Stuart Munn chats to SARA BAIN about his passion for music and for making guitars……
In a world where multi-national corporations are mass-producing musical instruments to satiate a public appetite for cheap alternatives, a Skye artisan is keeping the traditional craft of quality guitar-making alive.
Sixty-three-year old Stuart Munn says he has two passions: music and fixing things.
Before the pandemic stuck, Stuart and his wife Isabel were running a successful bed and breakfast near Portree and he was driving visitors around the island for a tour bus operator. During his spare time, he has also been designing, creating, adjusting and repairing guitars in the traditional way.
Born and brought up in Eaglesham, near Glasgow, on the edge of the moors in the heart of Covenanting country, Stuart spent the latter part of his young life in Stonehaven, Aberdeenshire where his love for music began.
“I loved heavy rock and blues,” he said, “and my first album was by Nazareth which I bought because my father hated them! I was really into Rory Gallagher, Deep Purple and Bruce Springsteen and later became inspired by music more close to home such as Runrig and Capercaillie.”
Stuart bought his first bass guitar from a music shop in Aberdeen and started playing music with one of his brothers. It wasn’t until he went to England to study that he formed a college band.
He said: “Our sound was mainly post-punk and modern romantic and we did a few gigs in London venues, including one at Ronnie Scott’s.
“When I got to 50, I decided I wanted to start singing. I talked my pal into taking up the guitar and, along with my son Connor who was a teenager then, formed a classic rock band. We gigged around Aberdeen for 10 years until Connor got fed up with playing ‘old man rock’, so we stopped.”
Stuart says that throughout his life, he has always fixed things. “My father was an engineer in Glasgow and we were always taking things apart, like engines and electrical equipment, and repairing them. I started modifying electric guitars and decided I wanted to make an acoustic one and build it properly from scratch.
“I saved up and attended a two-week Luthier course in Portland in Oregon, USA, which was a mind-blowing experience for me.
“I was taught to make guitars by Charles Fox, an international luminary of guitar making. I built an amazing acoustic guitar under his tutelage and immediately fell in love with the process. It is the ideal combination of technical skill and artistic flair that makes a perfect past-time for me.
“The course really fired me up with enthusiasm so I spent the next year building jigs, to enable me to build guitars. I made a couple of guitars at home in Stonehaven before we moved to Skye.”
Before the move west, Stuart worked in computer systems for 30 years with a number of big companies. The work took him across most of Europe, China and Malaysia, until he decided he had had enough of the corporate lifestyle.
“About five years ago, I decided I had enough of working in computers and, when I finished my last contract, took a job driving Range Rovers around Aberdeen for rich people.”
Stuart says he and his wife Isabel have had an affinity with the Isle of Skye for a long time, spending many holidays and anniversaries on the Island.
“Like most people, we fell in love with the landscape, and three years ago, we found an old schoolhouse that was formerly the home of a furniture restorer. It was big enough to turn into a bed and breakfast and has a large workshop where I can carry on and expand my craft,” he said.
“Since I have been here, I have slowly built a customer base of local musicians and repair their guitars for them. I am fortunate that I am able to do something I am passionate about that keeps me involved in the music scene.”
From his workshop, Stuart builds acoustic and electric guitars as well as mandolins. He says it takes in excess of 200 hours to build an instrument from scratch and is determined to source and sustainable materials throughout the process.
He explained: “Build material is very important to the resonance of the instrument and, before the pandemic and Brexit, I sourced wood from a company in Austria.
“The basic body shapes I use are traditional and ones that have been developed over the centuries. I buy the plan and make the jigs in the shape of the guitar. There are rules about fret spacings, neck length, where the bracings have to go. The shape, depth and the type of wood used will all make a difference to the sound.
“Traditional woods are mahogany and rosewood but these are becoming more and more difficult to source as well as being unsustainable materials, so I am looking into European woods. I am currently experimenting with more ethical materials such as Sitka spruce, cherry and sycamore to see the difference they make to the tone and to prove these woods can make a lovely sounding guitar without damaging the rainforest.
“I would really love to use local hardwood from Skye and need to plan five years ahead as these materials will need to be kiln dried before I can use them. I am looking for sources at the moment.”
Although the pandemic has given Stuart more time to spend on making guitars, music will always be his biggest passion and he says he misses attending concerts.
He said: “Going to concerts has been part of my life since I was young and I really miss them. Last year, I had planned with a friend to go to Nashville, home to the Gibson guitar. Unfortunately, we went into lockdown and the trip had to be cancelled. I can’t wait to get back to live music.”
Stuart is taking commissions and is available to give talks online or, when permitted again, to local groups.
For more information on Stuart and to contact him, visit his Facebook page Munn’s Guitar Workshop @skyeguitars