Global Observer

In Cape Town, a luthier turns trees into music

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CAPE TOWN -- At the tip of Africa we meet master craftsman Marc Maingard -- one of the world's top luthiers.

CAPE TOWN --  A 50km-drive from the Cape Town city center takes you to Scarborough -- a seaside village on the Cape Peninsula characterized by serene coastlines, rustic beach houses and eccentric shops. In this far-flung South African town lives Marc Maingard, a master craftsman who devotes his time to producing some of the world's finest guitars.

Highly respected by makers and musicians alike, Maingard is considered one of the industry's top five luthiers, and is endorsed by musical greats such as Steven SegalEarl Klugh and Crosby, Stills and Nash. In addition to making exceptional one-of-a-kind guitars, Maingard is the sole authorized repair person in South Africa for Gibson, Martin and Ovation.

In a world geared towards automated engineering and prefabricated products, working as a traditional luthier (someone who repairs and makes stringed instruments) is an unusual profession. Even Maingard himself admits it took him 15 years to decide it was what he wanted to do.

Maingard explains that his guitar-making career started in the 1970s when as a young musician he tried to repair his own broken guitar. Discovering he was reasonably good at it, Maingard decided to study cabinet making, silversmithing and marquetry. He started to learn more about guitar construction using Irving Sloane’s Guitar Repair book and later become an apprentice at the Santa Cruz Guitar Company. A year later Maingard opened his own guitar-making practice in Cape Town.

Today, four decades on, Maingard remains faithful to a handmade process despite the significant changes in the guitar-making industry, including the integration of CNC (computer numerical control) machines and the introduction of materials such as carbon fibers and other pliable non-wood products. The 63-year-old says he has never felt the need to adopt new technologies. "I still work with only wood. I work mainly by hand in the old style with hand planes and saws and I cut all my inlays by hand," he says.

There are several guitar makers that work with measurements but the craftsman favors a more tactile approach. Maingard cuts, shapes and glues pieces of wood, some worth R20,000 (US$2,300), to build his bespoke guitars.

A kind of modern-day alchemist, he taps and touches every piece of wood to find the right timbre and resonation. It's this level of care and detail, not to mention Maingard's mastery of his craft, that gives his guitars their distinct look and sound.

Maingard makes frequent trips to Europe to hand select his guitar tops from families that have been cutting wood for instruments for four or more generations. For bindings, headstock veneers and necks, he uses mostly African woods, and for backs and sides it's often Brazilian Rosewood (Dalbergia Nigra) which he bought many years ago. "It is the best sounding wood on the planet. It is also very, very beautiful but it is now endangered and cannot be found anywhere," he says.

Aware of the potential environmental impacts associated with his craft, Maingard is conscientious with his material selection. “I have full site certifications for my Brazilian woods and I only sell guitars with legally harvested woods, pearl and abalone. I only buy from wood cutters who have the permits and the knowledge on how and where to cut that does not damage the environment,” he says.

This year Maingard has made eight guitars. This small number reflects the amount of time that Maingard spends on each guitar. Maingard takes around a month to produce one of his top-range guitars which sells at around R100,000 (around US$11,700).

"Musicians are not known for their ablility to afford expensive guitars. However, there are many fine players who are doctors, lawyers and men and women who have achieved financial success in life -- these seem to be my clients. I heard the other day that "your collection is not complete if you do not own a Maingard guitar." That's a strong statement about my work and guitars," he says.

Images: Courtesy of Marc Maingard.

Lieu Thi Pham

Correspondent (Melbourne)

Lieu Thi Pham is a freelance writer based in Melbourne, Australia. She has contributed to The Age, Associated Newspapers, Melbourne University Magazine, the Big Issue, Dazed and Confused, Indesign Group, Time Out, SOMA and Niche Media. She holds degrees from the University of Melbourne and RMIT University. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure