wood, it’s got a bit of a note so I’m very interested to see what it plays like. It’s a solid body electric that I’m building as a first guitar, it’s based around a standard famous guitar shape, which is a Fender Telecaster that lots of people copy. I chose it because it has such a simple design. They say for your first guitar it’s the best one to choose, but I’m adding in some twists. I’m creating it to be the perfect guitar for me, as comfortable as it can be. I’m using the best materials available in my opinion so if it doesn’t turn out work well I can’t blame the things I didn’t make, it’s all down to my craftsmanship.
So that’s where I’m at with guitar building, I haven’t actually built a whole guitar yet. I kind of feel like I’ve got a dozen guitars in me somewhere, like an author who writes a book.
Playing guitar at the Royal Albert Hall 1981
I’ve not had the pleasure of starting and finishing one yet without the interruption of work. I’d like to think I could build a high spec guitar in about 2 months if I was working 2-3 days a week. My workshop’s at home, so I could go out there for 2 hours, come out and do something else, like cut the grass and then return to work for another few hours.
I’m not sure how my life will work, I’m involved in a lot of other things, I don’t want guitar building to be a full-time business. I just want to do it because I love it. It’s the creativeness in me that needs to have an outlet, I need to do something to be content. That’s where we are at the moment and I’m looking forward to concentrating on it further in the future.
Maggie’s going to enjoy family life and grandchildren and going on some holidays. We have a large garden and a big house so there’s much to be done. We’re very fortunate we can retire and stay there. She’ll enjoy the garden particularly, that’s her hobby. We’re both involved with people. I’m a pastoral assistant at St Saviours Church Guildford so I get to be involved with people there. Maggie works for a charity part-time, Home-Start who help young mums.
At St Saviours carols service 2018 – still going strong
After 35 years of doing the same thing we just need to land. We’re going to take a couple of months to breathe to see what God wants to do with us next. What the venture with the guitars will look like will be interesting to see – it’s like my thank you to God for all he’s done in my life.
As we leave the picture framing business we’ve written a letter for Alan and Amanda in the same way a previous president gives a letter to the next. Most of it is around how blessed we’ve been with the business, but it’s also about service, serving people and being thankful. Nobody has to come to our company to have pictures framed, there are lots of other places they can go. Whoever they are, treat everyone the same. Be natural.
Maggie and I want to express our thanks and gratitude to all the lovely clients we have had the pleasure to serve over 35 years. Many have become friends and we are delighted that Alan and Amanda James will be continuing to serve them going forward.