Guitars strike chord with Mac

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By Mick Jensen

Mac McElwain started playing and collecting guitars decades ago, but these days, in retirement, he also makes them from scratch.

A self taught luthier, the 73-year-old hand-crafts guitars and has made around 20 over the last six years.

Guitar making is both a hobby and passion for Mac, who was a strategist and advertising executive for over four decades.

His guitars are crafted using New Zealand native wood like rimu and kauri.

Softer woods were typically used for the top and helped with vibration, while harder woods were used for the sides, said Mr McElwain.

“Rimu, as a harder wood, gives a bright, tinkly sound, whereas kauri helps make a warmer, more mellow sound.”

Mr McElwain said growing up he had been inspired by the likes of top guitarist Hank Marvin and Beatles John Lennon and George Harrison.

“I’ve always twiddled with my guitar and enjoyed finger style folk, blues and ragtime music, but I’ve never been a great singer.

“It wasn’t until we were packing up to move house from Ohoka a few years ago that I brought all my guitars together in one place and my wife discovered I had 17 of them.”

He and wife Pat made the move to Methven three years ago.

They had earlier owned Blackford Station in the Rakaia Gorge and decided Methven was the right place to settle in retirement.

A large studio at his Methven home set up by previous owner, artist Karen Smith, is now his workshop. It is methodically laid out and spotless.

It was when contemplating retirement and attending an executive coaching workshop that Mr McElwain found himself making a commitment and having to follow through with it.

His commitment was to play an original composition on an instrument that he would build for himself.

The journey of learning the skills of a luthier took him online for tutorials on You Tube.

He asked questions and picked up tips on specialist discussion platforms like frets.net and honed his skills and techniques through trial and error in his workshop.

“I’m a creative guy by nature and I work things out for myself, but the first time I put a guitar together I was petrified it wasn’t going to work or sound good.

“It might have looked good from the outside, but that didn’t guarantee it would sound great.”

The guitar was beyond his wildest dreams, he said.

“It was an emotional moment and I’m not embarrassed to say, the tears flowed.”

The same emotions came out when visiting family in England and when an accomplished player picked up and played one of his guitars in front of him.

That same player promptly ordered a guitar and will pick it up in person soon.

Mr McElwain’s guitars are usually flat-top six strings with either steel or nylon strings.

Jigs are used for bending the 1.8mm thick side pieces. Bending makes them stronger, he says.

A mould is used to hold the top, back and sides in place while gluing them together, with backs typically 2.5mm thick.

The guitar-making process also includes fitting kerfing strips, tail piece inlays and guitar necks.

Guitar necks are made from flat bits of timber like kauri and rimu and cut into two and then counter poised with the grain so that they can’t bend.

The truss rod, which increases or decreases tensions on the neck, is then embedded in the neck.

A bridge is glued on and holes drilled for the strings.

When the guitar components are finished in the raw, including the fret board, they are treated and 12 to 15 coats of lacquer applied before final high gloss polishing.

“The entire process for me is very much about being hands-on.

“And at 73 I still have sensitive hands to steer me,’ he said.

Mr McElwain uses hand tools like planes and spokeshaves and prefers to sand by hand because he has more control.

His finished, one-off guitars come with a booklet that catalogue the entire guitar making process, and cost around $3000 plus GST.