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  • Alex Bishop plays one of his guitars. Photo: Francesca Jones

Alex Bishop: The Speaker

by David Mead

From makers and designers, to collectors and curators, Collect brings together a diverse mix of people all doing very different work. In the latest issue of Crafts, we met just a few coming to this year’s fair including guitarist and musician Alex Bishop who is also part of the Talks Programme. 

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Pound Arts is a complex buried in the wilds of the Wiltshire countryside, just outside Bath in the town of Corsham. A former school, it offers live performances in the form of music, comedy and theatre, but also presents film as well as the usual exhibition space for a variety of crafts. It is also home to several artists in residence, the small on-site workshops acting as a base for artists from various disciplines – including ceramics and still-life painting – and it is also where you’ll find guitar maker Alex Bishop. His work area is clean and tidy – out of necessity, he tells us, owing to its somewhat bijou dimensions – with several instruments in various stages of completion and the tools of his craft within easy reach of his small work bench. 

It might be strange to think of guitar building as an art, but Bishop’s instruments are really something very special, reaching back to a bygone age of gypsy jazz, Art Deco design with some amazing inlay work that reflects the paintings of Wassily Kandinsky. Sounds exciting and maybe just a little bit different? It certainly is, but first a little bit of background. Surprisingly, working with musical instruments wasn’t Bishop’s first choice for a profession – originally he studied aerospace engineering at Bath University. So why the change of tack? ‘When I was studying engineering I found my creativity a little neglected,’ he tells me. ‘I was simply too impatient to make things with my own hands. 

left: this detail shows Bishop’s earlier inlay work,  inspired by Kandinsky’s painting Composition VIII. Opposite page, right: inlay detail also inspired by Kandinsky. The ‘floating’ inlay spans across over  the side soundport

I wanted to get away from designing gearboxes on paper and instead tap into my artistic side. While I was at uni I was busy fiddling with guitars when I should have been studying thermodynamics, so I think it was too late and I was bit by the bug!’ 

He moved to Deptford and studied for a three-year degree in musical instruments at London Metropolitan University, and was awarded the Arts Society and Cockpit Arts award, gaining him his first workshop space in 2011. ‘That award essentially provided me with the space for a year so that I could invest in my tools and build up trade,’ he tells me. ‘I’ve been doing that ever since and trying to push forward with my own designs.’ Shunning the more formal path of gaining a post-graduate apprenticeship in instrument building or working in guitar shops, he began figuring out his own processes, which had its ups and downs. ‘It’s a bit of a double-edged sword,’ he smiles. ‘I think my individualistic designs come from a naivety, really, rather than from a learned system or guidance from somebody else. So some of my processes have been a result of getting straight out there and being out on a limb from day one.’

Although he will make most types of guitars to custom order – folk, jazz and even the odd electric – his main interest as a builder centres around the type of guitar that was pioneered by a maker called Mario Maccaferri, an Italian luthier who lived and worked in the USA and produced revolutionary instruments during the early to mid part of the 20th century. One of Maccaferri’s most famous customers was the jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, the Belgian-born gypsy jazz musician who found fame playing in the Hot Club de France alongside violinist Stéphane Grappelli in the 1930s and 40s. A gypsy jazz enthusiast and player himself, a great many of Bishop’s instruments are rooted in Maccaferri’s designs. ‘He was an innovator and original thinker,’ he affirms. ‘He had this Art Deco aesthetic and I’ve tried to carry on that way of thinking and keep progressing it.’ 

A working day calls for Bishop to ply his craft with many different types of wood: mahogany, rosewood, ebony, cedar, cyprus and even an occasional windfall. ‘Whenever I go to a timber supplier I’m always poking around in the dusty corners where other makers may not have been looking,’ he laughs. ‘I’ve used some nice walnut from a tree in Kew gardens that was originally planted by Queen Victoria back in the 1800s and which blew down in the storm of 1987. I’ve made quite a few guitars out of that tree.’ 

Acoustic guitar making is a meticulous craft and calls upon many different skills. An instrument has to be strong, but supple enough…

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