A South African Guitar Maker: Hayward Guitars

Graeme Hayward begged to be retrenched. The corporation in which he’d worked for years had been purchased and was down-sizing. But Graeme was easily offered one of the remaining jobs. He’d had enough. He convinced them to pull the offer and give him a severance package instead. Stepping out of the rat-race, he rented a Salt River workshop, filled it with industrial power tools and began making guitars.

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Graeme Hayward’s Salt River guitar workshop

Graeme is no novice builder; he’d built guitars in his spare time before. He completed several of what has to be the gold-standard for electric guitar makers–exact replicas of the 1959 Les Paul. With its carved maple top, glued-in (rather than bolted on) mahogany neck and its legendary scatter-wound pickup coils, the ’59 Les Paul is possibly the greatest challenge for any guitar maker to get right.

And he did it. I know. I’ve played it. I know way too many details about the original guitars, and the only thing I could find on his Les Pauls that wasn’t identical to the ’50s originals was the little plastic cover that hides the access to the truss rod that adjusts the guitar’s neck tension. But now Graeme is taking that hard-won skill and using it to build guitars full time during the longest recession since The Great Depression and with our president pointing the SA economy at the waterfall and rowing with all his might.

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The unfinished flamed maple top of a bound, semi-hollow T-style guitar

If he succeeds, it’ll be a triumph of craftsmanship over widget-making. I went down to visit Graeme at his workshop at 9 Friend Street, Salt River. Hollering through the gate got Graeme to open up for me. It’s not just a workshop, it’s a place for people who love guitars to come and hang out. The hall is decked with pictures of iconic guitars, and the men and women who made us worship them. Couches make it a great place to talk about our beloved bundles of wood and wire. Graeme tells me he’s going to build a fake fur-lined case for finished guitars for players to paw at, and possibly a feature wall of stand out instruments to ogle.

The main workshop contains an array of very large and serious machines that transform raw timber into objects of desire. Guitars in various states of completion are everywhere. The South African guitar expo is coming up next week, and Graeme is working non-stop to get his projects ready to show off. Chief among them is a series that marks a return for South Africa–resonator guitars.

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Two styles of resonator guitar bodies at an early stage

Resonators were designed in the era of big bands, before amplified electric guitars, to make guitars loud enough to be heard alongside brass instruments. Since then they’ve become synonymous with blues, thanks to great players like Bukka White, Son House, and Tampa Red. They were also very popular during the Hawaiian music craze, which is why many were decorated with palm trees and other island scenes. Made of steel, these guitars are known for being polished to a mirror finish. Paul Simon sang, “The Mississippi Delta, was shining like a National guitar,” on his song, Graceland. And it’s here that Graeme’s route departs.

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The laser cut top-plate of a chemically distressed resonator body

Computerised machines have made producing perfect guitars trivial, he says. Even some budget guitars, like the LTD line made by Japanese guitar legends, ESP, are in many ways better made than electrics that were largely handmade, and might cost two months’ salary, back in the 1950s. But the downside is the decreasing individuality in each instrument. Those of us who adore guitars think of them almost as friends or pets. It’s not pleasant to think that our guitar may be pretty much indistinguishable from another. Graeme wants each of his guitars to be beautifully playable, but still unique. So a laser-cut cover plate has a bridge plate mounted on it that Graeme carefully hammered out himself over a mould. The neck shapes are shaped to different specifications using a range of cutting jigs, but the final finishing is done by hand.

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A luxurious, flamed sapele, T-style fat neck with a buffed cocobolo fretboard

He’s turned to alchemy, experimenting with dangerous concoctions of chemicals, to distress the bodies of the guitars. No mirror-shine for him. Each guitar looks like it’s been discovered in an attic after 70 years, but with its playability and voice intact. He’s cooking the character into his guitars to make something completely unique and unavailable elsewhere.

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Details count: a vintage punch makes deliberately uneven serial numbers

And hence, South Africa’s economic ailments may prove beneficial. With the exchange rate of the Rand with the dollar, Yen, and Euro weakening, Graeme’s handmade guitars and hand-wound pickups may become increasingly affordable even to working musicians overseas. But he’s not leaving it up to luck. He’s also going to have guitar building workshops in which local players can pay a sum, and then spend several days building their guitar from scratch in his workshop–using premium woods and hardware–and take home an exceptional electric guitar that they’ve built with their own hands under Graeme’s guidance. And on Saturday mornings he’s going to welcome players who want help getting their guitars set up to play better–so that we come in, talk guitars, and walk away with an instrument that plays and sounds its best.

