We were delighted to assist in generating a great article about Hugh Manson and Adrian Ashton of Manson Guitar Works in the National newspaper
A bespoke electric guitar-maker is taking on Chinese copycats at their own game
Matt Bellamy, frontman of Muse, could play any guitar from any maker but his instrument of choice is built in a small factory in Devon. He is just one of many famous customers of Manson Guitar Works, a niche brand but arguably one of the UK’s most successful guitar makers, which counts John Paul Jones, the former Led Zeppelin bassist, Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters and Simon Neil of Biffy Clyro among its customers.
What started as a hobby for two brothers in the late 1960s has grown into a business selling across the globe. Hugh Manson, the driving force behind the company, was originally drafted in by his brother Andy, a talented luthier (maker and repairer of stringed instruments) who made acoustic instruments, to satisfy the growing demand for electric guitars.
The business has a loyal following among professional and amateur musicians, who will pay up to £4,000 for a bespoke instrument. There are also low-cost ranges aimed at teenagers
It’s move into the mass market, perhaps surprisingly, was triggered by Chinese copycats. Hugh Manson explains: “Our guitars were getting copied in China. Matthew and I were throwing money at lawyers and patent agents trying to stop this but it’s almost impossible. I jokingly said, ‘If we can’t beat them why don’t we join them?’”
The result was a deal signed with Cort, a Korean guitar maker, to produce a £500 version of the award-winning Matthew Bellamy Signature model, at its factory in Indonesia. “They are selling like hot cakes,” Mr Manson is happy to add.
It wasn’t always plain sailing. “We really struggled in the early days and it was unbelievably difficult financially,” Mr Manson says.
The brothers eventually went their separate ways, leaving Hugh, 62, to concentrate on making the customised electric instruments that are the backbone of the business. “We started to get interesting artists involved and British guitars were becoming more popular, possibly because our competition wasn’t as strong as it should have been.”
He became a victim of his own success. The demands to do repairs and supply accessories such as amplifiers left him with little time to design and build guitars.
That changed in 1992 when he teamed up with one of his customers, Adrian Ashton, a solicitor turned musician, to open Manson’s Guitar Shop in Exeter, retailing and repairing instruments.
About six years ago the guitar-making arm was split off into Manson Guitar Works, based 20 miles away in a business park in Ashburton. Mr Manson and Mr Ashton, 52, jointly own and run the shop and the workshop.
“Guitars are very interesting to make because they are one of the few things in life that have to fulfil these senses: to look good, sound good and feel good. There are very few things as a craftsman that are so demanding,” Mr Manson says.
One of his frustrations is that although he has developed guitars with some of the most sophisticated electronics available, including screens linked to computers, players are often reluctant to embrace his innovations.
“They might have tattoos all over the place and piercings in every orifice but musicians are very conservative and they play the same guitars as in the 1950s. In terms of breaking ground with technology it’s a bit stifling,” he laughs.
Keen to keep down costs and maintain quality, the business uses a company in the Czech Republic with computer-controlled cutting technology to supply guitar bodies and necks for assembly in Devon. That also allows them to offer replicas of popular designs for about £1,500.
The company has tie-ups with partner companies in Europe and Asia but is sanguine about Brexit because it is used to the bureaucracy and paperwork involved in exporting.
Sterling’s fall since the referendum has helped the business. “It has suddenly made our products extremely attractive, which hasn’t been lost on our European customers,” Mr Ashton says.
The key issue is how to keep expanding without losing the personal touch. Mr Ashton says: “The challenge is to grow but retain that air of exclusivity and the contact with the customers. It means gentle expansion rather than super-rapid growth.”
Playing second fiddle The factory and shop at Manson Guitar Works employ about 16 people, including skilled luthiers and technicians who have toured with Ben Harper, Foreigner and Yes.
Two apprentices were recently hired at the shop and the company hopes to find another to fill a warehouse role at the factory.
Adrian Ashton explains: “It’s not just doing some soldering and shaping bits of wood. We offer the best training possible, not just on the technical side but working with the public and even going on tour with rock stars. They get the whole music industry experience.”
Today the government launches a campaign to encourage others to do the same.
From May, companies with wage bills of less than £3 million will have access to support to take on an apprentice. The government will pay 90 per cent of the training and assessment costs and companies will be offered a grant of £1,000 if they take on a trainee aged 16 to 18.
Businesses that have fewer than 50 staff can get all training and assessment costs paid for apprentices aged 16 to 18.