Nigel Roberts MSc BSc PGCE
Nige learned how to work with tools from a young age, building boats with his dad. He took those skills into rebuilding sports car engines and fixing all manner of farming and industrial equipment. His love of solving problems and optimising the potential of any given gadget or machine filtered in to all parts of his life. Although it’d be many years before guitars became a profession for him the seeds were sown early on. After completing Burt Weedon’s “Play in a Day” his mind was set on getting his guitar to work properly as much as being able to play it. Over the years of being in bands (and being the father of people in bands) he would be the go-to guy for getting guitars to work better. In fact, it didn’t stop at guitars. There were amps, cases, cables, mics, mixers, PAs and Tour Buses to be fixed. There’s also been welding, soldering, bricklaying, plumbing, rewiring and computer programming.
If there ever was an actual Jack of all trades, they should have named him Nigel.
In 2006, after doing jobs in agriculture, education, software engineering and consultancy, Nige decided to take early retirement. He found that working on guitars in his shed was a great way to spend time. His wife, Mary, had suggested he take on other people’s guitars too – we’re not sure she really knew what she was getting herself in for! Her dining room was packed with guitars from the moment Nige started up the old website.
In the early years as Leicestershire Luthier, Nige researched traditional methods of guitar building and repair as well as those of renowned, modern luthiers. Armed with this knowledge and his own skills in engineering, woodwork and metallurgy, he was able to develop many original processes for improving guitars way beyond their factory settings. In the summer of 2009, an email came through from an interesting young man that suggested it might be time to share some of his knowledge.
This young man turned out to be Danny. Unemployed, unqualified and (until a month or so before meeting Nige) totally undecided on what his future might be. Danny had worked in a bakery, a wine shop, as a sales rep and as a Warehouse manager. In 2008 he had been taking his FA Coaching badges to become a football coach. That career path ended with an almost successful job hunt in Australia (got the job, decided it wasn’t right, came home). The day he found out about the possibility of working with guitars for a living changed everything. Why hadn’t anyone told him about it before? Even though he’d hardly played guitar for the past 5 years, had no wood or metal work skills and barely knew how to tune the flippin’ things it felt as though this was going to be the right path, finally! Danny contacted Nige to ask whether he could come and observe a general day at the workshop and gain some experience. He intended to move to Canada and attend the Summit School of Guitar Building on Vancouver Island. However, as the saying goes, “when the student is ready the teacher will appear” and the latest plan was placed firmly in the bin within minutes of meeting Nige. The exact words that started them on the path to becoming Leicestershire Luthiers were,
“There’s no money in making guitars, you need to learn how to fix them and make them play properly”
Unbeknownst to Danny, a number of challenges were set by Nige over the next year that would determine whether he had what it took to be a part of Leicestershire Luthier. Removing a fretboard from a broken Strat neck without damaging it any further was the first. Years later Nige admitted to Danny that he hadn’t expected to see him again, let alone with a perfect fretboard in hand ready to be refitted. This determination, along with the persistent workshop visits, led to more tests and eventually a decision that Danny should come and work full time. He quit his temporary job and stepped on to the first rung of the self-employment ladder.
From 2010 to 2013, Danny & Nige worked together in the workshop most days. The bus journeys were a slog but gave Danny time to read up on guitars and take notes on the day’s work. Nige’s background in higher education helped give him a very detailed, analytic side to the traditional apprenticeship. Nige was always there to make sure the standards were high and to help with anything that was out of Danny’s skill set. More and more they started to solve problems together. Danny had started to gain confidence with the work and they found that his organizational skills were a very useful addition to the business. Nige continued to mentor Danny and prepare him to keep things going after he retired. In the Autumn of 2013, an email came through from an interesting young lady that suggested Danny might not have to do it on his own.
When Natalie contacted Nige she was in the UK on a two-year work & travel visa from Canada. One of the main reasons for coming here was to build her own guitar. It was an unexpected bonus to becomie a full time luthier, get married to a handsome British luthier (Danny not Nige!) and emigrate to Shepshed.
