Aaron Fenech was born and bred in Cairns where he did a carpentry apprenticeship, he studied science and coastal engineering in Western Australia but he calls the Gold Coast home.
And there’s no question he’s put down roots here. As well as working in the public service, he plays in local original band The Maslows and has a stunning studio at Miami where he makes guitars and teaches others to do the same.
He says he was part of a massive migration of North Queenslanders – 15 in total – who headed south.
“We all moved across the road here,” he told We Are Gold Coast, as he pointed across the Gold Coast Highway at Nobby Beach.
“And none of us have really moved away.”
Aaron started playing guitar when he was 20-21 and it wasn’t long after that he started to get really inquisitive about what made instruments work.
“In fact, I bought my first guitar right here,” he says, pointing again to the main drag at Nobby Beach.
“It’s a Korean-made Cort. I just cut it in half to show students why it doesn’t work. It’s on display now in my workshop.”
“I’ve spent the last 15 years choosing jobs that are about money. But I’ve consciously decided to be a guitar maker,”Aaron says, when I ask how he refers to himself now. “I am a luthier.”
He says it’s important as a creative worker to talk about yourself in ways you’d like to be considered.
“If I tell people I am a guitar maker, that will eventually become a reality. My day job is environmental science but my passion is guitar building.”
“I can spend 12-13 hours a day working on a guitar, and I’m pissed off at the end of the day because the clock has run out. I don’t stop for lunch or breaks.”
It’s a gamble to start a creative business anywhere. To do it when you already have a professional career, young family and mortgage makes it even more so. But within days of opening his studio in 2016, which is housed at The Avalon Miami, Aaron had students signed up to his course.
He started the journey about 12 years ago.
“I bought my first Maton guitar,” he says.
“I played eight or nine of the same guitars at the guitar store – but only one sounded good and I couldn’t figure out why.”
“I asked the guy at the shop and he said ‘because they’re all different, they’re all made form different timbers’ so me with a science brain, I just had to understand that.”
“I picked that good sounding guitar and started reading about guitar-building, there was not a lot published at that time. There were some key, old texts around guitar-building. But everyone I ran into – it’s like a dark art – hardly anyone was teaching it and there were no schools at that time.”
“So I just started looking inside guitars, pulling them apart, putting them back together again.”
“Working on other guitars helps too, and fixing other people’s guitars. You sort of learn to see what makes some of those guitars tick. They let out a lot of secrets when you pull them apart.”
So in 2013 Aaron went to Melbourne and arranged to do a sabbatical. He paid for the time of Chris Wynne (Thomas Lloyd Guitars) a master luthier based at Montsalvat’s artist colony in Eltham. Aaron spent two weeks in intensive practice with Chris.
“The intent was to do eight hours a day five days a week. But we did 12 hours a day, seven days a week. He’s my friend and mentor. I still talk to him a few times a week. He’s a big advocate for teaching people this artform and a big advocate of Australian tonewoods,” Aaron explained.
Using Australian native timbers is something a little left-of-field for guitar makers because the industry has its roots in tradition.
“People talk about spruces for tops and rosewood for back and sides and it’s hard to break that tradition,” Aaron explained. “Those timbers were used because they’re easy to work with and stable but most importantly, they make really good instruments.”
In Australia about 15 years ago, companies like Maton started trialing Bunya in their guitar tops and in more recent times Cole Clark guitars started using bunya in their guitar tops too.”
“So I’m not doing anything new, but as a boutique builder, it’s pretty uncommon for someone like me to not use the spruces.”
“But I fundamentally have an issue with spruce. It takes 350 years to grow,” Aaron explained.
“And the portion an instrument maker uses is a very small portion of the tree. Whereas bunya you can use after about 80 years.”
Aaron gets his bunya from Maleny. He drives there, hand-picks the timber and talks to the guy who mills the wood.
“I’m really trying to use timbers I can get sustainably – things like Tasmanian blackwood, that grows right up the east coast of Australia,”
“I use a lot of black-hearted sassafras, tiger myrtle, silky oak, Queensland maple, gidgee, mulga in fretboards.”
I asked Aaron whether he thought he was better at playing guitar or building guitars and he said he has a long way to go in both areas.
“I’ve been a musician longer, but I don’t know how to answer that,” he says.
“There are great guitar builders who have never played an instrument – but fundamentally I can’t see how. There’s a feel you get from a guitar – its playability.
“You can teach someone to build to those specs, but it’s the general feeling of tone that you only get a sense of from playing.”
The process of hand-building a guitar takes 120 hours and Aaron is quick to clarify that this is definitely not about building a guitar from a kit.
“There are places where you go and assemble a kit guitar. But here, you come and do every aspect. I’m giving people the skills to go away to repeat the process by themselves without any machinery,” he says.
“I like teaching and I like mentoring, but I thought it’d be a good way to get my brand out there as well – to share that process of guitar building and what I’ve learnt.”
“I’m not alone in terms of wondering how instruments are made,” he says.
“People come in and choose from a number of designs of instruments I make – or they custom-make their own design. I teach them everything. They start with raw timbers and choose their own hardwoods. There are no short-cuts.”
It’s not cheap to make a good guitar. But Aaron has a number of payment models for students. A four-hour lesson is $150, he says. “Plus a material fee of $700. That covers timber, tuning, necks, fretboard, bridges, rosette. They make all of those themselves.”
If you do the math you’ll see that making your own guitar will cost thousands. As will having one custom-made.
“Many guitars are laminated and built entirely by machines,” Aaron says.
“When you pay more, the timbers are all solid – there are no laminates here.
“It’s like a good bottle of red wine, they get better with age.
“With a good guitar, the more it’s played and the more it is broken in. The cells of the timber break down – they get this warmth about them.”
“That’s why people would pay $50-60k for a post-war Gibson. And there are pre-war Martins that have fetched more than that. It’s because if they’re looked after, they’ll last generations.”
“The really cool thing about the guitars my students make is that in 50 years time, someone will look inside it, and their name is signed in there. They’ll sound better with age.
“That’s why my students take pride in every part that they make.”
And while Aaron now has a permanent studio set up and his students on board learning how to make their own guitars, he still has to do his full-time job. I asked about the challenges of starting a creative business like Fenech Guitars here on the Gold Coast.
“Probably, how do I get exposure – that’s the biggest one. People helping out with interviews like this. Once people know they can see me for an instrument that’s made locally, that’s as good as anything else, if not better, and then it’s just about keeping up with the demand.”
“And The Avalon guys,” he says, talking about the space in which he’s set up his studio – in the middle of Miami’s creative precinct, “I hope they understand they know how much they’ve helped me.”