Luna and I recently took a little adventure to Kilmore, a quaint little town in Victoria, Australia, to visit luthier Rod McCracken at The Guitar Shop. What was the mission, you ask? Well, it was all about my loyal companion for the past eleven years – my beloved 6-string "Fat Lady 2" Cole Clark guitar.
The Guitar's Odyssey: My guitar has been on a remarkable journey, my faithful campion as I have traversed the diverse landscapes of Australia. From the snow-covered expanses of Tasmania to the humid tropics of North Queensland, the guitar has weathered it all. Its most significant challenge has been adapting to fluctuating humidity levels, leading to a lifting bridge that threatens its playability.
Long overdue for some critical care and attention I handed over my beloved ‘Fat Lady’ to Luthier Rod McCracken, who operates his guitar making school in this small historic Victorian town.
It all started when Rod and his wife happened to attend my show at the Tallarook Hotel, and Rod noticed a little buzz in my guitar, likely caused by a worn bridge saddle.
After the show, he mentioned that he was actually a luthier and invited me to check out his workshop. It was an offer I couldn't refuse, if only to indulge my inner guitar nerd.
So, the next day, Luna and I made a detour to Rod's hometown of Kilmore and paid him a visit at The Guitar Shop (you can find him at TheGuitarShop.com.au). Walking into his workshop, I was surrounded by walls lined with tools, part templates, and multiple guitar skeletons in various stages of creation.
Rod was a pleasure to talk to – incredibly friendly and eager to share his knowledge and wisdom. I was surprised to learn that Rod doesn't actually play the guitar. But, as he put it, luthiers like him and musicians like me need each other. I need someone to craft my instruments, and he needs someone to bring his creations to life.
The instruments he created had a warm, rich, and deep tone, thanks to the naturally dried wood he used and his undeniable craftsmenship. What stood out was his commitment to traditional methods, doing everything by hand without a power tool in sight.
Rod's journey into luthiery is unique. He was formerly a high school teacher but turned to this craft after his wife fell seriously ill, losing both her hands and feet to sepsis. His psychologist suggested he dedicate one day a week to something for himself, and that's when he began making guitars. When the previous luthier decided to retire, Rod stepped up, not wanting to see the local community lose this invaluable resource and knowledge base.
He offers a course that costs $4000, including all the materials, and it takes anywhere from 150 to 300 hours for participants to complete their personally customized guitar. It's a testament to his dedication to keeping the art of luthiery alive and well in Kilmore.
Kieran - So it's a guitar school you run?
Rod - Yeah, so I teach people how to build guitars. Yeah, that's my main, it's the main activity. And then I do repairs and everything after, while they're off doing their thing and stuff. We've just hired a guy to teach people. To build electrics as well nice. Which is really cool. This will kind of expand the operation a bit.
Kieran - They're totally different.
Rod - Yeah. At the end of the day, I mean, some of the principles are the same, but there's only one principle. It's only just trying to measure a vibrating string. Yeah, but the control of the vibration is a lot different. So Fender famously said that all he wanted to do was try and hear the string, whereas we try and hear the timber.
Kieran - So these are all your work?
Rod - The F Hole is an experiment. A student of mine wanted to build an arch top. But there's so much waste in building an arch top because you have to to carve out out of about three inches of timber, a two mil piece. So what I wanted to do was see if I could use standard build principles to construct a guitar with an arch. Those are not a very pronounced arch as a result, but it has that same really bright tone, bright and explosive tone you get out of an arch top.
@kieran.wicks 🌟 The Unlikely Luthier: Rod's unique journey from high school teacher to master luthier is truly inspiring. Learn how he found solace and purpose through the art of guitar making. 🎶 #LuthierStory #CraftingJourney #InspiringCraftsmanship #Adayinthelifeofatouringmuso #NotaTradtionalTravelBlog #KieranWicks #OneTownataTime #LivingArtLifestyle ♬ original sound - Kieran Wicks
Kieran - So you've obviously been at your craft for quite a long time.
Rod - Yeah, so my wife got sick a bit over ten years ago, so then I started year and a half after that. Yeah, somewhat.
Kieran - What drew you to the craft? You obviously play a bit like no…?
Rod - I don't play.
Kieran - You don't. That's funny. Last night, the first thing you said to me was, what was that passing chord in that song? And I'm like, Whoa, okay, there's a guitarist in the room using proper language and all.
Rod - So Mandy got sick and she lost her hands and feet to sepsis 10 Years ago. You probably noticed her hands, but you wouldn't know she was on prosthetic legs. And, so I used to be a high school teacher. Taught English and philosophy, and when she got sick, I haven't been in a classroom since. So, when she was home and I had to look after the kids and stuff,our psychologist said, oh, you really need to do something for yourself one day a week. Just as respite.
