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Made in Huntington: Matching the Guitar to the Player

Luthier Scott MacDonald uses get-to-know-you approach before building any guitar. (Second in a series focusing on things actually made right here in Huntington.)

Despite the dozens of tools and instruments in Scott MacDonald's custom-guitar workshop, you get a sense of precision and a feeling that everything is located where it should be. And you would be correct.

As you make your way down the stairs to the workshop of S.B. MacDonald Custom Instruments, you first notice the guitar cases, neatly leaning sideways against the walls without a millimeter to spare between them. They are waiting for repairs or to be shipped back, mended, to their owners.

On a workbench sits a triple-layered slab of walnut, Hawaiian koa and maple wood, already shaped like the body of the electric bass guitar it will become. A 1960s vertical milling machine, stands ready to bore holes into a small piece of Brazilian rosewood that is being molded into a replacement bridge for a 1950s Gibson J-45 guitar. A bridge sits atop the lower bout of the guitar, holding the strings in place through pins that fit into the holes.

Placing the wood under the drill bit, MacDonald explains he wants the replacement bridge to look as authentic as possible. He takes careful measurements and explains the milling machine is far more accurate than a more-modern drill press that he would be using if he hadn't invested in the vintage gear.

MacDonald, 50, has been building and repairing stringed instruments for 20 years in his Huntington workshop. He moved here from Forest Hills, abandoning a career producing commercials that left him craving a more fulfilling way to connect with people.

And that connection, says MacDonald, is what still drives him today. Whether he is lovingly crafting one of his own custom-ordered guitars or meticulously restoring a vintage instrument, there is a strong sense of gratification.

When building, he says, he is conscious of making something that becomes essential to the eventual owner's process of creating the art he or she is meant to create. When restoring, MacDonald adds, he is making everything OK – an instrument that perhaps was handed down from a parent, and therefore has emotional value, is brought back to a playable state.

"In both cases, it's really about the people, not the instrument," he says.

Because it's about the people, MacDonald puts a lot of effort into getting to know the customer when building a guitar. An electric takes about 12 months to complete, while an acoustic takes 18 to 24 months. He builds four to six instruments a year.

"I like to take my time and enjoy the process," he says.

Before investing the time and effort, MacDonald wants to make sure the instrument will fit the player. "I sort of pick and choose my clients and make guitars that I am proud of," he says.

He takes into account the kind of music the person plays, whether the player stands or sits, how they hold the guitar, and even the size of their hands. It's easy to do, he says, when the person is local. But when the customer is overseas, it requires a lot talking on the phone. In one case, a customer sent MacDonald a photocopy of his hands, reproduced at 100 percent. It was unorthodox but it helped, the customer was very happy with the final product.

And so was Jim Dexter, one of the players MacDonald picked and chose as a customer. Dexter, an accomplished guitarist based in East Setauket, describes MacDonald's building process as near-spiritual experience.

"When it actually came down to the construction of the instrument, [MacDonald] wanted me to be as involved as I could," Dexter recalls. "I helped bend the sides of the guitar, and a really beautiful part of the process for me was, when the body of the guitar was formed, he wanted me to sing into it to see how it reacted to my voice."

Dexter adds: "The way he honored the wood he was working with, never forgetting that it was once alive, was an attitude that really was in line with the way I felt."

MacDonald recalls that at one point Dexter pricked himself on the wood and his instinct was to wipe it off. MacDonald stopped him and said to leave it.

"My goal is to have people feel like they've had that guitar since the day they were born," MacDonald says.

Though he takes pride in all his instruments, the luthier says he was especially connected to a nine-string guitar he built with cedar and claro walnut for Brooklyn guitarist Mark Yodice.

"It sounds like a piano is being played," says MacDonald. "It has a thunderously rich tone."

On the repair and restoration side of the business, MacDonald is as attentive to the instrument and the player as he is when building. He believes in keeping the essence of the instrument, and that means, "you don't want to modify, refinish or retouch," he says. "I'm a big believer in no plastic surgery for humans or guitars."

He limits himself to fixing cracks and structural problems, wiring and electronics – that kind of thing – but the spirit of the guitar must stay untouched. Even if it means telling a customer no. "When you meet someone who can use your money and doesn't take it, you should listen to them," he says.

Ira Perlman did. Perlman is the president of the Folk Music Society of Huntington and owns several vintage guitars, including a 1968 Martin D-28 he took to MacDonald for some repair work. He asked MacDonald to install a pickup so he play the guitar through an amp, but MacDonald said no.

"He said it was a vintage instrument and I should leave it that way," Perlman recalls.

MacDonald, however, replaced the bridge plate on the Martin. The plate is a flat piece of wood that sits inside the guitar under the bridge for reinforcement against the constant tension caused by the pull of the strings.

"Under normal circumstances the repair would be either to remove the bridge plate and put in a new one," says Perlman. "Since mine was a vintage guitar, Scott purchased a new tool just for this repair."

Says MacDonald: "Anybody with integrity who cares about their long-term reputation is going to do the right thing for their clients. I care a lot about my customers."

In addition to his building and restoration work, MacDonald also does warranty repairs for the biggest names in acoustic guitars – Martin, Gibson and Taylor. He documents some of his work with pictures and text on his frequently updated blog. His work has also been featured in various publications, including Guitar Player, Premier Guitar Magazine and Acoustic Guitar, as well as several books.

MacDonald will occasionally give tours of the workshop on request. Contact him here.

Editor's Note: This is the second article in a series focusing on things made right here in Huntington. The first was a profile of Bon Bons Chocolatiers. If you know of something that is manufactured here, contact me .

Mary Ellen Walsh April 29, 2010 at 02:29 PM
Nice article: as well crafted as MacDonald's guitars. It's wonderful to share such talent here on Long Island.

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