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Interview: Guitar-maker Graham Rowe

Flagstaff Team

Visiting the Martin & Co workshops in America set Graham Rowe on the path to making his own guitars

He learned to play guitar as a child, but Graham Rowe only decided to start making them as retirement beckoned. He tells Helen Vause about the pleasures of creating his own swamp-kauri specials.

Graham Rowe is a 70-something retiree. With cosy recliner-style chairs in his Devonport living room, and on a cold wintry afternoon, he doesn’t immediately strike you as a rock-band man. But in one corner there’s an iconic Fender Stratocaster electric guitar, and he has a house full of more beautiful acoustic guitars than one man could play.

With the exception of the Fender, the guitars have all been lovingly hand-made by Rowe. And on close inspection inside them, they all have individual names.

It’s an unusual retirement project, but it’s the very satisfying fulfilment of a longheld dream. For Rowe, his little workshop is his happy place and the story of how he got to be there is a long one; of his journey through music and his eye for great guitars.

The story begins more than 60 years ago, when rock’n’roll was the rage, guitar players were the hottest thing around town and Rowe was a nine-year-old in Bedford, England. Mad keen to get with the scene, he made himself a guitar out of cardboard and elastic bands – look out Hank Marvin and The Shadows.

That first instrument was never going to take him far, but his grandmother must have been moved by his enthusiasm because she bought him a guitar for his 10th birthday.

“I loved that guitar. It was the start for me, and for years I would always go back to playing it.”

With that first guitar, Rowe soon found muso mates and formed his first band. Barely out of primary school, they were belting out the hits of the day on nights, weekends and every hour they could get away with.

“I’m always learning more and more about this. It is a labour of love but I’m lucky to be doing something that I really love.”

They had band fever, and practised continually until they were good enough to be playing Saturday nights in the dance halls of Bedfordshire.

The band stayed together until Rowe was about 18 years old. He’s proud to recall being on billings as part of the warm-up for the likes of Lulu and The Animals, when they toured through his patch in the mid-60s.

They were exciting years in music, but growing up and having to get a day job took Rowe into a long career in electronic engineering, sales and exporting. It was a working life with a lot of travel that took him far from the UK to Africa, Europe and beyond. He married, and came to New Zealand 30 years ago, settling in Devonport with wife Chris and raising their family.

But whether at home or abroad, a guitar was never far from hand, and he found his way into the ranks of various bands, with gigs and bands always part of his life.

In Africa, he was on bass in a folk band with banjos and whistles, and when he first came to New Zealand he was part of a bluegrass band.

Rowe was a very capable guitar player, but also quite a handy bloke and he was always interested in the workings and features of guitars.

In his 60s, and heading towards retirement, a business trip took him to New York and Rowe had the opportunity to take a long-awaited side trip.

He took leave and headed for Nazareth, Pennsylvania, the town where they make the famed Martin acoustic guitars.

Martin guitars are claimed by many as the best in the world and are favoured by some of the biggest names in music.

Martin set up shop in 1883 and these days there’s a steady trail of acoustic-guitar buffs taking workshop tours to see up close he process of hand-building guitars.

When Rowe got the chance to visit, he told the management he was the founder of the Guitar Association of New Zealand.

“That was just a little group I set up for all the guys here, who were just playing guitar by themselves to get together.”

But it struck the right chord in Pennsylvania: “They gave me a really great welcome and I spent all day watching those guitars being made. I hadn’t realised there would be such craftsmen still around, but they were there alright and their work made a very big impression on me.”

It’s said there are about 300 steps in hand-making a guitar, from the time the rough wood comes into the workshop through to the birth of each instrument – and plenty can go awry along the way in the wrong hands.

That day at Martin & Co was a life-changer for Rowe. He decided to go home and learn how to make guitars himself.

Not long after he’d opted to pursue the craft, he was accepted into a workshop in Wellington run by a couple of noted luthiers. Guitar-making became his passion.

Rowe laughs to recall the intensity of it all at the time. He was the oldest of the 12 students in a demanding workshop that ran for three weeks, six days a week and 10 hours a day.

“It was very full on, but I was very lucky to be there. On Sundays I’d recover and do my laundry!”

Starting from a flat pile of wood, he managed to emerge with a very passable acoustic guitar that he was proud to take home to Devonport.

Rowe was hooked and on the way to producing guitars for musicians who would appreciate the workmanship in them.

He converted his garage into a workshop and began pulling together the precision tools and devising the systems he would need before he could get to work on handcrafting instruments.

He had plenty of patience – he spent nearly a year making jigs for his workshop.

His first instrument is dated January 2009. The next two, made for his daughters Deborah and Emily, were very well received.

As more followed, Rowe continued to refine his craft.

His guitars take up to 400 hours to get to the stage where they are ready for French polishing with his own special home-made polish.

Then he’ll set them up for play, and they’ll produce that beautiful sound that’s expected of a good acoustic guitar.

“Of course you have a particular end product in mind, but you just never know until you put the strings on. They’re all different,’’ says Rowe.

“I’m very happy with them, although you can always dream about making the perfect guitar. I’m always learning more and more about this. It is a labour of love but I’m lucky to be doing something that I really love.”

The small but growing range of Rowe guitars has a distinctly Kiwi touch: the bodies are made from ancient swamp kauri, giving them a soft golden glow. One has been sold and there will be more for sale, though he won’t be parted from his very first Rowe guitar.

A recent health scare has seen him make a few lifestyle changes, which include hopping onto an electric bike when hitting the streets with cycling friends. The big gigs are probably in the past, but that doesn’t mean the music has stopped for Rowe, who’s enjoying showing off the sounds and styles of his guitars

“I couldn’t imagine a life without music,” he says.

He’s on the lookout for fellow musicians who might like to get together now and again for a bit of music-making.

Yes, he’s thinking good old rock would be part of that for sure. He loves to play his own guitars, but the neighbourhood will know all about it if he breaks out the Fender.

“Every boy had to have a Fender,” he says.

These images originally appeared in the September 20 edition of the Devonport FlagstaffDownload PDF.