Tucked away in the far-flung seaside town of Scarborough lives and works a man widely regarded as one of the top five luthiers (guitar-makers) in the world. Leanne Farish met the understated man who makes wizard-like magic from wood for besotted collectors and esteemed musicians alike: Marc Maingard
(This article was published in The Big Issue. Many thanks to both the author, Leanne Farish, and to the editor of the Big Issue, Melany Bendix, for granting me the permission to re-publish it. Thank you also to www.relevantreality.co.za for the use of their photographs. Viv)
Stepping over the threshold into guitar-maker Marc Maingard’s workshop, I am enveloped by the sweet, comforting fragrance of freshly-cut wood. Myriad tools of the trade — clamps, saws, chisels and whetstones — hint at the craft Maingard has spent the past 37 years perfecting.
With his well-worn work apron, spectacles and grey ponytail, Maingard moves around the studio with the ease and awareness of a man who knows the space intimately. Everything is neatly stowed in its proper place, barring a scattering of forgotten wood shavings that lie like soft, blonde curls on the workbench.
It’s immediately clear that this self-built workshop, tucked away in rustic Scarborough, is a special place. The more Maingard tells about his life as a musician, composer and master craftsman of fine guitars, the more I begin to understand that time spent at his workbench is for him almost sacred.
“My time is very immersed in what I do; I love what I do,” he says. “I never understood it; my cabinet master would always be in his workshop. Always, up to the age of 80. Now I understand it. It’s like you slip between the lines — you slip into a parallel world, if you want. It’s another place.”
The Durban-born 63-year-old, whose expansive youth included stints gigging in Europe and studying yoga and ayurvedic medicine in India, lives an almost monastic life these days. “It’s not rumbustious and boisterous. I have simple music, simple things, simple food,” he explains. “I meditate every single day; I haven’t missed a day in three years.”
Necessity and invention
Although he’s been playing music since he was five, Maingard’s journey to becoming a craftsman of some of the finest guitars on earth had its humble beginning in the early ‘70s. When his own guitar was damaged on a flight home to South Africa from Spain, Maingard was forced to use the skills he’d picked up hanging out with Spanish guitar-makers to fix it himself.
Realising he had a natural knack for the job, he took an apprenticeship with a cabinet-maker to refine his woodworking skills. Already an adept guitar repairman, Maingard then spent a year making guitars in Los Angeles at the Santa Cruz Guitar Company. With the well-known brand’s nod of approval behind his name, he returned to South Africa and established himself as a top-class luthier.
A fortuitous meeting with rock legend Stephen Stills of Crosby, Stills and Nash fame gave Maingard the publicity boost he needed. “We spent a weekend together playing music and hanging out,” he recalls with trademark modesty. “His comments around my guitars [Stills called him “the best guitar-maker in the world”] put me on the map, in a sense.”
Today, Maingard’s the only person in South Africa top guitar brands Gibson, Martin and Ovation have entrusted with repairing their prestigious products. His own top-of-the-range guitars sell for up to R100 000 each, and take a month or more to make. The buyers — everyone from collectors with a passion for the instrument to celebrities like Steven Seagal and renowned musicians such as legendary jazz fusion guitarist Earl Klugh and Stills’ band-mate David Crosby — will tell you they’re worth every cent.
“They are what are called ‘boutique’ guitars,” explains the guitar guru. “They’re handmade — bespoke. Each guitar is completely custom-made; from the neck, to the head, to the inlays.”
Besides each unique piece being invested with close on 40 years of experience, devotion and passion, Maingard’s valuable guitars are made with only the finest, most exotic woods available.
“I’m very lucky in that I bought a big stash of Brazilian rosewood; it’s extremely exotic wood,” he says. A guitar made with Brazilian rosewood is seen as an investment piece because the value of the prized wood grows over time. The Scarborough local is one of very few people who carry the necessary certification allowing him to ship the rare wood across international borders, something that makes his guitars even more sought-after.
In Maingard’s eyes, however, the wood is precious far beyond its monetary value: his attitude towards the material is near-reverential.
“I feel so grateful, so blessed, to even be allowed to touch this kind of wood, or to even know anything about it,” he says with clear emotion. “It’s like I’m in some sort of secret guild of rare things and people. It’s a privilege.”
Trusting the line
As we talk, Maingard takes a piece of wood from a tub of water where it’s been soaking for the past thirty minutes. Placing a rubber warming blanket over the wood, he turns up the heat and begins to shape it into a mould. It’s destined to be one side of a new guitar and I watch it slowly take form as steam rises from the wet, supple wood.
Maingard counts his time as an apprentice to his cabinet master as one of the most valuable periods of his life. Now an apprenticeship with Maingard himself — to reach the level of master journeyman — is an astounding 10-year commitment.
“It’s normal for young people to not trust themselves,” he says as he works. “When you do an apprenticeship with me, part of what you learn is to trust yourself. The first thing that I teach somebody is how to draw a line, and it takes me a year. It takes a whole friggen’ year to show somebody how to draw a line!”
The importance of this linear precision becomes clear when he explains that drawing the line wrong and subsequently cutting the material too small is no small blunder when you’re working with a R20 000 piece of wood.
The secret to drawing a true line, reveals the master craftsman, is trusting yourself. It’s also the key to being a grounded, thriving human being, he reckons.
“That’s what I’ve noticed about guys who have done good apprenticeships with good people: they start to trust themselves and they start to make good decisions — not only in the studio, but also out there in the world.”
It’s a profound insight, and just one of many the local luthier has casually shared over the course of the afternoon. I’m not the only one who’s picked up on this guru-like quality; Maingard is a qualified counsellor and is regularly approached for guidance by members of the community.
“I spent three years at the South African College of Applied Psychology to become a counsellor,” he says. “We all have our own answers; you just need someone to do what’s called ‘reflecting’. You give me your story, I reflect it back to you and you just work it out for yourself.”
Before I leave, Maingard shows me a few finished guitars. They are absolutely exquisite, from the richly patterned grain of the wood to the delicate artistry of the inlays. Even to my untrained eye, it’s clear each one is peerless and unique — not unlike their creator.