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Three glue in necks with their cut mother-of-pearl logos in holly wood veneers await finishing

Tape Hiss & Sparkle At The Armchair – April 2017

Disclosure: I’m acquainted with the whole band and have been good friends with bass player, Helen Westcott for many years. Hopefully I won’t give you a biased perspective. Also I hopefully won’t have to say anything that’ll will make them hate me forever.

One of the big advantages of living in Observatory, as my cellist friend, Nicola, said last night, is that you can decide late in the afternoon to go and see a music show, and then just amble over there. The Armchair, which used to be a bank and has a vault door behind the bar, has been hosting gigs since at least 2001. I can remember gigging there with Krakatoa in its first couple of years.

Now though, the creeping death of gentrification has severely restricted the volume at which you can play there. So the room has wooden covers over all the windows like they’re expecting a tornado. It makes it hot. Very, very hot.

So it’s a good thing to be there for bands that need you to sit still and listen carefully as the sweat drips down your neck. The opening act was Martinique, a young woman who markets herself under the name Matinino. She faced us seated at an electric piano in a broad-brimmed black hat and black dress, and sang personal stories through story-book lyrics. She blended her clear high voice with itself through simple use of a looper pedal, complementing these harmonies with a confidently played grand piano sound.

It just so happens that she completely had my number. I’ve just been gorging myself on psychedelic folk bands of the early ’70s. Pentangle, Bröselmaschine, Vashti Bunyan, and, particularly, Trees, whose song, The Garden of Jane Delawney was very much in the same vein as Martinique’s story-book, dream lyrics.

Nicola said that she’d like to see her behind a real grand piano, even though she agreed with me that the deep reverb on the voices and the piano blended very well–at the expense, perhaps, of not sounding very ‘live.’ And I didn’t like hearing about looper pedals during a show. To me it always sounds like the musician is trying to draw attention to something exciting and new, while actually loopers have become something of a scourge as musicians understandably try to get a bigger slice of the pitiful performance money while still sounding like multi-piece bands.

But she used it well, and these minor pet-hates in no way stopped me being utterly enchanted by her songs. She’s definitely on my to-see-again list.

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Simon Tamblyn img src: alexanderbar.co.za

I saw Tape Hiss and Sparkle in an earlier line-up and was not impressed. Simon Tamblyn, the singer, song-writer, and guitar player was in an irritable mood and managed to put me into one before the end of his set. This time was completely different. The whole band were enjoying themselves immensely. Their friendship and rapport was obvious. As the band traded jokes over the course of the show, Simon’s laconic, understated humour was enjoyed by the audience too, which laughed harder at each successive quip.

Simon has an comfortable eccentricity. He married a black kilt and red boots to a casual black t-shirt. Helen elegantly carried off a kind of pirate chic in appearance and playing style–her mist-blue Precision bass growling with a picking motion that looks like she’s sewing a seam at speed. Drummer (and published science fiction author, as I quite recently discovered), Mandisi Nkomo–who’d guested briefly with Martinique–looked incongruously prim in a high buttoned shirt and a high-seated, delicate touch on the drums.

Simon’s songs carry an early 2000s vulnerability that’s mirrored in his very inviting performance. I remember seeing him as lead singer in the alt-rock outfit, The Sleepers, where he seemed out-of-place among the Tool-obsessed rockers. Singing confessional songs, like he’s admitting his secret fears at the end of a garden party tête-à-tête, he felt far more convincing. I have a limited basis for comparison of his singing style since I missed much of the music which likely influenced him. The vocals remind me a bit of The Decembrists.

The songs are lyrically coherent in a venue like The Armchair in which you can hear them. And they’re full of hooks. But in a stripped-down band like this, doing these kinds of songs, I felt strongly that I’d enjoy the songs more and more as I became more familiar with them. Hearing them for the first time, I felt that they were songs that could easily grow to love, but I didn’t love them yet.

The band worked well. The powerful sound of Helen’s bass provided a solid, indie body to what might otherwise have come off as a light, folk sound. The drums were necessarily light due to the noise restrictions, and only the bass drum was miked up. But Mandisi’s playing is excellent. When I see them again, I’d like to hear the whole kit amplified.

My biggest gripe is with the guitar sound. Simon was playing what looked like a vintage Epiphone concert guitar which I’m sure sounds excellent acoustically. But plugged in it has that typically nauseating quack of an unmodified piezo pickup. I’d like to see him either switch to an electric like a Telecaster, or get a more sophisticated direct-input box that either equalises the sound better, or something like an Aura Spectrum DI that puts the acoustic sound back in.

But if the piezo sound is my bugbear, I must admit that I hardly noticed it by the end of the show. And that sharp attack does cut through the band nicely when strumming. It was in the solo guitar parts that it got my goat.

