Exploring the senses with guitar maker Rory Dowling
Long Reads 04.08.2018
Words Ben Williams
Photographs Tara Darby
The luthier behind East Fife’s Taran guitars juggles psychology, cabinet-making and mathematics in an effort to hit a good vibration…
The mind of guitar maker Rory Dowling works in mysterious ways, in a strange space between the worlds of the senses, and he has invented a new language to manage such alien elements. At the moment he is pulling various brittle boards of wood from stacks in the back room of his East Fife workshop and doing a kind of translation exercise for the cloth-eared, tapping them as he goes:
‘For example, this one is woody and warm. This one is dry… We have a punchy mahogany, the brash sycamore or maple… Powerful cocobolo. Focused but a bit dry Malaysian blackwood…’
If these also sound like names from a particularly exotic cocktail menu then they sort of are. Should you choose to spend £4,000 on a Taran guitar then Dowling will juggle psychology, cabinet-making and mathematics in an effort to channel your folk soul.
‘[Much of it] is about talking, finding out your likes and more importantly your dislikes, and building a picture. We need to work out your playing style, response level and colour. Basically the more prep work you do, the better the outcome. Only then do we get to which model you want, so an Ulladale dreadnought, or Taran small OM, etc. And we use that as a base, so choose woods, what neck depending on tone and projection and focus. Then we think about the soundboard, so cedar or spruce…’
Nevertheless, the design of the guitar, according to Dowling, is architecturally flawed – and it is an ever-growing evolution. He describes how, ‘You need more than human bodyweight to keep the strings to pitch, so 90-95kgs.’ He then takes up a guitar and indicates the short section, between the headstock and the bridge, where this unlikely force is concentrated. ‘To make matters worse we then cut a massive hole in it,’ he laughs. Dowling has the physique of someone who has spent a lot of time at the bench and walking up hills in the outer Hebrides, and an unmistakable seriousness lies beneath his effusive manner.
It is the lot of the luthier to work in multiple dimensions. This is not an easy task although by his own admission Dowling is a man who takes spiritual solace in complexity, or what he refers to as ‘the fourth element’. Furniture design, for which he trained in High Wycombe, was never going to be enough. Nor the ‘…great crowd of folk,’ he fell in with in Edinburgh after university. ‘[They were] doing everything from bespoke kitchens to full flat renovations, really fine furniture. But always in the back of my mind I really wanted to make guitars.’
The fact this master craftsman is self-taught says something about the organic form of the guitar, that it is possible for it to spring, via much trial and error, from the spirit and technical facility of the obsessive maker. The workshop here is neat and modern but full of the tools of the luthier’s trade, heavy and dextrous by turns, electrical and industrial, plus endlessly assorted clamps and tapes, drawing benches with pencil sketches, ventilation ducts, hoovers and a dog. Most striking almost are the wood negatives which sit around, the feminine moulds for the shape, which suggest the ghostly presence of a missing instrument.
Living and working in the East Neuk of Fife (appropriately ‘Neuk’ is the Scots word for nook or corner) allows Dowling the space to work on technically complex design problems away from the cluttered life of the metropolis. ‘I set up in Edinburgh eleven years ago in a wee workshop but I needed to get out of the city. The problem with making guitars is that it’s really interesting. Once people find out about you they want to come and talk to you, to get repairs done. I wouldn’t get a moments peace until five, six at night’.
Far from working in isolation in the East Neuk, Dowling has found himself among a creative crew; in fact there is a vibrant maker scene literally outside of his front door. The rural multi-studio set up at Comielaw Farm was seeded by Balcaskie estate in former farm steadings to provide a low cost workspaces for local businesses and support the creative community. Dowling shares a vegetable garden with a stained glass maker, an art knitter and a design studio, among others. ‘When you’re doing something that’s a bit off the wall it’s good to have folk around,’ he tells me. ‘They’re not guitar makers but they influence my work massively’. There is also a vibrant folk music scene in the villages locally. This provides the atmosphere: ‘So Dan Wilson, Kenny Anderson, Frightened Rabbit, James Yorkston, the Beta Band. Malcom Middleton from Arab Strap has got one of my guitars.’
Dowling himself has parked his own musicianship (‘I was playing just before you came – and I am crap’), considering it rather a hindrance to his craft. ‘You don’t need to be a virtuoso guitar player to build instruments. If anything it helps if you’re not. Personally I don’t think that there’s one perfect guitar, whereas if I was a player maybe I would. For me, the process of building something is way more important than the actual use of the thing.’
There is, however, a danger in working uniquely for other people and always away from your own creative projects. ‘I love working with people but you’re got to realise the ignorance of it. If you’re constantly relying on people to give you there ideas about what they want, at some point you lose your input. You’ve got to keep it driving forward without people to keep the creativity engaged’.
Dowling has now built 99 guitars – and the 99th hangs proudly as testament to this new philosophy. ‘A ‘signature series’ sounds really wanky, but it’s a range where I can really go to town,’ he says. It is a beautiful instrument, cut away and inlaid irregularly with surreal cobalt colours. If it is possible to feel awe in the face of a fingerboard then this is it. ‘[I built] 70 or 80 guitars till I was happy with one,’ Dowling says. ‘Literally in the last three years I’ve been like, ‘Yes I’m hitting the mark’. Those 70 or 80 were really good instruments but what I always wanted was a handle on how to write the recipe book, not just follow a recipe.’
If Dowling’s practise is entering a new phase (he also talks offhand about buying a sawmill) then this is in tune with a signal shift within the guitar world more generally, away from the bigger builders. ‘Gibson have just gone out of business, or gone bankrupt. The reason they are suffering is that there are so many good guitars on the market and Gibson’s quality has dropped dramatically. People are increasingly away of what is good or bad in build terms’.
Dowling also believes that new international trading rules will also force move away from the sort of fetishism for rare woods which has driven bespoke guitar building. ‘Rosewoods have now gone on to CITIES appendix two [which controls the sale of rare species] so there’s a blanket restriction. Brazilian rosewood has the same restriction on it as a piece of ivory.’
The result of this is that luthiers will increasingly be working with more locally sourced wood. How this might look can be seen in the room where Dowling does his finishing, where a beautiful mandolin sits ready to be stringed and sold. It is made from local sycamore and the painstaking process of finishing it whereby endless coats of lacquer are applied, ‘knocked back’, and applied again before being finally polished, has revealed a pale and somehow fragile surface which is quite luminous. Tiny but wildly ridged white textures leap out at you; this seems to be a homage to the material itself, with the instrument channelling not only the player and the maker but also the tree. Dowling is clearly embracing change. ‘Ten years ago if I’d have said I’d make a guitar out of Scottish wood they’d say, “Here’s another crazy woodworker in his garage” – whereas now people take it really seriously.’