Sweet Sounds of Success

Maton Guitars

Maton is a true Australian success story and the country’s oldest guitar manufacturer. Since 1946, the company has made quality acoustic and electric guitars. Throughout this period they have also made bass guitars, amps and ukuleles.

Company founder Bill May, who pioneered the use of many types of Australian wood in guitar construction, is considered to be the founding father of guitar making in Australia and was posthumously inducted into the Australian Music Association hall of fame for his contributions to music.

In the forties, Bill May combined his surname with the word ‘tone’ to create the Maton name and, in 1946, his brother joined him in creating the Maton Musical Instruments Company. Instruments were first built in a small backyard workshop at his home in Thornbury, Melbourne and then in a factory in Canterbury (Australia’s first major guitar making facility). Over the next forty years, over three hundred different models would be created there. The company’s current Box Hill venue makes more than 8,000 guitars a year, making it the largest instrument maker in the country.

Founder Bill May passed away in 1994 yet Maton remains one hundred per cent family owned and is now run by his daughter Linda May and her husband Neville Kitchen. David Steedman, the company’s General Manager says that, “To be run by family is important for many reasons. It is a good entry point, discussion point and point of control over what the business does. It’s important to have a good perspective of where your business has come from and consistent family ownership will achieve that – but it takes more than that.”

He explains that, although people love the Maton story and have a genuine respect for the brand, the company needs to run on more than just goodwill. Making a good product is what really leads to lasting success, and the manufacturing process and commitment to craftsmanship are what give Maton guitars their quality. “We have a handmade product of good, high quality,” says David.

An aspect the business that has played a large part in Maton’s success was something that began out of necessity. Australian timber was used to craft instruments since sources of other timber were too remote and the wood too expensive. “We were forced to look for local alternatives. Good examples are the blackwood, the Queensland maple, or walnut. They have really strong tonal qualities,” David explains. These trees are largely sustainable as the wood is mainly from plantation timber sources.

Besides being the first to use Australian woods, Maton also imports timbers such as ebony and rosewood from India, rock maple and cedar from the US, spruce from Canada and a smaller degree of spruce from Europe. “They are tonal timbers that are required by the marketplace in a guitar, so we do need to import as much as we can. But, we are really proud of the fact that we have been able to source local timbers. Another one is called Bunya Pine, which we pioneered the development of back in the late eighties.

“We try to streamline our manufacturing everyday where possible, and we actively endeavour to improve it.” Although much of an instrument will still be handcrafted by skilled luthiers, the company also employs computer numerical controlled (CNC) machines to make the building blocks of the instruments produced. These machines cut with incredible precision, reducing the variance between guitars. CNC machines increase productivity and efficiency while maintaining quality. Guitar necks or bridges cut with such a machine must still undergo manual processing by skilled craftsmen, explains David.

“Every single day of the week we can get orders from all over the world, and if it is not in stock or a work in progress it can be in the next day’s build list. The market driven link is important between what is happening with our third parties and the factory floor.”

The company’s guitars are used by Josh Homme, Michael Franti, Keith Urban, Fiona Boyes, Shane Howard, Neil Finn, Adam Rafferty, Colin Hay, Tommy Emmanuel and many other notable musicians.

Tommy Emmanuel is widely considered to be one of the best acoustic guitarists in the world. He has been playing Maton guitars for over fifty years – since the age of four. He usually tours with a TE1 model and two custom EBG808 TE models. “We have an ongoing regular contact with him; he is part of the family,” shares David. “When he gets homesick, he is quoted as saying, ‘I open up my guitar case, see the Maton and don’t feel homesick anymore.’ We have a wonderful relationship with him and are continually working to help with his sound.” As for Tommy, he believes that the Maton pickup in particular is the real draw.

A pickup is a transducer that converts the guitar’s mechanical vibrations into an electrical signal that can then be recorded or amplified. Maton is well known for its pickups and the AP5 has been a long favourite of Tommy but, after years of research and development, the company has come up with an improvement. The result is the AP5 Pro Acoustic pickup which can be retrofitted to existing guitars.

There are many advances over the previous systems: the AP5 Pro is smaller and less prone to hum and noise pickup; the sound is much smoother and cleaner; it does not suffer from tonal quality degradation with time; it can better survive the rigors of performing and shipping; it gives greater control when targeting a specific sound; it has an expanded mid sweep range; it is designed to take AA batteries and comes with corrosion resistant battery terminals and replaceable parts.

All this puts a world leading product even further ahead of the field.

In 2008, on the fiftieth anniversary of the solid body Mastersound electric guitar, Maton launched a guitar celebrating the original. The tribute reflects the classic feel and style of the original but has been built for modern needs.

One of the most famous of these guitars can be seen in photos of the Beatles from 1963. They were preparing for a gig in Manchester and George Harrison’s guitar needed repair. The music store owner, not being able to have George’s guitar fixed in time for the show, loaned him a Maton MS-500 Mastersound; that guitar was eventually sold to a private collector for 115, 000 pounds. George played other Maton guitars since and met a number Maton staff worldwide.

Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s John Fogarty are two of the many guitarists who have some to the factory to see the birthplace of their instrument. Indeed, even guitarists with endorsement deals for other companies have been known to come to the factory. “What typically happens is, they come by our factory and choose a custom guitar and pay for it. We don’t want to be seen by another guitar manufacturer as trying to intervene with the endorsement and the relationship already in place. When they pay for it, they see value in it and that’s great!”

What kind of people does Maton hire? David looks for a combination of attitude, skill, love of craftsmanship and the ability to listen and learn with some degree of coordination. “The staff needs to have a sense of ownership over what they do and know what to do in order to achieve the high quality craftsmanship that we demand. We like attitude significantly more than skill. A lot of people that have skill try and tell us how to make guitars, but we’ve been doing this for sixty-eight years. It’s really important they learn our particular processes and procedures firstly. Thereafter, if there are some particular areas where they feel they can improve things, then of course it makes sense for us to embrace that.” Guitar building may not be as lucrative as other trades, and a love of the craft becomes one of the most desired traits.

Repairs and after-sale service are important facets of the business, acting as quality control, public relations and adding to the company’s knowledge base. Derek Chan is Maton’s current in-house full time repairer. He brings past experience with Collings, a highly regarded guitar manufacturer in the US.

Most importantly, it provides a competitive advantage over the local market. The bulk of Maton’s competition in Australia is local distributors of imported products. It is not only a selling point to be able to say that it is locally made, but, should an issue arise, Maton can deal with it directly whereas distributors of imported instruments may not be able to get a reasonable response out of an overseas based manufacturer.

Maton’s owners are proud of the fact that the company is committed to employing Australians and, by doing so, avoiding the need to shift manufacturing offshore as other manufacturers have done.

The manufacturing situation in Australia is difficult at present and it’s also a tough retail environment as the Australian dollar is overvalued. “It’s conspired to be really difficult in two ways. It’s obviously cheapened or made the import of products compared to our competition comparatively cheaper, but it also makes it more difficult for us to export. Maton enjoys quite a strong market position in Australia partly because everyone grew up playing and listening to Matons, but offshore business is also being targeted in order to keep the business growing. Despite the challenges, in the past five years, Maton has increased the percentage of its product that it exports from ten per cent to twenty-five per cent.

Maton remains devoted to building a beautiful, high quality, high value product in Australia. As Bill May said: “If you make a good guitar – the right guitar – people will want it.”

For more information about Maton Guitars, please visit http://www.maton.com.au/

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December 19, 2018, 5:33 PM AEDT