The Pixies – Cape Town, March 2017

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Lovering, Lenchantin, Santiago, and Black img src: pretoria.getitonline.co.za

Young people, here’s a sad truth: that tribe you inhabit that seems to own the streets and the night-spots, that defines what’s hip and what the issues are? They’ll one day retreat into cars and offices, homes and restaurants, and they’ll mysteriously disappear from view and be replaced by another tribe that despises all yours stood for. But just occasionally they may re-emerge, blinking in the light.

The crowd for The Pixies at Kirstenbosch constituted an informal reunion of Cape Town’s Generation X. We had the experience, all but forgotten, of recognising many faces (usually a little greyer and a little stouter) in the crowd without necessarily knowing names or even where we’d seen each other before.

And there on a wide stage were the alleged best bands of our generation. In the local case, The Springbok Nude Girls, opening for the internationally beloved Pixies. Named for the cover girls on a series of compilation records put out by Springbok Radio in the ’70s, and ’80s, Stellenbosch’s Nude Girls seemed improbably original with machine gun vocals, a trumpet that danced over the grunge guitar chords, and the echoing whoops that made square-jawed frontman Arno Carstens into an almost credible South African equivalent of a celebrity.

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The Springbok Nude Girls img src: thebioscope.co.za

This time Carstens looked in his skinny jeans like a rugby player shyly enjoying his first adult ballet class. His total contempt for his audience had gone and with it much of his fuck-the-rules power. While guitar player, Theo Crous, laid into his Telecaster with every ounce of his ’90s vim, and the new (I presume) drummer was giving it hell, Carstens and bass player, Arno Blumer, seemed to be phoning it in. He could no longer reach those iconic whoops, which had to be filled in by Adriaan Brandt on the trumpet.

That’s not to say that the audience wasn’t loving it, which may tell you that I may not have been in entirely the right headspace. They roared along with the well-loved tunes and called out for more. I was dead centre, about three metres from the stage, and was probably getting most of my sound from the stage amps and monitor speakers. I’m pretty sure the sound was a lot better a few metres back catching the convergence of the main speaker towers. But I couldn’t help thinking, unfairly or not, that this being the greatest South African band of the ’90s says more about the ’90s than about them.

South Africans are so starved of international musicians that women behind us were yelling at The Pixies’ guitar tech* to take his pants off. Jason was naturally quick to join them. The band came on in darkness and opened without a word in a blaze of light and much improved sound. If I was still only getting stage sound, it was a lot louder and a lot clearer.

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Our view of The Pixies pic by Jason Coetzee

The wordless opening was no mere device. As the band went through a careful mix of well-worn classics and songs from their recent record, Head Carrier, with hardly a pause between any of them, the Alfred Hitchcockesque figure of Frank Black (who still goes by his given Charles Thompson in private) said not a word to the audience. Neither did slender, well-preserved guitar player Joe Santiago. In fact, neither of these two remaining primary icons of The Pixies seemed to even look at, or take in the audience at all. It was new bass-player, Paz Lenchantin, and drummer, David Lovering, who gave signs of being present in Cape Town.

Their performance though, was faultless. They hit all of their best loved numbers (besides former bass-player, Kim Deal’s, signature piece, Gigantic) with energy and conviction. Black never shied away from the screaming choruses that electrified us in the band’s glory days of the late ’80s and early ’90s and, despite not being a technical guitar player, Joe Santiago nailed every fiercely original part he ever wrote.

The crowd surged ecstatically for their biggest numbers, with the youngsters hopping onto the stage and being hurled off again by stagehands like kittens. I loved hearing numbers like This Monkey’s Going to Heaven, and Debaser. But some of their biggest numbers I’ve so over-played that they left me a bit cold. I actually found myself bored by their best-known tune, Where Is My Mind–waiting for it to end.

Where I lost myself completely was in the new numbers like Tenement Song and especially Magdalena–songs which prove that Black’s song-writing has only matured and refined over 30 years–the dreamy Bossanova numbers, Velouria and Havalina, and their cover of The Jesus and Mary Chain’s Head On.

After they’d blasted through about twenty five tunes, they acknowledged the audience for the first time, still wordlessly, took some bows, did a single encore, and then it was done. I don’t wish to suggest that my experience was universal, but I found the professional but impersonal style of Black and Santiago a barrier to immersing myself fully in experiencing the performance of a band I’ve adored for two and a half decades. They gave no indication that they had any investment in playing to this audience in this city, and I think many of us want that illusion from our artistic heroes. They literally did not speak a single word to the crowd. Lovering though, who never flagged in what must have been a truly gruelling performance, was beaming during the bows, which counted for something.

