A chat with William Hancock Guitars about his bespoke creations

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A chat with William Hancock Guitars about his bespoke creations

Hancock Guitars 3
Words by Lewis Noke Edwards

Tucked away in a corner of Fitzroy North is William Hancock Guitars, a bespoke guitar maker with a penchant for Australian tonewoods.

From the harp-like thom to rockin’ Flying Vs, William Hancock Guitars can do it all. We had a chat with William himself about what makes a bespoke instrument so special, as well as the state of the industry as he sees it.

What do you see as the main difference between a bespoke guitar and production guitars?

The main difference between bespoke guitars and production guitars, is that bespoke guitars are made by one person. In a manufacturing or production facility, the process is broken down into stations as a production line where many people each do one step. The guitar moves along the ‘line’, with each worker completing the task to exacting specifications, with a complete guitar popping out the end.

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The closest luthiers get to this is batching up several instruments, usually the same models, and doing a couple at the same time. The most noticeable difference between the two methods is a stage called ‘tap-tuning’ where the luthiers fine tune the soundboards of the instruments by ear in a highly skilled process that involves shaving off small amounts of the tonewoods in the braces until the ideal mass/stiffness ratio is reached.

This is quite an intuitive process, and one that really isn’t taught in any large capacity, at least in Australia. Even within the same species the tonal spectrum can vary widely as a result of things like rainfall, aspect, different locations and subspecies can yield different batches of timber with different sounds. Thus the timbers need to be treated differently on a case by case basis. Something that is lost in the production-line process. 

What is the main advantage of a bespoke guitar?

The main advantage of a bespoke guitar is that the individual instrument can be crafted from the ground up for the player. From the type of model, to the timber and hardware selections, to the different measurements for the players hands and body, to the tonal differences described above in the soundboard, backplate and even the neck and sides. These can all be honed and finessed to the individuals personal needs in a tailor-made, bespoke guitar making process. This gets the most out of the timber, the design and the hardware in a personal and individual instrument made specifically for the player and musician. 

Do you see yourself playing a role in the eventual music making process? If so, what is it?

I’m open to translating the instruments I build into a musical context. This all depends on many things including who I’m working with, where we are going with it and what the end point is. Part of the reason I do this is to craft the unique sound for individual artists and their music. It’s fairly common to use one specific guitar on one track to achieve a sound and tone for the song. I love the thought that each guitar has a role to play on a track. 

Hancock Guitar 2

What can someone expect from your guitars?

Sweet, high-quality sound and sonic colour, ease of playability, strong design aesthetics and personally tailored service. A bespoke guitar making experience is about collaborating to find the best result for the individual’s needs and wants.

Guitars are a highly emotional and individual instrument. People need to be heard out, about the small details and trust that these are noted, before translating into the final instrument. I offer a service that allows the buyer to watch the build in real time via social media posts. 

Rich in interaction between the client and the maker. High levels of quality, design aesthetics and of course tonal colour and strong sonic presence, attack, sustain and volume all contribute to the delivery of a high quality instrument for musicians, players and collectors alike. 

What makes your guitars unique? 

My individual creative guitar making style, coupled with a solid grasp of the overarching guitarmaking process makes my guitars unique.

Different combinations of tonewoods, drawing on different design aesthetics and methods both traditional and modern and the use of different materials in the creation process all contribute to high end, unique guitars. The sound is paramount and it’s through working closely with individual, well-read makers that the true sound of the instrument can be brought out from the materials, through craftsmanship and observation. 

Hancock Guitars 4

Can you speak to the repurposed woods and their properties?

Repurposed timbers are tricky to work with but definitely an option. A few years back I built a guitar out of tonewoods taken from old pianos. It was a concept guitar and the challenge was to create the piano guitar wholly from repurposed pianos. Due to the fact the timbers had already been worked, cut, glued and bonded the process was tricky.

It’s actually harder work to use repurposed materials because you first need to disassemble the old instrument and then work out how to make a new one from it. So there really is no cost benefit. Technically they should be more expensive because of the extra labour!

One useful part we can use well from old pianos is the soundboard, to make a soundboard or top for the guitar. These are great because the soundboard of the piano has usually been played-in. When that is used to make a guitar, there is very little ‘playing in’ time, generally guitars take years to find their full voice, and the first six months of ‘playing in’ are particularly dynamic. But when an old piano soundboard is used, the sound and character of the top are very present very early and don’t tend to change as much as a ‘fresh’ soundboard might. 

A lot of old window frames were made out of quarter sawn western red cedar due to their anti-corrosive properties, light weight and strong building potential. Many a window frame has been used for bracing stock on a soundboard I’m sure. 

