Mick Johnson Guitars.
A good luthier who can fix or improve your guitar or bass is a must if you want to keep your instrument playing and sounding at its best – so a guitar builder and repairer who is respected by both professional and semi-pro guitarists and bass players is an essential ally of the working musician.
Here at Which Guitar, we came across such a person: Mick Johnson, when he was repeatedly recommended to us by guitarists and bass player that we met and interviewed.
Mick Johnson first took an interest in stringed instruments when his parents bought him a plastic ukulele when he was aged five. He soon learnt to play a few chords such as ‘G’, ‘C’ and D7 and that led on to playing ‘Home on the Range’ and several other cowboy songs that were popular at that time.
Recognising that Mick had an aptitude for the ukulele, his father bought him a four string plastic ‘Elvis Presley‘ guitar when he was around ten years of age. The guitar came fitted with an ‘auto-chord’ mechanism attached to the first four frets of the fingerboard by elastic straps. The mechanism played a choice of six chords by pressing down on individual buttons. The mechanism could be easily removed from the guitar, so Mick quickly mastered the six chords, removed the auto chord mechanism and from then on always played without it.
When Mick was twelve years old and at senior school, he first heard the Shadows’ record of ‘Apache’ and this really fired his passion to improve his playing. He became fascinated with Hank Marvin’s Fiesta Red Stratocaster and started sketching it obsessively in his school books and on any piece of paper that was lying around. On one occasion, he even carved the design into the lid of his school desk – which resulted in him being ceremoniously sent out of the class to go and sand down the lid in the woodwork room!
This fascination led him to ask his woodwork teacher (who was appropriately named Mr Wood!) if they could make a copy of a Stratocaster and, probably to discourage Mick from damaging anymore desks, the teacher agreed and the two of them set about the task. Armed with a photograph of Hank Marvin holding the iconic Fiesta Red Stratocaster, they set about trying to estimate the dimensions of the guitar by the relative positions of Hank’s hands on the neck and body. Once the guitar was completed, Mick sold it to a school friend for £2.50 and he immediately set about making an acoustic guitar.
By age thirteen, Mick got a job potato picking and he started to save up with the ambition to buy a Hofner ‘Club’ guitar. After saving for about six months and with savings of just over three pounds, Mick decided that he could not wait the five years it was going to take him to save up enough to buy a Hofner and bought a Broadway guitar from a friend instead. Around this time he also bought a Selmer ‘Little Giant’ 4-watt amplifier. With a copy of Bert Weedon’s ‘Play In A Day’ book he soon learned to play traditional songs like: ‘Bobby Shaftoe’ and ‘Molly Malone’.
Mick was still enamoured with the Shadows and the first melody he learnt to play all the way through without a mistake or hesitation was their atmospheric hit ‘Wonderful Land’. Buoyed with confidence, he decided it was now time to form a band and he enlisted the services of the friends from his local ‘gang’.
Initially, only Mick could play so they would walk round miming to records on the radio and playing ‘air guitar’ and ‘air drums’. Fairly quickly though, they each took up the instruments they had mimed to, and formed their own band called ‘The Cyclones’ with Mick on lead guitar. Shortly after, a new boy joined Mick’s school who played piano really well. Mick enlisted his help in the band playing a ‘reed’ organ that he bought. The band’s repertoire consisted mainly of Shadows numbers and other instrumentals from bands of the day.
He continued to save up and with the money from the sale of his Broadway guitar he had enough for the deposit on a Burns ‘Shortscale Jazz’ guitar which he bought on hire purchase from Jeavons Guitars in Newcastle.
The ‘Cyclones’ continued to play gigs with Mick on lead guitar with his Burns shortscale jazz guitar and John, the keyboard player, moved from ‘reed’ organ to rhythm guitar and bought himself a standard Burns ‘Sonic’ guitar. The bass player meanwhile moved on to a Burns ‘Sonic’ bass guitar and the drummer played an Olympic kit with an expensive Premier tom-tom that interestingly, cost more than the rest of the kit!
The band started to play fairly regularly and by this time, Mick had become an apprentice electrician so he had a little spare cash in his pocket and invested in a 1963 Vox AC30 amp for about £150. The Vox boasted 6 inputs – two ‘bright’ and four ‘normal’. The rhythm guitarist invested in a Watkins Dominator amp (the one with an angled front panel) and the bass player bought a Vox AC30 ‘piggy-back‘ bass amp and cab.
At the age of 15, Mick started on a five-year electrical apprenticeship at Peterlee Technical College and, having seen the circuit for a 50-watt amplifier in ‘Practical Wireless’, he decided to see if he could build it.
