Tucked away in the rural lanes of Dartmoor, Devon, is the picturesque pink barn that is the home of Brook Guitars.
Once you enter the workshop and make your way past piles of reclaimed wood and half-finished guitars taking shape on the benches, you find yourself in a room full of esoteric vintage instruments and newly built guitars waiting to be shipped to their owners.
It was here that Musical Instrument News Acoustic Editor Ben Morgan-Brown sat down with company founders Andy Petherick and Simon Smidmore to talk about their history, using local woods, and the challenges of being a small manufacturer.
MIN: Can you start off by giving me a brief history of Brook Guitars – how you started? Did either of you have any previous experience with guitars and the music instrument business?
Simon: We were both players – I did a bit of repair work but only had a pretty vague knowledge of guitar construction, I was building a house opposite Andy Manson, got to know him and spent all my spare time watching him at work.
He was just building guitars in his shed really, and I thought it might be something that I could do – I’d tried to get into the guitar making business when I left college and had a couple of offers but they never materialised so I went into other things.
It was only when I met Andy (Manson) that I had the opportunity, one of his friends invested in his business and he took on myself and Andy [Petherick].
MIN: And how long ago was this?
Andy: that was in the early 90s …
Simon: He took us on to build guitars under the name AB Manson & Co and we worked with him for about a year – but Andy [Manson] preferred the freedom of working alone rather than the role of a manager and he sold the business to us.
Andy: We say the ‘business’ but it was really just the tools and the equipment – the initial idea was that we would build his guitars under a licensing arrangement and he would market them, he encouraged us to set up our own brand and after a few years the interest in our Brooks overtook the Manson enquiries.
MIN: When you started making your own guitars, did you use Andy Manson’s designs as a starting point or did you want to make a clean break?
Simon: We made a break really, Andy came up with the Torridge design …
Andy: … Just for my own amusement really at first – as a guitar I’d like to make for myself…
Simon: … and I drew up the Taw and the range grew from there – we’ve drawn some others of our own design and other shapes are adapted from things like the Martin OM and 0 models which we’ve named the Lamorna and the Clyst.
Andy: … it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find names from rivers that sound nice …
Simon: … or that roll off the tongue well – we’ve avoided the river Axe for obvious reasons!
MIN: So you started out on your own but you have a small team now?
Simon: There are three of us full time, two part timers and a friend who helps out with the website
Andy: Jack generally builds the bodies, I make up the neck blanks, Simon dovetails the necks, prepares and glues on the fingerboards and I take over for the finishing process.
Simon: Andy’s daughter Yasmin helps in the finishing department and with preparation work downstairs and we’ve got a lad that comes in three days a week and helps Jack.
MIN: How many guitars do you build in a year and how are they split between trade and private customers?
Andy: About 60 guitars a year at the moment – broadly speaking it’s 50/50 trade to private – it fluctuates a bit depending on orders and repair work that comes in.
MIN: And you’re working with a small UK dealer base – how many shops do you supply?
Simon: Six – Ivor Mairants, Coda Music, Intersound, Project Music, Forsyth Brothers, Celtic Chords
MIN: Do you find with the retailers you have to convince them to take some risks with the order? Do they all just want standard rosewood and spruce guitars?
Simon: Well we’ve got two for Coda at the moment which are all figured mahogany – Intersound love the American Red Gum and cedar tops – though we’ve never particularly been great fans of cedar …
Andy: … but the customer’s always right!
MIN: What’s the big difference dealing with retailers rather than directly with players?
Andy: The speed of ordering I guess – generally speaking shops just phone up and go ‘rosewood Taw, spruce top, etc’ and order four or five guitars, but, when you’re dealing with private individuals you go down, choose the woods and run through the specs and often there’ll be quite a lot of to-ing and fro-ing with emails before you actually get to the final specifications – then they might change their mind halfway through the build!
MIN: How custom can people go?
Andy: However much they want really
Simon: Providing it’ll work of course – we’ll tell people if the wood choice or maybe the scale-length isn’t likely to work well for them.
MIN: What’s the weirdest things hat you have built?
Simon: We’ve built 8 and 9 string guitars, we’re building a fretless six string for a customer in London at the moment with a heavy strings on it so it’s going to be low tuned – we’ve built fretless basses, various mandolins, bouzouki guitars, dulcimer guitars, all sorts over the years.
MIN: You mentioned American Red Gum earlier – you use a lot of alternative and reclaimed woods, bog oak, cherry, yew, walnut etc – is that an ecological or economical choice?
Simon: It’s certainly not an economical choice- by the time you’ve sourced it, sliced the boards, cut it into sets and stored it to season for a considerable time…
Andy: … it’s cheaper just to buy rosewood…
Simon: …but if we can get homegrown timber and specifically wood from this area…
Andy: … it’s part of the story – over the years we made many guitars from walnut we’d sourced that came down in Creedy Park in the gales of ‘87, just across the road from me – it’s nice to get wood that has a little bit of a story.
Simon: We also keep an eye out for reclaimed timbers – old benches or worktops or bar tops…
Andy: … again quite a lot of work, dodging screw holes and bits of metalwork and God knows what…
Simon: .. it’s good to use though…
Andy: … better than burning it – that was what was on the cards for a trailer load of mahogany doors we rescued from a site in Exeter!
MIN: And sometimes you even have customers bringing their own wood in?
Simon: One of our customers’ chestnut tree had come down in his garden – he brought down two boards which had been drying for a couple of years – not quite as dry as we thought when we put it through our band-saw!
We dried it out and waxed the ends and a year later we built him a little parlor guitar out it – we’ve still got a set for his next guitar.
MIN: So he’s already ordered another guitar?
Simon: We get a lot of multiple buyers – we’ve got a friend down in Sidmouth who’s collected fifteen secondhand Brooks and two or three other customers that I can name who’ve got over 10 now
MIN: That brand loyalty for a small company, that means an awful lot…
Simon: It’s something that I can’t really understand myself but it’s very flattering!
MIN: As small company with a small team, what’s the biggest challenge? Is it keeping up with the volume of work?
Simon: Obviously that’s a challenge – we could sell as many as we could make I think, we could probably double production and sell them all but we’re not in it to make a huge amount of money.
As long as we’ve got a regular income and we’re enjoying what we’re doing – I got into it because I’m a guitar fanatic, I love collecting them, I love playing them – we’ve tried to keep our range affordable – once you start chasing the pounds the spirit of the business suffers.
Andy: We’re not ruthless business men, profit at any cost, we try and give our customers extremely good value for money, we just want to do what we enjoy doing and continue as long as we can!
MIN: So what’s the future for Brook Guitars?
Andy: I think ‘steady as she goes’ – it works for us, customers like what we’re doing, we always seem to get very positive reviews, it’s all good really – if it ain’t broke don’t break it!
More information on Brook Guitars can be found at https://www.brookguitars.com