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Holy Grail Guitars: The History of the World According to the Guitar exhibit
Level one. Stands A25-A26 at Melbourne Guitar Show

Sydney-based luthier and guitar technician Richard ‘Clyde’ Watkins has worked with some of the biggest names in rock music including; Joe Walsh, INXS, Bo Diddley, Cold Chisel, The Divinyls and The Church but it’s not only the stars that he reveres, it’s also the guitars. He has studied them, collected them and now he is displaying them in an exhibition at this year’s Melbourne Guitar Show he is calling Holy Grail Guitars: The History of the World According to the Guitar. Holy Grail Guitars is a collection of musical masterpieces that tells the story of the evolution of the guitar from the Stone Age to the Space Age. These pieces, valued in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, have been collected by Clyde Watkins throughout his forty year auspicious career. Ahead of the Melbourne Guitar Show, AM’s Greg Phillips spoke to Clyde about the exhibit and guitars in general.

Where did your interest  in the guitar come from?
I was art school trained and they had a really good workshop downstairs. I was one those kids, where if I wanted a surfboard, I had to make it. If I wanted a hi fi I had to make it. I was just one of those practical kids but kind of arty based too. So I made an electric guitar for a sculpture class and the guy that ran the class really liked it so I got away with it. It was art, musical art. Because that worked out well, a couple of friends asked me to make guitars for them. I was basically making solid body electric guitars at that stage and the people who I had been buying the pickup parts from offered me some work doing repairs in the 80s. I did that for a couple of years, traveled then came back to work for them and ended up buying the business from them. That was my main introduction to guitars.

How did this guitar collection begin?
I started out getting really nice steel string acoustics, Gibsons and Martins. I then started picking up some classic American electrics from the  50s , 60s and 70s that people like to go for. From my work,  knew that guitars weren’t invented in the 1930s in some American workshop, they did go back quiet a way. So I started to look at guitars from the turn of the century and back into the 19th century when there was so much dynamic building and studying and testing going on. There was another golden era at the beginning of the 19th century. The further you look back, you find that the guitars really evolved from lutes, of which there are so many different forms and variations. They had such a cultural influence on the people of the countries they are from. I just fell in love with everything with plucked strings on them.

INXS' Kirk Pengilly with 1780 French lyre guitar and others
INXS’ Kirk Pengilly with 1780 French lyre guitar and others

What about the first guitarists? Is there documentation of actual people who played or made fretted instruments?
Well there were many. I’ll tell you one, there is  story of seven brothers who ended up killing their sister. From where the sister’s bones were buried, a tree grew. Somebody heard the branch groaning in a beautiful sighing way and decided to carve it out, put a string on it and that became their first version of a lute. There are many stories from different cultures, I wont say from sorrow or trauma but music is a means of expressing something from the other side of life.

It sounds like the first sign of the blues …
It has been around for a while. Music is often thought about in terms of joy but there’s a lot  about remorse as well.

In general most guitars feature a similar shape apart from a few notable exceptions. Why do you think guitars have never really diverted form the core shape?
They are very much based on the human female shape. You have the head, the neck and then running down, you have the waist of the body. From my research they also reflect a lot of abstract sculptures that were of the same time. The guitars and other stringed instruments are very much anthropomorphic. There are some which are a little bit distorted like the Mosrites, Jazzmasters and the pointy guitars but in general, they take that female shape. It’s a very comfortable instrument to play for all body shapes and sexes.

Guitar manufacturing is changing. There are the new CITES laws which regulate the use of endangered timbers like rosewood and there are lacquers used in the past which are now considered unsafe. A lot of guitars are mass produced. Do you fear the end of the craft of guitar building?
There are many fantastic builders these days and your guitar show plays testament to that. The guitar has become so popular all over the world and both boutique and mass production has made guitars very affordable in their relative markets, this puts pressure on our resources. I love that your show is bringing up this agenda because it is very important. The rosewoods and mahoganies, they were discovered to be beneficial of the dissipation of sound, they’re very resonant. They were used and used until people realised they were disappearing. There’s also great Australian timbers which are very resonant and being sent overseas. You would hope that Australia has the common sense to make sure that those timbers, which are in high demand all over the world, are treated in a sustainable manner. Once they are gone .. they are gone! And forests are disappearing all over the world. The chances of finding new sources for these things is getting thinner and thinner. There are other resonant woods but many of them aren’t recognised as being musical instrument tonewoods. They might be used for furniture or fence posts. There are a lot of fence posts in South America made out of Brazilian rosewood. It didn’t all go into guitars! I think it is wonderful that the world has had a wake up call and there is some serious interest in protecting resources and seeking sustainable alternatives. The use of less toxic lacquers is very sensible and the trend for thin coatings is not only beneficial for the health of trades people and the environment but also the sound of the instrument.

Manet etching the spanish guitar player 1865 collection
Manet etching the Spanish guitar player 1865 collection


Soyuz-tm-7_5 first guitar in space
Soyuz-tm-7_5 first guitar in space

You’re bringing your exhibition to the guitar show. What can people expect to see?
On one side you’ll have instruments that … some of them are still around and made in the middle east and so forth but these same instruments were about thousands of years ago. There are some very old lutes and harps, then we get into baroque instruments. The guitar really only took off around the time of the French Revolution. There will be some early guitars from the beginning of modern history … early 1800’s through the the development of the Spanish guitar in the 19th century. There’ll be harp guitars, a strange diversion from the guitar for about 30 years around the turn of the century and they are quite unusual. Then comes the beginning of the golden age of the guitar … x bracing, the start of the expansion of the size of the steel string guitar from the parlour guitar through to the wartime dreadnoughts. There will be first era electric guitars from the 30s… archtops from the jazz age and into the classic post war Telecasters,  Les Paul, Gretsch, Danelctro instruments. Also antiquities and artefacts from Mesopotamia, Ancient Egypt, Asia, Africa and Europe depicting musicians in religious ceremony. In 1988 the first guitar went into space, this marks the beginning of the guitars’ “conquest” of other worlds! The instrument will have burnt up upon its re-entry to earth but there will be space flown star map showing its course around the earth whilst it accompanied the astronauts and their guitar on this historic event. Two space age designed close the exhibition’s time frame; a Flying V and a “Futurama” electric double bass. On the subject of humanity and our blue planet, I am doing a fundraiser for Beyond Blue at the Melbourne Guitar Show and there is a raffle for a guitar. All proceeds will go to that very worthy cause and I’d love the visitors to support it.

What do you hope people get out of viewing your exhibit at the guitar show?
I think I would like people to see beyond and before what we all love, the classic golden era acoustic and electric guitars. I’d like people to see the beauty in what led up to those instruments. Yes, American style guitars are fantastic and have become the core of most collections but before those instruments, guitars were very sophisticated too and I’d like people to see how clever and how much technology did go into different bracings and tonewoods and shapes. Guitars made before the 20th century are just as exciting as those that followed.

 Clyde is presently head luthier at Big Music in Sydney.

Melbourne Guitar Show August 5&6 Caulfield Racecourse. Ticket info here

Clyde’s Social Media links


Holy Grail Guitars


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