A classical service with all strings attached

Guitar maker James Lister french polishing in his workshop in Walkley where he makes bespoke classical guitars for discerning musicians
Guitar maker James Lister french polishing in his workshop in Walkley where he makes bespoke classical guitars for discerning musicians

They sound like heaven, look like works of art and yet they’re made in a Sheffield shed. Star reporter Rachael Clegg looks at the work of classical guitar maker James Lister.

His right hand is elongated by perfectly filed nails - a trademark of a classical guitarist.

Guitar maker James Lister planes the interior of a classical guitar in his workshop in Walkley

Guitar maker James Lister planes the interior of a classical guitar in his workshop in Walkley

But these nimble fingers don’t just play guitar, they make them too.

Here, in his modest Crookes shed, James crafts beautiful classical guitars, which he sells across the country.

And while most of us might assume the construction of a guitar is nothing more than a rounded bit of wood with strings over the top, this humble instrument is down to centuries of technical refinement.

It is not as simple as it looks.

Guitar maker James Lister tries out one of his creations at home in Walkley

Guitar maker James Lister tries out one of his creations at home in Walkley

Like any instrument, it is essential to get the sound right and this means using materials that provide a the clean amplification.

Indeed, it’s a good job that 49-year-old James is a former physicist.

“It really matters which type of wood you use to build a guitar because they all create different sounds. I generally use high-quality spruce or cedar for the top of the guitar as this section requires a light wood but one that is also strong.”

The process of making a guitar from scratch is a long one - some guitars take as long as seven weeks to build.

“I usually start with the neck of a guitar but you can also start with the top,” he says.

“They are the only two bits you work on independently - the rest you work on once it has been assembled.”

Once he’s finished the neck and top, James then fits the sides using a guitar-shaped mould.

But this sounds far much more straightforward than it really is. He has to bend the wood to curve around the sides of the guitar, using a simple - though invaluable - heating device.

There is no room for errors with guitar making, either. The wood James uses for the sides is not cheap. “I like to use woods such as Indian rosewood and Brazilian rosewood but Brazilian rosewood is now an endangered species so it’s becoming harder to get.

“But I do really like using maple, which is widely available.”

Once the back’s on James applies the finger board and then installs the frets. He then carves the neck, attaches the bridge - on which the strings rest - and then the tuning pegs. And then - the most crucial part of it all - he adds the strings.

James uses nylon strings, which give it a crisp, delicate sound. Classical guitars have plastic strings whereas other acoustic guitars use steel strings.

According to James, before the invention of man-made materials such as nylon, guitar makers would use tightly-strung animal guts for guitar strings.

“There was one company who claimed to make guitar strings with cat guts but I’m not too sure,” he laughs.

James works from his neatly-arranged garden shed, tucked away behind hedges in his Victorian-built Crookes home. It’s a craftsman’s paradise - his walls are adorned with neatly-arranged tools and shelf upon shelf of carefully-stacked exotic woods.

But his move to the garden shed was a brave one. James is not from Sheffield originally.

He studied in London and worked as a physicist in Oxfordshire for 12 years, specialising in laser technology.

“I started thinking about doing something else and heard about a guitar-making course in Newark, which had a really good reputation,” he said.

He left his job, secure wage and Oxford home to pursue his dream of being a guitar-maker.

And Sheffield - being near to Newark - seemed like a good place to settle: “My wife and I knew a few people who came to Sheffield University and stayed on. We knew the city and really liked it.”

So, James and his pregnant wife upped-sticks and moved up north. They had no secure income and James was to become, once again, a full-time student. But they managed and now, eight years later, James is a professional guitar maker and tutor at Newark.

His guitars - which cost around £3,000 - are sold to people all over the country: “My clientele is generally the keen amateur player - they’re the ones with the technical skill and the money to spend. The average gigging musician is generally quite hard-up.”

The popularity of classical guitar music had its peak in the 1970s, according to James, when celebrated guitarists such as Andres Segovia and John Williams were household names, recording and performing across Europe.

“Classical guitar music hasn’t got the popularity it had 40 years ago. It’s hard getting people to the concerts though there are shows at places like Holy Trinity Church in Millhouses.”

James plays classical himself, and in his living room is a stunning, polished guitar - one of his own, leaning gracefully against a stand beside some sheet music.

“It’s Bach,” he says. “Bach really lends itself to classical guitar.”

And to prove his point, he picks up his guitar and plays a song. His guitar is not just a work of art to look at - it sounds like it too. And that’s without using animal guts.”