The instrument makers taking DIY music to a whole new level

What does it take to construct a modular synth? How do you turn a block of wood into a double bass? Here, four craftspeople explain why they chose to rip up the rulebooks and build their own music-making machines.

TEXT: Daniel Dylan Wray Photography: Owen Richards

These days, grime music is everywhere. The genre has been embraced by the mainstream – so much so that Stormzy is now a headline act at Glastonbury. But like so many musical genres, it stemmed from humble DIY beginnings.

The pioneering artist Wiley sold records from the boot of his car, and so much of the pivotal music from the genre spread through homemade pirate radio stations and independent record labels. It’s a story we’ve heard before: grime’s spiritual predecessor, punk, was born in grotty sweatbox venues, promoted with hand-scrawled flyers, and played by kids who barely knew three chords.

That do-it-yourself ethos has resulted in some of contemporary music’s most important cultural movements. Record labels have been started from bedrooms, home studios assembled in flats, and era-defining raves organised in abandoned warehouses.

A natural extension of this mentality is to take things one step further: to explore the possibilities of not only making music independently, but to create the instruments, tools and machines needed to make that music in the first place. And as technology advances and modern working life becomes more flexible, more and more people are exploring the possibilities of creating their own instruments – be it for pleasure, or for business.

If you saw the glam-punk band Pink Grease in the mid-00s, you may have seen Nick Collier with a weird flashing synth machine strapped around his neck emitting pulses and bleeps (you may even have seen him pull out a soldering iron when one of his homemade creations broke mid-gig). Meanwhile, Neil Heppleston spends his days building and hand carving double basses in West Yorkshire; Thomas Tietzsch-Tyler can be found in Sheffield making bespoke electric guitars; while Daniel Skevington uses his free time to make everything from a custom modular synth to play on stage, to pedals and drum kits.

Here, the four craftsmen talk us through the how, what and why of being a DIY instrument maker.

Nick Collier, Hebden Bridge
Creation: ‘The Beast’

“I've never been a very good musician. I was more interested in creating instruments than playing them. I liked the sounds and tones, and the science of tuning.

I started building wacky acoustic instruments at University in Sheffield: putting guitar strings on tree branches, or making a hurdy-gurdy that was powered by a foot pedal, like an old fashioned sewing machine. For my final project I made a big installation out of found objects and junk, like a giant walk-in musical instrument inspired by animatronics and instruments that play themselves.  

I soon started making electronic instruments. I initially made it up as I went along, in a very chaotic way. I joined the band Pink Grease and had to make something that I could actually pick up and put in a van and play gigs with. I moved more from creating works of art to practical instruments. It was very frustrating at first because I didn't have any background in electronics. It was a bit of a nightmare – more like torture at times.

The first machine I made in the band was very heavy and built into a giant frame that took three people to carry. Then I made something more portable called The Beast. It took a year to make. I was making it in hotel rooms on tour, filing bits of metal and polishing plastic after gigs. I moved from making wacky noises to something that was more emotionally engaging and melodic.

I’ve made lots of machines and creations. The Swedish electronic band The Knife commissioned me to make them something based on a machine I created called The Harmonicon. I've not been as productive these last few years because I’m a single parent but I have some new designs and I also created a mini-version of The Beast called a Chaos Engine that I make to order.”

Neal Heppleston, Mirfield
Creation: Double bass

“I started making instruments in 2011 when I found myself in a dead-end job and was looking for something new to do with my life. I had been playing bass since I was 17, and had always had a faint idea that I'd like to make a guitar or something.

I picked up double bass in my early 20s – I had a factory made instrument – and decided that I wanted to try making one for myself. I obviously couldn't just start making a double bass, so I decided to start with a violin and work my way up. I went to the Newark School of Violin Making to do an evening course for a year, after which I decided to go full-time and studied for the next four years.

As it's my main instrument, as a player, I understand them better than other instruments. Most makers and repairers don't like working on double basses because they are so big and unwieldy, and you also need a whole different set of tools to work on them. There were occasions when I was learning that I made some pretty devastating mistakes, but there's a quote that goes something like, ‘someone who make no mistakes, makes nothing at all’. Luckily, as a repairer, almost everything can be fixed.

My favourite part of making a bass is carving the front arching; I could quite happily carve fronts every day. The process of seeing some wood turn into an instrument is quite special; it still amazes me every time. I also really like to do intricate carvings. I am hoping to do a few more baroque instruments in the future, which have loads of carvings and inlays all over them.

I also really enjoy researching instruments that come into my workshop, you feel connected to the past and it's a real joy when you can tell customer information that they hadn't known about the maker or origin of their instrument.”

Thomas Tietzsch-Tyler, Sheffield
Creation: Guitars

“I’ve always been totally obsessed with guitars. When I started to make them professionally a few years ago, I really didn't think about anything from a brand point of view, it was just something I wanted to do. I used to work in transport design and I like mid-20th-century guitar designs that are based on cars – that's what I’ve always liked about them. Part of the reason I didn't like working in transport design is because all the cool shit from car designs doesn't exist anymore. But it's all still there on guitars: chrome and all the shapes and curves.

I'm the kind of person that gets a new thing and then takes it apart and tries to figure out how it works. I'm someone who doesn't turn off thinking about a problem – I need to find the solution, I'm obsessive. But those are qualities you need if you’re doing this job. I learnt a lot of what I do from threads in forums, as well as some YouTube videos. I’ve also designed and made pretty much all of my own tools and machines to make my guitars. The last guitar that I sold was the first guitar that I didn't have to make anything to make it. For years it was always a case of having to make something to be able to do something.

I’m really lucky that I work in a building with other makers, who have helped me. Portland Works [a Sheffield workspace for modern crafting and manufacturing] is really invaluable. There’s a real sense of community here. ”

Daniel Skevington, Leeds
Creation: Modular synth

“As you get older being in bands becomes less practical, but electronic music is something you can easily do on your own. I wanted to transfer ideas that I had as a musician when playing the drums into playing electronic music. So I started building synthesisers that would link to some of those ideas I was interested in as a drummer, but without having to play in a band with other people.

I built a custom modular synth. I like the idea of having functional blocks that you can connect together to create a process that you have designed, as opposed to somebody else having put some blocks together in a particular order and then you are limited to the way that somebody else has thought it should be put together.

There are a lot of people doing modular synth stuff and when I’m watching a lot of that, it's intensely boring. I don't really interact with the synth when I play live, I have a number of mics throughout the room, and the mics are then processed to generate control information for the synth. Once the volume is up and through the system, I’m just stumbling through the audience moving mics around, so hopefully, at the very least, you get to see someone trip over. There's an element of theatre to it beyond someone sitting behind a desk looking serious. It was about making the music a more performative thing, that wasn't just sitting down and twisting knobs.

I don’t really have an agenda for doing any of this. Most things I don’t make to sell. I just do things that I feel like doing or get obsessed by, like spending a year and a half building a drum kit, which is a fucking idiotic thing to do. I just seem to not not be able to build things.”

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