Tom Sands on honing his craft in the Bay Area and composing the perfect song to test guitars | Guitare.com
What first attracted you to acoustic guitars?
“It’s a long and convoluted story that features many key characters. I expect that when they do my biopic, Peter Jackson will be involved. *Spoiler Alert* – I was at a bit of a dead end in my career as a furniture maker, or rather I found myself in a position where my passion for making, my purpose for being had slowly evaporated.
“I decided I needed to get my mojo back and that involved making a kind of pilgrimage. I wrote to artists, makers and designers all over the world asking if I could hang out with them in their studios and workshops. Ervin Somogyi responded by offering an interview. (This will be the part of the film where I cut trees in the Russian tundra, paint fences and raise X-Wings in swamps.)”
What impact has Ervin Somogyi had on your development as a builder?
“Ervin reignited my creativity and critical thinking. For me, that was all I was looking for.
You mentioned your experience building luxury furniture and you also studied at the Glasgow School of Art. How does your knowledge of the art world influence your violin making?
“I think it allows me to approach work from a different angle. I am not buried in the tradition of the instrument and I feel free to play with materials, colors, textures and techniques. I love looking at contemporary product design and wondering how I can apply that design language to the acoustic guitar.
There are three models – the S, the M and the L – as the basis of your catalogue. Why did you choose to avoid standard acoustic model names and return to simpler choices?
“Honestly, I found the commonly used Martin naming conventions confusing and often misleading. Unless you are fully conversant with the nuances of scale lengths and the number of frets on the body etc., terms like 000 and OM lose their meaning. For example, when was the last time you saw someone playing acoustic guitar in an orchestra? I had played with cool sounding model names like “Blade”, “Laser” and “Blazer”, but I finally settled on Small, Medium and Large. »
Each of the three models listed above is infinitely customizable. Is this ‘contemporary’ approach a way to connect with the buyer of modern guitars?
“It’s become a bit of a personal cliché at this point, but I always say a good guitar starts with a good relationship. My clients are spread across the world and from different cultures. There’s no one demographic that I’m trying to target. At the end of the day, they’re all guitar enthusiasts and it’s something we share that can bond. That bond is crucial because the gestation period between the first e e-mail to my inbox and the day of delivery isn’t exactly short. There’s a journey of discovery we take together and a common language we must develop to come up with a successful guitar. A custom guitar is an object so personal, esoteric and intimate and the best are always the fruit of a friendship.
Some intriguing materials are also used for rosettes and caps, such as patinated copper. Why do you use materials like this?
“It started during my apprenticeship. If you are familiar with Ervin’s work, it is extremely artistic and expressive. There are plenty of amazing inlays, carvings and embellishments. Early in my time in Oakland, I tried to emulate that style. Two things struck me pretty quickly. One, I’m far too impatient for this kind of detail work. Two, I’m really, really bad at this. So I went back to my basic design principles and focused on the materials and let them do the talking. The natural beauty, colors and textures of copper could tell more than I ever could with thousands of joints. »
When did you realize you had a viable business?
“When I was able to buy a fish burrito AND a drink from the Mexican restaurant across from Ervin’s workshop without having a panic attack. I was very lucky that a now dear friend discovered my work pretty much straight away. He commissioned me to build a guitar, which I did, during my evenings and weekends at the Somogyi store. I fell in love with the whole process of working with a client, I had found my mojo and there was no turning back. As long as I had enough money for rent and the occasional cocktail party, I would never do anything else.
Did you have any external investments at the start?
“I did. My apprenticeship was paid in kind so to speak, and since the Bay Area has the highest cost of living in the United States, I had no noticeable savings, so I had to looking for financial aid. A friend told me about the Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust which is the charitable arm of the Royal Warrant Holders Association. Twice a year QEST gives funding to support British Craft. I have been very lucky to receive a scholarship that basically paid for my first year of study with Ervin. With that and selling everything I owned, I was all set.
Elsewhere you introduced “white label” guitars, much like the first LP pressings. How does this improve the specifications and build quality of your instruments?
“I like to experiment, mainly to satisfy my own curiosity. It keeps things fresh and exciting; you never really know what you’re going to get. There’s an element of risk to that which, honestly, I like. If I built the same guitar day after day, I would get bored pretty quickly. Building in small quantities, by hand, with wood – it’s very difficult to beta test with any degree of certainty. There is a lot to be said for experience and developing an intuitive sense of how a material behaves.
“I combine that with a tremendous amount of grading, record keeping, and handing over the finished article to players who really know how to get the most out of a guitar. The head of Bullshit Detection at Tom Sands Guitars is Will McNicol, he records all the guitars I build, and we’ve even designed and composed the ultimate “guitar test track” to bring out every nuance of an instrument’s character. My goal is always to be better than yesterday, to always keep pushing for that extra percentage point of improvement and incremental growth. Experimentation is at the heart of this philosophy.
What future for Tom Sands Guitars?
“I feel like we are emerging from the pandemic, flashing in the light but full of hope and excitement. This year I am investing heavily in growing the business, we have just moved into a Beautiful new space and my assistant Ted is doing an amazing job We have a whole slew of White Label guitars in production so you can expect to see some new features, woods and hopefully sounds too!
Visit tomsandsguitars.com for more.