words & images: Rosa Watson
After years in the corporate world, Mac McElwain made a bold decision to leave his profession and fulfill a dream to build guitars. He shares his story with Spirit Magazine.
It was an epiphany that came to him while on an intensive corporate retreat that centered around executive coaching. “You have to strip yourself bare. We went to hell and back.”
Discussion turned to unspoken desires that people had.“ I said ‘I’m going to play an original composition on an instrument I made’. “It just came out. It was an outrageous promise. “Someone said: ‘Mac, you go and do that’.” That was about 10 years ago, as he was coming up to formally retiring from a long and successful career in marketing.
Mac and his wife were living at Blackford Station, which they were farming having moved to the area from Auckland seeking a change in pace. Eventually, they moved into Methven and created a workshop for Mac to work out of.
To get started building guitars he first had to make from scratch the tools he would need, including a motorised polishing machine made out of the motor from his late father’s lathe. “I spent nearly a year building all that and then got to the point I couldn’t put it off any longer, and I started.
“I was lucky enough to have nice guitars around me, so it set the bar pretty high. I eventually jumped in and whittled and fiddled about, and eventually about six months later a guitar came out.”
When he finally brought it inside and started to strum, he and his wife, Pat, were brought to tears. “The last thing you do is put the strings on and play it. Right to the death you don’t know if it’ll work or not. “It turned out better than I could’ve dared hope. I thought ‘bloody hell, it’s alright’.”
Eventually he was ready to build guitars for others. “It just sort of happened. Somebody at some point must have said can you build one for me? It seemed like a natural progression.”
Today he has made 18 guitars that have ranged from small to big, acoustic to amplified. He originally sourced timber from overseas, but is moving towards using New Zealand native, including Kauri, Totara, Kahikatea, Matai and Rimu.
Mac believes the local guitar market is contracting with countries such as Korea and China able to produce good quality, mid-market guitars. But a handmade, constructed-from-scratch guitar is hard to beat, he says.
“(Customers) can talk about the kind of music they play and the sorts of music tones they’d like to produce. They all have their own foibles that they want in their instrument, to do with string length, shape of the neck and sound. It doesn’t become a guitar that you buy, it becomes your guitar.”
“It’s not much different to look at than Chinese or Korean-made guitars, but in terms of their meaning to people it’s like chalk and cheese.”
Some customers have provided Mac with timber that has significance to them. For example, he built a guitar for a local made from Kauri out of the family homestead built by their grandfather. “When he took the guitar with him, he found it a moving experience.”
He has also built a guitar from a Totara log found in the Rakaia River during WWII following a major flood. Another three of his guitars have travelled all the way to the United Kingdom.
However, Mac is not interested in growing a large business. “It’s purely word of mouth at the moment. The last thing I want is a job. If I produce three or four guitars a year, I’m happy.”
He allows a year to build a guitar, taking his time, allowing natural processes to happen, such as the timber’s response to humidity and temperature. It requires a lot of patience. “The wood still moves. It’s still got life to it.
“If the wood doesn’t want to do it, it doesn’t. You just have to wait until it’s ready. If you try to impose your own timeline onto a natural piece of wood, it doesn’t work.”
Each type of timber makes a different sound. “Kauri has a mellow sound, as befits Kauri. It’s a warm, gentle, mellow kind of wood.”
Rimu is “bright and tinkly”. “I love the tone of Rimu. It’s like water going down a waterfall.”
Currently he is building three guitars as well as carrying out repairs and restorations. Each build requires 12 to 15 coats of varnish, which has to be left for a month, and hours of polishing.
Any offcuts are made into beautiful cheese boards.
Mac has owned guitars since he was a teenager and his passion remains as strong today. “I was lucky enough to be able to afford nice guitars in my early years.”
However, he is modest about how well he can play. “Not as well as I build them.”
Surrounded by guitars, he is sure when he says a person can never own too many.