Nat had spent about 8 years wandering around the world, backpacking. She picked up work mostly in restaurants and hostels with the odd audio gig thrown in. Having studied sound engineering, music was always the theme of her travels. She eventually built her guitar at the Totnes School of Guitar Making before moving up to the Isle of Skye for a while. Dwindling funds after the end of the summer season on Skye led her to Leicester. She thought the chances of finding work would be higher in the centre of the country. Just as Danny had done a few years before, she emailed Nige. That email was forwarded straight to Danny with the words… “Interesting … contact her if you like”
They arranged for Nat to come for a visit and the guitar she had made really impressed them. That alone was enough to convince Nige and Danny to invite her over as often as she had time for. Her skills with intricate work such as inlays and wood carving along with her willingness to improve on things she’d already learned made her a perfect addition to the team. When Nat first came to the workshop she had a year left of her trip. Before her visa expired it was obvious she would be coming back. Some mystery will have to remain here but, rather inevitably, Nat and Danny had ended up taking quite a liking to each other. By the time she returned to Canada they had become a couple, eventually getting married in 2017.
Nat was unable to join the team full-time until the summer of 2018 when she moved over to the UK to live with Danny. In the meantime, she learned more at guitar workshops in Toronto and Winnipeg as well as working as a stage tech on various Cruises. Since she arrived here Danny has taken her through a similar apprenticeship to his. It concentrated on getting her skills up to speed with multiple jobs in specific areas until the quality of work was at the same level as Leicestershire Luthiers always aim for. These days Nat specialises in all aspects of fretwork, acoustic setup as well as inlays and woodcarving.
In the summer of 2019, Nige decided to retire and passed everything to do with the business on to Danny and Nat. The old workshop was packed up and all the tools and benches moved and installed in the new premises. Nige’s old shed was very carefully taken apart and has been lovingly rebuilt at a friend’s house in Barwell. It’s going to be a ceramics workshop. Nige is now enjoying retirement. He’s as fit as a fiddle due to miles of dog walking, loads of digging in the garden and plenty of DIY. The site of the old shed is now part of a lovely backyard and the old Leicestershire Luthiers front office is now a smart dining room. Nige is also the driving force behind redeveloping the old Thringstone Miners Football Club into a thriving community sports facilty.
A real Nige of all trades you might say!
Since October 2020, Danny and Nat have been running Leicestershire Luthiers from their new workshop in Hathern. They’ve managed to navigate the pandemic so far, the only major setback during the lockdowns was Danny falling off his bike and breaking his arm. Losing the use of an arm for 6 weeks is not ideal for anyone but it really plays havoc with a luthier’s plans. With the extra time that the lockdowns had given Nat to finish her apprenticeship she was able to take on more than her share of the workload but that still wasn’t enough to cover everything. In the long, dark winter of 2020, an email came through from a talented young man that suggested he might be able to share some of his knowledge.
Nige did a very thorough job in preparing Danny & Nat, and the business, to be able to carry on without him. However, no longer being able to constantly share ideas with someone who has so much experience and skill leaves a big gap. Danny & Nat have looked to fill that gap by working with other luthiers and guitar techs they’ve met over the years. Mike is someone they had known for a while and already collaborated with on a few jobs. When Danny broke his arm, Mike offered to come to the workshop and help them out. All of the work was succesfully completed to the usual standard and it got them thinking of ways to work together more often.
Mike has been building guitars since 2010 and started his own company, Stonewolf Guitars in 2013. Previously he’d been a motorbike mechanic but was forced to quit after being put on kidney dialysis. The years out of work gave him time to learn a lot of the skills needed to build guitars and after a few years of cringeworthy errors he now builds consistently unique, high-quality guitars.
Over the last year or so Mike has been working as a satellite Leicestershire Luthier. He has a very similar work ethic and moral compass so working together is fun and very easy going. He sets incredibly high standards for himself and his skills will fill a big part of the void left when Nige retired. It’s great having another analytical brain that will benefit future Leicestershire Luthiers customers. Working through those tricky jobs together really makes a difference to the final outcome. There will be some big projects coming to fruition over the next few years that everyone here is looking forward to.