Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Rob Armstrong - Coventry Folk Musician and Luthier

Rob Armstrong - Coventry Folk Musician and Luthier

Rob Armstrong has built guitars and instruments for George Harrison, Gordon Giltrap, Bert Jansch, Martin Jenkins and Dave Cooper and Kevin Dempsey of  Dando Shaft, Alvin Lee, Joe Brown, Dave Swarbrick, Mark (Bedders) Bedford (Madness), Martin Barre (of Jethro Tull)

This article is republished from FOLKS MAGAZINE - COVENTRY 1979 Issue No 8 July - August - by Pete Willow


Special report by Pete Willow on the Coventry folk musician who (in the 70's and well beyond) was gaining a world wide reputation as a builder of fine guitars.

On August 4th 1976, Coventry Evening Telegraph reporter, Martin Swain, published a feature entitled "Bob carves melody from Wood". He had visited Rob Armstrong at this flat and workshop in Brays Lane and had evidently been impressed by the fine craftsmanship that went into the instrument Rob was producing; particularly the six string mahogany guitar that he'd made as a present for his wife, Lynn, standing alongside another he'd built to celebrate the birth of his son, Nathan.

Recently, I visited Rob's new home in Stratford St., and the first guitar he showed me was the one he'd built
Rob Armstrong with Bert Jansch
for his second son, Thomas. The distinctive "A" symbol was displayed as usual on the headstock, beneath which were the letters "T.A." . As one might expect,it was shorter in length than the average acoustic guitar but the shape of the soundbox was unique - disproportionately narrow but with plenty of depth, creating a 'squashed' effect that was never the less pleasing to the eye.

One would have imagined such an instrument to have a thin unmelodic sound, but Rob played a chord that had as much, if not more depth and resonance than one would expect from any good quality, commercially built guitar. All of the more unorthodox looking instruments that Rob produced in the past seem to measure up to his more standard models in some quality; it seems he is able to produce exquisite tone from almost any shape of soundbox, as if by magic.

One wonders, when talking to Rob, whether he is concealing some great trade secret in the design of his guitars, a certain inner knowledge coveted by other guitar builders that enables him to continue to producing instruments, two of which are never the same, yet with a consistent sound quality. For exactly a year now he has been operating from his workshop in Spon End.

Before then, his reputation was good. Since then it has steadily improved as the standard of his finished instruments has progressed along the seemingly infinite road towards perfection; he states profoundly but without conceit "There just isn't a bad guitar coming out of the workshop now" As for the "great secret", Rob can't put his finger on it either:

"They are just bits of wood' but its only when you are working on them and you feel confident that you are
making progress...You can just be starting another guitar and say "As long as I can make another one as good as the last one, I'll be quite happy". Generally something happens half way through, usually an accident or a thought that's never occurred to you before. It just hits you and really knocks you sideways to think that you've done this job so many times, even if it's only something in order to get it more perfect.

"The theory part of it all seems to be one vast mystery that is destined to remain a mystery. That little guitar..." he points to the one he's built for young Thomas,".. you predict it's going to be a tinny, thin sound. You put the strings on and it's got more bass than a standard Eko. It's great mystery; it's like being able to feel your way round in the dark, but never quite being able to see where you are - just having the capacity to move about within darkness."

Rob gave me a couple of examples of discoveries he has made simply through experience of building guitars. One was with back strutting, the basic purpose of which is to keep the the back of the guitar rigid and to stop it splitting. Rob discovered that there had to be something else he could do with these triangular strips of wood to contribute towards the overall sound of the guitar. So in his latest instrument the strutting is angles so that the main face is directed towards the sound hole. ( see the diagram). Another example was the bridge saddle, a small piece of material holding the strings up from the bridge
that has quite an effect upon the guitar's general sound. Having considered the use of different materials; bone, ivory; plastics, brass; Rob turned his thoughts to other aspects that could easily be overlooked; the depth of the saddle in the wood, the tightness of the fit.

No matter how small the detail within the overall construction of the instrument, Rob is always seeking ways
to progress from ideas used in previous instruments. That not only means that each guitar is unique in its construction, but also is, in essence, the 'great secret', simply that each new guitar is innovative in (sometimes) the smallest detail. As Rob says, "Each little bit of the guitar, the things that you disregard, all of a sudden become very important and worth investigating" In order to prove the contribution towards the total effect of each new idea, he would have build identical instruments, one with and one without the idea being tested. But by the time Rb starts work on his next guitar, new ideas strike him that he has to incorporate. And so it goes on. The only test is the ultimate one, the sound produced by the finished instrument. By then it's impossible to say which innovation has done more to add to that sound; the important thing is that the guitar itself is right.

