Something, Old, New, Borrowed & Blue (Blues Matters Article, Edition 66)

During the past two years, ergonomist and product designer, Simon Raw, has been hard at work designing and creating a range of electric guitars that have their roots embedded deep in the Blues. His guitar designs and associated company, The Raw Guitar Co., were officially launched at the Musikmesse 2012 Trade Fair to critical acclaim. Why the Blues and Blues inspired guitars? Simon takes up the story:

Ever since I can remember I have always listened to the Blues. As a child, living next door to a musical family in the early 1970s, I was never far away from listening to The Allman Brothers, Captain Beefheart, Cream, The Doors, Fleetwood Mac, Led Zeppelin, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers etc. My earliest childhood memories were of listening to Led Zeppelin II and making mock up guitars out of old cardboard boxes and bits of old wood. I could then pretend to play along with Heartbreaker or The Lemon Song and, as I grew older, the deeper my love for it became. Therefore, when I decided to put The Raw Guitar Co. together it came as no surprise that my guitar design work would inevitably be Blues influenced. I have spent the last eighteen years carving out a career in ergonomics consultancy, even though I am a trained product designer. I always knew that one day I would walk away from it all and dedicate myself to a new career in design. I chose guitar design because it presented a format where I knew I could make a long lasting contribution. As a Blues fan, I knew that the majority of guitars favoured by guitarists are manufactured by either Fender or Gibson. It was Ian Siegal who opened my eyes to guitar design and the history of the electric guitar - consequently, I owe Ian a huge debt of gratitude. I have been a fan of Ian’s music for quite some time and seen him live on numerous occasions. Each time I saw him, he was playing a guitar that I had never seen before. I knew they were not Fenders or Gibsons. Always inquisitive, I decided to find out what they were. I discovered that Ian played old Harmony, National and Kay guitars, to name but a few, and the majority of them have not been manufactured since the late 1950s. For example, the Harmony H-44 Stratotone was played by Robert Nighthawk, the Kay K-125 played by Elmore James and the Kay Value Leader played by Lonnie Johnson.

Having had my eyes opened and subsequently fallen in love with these wonderful old guitars, I started to research whether there could be a market for modern, contemporary interpretations. I discovered that Eastwood, for example, have created a successful business manufacturing faithful reproductions of various Airline, Harmony, Kay and Silvertone guitars, but could I take it one step further? Knowing that Ian loves these old guitars, I got in touch with him via his record company, asking if he would like to meet up so I could show him a number of ideas that I had sketched, and also to get his advice and opinions on how they could be improved. Ian was very supportive, explaining that if I got the designs right, and paid attention to the pickups then my guitar designs would have every chance of being commercially successful.

What followed was a period of intense design work where I developed my ideas, with Ian providing regular feedback. As he was so influential and helpful in my design work, I wanted to thank him by designing and building him his own signature guitar. The brief Ian gave me was that he would like a guitar that he could use predominantly for slide work, with a look, feel and sound reminiscent of the guitars played by Howlin’ Wolf and Jimmy Reed. In order to create the sound of the early 1950s guitar design, and accommodating Ian’s brief, I commissioned Jason Lollar to design and build a pickup that would reflect the sound created by the old DeArmond single coil pickups, used in guitars made by Epiphone, Gretsch, Harmony, Multivox Premier, Regal and others, back in the late 1950s and ‘60s. Jason’s pickup is similar to those that Kay fitted into their Thin Twin models, complete with a polished nickel blade that protrudes through a slot in the pickguard. Ian’s guitar, "The Skinny" was unveiled at Musikmesse 2012 and subsequently undergone improvement work by giving her added Jimmy Reed sex appeal.

Having spent the best part of ten months designing a range of Blues inspired guitars, whose roots can be traced back to Sears & Roebuck catalogues of old, I started to think of how I would like to present them. Rather than simply launching them as individual instruments, I wanted to launch them collectively, but I hadn’t come up with anything appropriate. Then fate intervened. In November last year I met Gary Grainger from The Blues Show on BishopFM. Gary lives not too far away from me and he discovered quite by chance that I was someone local designing Blues inspired guitars. He got in touch asking if he could be of any help regarding promotion. As a very good guitar player he is immensely knowledgeable on guitar design as well as Blues music. He told me how as a young man he and his musician friends would frequent the Rea family coffee bar in Middlesbrough. The conversation moved onto Chris Rea and how much we both liked his recent Blues albums, especially the “Blues Guitars” box set, where he produced a series of stunning CDs that documented the history and the varied different musical styles associated with the Blues. For those of you who are not familiar with “Blues Guitars”, Rea wrote and recorded various CDs that documented the history of the Blues in all colours and styles, for example, Chicago Blues, Electric Memphis Blues, Louisiana & New Orleans Blues, Texas Blues and so on, though each album is a piece of work in it’s own right. It was while discussing “Blue Guitars” that the penny dropped. “Gary, if Chris Rea can write musical stories that historically document the development of the Blues from the early beginnings to the 1960s and ‘70s, could I not do the same with my guitar designs?” I enquired. Gary looked at me, nodded and finished his coffee.

Inspired by my meeting with Gary and our discussions on Chris Rea’s work, I started to plan how I could present my work as a Blues guitar anthology - or “Back Catalogue” as I later called it. This meant I had to design more guitars, in particularly from the 1930s, to coincide with the invention of the magnetic pickup. Rather than simply designing a guitar that was aesthetically in keeping with this period I asked myself, what kind of guitar would Charlie Patton, Robert Johnson and Leadbelly, had they lived, have me build for them, (had I been around at the time) knowing too that the technology was available to amplify and project their music above the din of the Juke Joints? What I came up with was "The Bo Weavil", "The Hellhound" and "The Gallows Pole", three guitars that capture the essence of 1930s pioneering guitar design.

Moving on from the 1930s, I have designed a guitar called “The Wang Dang Doodle” which was inspired by Howlin’ Wolf and his association with Chess Records. The 1960s is the period where I have been most creative. I have designed a series of guitars that document the birth of the British Blues scene and the subsequent rediscovery in the US of Blues luminaries such as John Lee Hooker, T-Bone Walker and Muddy Waters. I have also acknowledged how Japanese guitar design influenced the Blues by designing a guitar called "The Hound Dog".

At Blues Matters we have had the privilege of seeing all of the guitar designs that Simon unveiled at Musikmesse 2012. They are very impressive indeed. He is clearly a man who is passionate about guitar design and who, rather than designing guitars that have been copied ad infinitum, has come up with a series of guitars that are not only historically relevant to the Blues but are new and innovative.