A while ago someone asked me why I put so much time and energy into promoting live music. The answer lies somewhere between respect, regret and love. I totally respect those who can play music with what is basically a piece of wood with strings attached and there is a part of me that regrets never having learned how to play the guitar. What’s more, when I experience music played live I find it an utterly magical experience which has over the years given me an immense amount of pleasure. I honestly believe some musicians have within them the ability to change lives – I say that because music, and by default musicians changed my life in ways that I can not begin to describe in a few short paragraphs. That’s where the love part comes in.
The technicalities of how the aforementioned strings and wood are fashioned into a musical instrument are as alien to me as the dexterity of the skilled player. One such example of someone that embodies everything that is special about such a musician is acclaimed Durham troubadour and member of The Pitmen Poets, Jez Lowe. In order to ensure his instruments play as beautifully as possible to his worldwide audience, Jez entrusts their maintenance to a fellow Durham resident called Russell Bennett. Jez refers to Russell Bennett as ‘The Pitmen Luthier’. Russell smiled when he told me this and it made me smile too.
The title, ‘Luthier‘ is a French word which was originally used to describe makers of an Arabic instrument known as the Lute. Over time it was co-opted by [French] makers of other stringed instruments such as the violin, cello, and guitar. However, during the 1970’s, in an attempt to differentiate themselves from the makers of mass produced guitars, some independent American guitar makers started calling themselves Luthiers. It was an attempt to sound superior and they adopted the title as if it were a qualification. In reality, it was nothing more than a cynical exercise in marketing. Imagine if the person who cuts your hair suddenly told you he was now your ‘coiffeur’, you would think him at best pretentious and no doubt have a good laugh at his expense.
Russell Bennett is in no way pretentious and he does not go around trying to impress people. He is your typical grounded Durham guy. Humble, open, friendly and eager to talk; especially about the origins and characteristics of the various woods that he meticulously fashions into custom made guitars. It’s a fascinating story that links creative teaching to an extinct Latin American forest, to a World Heritage Site, to a Victorian battleship and eventually leads to a workshop in County Durham. Thornley is an ex coal mining village, seven miles to the East of Durham City and that is were Russell Bennett maintains, repairs and makes stringed instruments with an attention to detail that has to be witnessed to be appreciated. To this non-musician, a Russell Bennett guitar is not only very pleasant on the ear, it is also something of a work of art.
So how does an unassuming working class man who left school at aged 16 transform himself from hewing coal at Easington Colliery to producing immaculate custom guitars made from rare tonewoods? The journey begins in 1970’s Scarborough, North Yorkshire where Russell had been temporarily re-located. At school he had shown little interest in any academic subjects, he did however excel at woodwork. As luck would have it, one of Russell’s teachers was friendly with a local violin maker and managed to set up an alternative learning environment where instead of focusing on Maths and English, Russell got to spend time with the violin maker learning the trade that would become his lifelong vacation. Throughout his adult life Russell continued to develop his guitar making skills despite the fact that he needed to also work full time.
Russell explained that in the early 1980’s he had had enough of going underground and wanted to use his carpentry skills in order to earn a living. He went to work for Hartlepool Borough Council and was involved in the restoration of the Victorian battleship HMS Warrior which was painstakingly reconstructed in what is now the town’s marina. On completion, in 1987 The Warrior sailed to Portsmouth where it is now a museum ship. Russell also headed south and went on to work with famed yacht maker, Fairline. However, he returned to Durham in the mid-2000’s and decided to follow his dream and make stringed instrument maintenance/restoration/making his full-time occupation.
Over tea in his workshop, Russell gave me the lowdown on the woods he uses to construct his guitars. He is clearly very proud to have a limited stock of rare Cuban mahogany that he tells me has been carbon dated to the 14th century. Throughout the 17 and 1800’s Cuban mahogany was used in furniture-making throughout Europe and the USA and was harvested to the point of depletion. Known for its exceptional stability Cuban mahogany became the wood of choice if you wanted a great sounding guitar. However, it is now so rare that if you can find a guitar made from Cuban mahogany you can count yourself lucky. And the source of Russell’s mahogany? Look no further than Durham Cathedral. Some years ago Russell got wind that one of the Cathedrals storerooms was to be cleared to make way for a café and there was some old wooden pews that were going to be disposed of. Rather than seeing the pews dumped into landfill Russell re-claimed the wood and the rest as they say is history.
Russell Bennett is no salesman, he’s an instantly likeable man whose work is his love and his guitars sound as affecting as his back-story. In short, they have a soul with a capital S. He was reluctant to name drop but when pressed Russell told me a couple of stories. He said that late one night in the 1990s a tour bus pulled up at his home – it was Aussie band Crowded House who had been told about his work and after a beer or two parted with a substantial amount of cash in exchange for one of his guitars. Another of his customers is in demand session musician Greg Bone (Sting, Mick Jagger, Kylie Minogue, Ronan Keating) who told me, ‘I met Russell a very long time ago when he repaired my guitar, we became fast friends and then I moved to London to pursue a career as a session guitarist – our paths didn’t cross for about 30 years but when we met again it was like those years disappeared in an instant. His craftsmanship was top class back then and now it is absolutely off the scale. His guitars are truly astounding in terms of tone and playability and the fact that he builds them with wood sourced from a UNESCO World Heritage Site absolutely knocks me out. Who wouldn’t want an instrument made from ancient wood re-claimed from Durham Cathedral and constructed by a first-class guitar-maker like Russell Bennett’?
My advice; if like me you love music, give Russell a call and go see. I know he’ll be glad to talk wood and strings over a mug of tea.
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