Paul Lambert is quite simply a master craftsman. His meticulous attention to detail and level of quality in his work is absolutely outstanding. How do I know? Well I’ve bought two of his guitars so far and there is a list for more builds as soon as my wallet permits. Not a gig goes past that that people don’t comment on the sound and aesthetics of my PJL guitars. Be it my Jazzmaster or OM Martin styled acoustic, inside and out these things are tough as nails, they sound and look great and they will always be my go to guitars. In addition to complete originals, he is also the go to man for any mods with the ability to transform something ugly to a work of art. He is also a teacher at the Australian Guitar Makers School sharing his knowledge with budding luthiers here in the Newcastle and Lake Macquarie area but the one thing that surprised my about Paul when we first got to know each other is that he doesn’t play a single note. I threw a couple of questions at him to find out how he came to be such a fine guitar builder without a single musical bone in his body.
You don’t actually play guitar, what was it that attracted you to making instruments?
I had always been a keen woodworker, I guess I saw it as the next challenge and an opportunity to use some really cool timbers for an item that would be cherished and valued, I only planned to make one, but I got hooked, I have just taken an order for number 25, It’s not just a woodwork project , it has a component of physics and engineering as well, and I think the anticipation of what the end result of that combination will be is what makes it exciting.
Who are the luthiers or guitar makers that you look to and take inspiration from?
I have been really fortunate both in timing and location, I guess the first real bit of luck was the Australian Guitar Making School opening 5 minutes away from my home, so that’s where it all started, Strato who owns the School had been in communication with a guy named Trevor Gore, who had been doing a whole heap of research on both design and build of acoustic guitars, in collaboration with Gerard Gillett. Strato was incorporating some of Trevors work into the school builds, so that set me up for a really good foundation early on. A pivotal moment in my development and building was completing Trevor’s modal tuning and design course, It really changed my understanding of what makes a great guitar and how to hit that mark every time, so I guess the biggest influence on the way I build would be Trevor Gore and Gerard Gillett. At a more practical level my mate Jeff Highland who has been playing, repairing and building for many years has been a great mentor, sounding board and can always be relied on for honest and constructive feedback, and that has certainly pushed me to always think about how I can take it to the next level.
What do you think makes your instruments unique?
I guess every luthier has their own quirks and style, I guess mine is using really unique and beautiful timbers to highlight and complement each other , rather than using bling and inlay. And the fact I like to build “road warriors”, using the knowledge of potential failure points gained from doing repairs to make guitars that will stand the rough and tumble of a Muso’s life.
Do you have a preferred style of guitar to make and are there styles that you baulk at building?
For acoustic guitars I’m a big fan of many of the Martin shapes, they have stood the test of time, so I generally lean towards that style and add my own twist, If it’s solid bodies, anything old school fender is pretty cool. As for building I don’t really baulk at building anything so long as it won’t reflect badly on me or is offensive.
What are your preferred timbers to use and why?
Australia is really fortunate to have, in my opinion some of the finest timbers available for making guitars, Australian Blackwood is a “go to” for both tone and beauty, Tiger Myrtle is a personal favourite, for something wild, Black Heart Sassafras can’t be beaten, A few years ago I did a 10 day trip of Tassie hunting down timbers for my builds with a mate who also build guitars, it was an amazing trip and we got some truly spectacular timber.
Tell us a bit about your class at the Australian Guitar Making School. What can someone expect from the experience?
There are a few layers to the experience of building your own guitar in a class environment, the best part for many is the comradery between everyone, I think many of the students enjoy the banter and social aspect as much as the actual construction, we take a break about half way through the class, have a cuppa a bit of cake or a biscuit, someone will occasionally grab a guitar and have an impromptu jam, it’s a lot of fun. Building a Guitar is a fairly complex task, but we break it down into mini tasks, taking into account the learning style of the student. It’s meant to be fun so we set people up for success and support them at the level they need to get the task done. It’s not beyond anyone, we have people whose last wood work experience was building a pencil box in year 8 at school, but end up making the most amazing guitars. It focuses the mind, all of life’s other worries get pushed aside for a while and people always seem to leave smiling.
Have you had a particularly proud teaching moment or is there a particular part of the teaching process you get most satisfaction from?
There is nothing better than the night we string the guitar up for the first time, seeing the pride and satisfaction on the students face never gets old.
What is the most common repair you’ve found?
I would say 90 % of what I do is generally correcting poor set up, it really makes a huge difference to the playability and feel of the guitar, an appropriate action, correct neck relief and level polished frets can be the difference between love and hate of an instrument for the player.
What do you consider to be the most important part of guitar maintenance and do you have any tips?
Biggest single tip would be, just like kids and pets don’t leave your axe,(particularly an acoustic) in a hot car, the glue softens, and the string tension starts to change the shape of everything, It’s can destroy a guitar beyond repair in a relatively short period of time. And secondly if your guitar need servicing take it to a trusted Luthier or Guitar tech, a lot of really involved repairs come from correcting DIY fret levelling and truss rod adjustments. Changing strings,cleaning and oiling your fingerboard are all DIY maintenance, but some more complex tasks are better left to the experts.
Who are your favourite artists to listen to and do you take inspiration from these artists when planning a new build?
I think building guitars has changed my listening choices, so I find myself gravitating towards the likes of Eric Bibb and Paul Kelly, I really like some of the covers artists I have discovered on Pandora, like Smith & Myers and Noah Guthrie. The major takeaway is the need to understand the style of player your building for, a Fingerstyle guitarist needs a different guitar to someone who mostly strums.
Finally, let’s start a war… Gibson or Fender? Maton or Cole Clark? And why?
Mmmmm…I’ll start with Gibson V’s Fender debate, I really like both, Gibson have set the standard for what a cool axe should look like, but when it comes to brilliance of design, Leo had it all sorted, component construction, simple, repairable and bullet proof, there’s not much that can't be fixed on a Fender, so if really pushed, Fender would be my favourite. The second one is a bit of an emotive debate, it’s almost a Ford V’s Holden type of situation. I understand how people can be influenced by artist endorsements, branding and marketing, I would wonder if the guitars supplied to high profile artists are straight of the production line or handmade? I’m not going to answer the question directly, but I will say acoustic guitars are a bit like people, it’s what’s on the inside that counts, also the primary purpose of an acoustic guitar is to perform acoustically, and not solely rely on its pickup to do its work. So I would challenge people to grab an inspection mirror and a torch and have a good look around the inside of both and compare, the difference is obvious. I would also suggest a blind comparison of how it actually is sounds when compared acoustically its equivalent in the other brand, get a mate to play both with your back to them, this kind of comparison is somewhat subjective, but I reckon the difference is big enough to prove the point.