He bought all the components and even bent the metal for the chassis, case and protective grill. He completed the construction and the amplifier worked perfectly. He then moved on to making ‘Fuzz’ (distortion) boxes and selling them to subsidise his income. He soon started making and repairing amplifiers for shops and musicians and the income paid his way through college.
Mick left the band around 1965 and in 1971 he decided to make a Les Paul copy for himself and this kick-started him into making parts for guitars – particularly a popular line in replacement necks.
In 1974, Mick made his first Gibson SG and shortly after he made a stunning sounding acoustic guitar with all maple neck and sides and a spruce top.
A couple of years later when Mick was moving house, he heard that a neighbour’s son was learning to play the guitar but he didn’t have a very good instrument. Mick very kindly gave the 14-year old boy the SG guitar that he had made two years earlier. Around 35 years later, the boy, who was by now 49 years old, reunited Mick with the guitar which still looks, plays and sounds awesome. There is a photograph of the instrument on Mick’s website.
Around the mid 1970’s, Mick started building his own versions of Telecasters and Stratocasters under the name ‘Marlen’ – a composite of ‘Marvin’ and ‘Lennon’ – his two favourite musicians. Mick also built some hybrid stratocaster and telecaster guitars that featured a strat body, tele neck and pickups and strat jack socket. He called the guitar a Marlen ‘Stratatele’.
By 1989, Mick was in a band called ‘Mustang’. Interestingly, ‘Mustang’ was also the name of a Shadow’s song (strange coincidence or what)? Mick was asked by the bass player to build a bass guitar in exchange for a US Stratocaster that he owned. Mick built the bass guitar and acquired the prized Stratocaster guitar. Mick also continued his business repairing guitars and amplifiers – and anything electronic or electrical such as TVs, radios and washing machines.
It was around this time that Bruce Welch heard, through word of mouth, about Mick’s talents for building and repairing guitars. Bruce soon enlisted Mick’s services to maintain and repair his guitars and amps and very soon Mick was doing the same for the other members of the Shadows.
In 2000, Bruce decided that he wanted a dreadnought guitar for his 60th birthday and Mick was honoured when Bruce asked him to make it.
They chatted about the specification for the guitar and settled on the classic combination of Engelmann Spruce top and Indian Rosewood back and sides. The guitar has a mahogany neck with ebony fretboard and bridge and is fitted with Bruce’s choice of Yamaha gold ‘kidney button’ tuners. The quality look is completed with some beautiful inlaid paua abalone!
The guitar is without doubt, a real stunner and plays and sounds magnificently. Mick is proud that the guitar was used on ‘Life Story’ the last track to be recorded by the Shadows and it has been used on tours all round the world and on many DVDs. The guitar has a strident tone typical of the style and a perfectly balanced voice and Bruce continues to use it to this day.
The 1959 Fiesta Red Fender Stratocaster that was such an inspiration to Mick – and which got him into so much trouble at school, now belongs to Bruce Welch and Mick looks after it, nursing it through its old age.
In 2009, Mick was commissioned by Fender USA to design and profile the neck for their Bruce Welch CRS 50th Anniversary Custom Shop guitar, a copy of the Fiesta Red ’59 Strat that was originally bought by Cliff Richard for Hank Marvin.
In the last couple of years, Mick has been involved with the Buddy Holly Foundation in the creation of Buddy’s famous ‘leather-clad’ 1942 Gibson J-45. The first of this series, named ‘Peggy Sue Got Married’ was presented by Graham Nash to former Hollies vocalist Allan Clarke at the Royal Albert Hall on the 8th October 2011.
In a flurry of J-45-based activity, Mick has now completed several more instruments in this unique series for recipients Roger Daltrey, Mike Berry and Marty Wilde named: “Oh Boy”, “Tell Me How” and “It Doesn’t Matter Any More” respectively. There are also two more J-45s in the pipeline – one for Hank Marvin called: “You’re The One” and one for Bruce Welch called: “Crying, Waiting, Hoping”.
Many famous musicians both young and old have discovered Mick’s amazing talents, and his commitment to quality and perfection has ensured that he is never short of work despite never advertising or marketing himself or his business.
The endorsees on Mick’s webite (www.mickjohnsonguitars.com) is far too long to list and reads like a Who’s Who of the world’s most famous guitarists. A brief selection includes such famous names as: The Shadows, Roger Daltrey, Allan Clarke, Kasabian, Steve Howe, Steve Lukather, James Burton, Marty Wilde, Mike Berry…
His website also includes some selected photographs of his work including new guitars that he has built and step-by-step examples of the repairs that he has undertaken. The ‘Praise’ section of the site includes some amazing un-solicited testimonials to the quality of Mick‘s work.
In the meantime, Mick continues to repair and build guitars and amplifiers and he will always make you welcome with a cup of tea at his recently extended workshop near Reading.