Gray Acoustics by Steve Gray Interview
NAME: Stephen Gray – “Gray-Acoustics”
NICK NAME: I’m fine with Steve
LIVING IN : Nantes, France
TRAINING & BACKGROUND: I would say I fit into the “self-taught” category. Having formed a love for music in my early teens and then gone on to study electrical/mechanical engineering at college I decided to push for a career in the music industry. I have been a touring backline technician for the best part of twenty years, it’s what got me into guitar building in the first place. I have covered the whole stage, but guitars and drums have been my specialities. I spent most of my time repairing and maintaining the instruments for some of the biggest bands in the UK. The likes of Paul Weller, Kate Bush, Take That, ELO and Liam Gallagher to name just a few. I’ve been fortunate enough to have had some amazing guitars in my care, and some not so amazing guitars which on paper should have been pretty special. This gave me an opportunity to look into what I thought made each guitar tick or what made some stand out from the crowd. There really are some guitars that just stand head and shoulders above anything else.
It was maybe ten years into this career that I started thinking about creating my own instruments, having had so much time with your standard guitars I wanted to create something different. It was following a rather in-depth discussion with an artist relations guy for a well-known guitar manufacturer that I decided to turn my focus to building, and not just repairing guitars. From there I buried myself in a mountain of books on guitar building and have been refining my craft ever since. I also found Tom Bills’ luthiery school to be a source of great knowledge and a very useful resource in my earlier years. Guitar building is like any art, you find yourself constantly learning and discovering new ideas and techniques.
In brief I learned what I know today from touring with some amazing instruments and artists, alongside some of the best technicians out there. That combined with a library of books and the Art of Luthiery information portal. All of which have helped put me where I am today.
PLAYING: My first instrument was the drums, I had an old Yamaha 8000 when I was in my teens, with the shallow toms, it sounded amazing. Probably better than my playing though!! I started switching to guitar as I got older, it was definitely easier to move around, and you didn’t upset the neighbours quite so much! By the end of University I had pretty much switched to guitar. I had a cheap Yamaha acoustic as my first real guitar, I remember it cost around £300. I loved that guitar, although looking back at it now it didn’t sound the best, but still it holds some amazing memories. I own various instruments now, bass guitars, electrics and acoustics. Though the only guitar out in the house all the time is one of my first builds. It could do with a few things changing (side sound port adding etc… the things I wasn’t doing at the start) but it sounds great and is nice to pick up and play when I have some free time…. That bit I’m trying to work on!
NAME OF YOUR HIGH SCHOOL BAND : I was the drummer in a band called moonfish, it’s what set me on this path in the first place.
LUTHIER YOU ADMIRE THE MOST: I would say there are two. Ervin Somogyi and Tom Bills. I think these two have had the biggest impact on my builds and understanding. Hats off to both, one for the guitars they have created but also the knowledge they have shared.
INSTRUMENT YOU DREAM TO HAVE ONE DAY: 960 Les Paul Standard, there are more I would love to own but this is definitely top of the list.
LAST ALBUM YOU BOUGHT: Neil young – Harvest (Reissue)
LAST MUSIC SONG YOU PUT IN YOUR CAR: A Blaze Of Feather
LAST SHOW YOU WENT TO : Liam Gallagher – Mexico city (I was working). But I did get to see a bit of the Arctic Monkeys set.
MOST IMPRESSIVE INSTRUMENT YOU EVER HAD IN HAND: ’ve been fortunate to have had some pretty amazing guitars in my hands. The best for tone and playability was a 1963 Gibson SG Custom, I’m not a huge fan of SG’s but that guitar was on another level. I worked with an artist who had a 20’s small body martin, that was pretty special to listen to. Finally, the most iconic guitar would have to be Nile Rodgers’ (Chic’s) famous strat (the hit maker).
MOST STRANGE RESTORATION OR REPAIR YOU HAD TO DO : I’ve had a few odd repairs and some random requests. I once had to change the top of a Taylor that someone decided to use as a stool! Obviously that didn’t go to well for the guitar!
The most important thing for me is the sound, this always comes first.
A guitar needs to be pleasing to the eye and the ear, they need to look great, but fundamentally it needs to sound amazing.
