Meet the maker - An Appetite for Perfection, John Ambler of Ambler Custom Guitars
Over the years of playing the guitar, one thing that has increasingly sparked my interest almost more than playing in some instances is the skill of a great luthier and the work they create.
One which really stood out to me, was UK luthier John Ambler of Ambler Custom Guitars. From the rough and ready 'Junk Yard Dog' model featuring a real metal coating, full of character and patina, to the absolutely stunning figured woods used on a range of his other models. John is truly a maker to watch, as already early on in his career, the quality of work is right up there with the very best and often surpasses!
In our series of Meet the Maker interviews, we caught up with John to chat about his work!
J- I always like to start these off with going back to your roots. How, when & where did your passion for the guitar spark?
Ambler- It started at a pretty young age I guess- my dad was very into his music when I was a kid, he had this fancy CD player stack, and these twin speakers. I heard him come home one night, I must have been about 6, and he went over to put some music on whilst my mum was cooking dinner. Whenever my dad played music, he played it loud, otherwise what was the point, hey? I remember walking into the room just as the opening track to ‘Appetite for Destruction’ came blasting out through the speakers, the intro to Welcome to the Jungle. I hadn’t heard anything like it before, and I was instantly hooked. Shortly after I began pestering my dad relentlessly for a guitar so I could learn to play like Slash. On my next birthday I got this beaten up, Nylon string Classical guitar, with the strings about an inch away from the fingerboard, along with some old sheet music. My dad promised me that if I could learn to play Green Sleeves then he would take me out to get my first electric guitar. It didn’t take me too long- I practiced hard and before I knew it we were on our way to a local music store. I saw what would become my first electric through the window of the store and barely looked at anything else when we got inside. It was a pitch-black 1985 Gibson Melody Maker, made the same month and year I was born. The chap behind the counter played it for me and that was it; it was the coolest thing I had ever seen or heard and my dad bought it for me. I still own it today!
J- Do you think learning to play the instrument helps develop an interest in how they're made, or did that come from another interest perhaps, like wood working? What was your wood working experience before guitar making became on option?
Ambler- It certainly did yeah. I’ve always been fairly technically minded about things ever since I was a kid. Making guitars was always the one thing I wanted to do when I grew up, and learning to play them only developed my progression into doing that- I can’t imagine being able to make guitars to the best of ability if I didn’t know exactly how they should sound, feel and respond when played. Before making my guitar building hobby into a business I was working for my dad in his wood workshop. He has a kitchen and fine furniture making business, all handmade, solid wood stuff. I must have started working for him in my early twenties, actually as an installations manager - nothing to do with the woodworking side of things. But his business is only small and consisted of two cabinet makers at the time, which he had been having trouble with. One day these two guys got into a fight with each other in the workshop, and even thought it was going to leave my dad with no cabinetmakers, he had to fire them both on the spot. So, i got shoved through the door into the workshop and told to learn how to make kitchens damn quick. Luckily, it came pretty naturally to me and just made sense. within a couple of weeks it was as though I had been doing it for years. I read every book I could, practiced with my tools and yeah, that's where it all started. It wasn’t long after this that I started reading books on how to make guitars, I must have read every one out there- some great, some terrible. It wasn’t long before, at the end of each day, I would down tool on the kitchens and blow the dust off the guitar project I had under my bench- that first project took a hell of a long time, but i was instantly hooked.
J- All of your builds revolve around some spectacular and unique materials and woods. Do you look for something in particular when choosing the tonewoods, tap testing or unique figuring/grain lead the way first and foremost?
Ambler- Over time you get a pretty good idea of which woods work and sound best, and which to avoid. So these days its not so much about tap tone etc - its more about quality of materials and unique looking woods. I don’t think Mother Nature can really be improved upon, so I like to use amazingly figured woods and keep them as natural looking as possible. But saying that I also take a huge amount of pride in my finishes. Being able to produce the best High Gloss finish, get the most insane blacks that look like you could fall into them or working with my metal over wood coatings and producing unique patinas and effects that could never be duplicated twice. Its the aesthetics of the guitars the pull customers in first, and when you have their attention you need to make sure that when they pick that guitar up for a test drive, that its THE best guitar they have ever played.
