Words & Photos by Victor Alexandre
I've always been fascinated by both the mad inventor Gyro Gearloose and the windows of music stores... So today, I decided to go into a very special shop in my favorite street in London.
Located on the ground floor of a large Georgian House on Stoke Newington Church Street, the workshop only takes up 10 square metres. Jon Free, the occupier of this workspace, and of a private flat upstairs, puts down the semi-acoustic Harmony guitar that was being repaired to open the door for me.
The visitor - which is a figure of speech because you are not really expected to visit the place whatsoever - is greeted with a huge trunk crossed by a long piece of wood, leaning in a corner. It transpires that this wood was once a lamp stand but is now traversed by four strings and that the trunk is in fact the resonating body of an home-made double bass. Jon explains that while this cumbersome object is not his finest achievement, it nevertheless lead to a great success story. Here, several months ago, a woman passes in front of the shop window, enters, and chooses a model to give her dad. But the woman in question is none other than the daughter of Roger Glover, bass player, I should specify, of Deep Purple. A few months later the father comes to see her daughter and makes a visit to the manufacturer of the gem he received as a birthday present and is very interested in the bass in question. While telling this story, my host leans toward the instrument and grabs a handle and opens the trunk. Instead of complex electro-acoustic circuitry that I expect to see, there are other pieces of wood inside it which will serve as necks for the creations coming out of Jon's imagination in the coming months. For the business works well, and may work even better when the fans of Deep Purple will hear the sound of his "Sonic fascinators" on Roger Glover's next album.
"Sonic Fascinators" are small three, four, or six string instruments that Jon makes from old metal cans with a variety of other antiquities. Roger Glover's, for example, is a four-string, called the "Golden Orchid", You can find it by browsing this page showing all the existing Sonic fascinators. Jon gives me a demonstration on the 57th realised in less than 18 months, a four-string electric whose body takes the form of a faux-snakeskin valise. It plugs into a tiny amplifier he also made himself. The result is amazing. Iimagine a merging of the extravagantly distorted guitar sound of bluesmen like RL Burnside, with a ukulele that you play having taken a little too much coffee. Or if you do not want to use your imagination so much, you can hear some examples on the website. The suggested tuning is DADA, and used the same way as a slide guitar. Prices range from 150-250 pounds, much less expensive than even a down-market slide guitar.
Previously, as one might suspect, Jon has been both a musician and a specialist guitar repairman in London's Tin Pan Alley, Denmark Street. Tired of being poorly-paid for the work he provided, he decided to go out alone: "It takes so much time to repair and build guitars, and the equipment is very expensive. We are forced to ask thousands of pounds for a full restoration or custom-built guitar. In three years I was only been able to create twelve traditional guitars contrasted with some sixty Sonic Fascinators built in the last year and a half, which are much cheaper to make and sell, and more fun and intuitive to play!
Jon uses many of the tricks developed in the 1920s in his methods to mechanically amplify the sound. Before the large scale spread of electricity, musicians were still struggling to be heard by larger audiences. One solution used at the time was the invention of a violin in which the sound box is replaced by a membrane located in a horn identical to those of the first phonographs. "At the time, such Stroviols were 5 times more expensive than the traditional violin, Jon assures me, as aluminum was almost as expensive as gold. For my instruments today, aluminum is a material affordable and provides good projection of sound. "
What is fascinating in Jon is his ability to transform the functional in creative genius. Take another example. A group from the northern district of London gave him a guitar, not only low-end, but which also seems to have been trampled by a rhinoceros: there is nothing left of the soundboard, the wooden platform that covers the top of the body of the guitar. Anyone else would have abandoned it. Not Jon Free. He showed me the trick he intends to put in place. For fifty pence, he managed to find 6 aluminum trifle molds. He arranges them in a triangle and connect them by a kind of T-shaped key which, as we have seen, will amplify the sound to be received in the body.
To Build new musical instruments, and listen to them on an album of Sonic Youth Tom Waits, this is a job that must be nice. No?