The process of creation
I start with the scale length and work from there. This is the basis of the sound and all other design aspects will be influenced from this starting point. People talk of woods a lot, sure they have a big part to play in the sound of the guitar, but we must always remember what the driving force is. The longer the scale the tighter the strings get producing a higher pitch. The shorter the scale length, the looser the strings and the more mellow and warm the sound. This will then determine how we look at the rest of the guitar, if this is one of my own builds, I will have already taken this into account and will do a full size technical drawing of the guitar to be constructed. Every detail will be drawn out so that I know exactly what my guitar will do “and look like” when built. Whilst I am doing this, I will be deciding which woods to be used. Sometimes I will design a guitar with certain materials in mind, other times I will find the woods which will complement each specific build. For custom builds I will work with the client to determine what they want the guitar to look and sound like, from there we will approach the design and sound aspects at the same time, each aiding the other to reach the final design.
The drive to make an instrument that is an absolute joy to play and listen to. That is my number one inspiration. After that is the aesthetic, my “Rozier” style guitar which now covers many different shapes and sizes has been developed over many years. There are elements of these designs which have taken inspiration from the great Somogyi and Tom Bills, I must also include the multitude of guitars I’ve had the privilege to play and handle… this has proved a great inspiration over the years.
The Rozier model is my flagship model, the main model is a grand auditorium steel string acoustic. From there I have developed a Nylon version and a smaller 00/000 sized steel string guitar. All have similar features which I’ve found help to bring the playing experience to new levels. I have spent many years fine tuning the side sound port, elevated fingerboard, arm bevel. I am so happy with how the Rozier model has developed.
I am currently working on something new for 2023, I have been a big fan of hollow body electric guitars for many years and am finally going to be working on my own ES style semi acoustic electric guitar. Exciting times ahead!! uce top.
The most impactful thing is the strings / scale length. This is the driving force of the whole system.
From here we can refine the sound and design to our liking. But this is the driving force of the guitar, this is where it all starts. We want to use as much of the strings energy as possible, designing a coupled system that allows the guitar to move as one, it’s a fine process that takes time to fully appreciate. The whole build process is mix of science and feel. Measurements are just as important as an intuitive feel of the woods, how things bend, move and sound.
The important things to ask when ordering an instrument must come down to a few fundamentals. Cost, playability, style of guitar, what features this may or may not have. All these things should be discussed and used as a basis when looking at a custom build. The last thing to consider is the time scale, custom built guitars can take a long time to create from start to finish. Some luthiers also have very long waiting lists. I think it is important to have all the information to hand when looking to create the dream guitar.
If the guitar has already been built and is part of someone’s “stock” I would recommend trying to play the guitar at some point, I’m sure most luthiers would only be too happy to facilitate this. These guitars by nature can be expensive and it is important for everyone to be comfortable and keep the process fun, it’s exciting to receive a custom-built guitar and the journey should be as enjoyable as playing the instrument.
If I could offer any advice to someone looking for their own custom guitar, it would be to do some research. Discover what you really like and don’t like, which guitars feel great to play and hear. Once the fundamentals have been worked out, we can put together all the other elements to develop the perfect guitar. I find it is very important to have the client involved with design process, they are as much a part of this process as the luthier.
Katie Melua has a nylon guitar. I will soon be sending a steel string Rozier model to Little Barry (Jan 2023), we’ve been working together this year, he’s a great guy and an equally great player. I’ve also been talking about this with Ben Howard, we still need to work out the details, but he’s interested in a custom guitar.
For the past couple of years, I have been trying to concentrate on builds when I’ve been at the workshop. However, for 2023 I will be opening my workshop for a couple of days per month to work on repairs. I enjoy the unknown of what may arrive on my bench, plus I think it’s important to help repair and maintain the instruments of people in my town. I’ve also been finding the odd few days to get down to a non-profit shop to help repair / service donated instruments to be re-sold at bargain prices. It’s amazing how many instruments are donated to the shop; some just need a few hours TLC before heading to a new home.
There seems to be way more independent luthiers in France. If you take a walk around some small villages, you more often than not run onto a sign for a luthiers shop. I know that where I am in Nantes there are multiple Luthiers all specialising in slightly different areas, it’s great to see. There are a lot of luthiers in the UK, but it always seemed thin on the ground when compared to population density. I know a lot of guitar shops would generally have a tech operating on the premises, but even so it always seemed like something you had to search for. I’m not sure if this is simply down to the cost of running a shop / workshop in each country, or how education systems facilitate such professions. But at the end of the day, I see some amazing instruments being made in both places.
My instruments are currently available on my website, obviously on luthiers.com and reverb.com.
My workshop is always open to visitors, if anyone wants to try a guitar, I will always try to find the easiest way to facilitate this.
I am looking at guitar shows for this year, watch this space for news of my attendance at guitar shows in Europe and the UK.
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