Rob had been playing guitars long before he considered building them, and had spent a lot of time working with Rod Felton in the New Modern Idiot Grunt Band. One day he looked at his Gibson J45 guitar and decided that there was no reason why he could not produce one himself. As Martin Swain's article points out, the decision to start building guitars was a brave one, as Rob's knowledge then was limited to what chords could be played. He had even failed woodwork at school.

In May 1971, the first Armstrong guitar was ready. No 023/571, it was constructed from red fiberglass and Rob sold it for £42. Over the next four years he produced another thirty-seven fiberglass guitars, before moving into wood. He built two guitars from plywood and then began using solid woods, the types that he uses today; rosewood, walnut, cedar, mahogany, bird's eye maple and ebony.

Dando Shaft guitarist Dave Cooper croons through an old standard at luthier Rob Armstrong's house in Coventry, October 2006, on one of Rob's guitars.

 Up until this time there had been little discipline in his approach to the work. Rob had very few orders; he
 just made the instruments and found he was able to sell them when they were ready. In 1973 he married Lynn and found it necessary to become more organised in order to gain financial security.

For six months, he took a job, boat building in Rugby and soon realised that the discipline of being employed could easily be applied to the thing he was really interested in. So he applied it. In the winter he works at least 9 to 5; in the summer the hours are longer. He doesn't bother with lunch or coffee breaks, but just eats and drinks while he's working. He says that he feels he should give himself the sack if he turns up late at the workshop. In the past he has been described as a perfect rebel  in that what he does is unorthodox  yet he still uses orthodox principles to be successful in his work.

As he built more instruments, orders started to come in regularly and now many folk musicians,local and national now possess Armstrong guitars. Bert Jansch now has two Armstrong's  a six string acoustic (no.100, which is Rob's pride and joy and one he put a lot of effort into building), and an acoustic cutaway. (Previously, Jansch was reputed to have said that he'd never own more than one guitar.) Kevin Demsey owns a hollowneck acoustic guitar made by Rob and Eddie Furey has an Armstrong double neck guitar.

But orders were not only for folk guitars. Rob had been doing some repair work for Fairport Convention bassist, Dave Pegg. Dave called to collect the instruments and tried out one of Rob's electric guitars that was in the workshop at the time. He immediately commissioned Rob to build him an electric bass, the first one in fact that Rob had ever made. Up until now, Rob has also built mandolins, double-necked acoustic guitars, semi-acoustics, a "Quindolin" and more recently acoustic bass guitars. He is presently working on a new mandocello for Martin Jenkins.

Rob moved out of Brays Lane last yer to set up his new workshop at Spon St. This was part of a scheme to Dave Cooper, who also started doing various jobs and now specialises in repairs to the recent batch of instruments. The two of them, along with Chris, who got involved with the workshop six months ago through the job opportunities shame and ended up building his own electric with nothing by verbal advice from Rob, have just set up in yet another workshop.
provide work opportunity for young people and a few lads have since helped out there with the more uncomplicated tasks. At the time the new workshop was set up, Rob was joined by guitarist

This is part of a Crafts Complex that is being organised at Hill St. near the Belgrade Theatre and promises to fulfill a great ideal as far as Rob is concerned. The complex is a row of four preserved cottages, converted in to eight workshops, each one of which will be occupied by someone who specialises in a particular craft. Out of about a thousand applicants, Rob, Dave and Chris were accepted to join the complex, which is part of a tourist route in the city, along with places like old Bablake and Ford's Hospital  At the moment Rob is spending his spare time making miniature reproductions of his acoustic and electric guitars, mandolins, and banjos to sell as souvenirs. Like the real thing, these are intricately detailed and quite beautiful.

Rob Armstrong with a guitar for Bert Jansch
With the help of Dave and Chris Rob has been able to improve the general organisation and efficiency within the workshop settling. Long gone are the days he built one guitar at a time; there are now several on the go at a time; some to meet specific orders and others to build up stock of available instruments. He is beginning to receive orders now from shops as well as from private individuals and has just completed two; one for a shop in Denmark the other for a shop in Japan.