It was then that kind of the whole explosion of the mammal was happening, “fat blokes in lycra”. I have no business being cryovacced in Lycra, so I didn't want to do that.
So I thought, what's Kicking around. So I found this course and
So I took the course and the guy who was running the course was really kind enough to offer to have me stay and build one for each of my kids, which was really lovely. And then he was finishing up and we were set to lose all of the all the heritage and story and everything else was going to be lost and so I bought the school. I wanted to keep the legacy of that going. So yeah. So I started eight years ago.
Kieran - Awesome story.
Rod - Yeah… Everyone comes to guitar building in their own with their own reason for doing it.
Kieran - This is really cool. I’m like nerding out. Totally here!
Rod - A lot of people come through nerd out. Ella Hooper, who often drives past every now and then. She was in here nerding out about a year ago on the way to a gig.
Kieran - So tell us about your business and your courses.
Rod - So, I run the course Wednesday to Saturday. But people do it one day a week. So, we only use Australian timbers much like Cole Clark and Maton. The difference is we don't use kiln dried timbers. So they put the timbers in a kiln to speed up the drying process?
So that's just fine. Like for them, they're putting out so many per year that they have to supply it from somewhere, don't they? So I get my supply from instrument timber suppliers who will supply Cole, Clark and Maton. But I prefer to get their naturally dried stuff. So I try to find people who will naturally dry their timbers. You get such a tonal difference.
Kieran - How long does it take to dry out the timber properly?
Rod - That's their job.
Kieran - Hahaha, How do you cook the steak properly? hahaha
Rod - It takes them years. And that's, which is fine. That's their that's their bag. And I let them I let them do that. Tend not to ask any questions because at the end of the day, I need to trust them there. Yeah. And my students need the trust them. The actual build is as close to a traditional build that you can kind of get away with in a modern setting. So there's no CNC cutting, there's no kit work, there's no prefab anything. I supply the timber and students will…, like the bracing, for example, they'll go through a bucket and they'll find it, cut it down, shape it up, sand it, the whole bit. And, so they get they get a real kind of experience. You gotta be able to do that.
Kieran - So how long do your courses run for?
Rod - My last guy took 300 hours.
Kieran - Yeah, it's a good way to put it. How many hours go into making it? Because you're not going to get to it all the time. And something like 300 hours, if you're doing it one day a week, that's a substantial amount of time.
Rod - Look, on average, I reckon most students have push it out in about 150 to 200 hours because I don't do any of the work. But it means that, like you said, a student wants to go away for the weekend. The last thing I need is their partner getting shitty at me because they want to go try the right key. They want to go away and they can't because, you know. Their wife, girlfriend, partner, whatever, is here building.
So I've got that's. The other thing, it's really weird. Most people think it's like a dude's glorified men's shed. I have currently over a quarter of my books are women, which is fantastic. Yeah. It's really good to see women starting to get into it a lot more.
Um, but, yeah, so it takes about 150 to 200 hours to reasonably expect someone to complete it. And then they snap something or they've got to start a whole new process again, that kind of thing. So, yeah, that's about the extent of the course, I think.
The course is four grand. So it's not an insubstantial.
Kieran - No, I think that's brilliant, because you get a guitar out of it at the end of the day and you've got all those skills.
Rod - Yeah, well and students design their own head. Rosette. I had a guy do an epoxy resin rosette yeah. With, like, little cubes of timber. It's kind of extraordinary.
Kieran - That's the thing I love about Cole Clark's, is the headstock.
Rod - Yeah. I had a student try and emulate it and do his kind of it didn't go well because Cole Clark will use machines. And I try and get my students to do as much as they can just by hand and to try and hand sculpt anything symmetrical is so it's really hard for people who've been doing it for a while, let alone students.
REPAIRING MY GUITAR
The Sacrifice for Repair: I’ve known for quite some time now that the old girl has needed to visit the Cole Clark Factory for some proper love and attention to mend her breaking bridge. But the fact that she is integral to my live performance and a constant live touring schedule, it makes doing without her for a couple of weeks difficult.
So, I grapple with the prospect of parting with my beloved for an extended period of time. An internal struggle and familiar sentiment to many musicians whom may be reading right now.
The Musical Workhorses: My guitars have served as unwavering companions throughout my musical journey. With minimal maintenance apart from a few fret replacements, these guitars have demonstrated their remarkable durability, making them emblematic of the resilience of well-loved instruments.
Expert Diagnosis: Upon arrival in Kilmore, the guitar is entrusted to Rod McCracken, a master of his craft. Rod's keen eye quickly identifies several issues, including grooves in the saddle, and the blatant lifting bridge. These issues could compromise the guitar's sound and overall performance.