And I’ve heard a lot of loggers, particularly in Hawaii with the Koa, and in India with the Rosewood are going back over old logging fields and ripping out the massive stumps of the trees that were once cut down because they are now so much more valuable. 

How does someone start the ordering process for a bespoke William Hancock Guitar?

Once the deposit is paid, the order is written up and we begin the conversation about exactly what we are trying to achieve from the guitar making process. There is a basic, standard fee for the guitar itself onto which are added upgrades depending on what the client is looking for.

Different types and cuts of tonewoods, inlay sets, design aesthetics, hardware upgrades, cases and freight etc. all contribute to the final price. The process can vary widely from client to client, so it’s a very individual, bespoke process from inception to delivery.

Generally the initial conversation takes place over about a week before we solidify the design. Then after another payment, orders are placed for materials. Once they have all come in, pre assembly begins and the ‘instrument’ is placed into the production queue. I aim to deliver within 12 months of the first deposit being paid, although at the moment we’re looking at roughly 12-18 months. 

Gordon Koang Thom

What’s the wildest request you’ve had?

The most unique request I’ve had was from a blind South Sudanese fellow by the name of Gordon Koang who wanted a harp-like instrument from his homeland called a thom. It’s a plucked stringed instrument with two necks and a large rectangular soundbox, technically an African lyre.

I used as much Australian tonewood as possible and we tweaked his original design in a couple of areas to produce the instrument he still plays and tours with today.

Any special builds you’d like to mention?

I’m currently in the assembly stage of a top shelf dreadnought for a mighty blues player based up on the mid north coast, Mr Sam Buckley. I built him a Flying V a few years back. This guitar is a monster, with all the bells and whistles. Myrtle back, King Billy top, Blackwood sides and a laminated Rock Maple and Mahogany neck. Full set of inlay upgrades, KnK pickup, full pearloid fretboard inlay with french polish finish and a meaty road case.

The ‘Flying V’ I made for him is the lead electric guitar Sam’s playing on all the tracks [on his upcoming debut album]. Sounds epic in the hands of a master.

Sam Buckley

Can you speak to where you think the guitar making industry is heading?

It-s difficult to say but as high-end timbers become scarcer and more costly, makers in all streams are looking for alternative supply chains like the repurposed timbers discussed above and different composite materials that work and sound like traditional timbers.

Then looking at the technologies that are being added to existing designs, like the robot guitars and even the weird hybrid guitar that essentially uses the soundbox as a speaker to affect the signal in different ways and we have a new horizon.

I don’t think we will ever lose the existing traditional methods that were developed hundreds of years ago as they are too ingrained in the methods of construction. But we have double tops gaining popularity that are a combination of an aircraft grade honeycomb synthetic mashed up with thin timber veneers and a very synthetic glue.

But they really just seem to be achieving the same outcomes that have been done for hundreds of years, in a different way, albeit with debatable sonic improvements. Regardless, it’s exciting to see what the future holds with the blending of the old and the new. And the guitar is the world’s most prolific instrument, so there will always be a supply and demand. With it the honing of existing methods and the implementation of new ones.

What is your role in the future of guitar making?

My role in the future of guitar making will be one focusing on my individual WHG bespoke builds, coupled with the facilitation of our casual guitar makers networking sessions, “Luthier’s Lounge”. We all get together once or twice year and have a few beers and a bit of a chat. Hangout, play some tunes, troubleshoot any problems we may be experiencing and generally just shoot the breeze.

Luthiers Lounge

It’s good to have a chance to get out of the workshop and hear someone else play the instruments you’ve been working too hard on for months. Everyone’s welcome. Novice and experts alike, or just people who are curious and would like to know more. Young and old. Bring your latest build. The next one is on Sunday the 3rd of October at the Fitzroy Bowls Club in the Edinburgh Gardens from 1-4pm.

There’s also an overarching concept that incorporates these two parts and many others including musicians, performances, master luthier classes, instrument sales and many other bits into a cohesive whole, called the Australian Guitar Workshop.

At the moment it’s still in its inception, but the concept is strongly rooted in the arts sector and is angled to preserve and foster the craftsmanship of traditional guitar making skills, whilst promoting and strengthening all aspects of the Australian guitar production sector, its tonewoods and musicians. For anyone interested in investing in the guitar industry as a patron or sponsorship, this is an interesting concept to invest in. All things guitar in Australia. 

We have an incredible bio resource in this country and the native Australian tonewoods are fast gaining popularity with international mega brands and single bespoke makers alike.

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