Self proclaimed hippie’s passion for instrument making

By Hannah Turner | posted on March 15, 2021

AS YOU walk through the home of John Maddison the smell of incense fills each room, posters of Nannup music festival hang on the fridge and various homemade instruments are scattered about.  

The home is a space of solitude for the 68-year-old self-described hippie who finds joy out of the intricate art of hand making guitars and ukuleles.

“It’s been a hobby for 16 years,” Maddison said. 

“I started with a group of 11 other guys at TAFE learning how to build instruments.”

His passion for the artform came from “the love of woodwork” and his first build was a classical acoustic guitar.

“I’ve made over 50 instruments in my time, I don’t run it as a business, it’s just been a passion and an interest,” he said.    

In his converted garage/workshop, there are tools hanging from shelves, a TV and radio in the corner and pieces of half-finished instruments lying on work benches.

Maddison stands barefoot looking over the intricate details of a bird carving on an unfinished guitar.

“I like to put a bit of flare into the instrument,” he said.  

“Because this is a Spanish guitar, this is the national emblem of Spain, the imperial eagle.”

The retiree didn’t have a background in music or working with his hands but has now built everything from mandolas to dulcimers.

Maddison says it takes him around 40 to 50 hours per build.

“I’ve probably given away or gifted two thirds of what I’ve made over the years,” he said.  

“I don’t make a lot of money out of instrument making, I do it more for the joy of making.

“A Hawaiian maker told me years ago: ‘how do you become a millionaire? You start with two million dollars and take up instrument making.’

“My greatest reward is not the financial reward but the workmanship.”

He “dabbles” with playing the instruments himself but says watching talented musicians strum the strings he placed is a greater reward.

“You always sound better in a group,” he laughs.

“A mate of mine runs ukulele retreats, we meet every month and get together, jam away and play from song books.

“But the greatest joy is hearing the instrument played to you.

“To hear a musician play one of your instruments is just magic.

“One day I heard Colin Reeves play [my classical guitar] and as he played, I thought wow, that’s what it’s all about.”

Coming from a fairly professional background, working with electronics and radio and television, he now craves the freedom to be able to build when he feels like it and plans to take his hobby with him on the road.

He retired four years ago and says he still builds with some of the original members of the TAFE group on Saturday afternoons.

“We get together at a friend’s place and potter along and then at about four o’clock we have a couple of beers,” he said  

“We’ve kept that going all this time, it’s been absolutely amazing to maintain the connection.”

Maddison always tries to use local products and has made instruments out of Tasmanian blackwood, WA Jarrah and WA sheoak.

“I like to experiment with native timbers,” he said.  

Only selling his builds at cost between $400 to $550, Maddison likes to avoid commissions and deadlines as “that’s when accidents happen.”

“You’re lucky if you’re making two or three dollars per hour,” he said

“One time I dropped a chisel directly on the top, blade first and I thought, how the heck am I going to get around that.”

“I’d just rather build in my own time,”

Each of his builds have unique elements, no instrument is the same and he has shared his passion with his son Sam, who his dad describes as a “bloody good builder”, and his partner Kay.

The 68-year-old held a ukulele course at the Men’s Shed for seven mostly retired ex-farmers who spent three hours each week for 11 months crafting the instruments.

“The average age was 72,” Maddison said.  

“It was the biggest challenge, but we had a really good time and it was very rewarding.”

“I learnt a lot by teaching, but it tested my patience to the max.”

He is currently working on a mandola, describing the process of making an instrument as therapeutic. 

“I could line up the 50 or whatever instruments and show you mistakes in everyone, but nobody sees it,” he said.

“You are constantly reviewing what you do.”

“It’s the self-criticism thing that can drive you completely mad, but the therapy is working with your hands, keeping your mind engaged in the process and forever researching techniques.”