The Sussex link to Prince's guitar
PUBLISHED: 16:24 06 September 2016 | UPDATED: 16:25 06 September 2016
It took nine years to get a Heathfield-made G1 guitar into Prince’s hands. Simon Farmer tells Duncan Hall how it has changed his life
Simon Farmer is no stranger to celebrity endorsements of his guitars. A prototype tube-framed bass he designed and crafted himself at art school featured in the video to Seal’s 1991 reimagining of Killer. And Perry ap Gwynedd from forward-thinking drum and bass outfit Pendulum used one of his G1 guitars onstage at Glastonbury in 2009.
But when a specially created purple version of his signature G1 design finally made its way into the hands of legendary musician Prince it was always going to take things up a notch. What 47-year-old Simon didn’t expect was that the guitar would be one of the last the musical icon would own.
“For two days I couldn’t get away from my computer,” he says of the explosion of interest after the death of Prince. “I had so many enquiries and hundreds of emails asking about where they could buy the guitars, or simply wanting to get in touch because they were so sad about Prince. They were from all over the world. It is still going on. It has given me a lot more work, and a higher profile. I’m suddenly finding people in the US who before weren’t interested in doing anything with my guitars who are suddenly quite interested.”
A week before his sudden death Prince showed off his new acquisition at an intimate show in his Paisley Park studios.
“At these nights he would sometimes make an appearance and might play,” says Simon, who heard about it after the event. “He called people back to a small room with a little stage that had a new piano and my guitar on it. He played Chopsticks on the piano and got the guitar out of his case but said something like: ‘It’s too cool to play on’. There was a picture taken by one of his band where you can see he’s smiling and showing off his new toys. I knew he liked it because he had ordered a bass through his management. I’d sent the initial images over to him and he had come up with a matt black and gold design with a few custom tweaks. I was working on it right up to the moment when he died.”
Simon’s home workroom in the wilds around Heathfield is a world away from Prince’s legendary studio complex in Minneapolis. But Simon built the eco-friendly space himself two years ago to support the distinctive guitar design he first came up with in 1994. Rather than using industrial automated machines to carve his wooden bodies and guitar necks he does it all by hand using a wood carver. “When you’re making one-off, low volume stuff you don’t need a huge production capacity,” he says. “It’s easier to do it by hand.” The name of his guitar company Gus Guitars comes from a childhood nickname his sister gave him.
The G1 guitar’s two main unusual characteristics are its combination of carbon fibre and cedar wood in the body, and a futuristic-looking aluminium tubular frame encasing the main body. The original idea for the guitar came while he was at art school in Wolverhampton, following a foundation year in Hastings.
“I was studying craft and design,” he says. “I had come into it as a guitar maker, so I always tried to suit my projects towards instrument-making. I started making guitars out of tubular frames which were three-quarters of an inch in diameter – guitubes. It was one of those which made it into the Killer video. I thought that was how it was going to be from then on!”
Simon had made his first guitar at the age of 14 in the wood-working department at his old school Christ’s Hospital in Horsham. Then he had been playing bass guitar in a band with some friends, although he now rarely plays in public – preferring to focus on the making of guitars.
“When you string the guitar up for the first time and get a sound out of it, that’s when you get bitten by it,” he says. “Going through the art school system I found my own way. If I had gone through a guitar-making school with specialist equipment I would have got bogged down with the traditional ways of making an instrument. Because I didn’t have that tradition I could do it my own way.”
The addition of carbon fibre to his design came while he was studying for an MA in production design in Birmingham. “The sound of the tubular guitar wasn’t what most guitarists would feel comfortable with,” he says. “There was lots of sustain and precision with the notes ringing on, but there was no character to it. I had to introduce something else.” Of the two guitars he produced for his Masters the second was closest to what would become his G1 model. While the tubing became more of a signature design feature, the body combined soft woods like cedar, which gave the guitar sound warmth, with durable carbon fibre. It made the guitar perfect for touring bands – but not those who like to smash up their instruments at the end of the night. “Carbon fibre is immensely strong,” says Simon. “It makes them stable in different climates which is great for touring guitarists. They can go from a freezing car into a hot gig – from 20 per cent to 80 per cent humidity which can be a killer for acoustic instruments.”
Simon gradually received exposure for his guitars, making connections with reviewers and getting guitars out to the likes of Bill Nelson from Be-Bop Deluxe. But he still lacked the household name to make the G1 rank alongside more famous names like the Fender Stratocaster or Gibson Les Paul. That was until someone mentioned Prince.
“I had a friend called Phil Christensen who worked with Prince in the 1980s,” says Simon. “He always said to me that the G1 was the sort of guitar Prince would like to play.” As it happened Prince was set to make a rare visit to the UK to promote his 2007 album Planet Earth. He took over the O2 arena for 21 nights – which seemed a perfect time to get a guitar to him. Sadly it wasn’t to be.
“We tried our best but it was really hard to get to him,” says Simon who created the purple version of his guitar within three months after putting all his other work to one side.
The story of the guitar Prince left behind did get picked up by Guitarist magazine though, who took some photographs and wrote a piece for the internet.
In February this year Paisley Park finally got wind of it and arranged for the guitar to finally be united with its planned owner.
Simon’s guitars are all handmade from scratch in his workshop. They cost between £4,500 and £15,000 according to what designs the customer wants.
“I want to focus on the individuality of it,” says Simon. “In these days of mass production you can stand out a lot more by doing things individually. People want bespoke items.” He is considering whether he could create a cheaper basic model using outsourced production which he could sell through guitar shops. At present most of his sales come through his website, although he does also supply some models to Harrods of London. There is a six to nine-month waiting list for a Gus guitar.
“I don’t want to become some sort of businessman,” he admits. “I hate that corporate stuff. I like making guitars for people and enjoy the act of creation. I’m a maker basically. Any time I’ve tried to do anything else I have realised that is what I enjoy doing.”
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