Saturday, February 2, 2002

Manson brothers building instruments for nearly 45 years combined

This news originally appeared in an edition of the newsletter "On This Day In Led Zeppelin History."

Not long ago, I had the pleasure of speaking by telephone with one of the men who makes John Paul Jones' musical instruments. Hugh Manson, of Manson's Guitar Shop in Exeter, England, gave me a few minutes of his time on Jan. 24, before heading off to help with Jones' Guitars for Landmines show in Manchester.

Hugh has been in the business of making instruments for more than two decades, but his interest in assembling things goes back further than that. The 47-year-old said, "I was always into making things when I was a kid. Model airplanes. When I got a watch for my birthday the first thing I would do is take it apart."

Aside from handiwork, another thing that interested Hugh was music. "The first thing that really made an impact for me was Bob Dylan and maybe Donovan," he said. Hugh mentioned that he "delved into" the Beat movement. "I was into Woody Guthrie stuff for a while. Then came the Beatles, the Stones, the Doors," he said.

He said he was about 14 when he first combined his musical interests with his skill for building things. "The first instrument I created was the Appalachian Mountain dulcimer, an American instrument made famous by Joni Mitchell but used by lots of people prior to that. It's a thing you play in your lap. I made that when I was about 14, I suppose -- maybe longer ago.I've still got it, and I still play it. That's where I started."

He explained his affinity toward musical instruments, saying, "[They] are one of the only things that people make that have to fulfill three functions: They have to sound good, look good and feel good. There are not many other things that people make that fulfill all three of those functions. Musical instruments use at least three of the five senses. New ones even smell good!"

Interestingly, while his brother Andy went off into the business of building electric and acoustic stringed instruments, Hugh instead sought a career in teaching. "After being a student I was a schoolteacher for a while. I taught art and design," he said.

But Andy was becoming too bogged down in his manufacturing work to continue doing it alone, and so he asked Hugh to join him in the business. Hugh said he jumped at the opportunity. "So I handed in my resignation at the school the very next day and went to work with Andy," he said. "That was 22-ish years ago."

By that point, Andy had already contributed to Led Zeppelin history himself by building one of the group's most recognized instruments. Hugh said Andy's connection with Led Zeppelin began with a knock on the door.

While they were living in Sussex, England, John Paul Jones lived nearby. "I even learned to ride motorcycles on his drive when I was about 15," said Hugh. One day, his mother said to Andy, "There's a 'pop star' living at the end of the lane. Why don't you go and knock on his door and see if he's got any work for you?"

Following his mother's advice, Andy knocked on the door. It was Mrs. Jones who answered. Andy inquired, "I understand there's a pop star living here." She replied, "My husband's a musician."

Before long, Andy met John Paul Jones, and they became friends. "John and Andy got to know each other pretty well," said Hugh. "John gave Andy tickets to a concert. ... Andy went to the gig and saw John use three instruments in the same number. He thought to himself, 'John needs a three-neck guitar.' Andy went away, designed one and made it. He made it in '76, and John said, 'Wow, that's amazing.' He used it on the next tour."

During that next tour, Jones' triple-neck guitar became one of the highlights of every show. Used on live versions of the song "Ten Years Gone" on the 1977 North American tour, the multifaceted instrument was seen by tens of thousands of people every night. "It has a mandolin, a twelve-string and a six-string guitar," said Hugh.

Over the years, the Mansons have made instruments for "a lot of English names," said Hugh, who currently overlooks more than just the instruments and equipment used on Jones' solo tours. "I'm responsible for the day-to-day running of the stage," he said.

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