Saddle Replacement: Rod reveals an unconventional yet effective solution for ensuring a stable connection between the saddle and the guitar's pickup. He uses an off-cut of a kitchen bench, emphasizing its flatness and reliability in maintaining the pickup's contact with the strings. This ingenious technique showcases a tradesman’s trick showing the luthier's creativity and resourcefulness.
Fret Replacement Challenges: Rod sheds light on the intricate process of fret replacement explaining that it's a delicate procedure due to the strong and brittle timber commonly used in guitar construction. His insights underscoring the meticulous craftsmanship required to maintain and restore these instruments.
The Repair Process: The video showcases the step-by-step process of adjusting and tuning the guitar to address its lifting bridge issue. Rod emphasizes the importance of gradual adjustments and aligning with the wood's grain to ensure a consistent and even response from the timber.
Bridge's Triumph: Rod and I take a deep breath out and share a moment of relief as he successfully changes out the bridge pick up string saddle, tunes it back up, and, most importantly, prevents further damage to the bridge, saving an instrument that might have otherwise had to of been soon retired.
REPAIR VIDEO TRANSCIPT
Hello world. So Luna and I are taking a bit of an expedition through a little town called Kilmore today to visit the guitar room. I met the Luthier Rob McCracken last night at my show at the Tallarook Hotel and Yeah, I thought I'd bring my baby down for some much-needed love Yeah, I'll show you something behind the scenes of fixing the old girl
Rod - So I was gonna swap that out. Yeah but my main concern… We will actually measure that gap as we bring it up to tune and if that starts to move, we're gonna we have to call it. But if you're ever gonna play this again, you need a new… see the…
Kieran - Yeah, yeah, they've all got grooves in them
Rod - Which is fine.
Kieran - Yeah, she's pretty sizable, the Bridge lifting you'll have to turn your phone sideways and see that It's lifting. So you believe it's from the humidity, like constant humidity and I've traveled around so much and yeah leaving it tuned up when I put it back in the case. This has been everywhere from out back Queensland all the way up to the Daintree and down to Tasmania, so she's seen snow and Tropical North Queensland.
Rod - Such a narrow width on them Yeah Yeah, so your actions at 275 so lets drop that down as much as we can, But the compensations kicking out over the… The other problem is your actions gonna be affected.
Kieran - This is awesome Yeah, well, it's only been worked on once I've had it for the best part 11 years. It’d be longer now like time does go on you've got to add numbers.
Rod - But when you're putting a new saddle in the last thing you want Is a lack of connection with your pickup? Yeah, so I like to use these It's basically just the off-cut of a kitchen bench that Stonemasons used. So I’ve been through a building site and found one because they're already machine dead flat.
Kieran - Yeah, yeah both of them actually the 12 strings a bit the same. This has definitely been played a lot more. Because I used to break so many strings on that bloody 12 string and they're so expensive to replace so it’s in its case for longer.
So they've been absolute workhorses for me considering how long I've been traveling around the countryside and they've never really had much work done Other than the frets. The first half dozen frets on this were replaced by Walton Guitars in Cooroy, Queensland. That's it, and even he was nervous to have a go at it at the time. Yeah, he did a good job as far as I'm concerned.
Rod - Yeah It makes us all nervous because the the timber that we use is often a very strong and brittle timber and so the tangs on the on the actual The tangs on the fret wire can just pull out pull out little chips. Yeah, it's a slow slow process.
That's three mil, so we'll bring it up to two steps down.
Kieran - So tune lower first?
Rod - Yeah, bring it up half step each. I'm just I want to be really conservative about it. If you just go (wham) and just bring it up it could Rip. And a lot of people will bring up either one through six or six through one. If you bring it up six and one two and five three and four you're actually going with the actual grain of the timber, yeah instead of asking the timber to do this (warp unevenly) you're asking the timber to come up consistently, which I prefer.
Kieran - I'm surprised like considering how bad that lift is that the guitar still sounds pretty decent.
Rod - Yeah, it sounds good except for the (buzz that we were correcting)
Kieran - So rod come up to me last night with a couple little pieces of paper I thought, ‘has he written down a fucking request on a piece of paper’ and he said to me it said this string was buzzing in particular, and was is like put a bit of paper (under it) I was like ‘Wow, you noticed’.
Kieran - I've known I've had to get a fix properly for a while. But like you said, I need to sacrifice it for a week at least
Rod - Looks like it's holding okay in truth. It doesn't look like it's extended any further along so You know, it's still a three mil so I'm reasonably confident at this point to bring it up. Cool and that's holding so beautiful. Thank you bridge. Bridge lifts are so nerve racking, and sometimes you say, ‘I guess I’ve got to retire this now’.