Strumming a perfect tune

Ramsay Phillips, owner of boutique guitar manufacturing workshop, Ramsay Phillips Guitars, reveals why and how he started his business
By Zeinab Saiwalla
Wed 05 Jun 2013 09:52 AM

While most of what we use in this day and age is the product of large-scale mass manufacturing, some things, like professional guitars, demand individualised and personalised attention at every step along the way.

Sure, thousands of guitars are mass produced in factories on a regular basis, but professional guitarists take pride in a personalised instrument and see no qualms in spending thousands of dollars for a piece of equipment that is quite literally music to their ears and that is the result of a dedicated professional’s time and effort.

The guitar’s charm comes from the fact that it is a physically intimate instrument – one naturally needs to embrace and hold it close in order to strum it.

Hence it is no wonder that guitarists appreciate the custom made process when it comes to manufacturing a guitar since it allows for a space to merge personal feelings and emotions with the final product.

Ramsay Phillips, who started his business Ramsay Phillip Guitars in 2008, knows all about the love required to create a guitar.

In the past five years the native South African has built a reputation as one of Dubai’s most sought-after guitar makers and repairers, manufacturing one guitar from scratch per month and repairing close to 35 in the same period.

Charging between AED5,000 to AED6,000 for a new guitar, Phillips’s one-man business makes about AED150,000 per year in profits. But as he says: “I am not doing this to make millions and millions of dollars. I am doing this because I love doing this.”

Before becoming a full time guitar manufacturer and repairs provider, Phillips worked in the finance department of an engineering consultancy.

However, when the 2008 recession hit, Phillips found himself with a need to supplement the income from his day job and took to putting an advertisement on website Dubizzle. The advertisement was for guitar manufacturing and repair services and to his surprise there was a thriving market for his services.

As orders kept growing, Phillips decided to pull the plug on his day job and instead dedicate all his time towards his passion.

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With an initial start-up cost of close to AED200,000, Phillips set up his factory in Al Quoz and, despite only being in operation for a handful of years, he already has a steady stream of clients including members of the Al Qasimi family, professional bankers, pilots and aspiring musicians.

Reaching this point in his business was however, not entirely a bed of roses.

“Sourcing the right parts from the right people and finding reliable suppliers was a natural challenge,” he explains. “The main thing for me is consistency, quality and authenticity in a product and it probably took a couple of years till I found suppliers with whom I was comfortable.”

After several years of talking to people and being constantly involved in updates with regards to guitars, Phillips came across a set of viable suppliers on Twitter and slowly developed a close relationship with them.

“It is very important to be involved in social media and to pay attention to what the public is saying, especially in this day and age. You will be surprised at how doors open just by doing that.”

Collaborations are a key aspect to Phillips, and he highlights that this is an important difference between a handmade and mass manufactured guitar, adding the makers want to find musicians who are able to appreciate their work and who can challenge them to do even better work.

Understandably, this partnership between musician and manufacturer is a fruitful one.  In comparison, the factory’s needs are overwhelmingly to sell guitars, and usually prefer to form partnerships only with endorsers.

“Guitarists are very interesting people – we take pride in a lot of details when it comes to guitars. It is tough to describe exactly why and what the feeling is, but it is just something very romantic,” explains Phillips.

In addition, as musical styles and playing techniques evolve, instruments with differing scale lengths, actions, neck widths and contours, fret sizes, string spacings, tunings, tonalities, electronics, woods, body shapes and sizes,  all become more desirable. This in turn requires an even more specialised process and precisely where Phillips’ experience comes in useful.

With a timeline of around four to six weeks per guitar, manufacturing the perfect instrument is most certainly not an easy task.

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The first week in the personalised guitar manufacturing process is entirely dedicated to an exchange of emotions and physical preferences.  This allows the guitar manufacturer to get a clear idea of the clients’ needs, in terms of sonic qualities and the guitar’s appearance.

A prospective buyer schedules a meeting with Phillips and over the course of several days they design the prototype of the guitar to be manufactured. From choosing the right colour, to picking out the right sized guitar neck so that it feels comfortable in the hands of the guitarist, the week is filled with back and forth exchanges so that a buyer gets not only what he envisions, but a product that is in tune with his senses.

Once the details of the guitar have been decided, Phillips proceeds with procuring the various parts of the guitar as per the specifications decided during the consultation.

But Phillips’ real work begins once the various parts of the guitar arrive from his suppliers.

Most of Phillips’ suppliers are other boutique guitar part manufacturers based in the United States.

From his small three metre by two metre workshop, Phillips spends between two to three weeks assembling the parts and modifying them until he achieves the perfect pitch.

In order to achieve a certain sonic output, Phillips taps into his experience and knowledge in the field to piece together capacitors, the right wood type for the guitar’s body,  specific models of pickups and a well aligned fret board.

Through speaking with Phillips, it was starkly obvious that the study of the factors involved in the production of tone teaches the instrument maker that small variations in structure in the right places can make important differences in response.

Owing to the fact that there are so many places where one can take away or add a little wood, and because the difference between a little more or a little less can be critical to a specific aspect of tone, having an experienced professional personally adjusting the various elements is crucial to the art of guitar manufacturing.

“You cannot really put your finger at determining what the different in sonic qualities are but to your ear, it can tell the difference,” explains Phillips.

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Once the sonic output of the guitar is set, Phillips job is almost over, unless the client has requested that the guitar be made to look like a relic.

“Diehard vintage guitar fans often love to move back in time and want their guitars to look as vintage as possible, says Phillips. “This essentially involves making a guitar look like it has been played for 50 years so there is a certain amount of wear and tear already evident on a brand new guitar.”

Undoubtedly, Phillips is also a vintage guitar fan which explains his passion for such guitars.

However, he added that he choose to go down the route of building relic guitars because manufacturing brand new guitars require a lot more investment in terms of the machines needed.

“Some boutique manufacturers like Tom Anderson, James Tyler and Suhr guitars build really phenomenal high quality instruments because they have the facility to spray the guitars and do the expensive UV curing needed,” explains Phillips.

Instead, all that Phillips needs to make a guitar look like a relic are some pliers, nuts and bolts and a keen eye for design.

“The natural vintage cellulose paint is scraped in certain areas and made to look like it has been bumped and dinged and dropped and scratched till it all looks very authentic, like an instrument right out of the 1960s,” he adds.

Such know-how is surely one reason Phillips has managed to carve out such a finely-tuned position in Dubai’s guitar manufacturing industry.

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