J- One thing that really struck me when visiting your workshop was the incredible surrounding area, right in the heart of the pretty special Peak district. It got me thinking about your guitars and wondered whether the surroundings have inspired you builds at all?
Ambler- I guess its probably had an effect on my work and design of my instruments. I was born just fifteen minutes away from where my workshop is now, and its just the most beautiful area. I’m very lucky. I think the surroundings you grow up in sculpt your work no matter if you’re a Luthier, an Artist or musician etc. Its just me in my workshop, in the middle of the countryside, creating these instruments using hand tools and hours of hard, precise work. its a million miles away from the mass-produced factory made guitars and I think there's something pretty special about traditional, hand made guitars being made in the heart of the countryside.
J- You've been developing some pretty unique designs and guitar models since Ambler Guitars began, where does you prototype process begin? Roughing out body templates or are they inspired by existing guitars by other builders perhaps?
Ambler- A bit of both to be honest. Some of my models, like my Hound Dogs for example, are copied from that very first Gibson Melody maker I got when I was a kid. I have added my own tweaks, and put my own spin on the materials used to create these. Other models are my own interpretation of classics I admired growing up - the Solomon, for example, is my own take on the Explorer /Iceman style of guitar that have been around for years. Other models which are just my own designs start with a pencil and large sheet of paper. I start by drawing the neck and marking the scale length, then take it from there.
J- The unique styling and use of fine grade woods doesn't stop at just that, you clearly have an eye for hardware, pickups etc that stand out from the crowd too. What is the process behind choosing something that strays away from the 'norm'?
Ambler- Being a boutique builder I have a bit more of an affinity with the guys out there in a similar position as myself. Boutique builders, in my experience, have to try one hell of a lot harder than the big brands out there, and because of this the quality is better, the designs are pushed in new and interesting directions - and thats what I want in my guitars. I only use parts and hardware that are the best out there. From the Pickups right down to the wire used in the electronics. Its all part of the same signal chain, and if you slap in some terrible components with some expensive, hand wound pickups then you’re just not going to get the best out of them.
J- There are so many detailed stages in guitar making, are there any in particular you really love doing?
Ambler- Ah man, too many to list! The most exciting point for me is at the end of the build- plugging that guitar in of the first time. Clean channel on my amp, little bit of reverb dialed in and then I always strum an Am chord. The anticipation in the moment just before is incredible. Another great part is the initial design stage with the customer; hearing their ideas, creating their dream guitar- often after years of saving and dreaming- is pretty special.
Points before that - a big moment is knowing that the piece of wood you are working on is out of this world, but - the moment that first coat of lacquer gets sprayed on and it reveals the full glory of the piece - that's always a special moment. The finishing process used to be one of my least favourite parts of the builds - but now, because getting that perfect, show-stopping finish is such a challenge… I love it now. I push myself to get better and better with each one.
J- With so many new ideas of yours coming into fruition now, are any future plans creeping into your mind? Where do you see your work taking you to next?
Ambler- There's a few guitar models out there that are fan favourites, and I keep getting asked to my own spin on these. So, in the near future there will be a couple of new models being added to the Ambler Customs line-up…. maybe something kinda Tele and V shaped. I also want to push the metal finishes further - its still a pretty new and exciting venture for me and i’m learning a lot each time I do one, so i’m excited to get cracking with a few more of those. I’m also working on a design for a guitar with the Slide player in mind… but more on that another time!
Thanks so much to John for taking the time out from his incredibly busy build schedule at the moment, I loved hearing his insight into building guitars! You can see which of John's guitars we have available through the home of tone currently and of course direct through John too, or if you're keen on speaking with John about a custom guitar build for you too!
Ambler Guitars at the Home of Tone
Contact John Ambler here