He ensures that he has enough fittings and raw material to keep him busy, reordering items like trussrods (which can be infuriatingly difficult to get hold of) when he's down to his last twenty or thirty, and owning enough wood at present to build another two hundred instruments. His aim is to produce four instruments a month without skimping in any way on quality.

His latest, no 159, stands resplendent in the front room of his house. The front of the sound box is cedar, the sides and back are rosewood, spliced on the back with bird's eye maple, producing an unusual and dramatic effect. The shape of the sound box follows a recent line Rob has been working on; the curves on the side appear to be tighter ans drawn up to an almost straight top, leaving the overall shape to be both modern and graceful in appearance  The fretboard is rosewood, as is the headstock which is narrow and appears elongated, a very simple but eye catching shape. The bridge is equally simple: flat on one side and convex on the other, looking good but uncomplicated. The finish is immaculate and without blemish, and the sound, needless to say, is incredible.
(This is Phil Lewis playing my Rob Armstrong acoustic guitar I've owned for around 9 years. The guitar was previously owned by Gordon Giltrap. The song I'm playing is my own and is called 'Fairy Tale'. )
From listening to Rob talking about his guitars, it is easy to get involved with in the enthusiasm he generates. We were going to discuss his work in terms of past, present and future, but really the future is obvious; he'll just keep building more and more instruments. By adopting the attitude, however, that each guitar is special" he has no plans to fall into the rut of mass-production. Even if he is fulfilled in his work and even if he feels one hundred % satisfied with each guitar, the innovator within him will always take over as he starts on his next one. Thus each new musical instrument that comes out of the Armstrong Workshop is a progression towards perfection.

Bert Jansch and Dando Shaft's Martin Jenkins both used Rob Armstrong instruments and bert has one in this video .
According to Pete Chambers in his Ultimate Guide Coventry Music Old and New - Godiva Rocks - Rob has built guitars for George Harrison, Alvin Lee, Joe Brown, Gordan Giltrap, Martin Jenkins,(Dando Shaft), Mark (Bedders) Bedford (Madness), Martin Barre (of Jethro Tull who who studied architecture at the Lanch in the sixties), Dave Swarbrick (of Fairport Convention)

Rob Armstrong has played with Rod Felton in the New Modern Idiot Grunt band (see separate entries on the Grunt band and Rod Felton), Music Box with Colin Armstrong (see press cutting), Quiet Riot with Martin Jenkins, and with a host of famous /semi famous musicians including Bubs White (Bonzo Dog Band).

Read about Rob Armstrong's own musical career on this blog -
New Modern Idiot Grunt Band (with Rod Felton http://coventryfolkclubs.blogspot.co.uk/2011/07/new-modern-idiot-grunt-band.html )

Music Box (with Colin Armstrong and Piphttp://coventryfolkclubs.blogspot.co.uk/2013/02/music-box-rob-and-colin-armstrong-pip.html

'I am proud to put my name to this guitar

and for it to be part of my musical legacy'.

– Gordon Giltrap

Highly regarded as one of the worlds greatest guitar players, Gordon has been at the forefront of acoustic guitar playing since the late 1960's and has released more than thirty albums in his four decades in the music business. Designed in conjunction with respected master luthier Rob Armstrong and Gordon himself, the crossover Grand Auditorium/000 style Vintage VE2000GG Gordon Giltrap Signature electro-acoustic is based on a hand-crafted instrument that Rob made back in 1980 and Gordon plays today. Featuring a high grade solid North American cedar top, with mahogany back and sides, the signature ‘small waist’ body is complemented by Rob’s trademark headstock design.

The bridge is high grade rosewood, with a gradually compensated natural bone saddle providing excellent intonation, whilst the mahogany neck comes with a top quality rosewood fingerboard, with genuine abalone inlays and side dot markers. Electrics are provided via a Fishman Presys Blend preamp and Sonicore pickup system, which features a built in-microphone with mic blend control, notch -– anti feedback control, phase control button, three band EQ and volume control as well as a built-in guitar tuner, with flip-top easy battery access.

Gordon comments "My original guitar has a very strong treble with a sort of springy and expressive sound to the bass end. The new Vintage guitar has all of this combined with an overall warmth and balance to its tonality."

Comments from the Hobo site on Vox (now closed)

get in touch if u remember us.u used to live

Posted by: alan&sonia | 02/22/2010 at 03:47 PM

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