I’ll avoid saying too much about the behaviour of my generation. I shouted at one old fool who was trying to relive his youth at the expense of everyone around him. “Moshing,” was one of the shittiest, whitest, notions of the ’90s. It’s even worse if it’s not kept to the front of the stage where participation can be considered consensual.

*Guitar nerd note: I love a band with great taste in guitars, and The Pixies have that. Even a non guitar nerd friend was impressed by Joey Santiago’s black and gold, Bigsby’d Les Paul Custom (you see guitar folks? People do notice). A cherry ’60s Bigsby’d ES345 and a pick-guardless dark-back ’57 reissue goldtop rounded out his choices. Black played a well-worn blonde Telecaster. Bass player, Paz Lenchantin, used a covetable, well-worn, off-white Precision, with a red/tortoiseshell guard (with a scarlet flower attached to the headstock), that may have been an original or some kind of distressed reissue. Joey played through a master volume JCM800 and a Fender Princeton or Deluxe Reverb. Black played through a small pile of AC30s. It’s a good example of how to get tonal separation between two guitars.

Medicine Boy at The Mercury, March 2017

I’ve been wanting to see Medicine Boy play live for a long time. There have been few enough psychedelic rock bands in South Africa, and fewer still that have managed to attract audiences outside the country. But I’ve either missed out on sold-out shows, or had conflicting engagements.

My buddy Jason and I entered the hot, three-quarters full Mercury–once the crack team at the door had conquered the arithmetic  necessary to make change.

Heroine were just finishing. It was a shame because they sounded great. I heard heavy toms with two female voices harmonising cooly over the top. I’m eager to see this three piece in the future.

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Heroine img src: facebook.com/heroine

Jason and I agreed that  an all-male outfit didn’t fit the name, The Deathrettes–no matter how great it is. They delivered rousing garage psych-rock at the beginning and end of their set, with a bit of a sag in the middle. The tousled-blonde front man is great on lead guitar, but a psych-rock front-man needs a touch of mystery, and this dude was all party, drinks, and “Wassup mu’fuckaz!”

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The Deathrettes img src: theblogthatcelebratesitself

Medicine Boy nails that mystery. The band is a two piece turned three piece. On the right of the stage, the golden-haired, sleek Lucy Kruger as the witch priestess in black, slamming emphasis on a drum by her keyboard with a mallet that doubles as a wand of invocation. On the other side, Andre Leo is a dark, tangled Puck in skinny jeans, slinging an electric guitar. Between them is a drummer so shrouded in rear-stage gloom that I thought at first they were still using a drum machine (either he was using triggers or the drum-miking was excellent).

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Andre Leo and Lucy Kruger of Medicine Boy img src: medicineboy.bandcamp.com

The pair created a ritualistic theatricality that you seldom see in South African bands. They were often visually separated on stage by saturated monochrome light–Lucy in red and Andre in blue. She used formal sweeps of her drum mallet, standing either facing the audience or in complete profile. He moved more wildly and erratically. Her voice is always pitched high and clear, his low and murmuring. Their parts are kept nicely distinct.

The music too is a series of soft-loud-soft contrasts, as you can hear in their recordings. The sound is reminiscent of Heron Oblivion, but has its own set of timbres and motifs. Heard live, the sounds are delicious. Too often, bands that use harsh sounds are simply unsophisticated and grating. Andre uses rich bursts of howling fuzz or near toneless bursts of ring-modulation static. Keyboards and clean guitars are lush or chiming. I’ve mentioned how solidly the drums came through the PA.

But there’s always some cock-up with the sound at Mercury, like day follows night. The lyrics were entirely inaudible (the only exception being a snatch of Nick Cave’s The Mercy Seat). I’m fairly certain that the lyrics add a lot to feeling immersed in this music. So that was a damn shame. Then there’s the audience. Jason said as we walked to the car, he wonders whether it’s just the old man in him. I said, we’d definitely have been pissed when we were teenagers by that scene. At one point during the first of a pair of sweet, gentle songs, I looked around and wondered if I was the only person listening. Everyone I could see in front of the stage was yacking it up at the top of their voices–few even turned to face the stage. I strongly doubt that this is the band’s experience in Europe.

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Medicine Boy img src: infinity.co.za

After one encore, during which the crowd that had paid more than usual to see this band completely ignored Andre’s suggestion that they all be quiet to listen, the band left and, although I could have listened longer, I wouldn’t have wanted to put them through more of that.

I want to see this band again in an audience that enjoys listening to music.