For those looking for a slightly different instrument that will catch the eye and provide a different tone than you’re used to, a local crafter may have just what you need. Hanson Music Works & Goods creates guitars from scratch using repurposed wood and old cigar boxes, giving whoever wields it a unique aesthetic in both the music they play and their presence on stage. Today we chat with the founder, Bret Hanson, about how he came to build these guitars and start his own business. (All photos courtesy of HMW&G.
Gavin: Hey Bret, first thing, tell us a little bit about yourself.
I'm from Idaho originally,
but have been in SLC for seven years. I like bikes, art, music, being a dad, and building things.
Gavin: When did you first take an interest in music, and what were your major influences?
When I was about 8, I remember checking out The Beatles' "White Album" from the Blackfoot Library and listening to it while laying on my back with a speaker on each side of my head. If I hadn't already gained an interest in music by then, it was then. I taught myself guitar when I was 15. Other early influences were: Simon & Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash Bob
Marley ... This is a really hard question; I actually don't know, my musical journey has been a crooked and meandering path.
Gavin: What was it like for you jumping into the local music scene and taking part in shows?
It was exciting as hell. I used to play in a ska band in Provo in the late '90s called My Man Friday,
but hadn't been on stage for about 13 years, so getting back on front of live bodies to make music was nerve-wracking and challenging, and fun.
Gavin: Are you involved with any bands at the moment, or just doing your own stuff for now?
Aside from an occasional jam-session
with friends, it's just me right now. I'm leaning towards more of a collaborative sound now, though. Maybe I'm finally getting bored of me.
Gavin: How did you end up learning how to build and repair instruments?
I wanted a wooden box drum and a lap steel guitar to incorporate into some new music,
but had no money for them, so I did research online, and dove in. Highly recommended.
Gavin: When did you first learn about cigar box designs, and what motivated you to make your own?
Shortly after building a 2x4 wood plank lap steel, I stumbled into the fantastic world of cigar box guitars and builders. I had learned some simple wood-working
skills while building my own line of wooden bicycle fenders, and I was so curious about the sound that I had to try. My music also took a turn towards folksy/bluesy/Americana, so I figured it would be a good instrument to incorporate.
Gavin: How did your first few instruments turn out, and what lessons did you learn in creating them?
My first cigar box guitar actually blew me away. It had a warm, rich, loud tone that caught me utterly by surprise. Since then there have been steps forward, backward and in all other directions. Building musical instruments is a fickle thing. I think my eye for design and materials was there already, but my craftsmanship, attention to detail and understanding of the subtle nature of wood, frets and electronics—and how each of those things plays an interconnected part in the game of solving the riddle of sound-making—[had to evolve]. The biggest lesson has been how much there is that I don't
Gavin: What made you decide to start up your own business around these guitars?
Greed, mostly. I also really enjoy creating something and having someone really appreciate it, or give it as a gift to someone they love. That makes me feel really good and connected as a human being. Being involved in a network of people who care enough about quality and originality to bypass an easier buying option, such as a large music chain, gives me hope that we can re-arrange the way we have structured our economic system in ways that actually give us what we want, in the ways that we want.
Gavin: What’s the process like for you when making a new instrument?
I select a cigar box, match it up with a piece of wood for the neck (often reclaimed wood). then match up a fretboard. I decide whether it will be more for art/display or for a higher musical quality, and base many small decisions off of that one. I cut sound holes in the wood, shape the neck, install tuning pegs, measure and create the fretboard, add frets and fret markers (if needed), glue the neck into the body. Next, I Install electric piezo disc pickups and 1/4" jack (if needed). Then I add reclaimed hardware, such as hinges and bolts to attach the strings,
and plug it in to see what kind of creature I have brought to life. Then for the next 5-8 hours, I troubleshoot problem areas and refine the frets, bridge and nut to get a better-sounding and -feeling instrument.
Gavin: What kind of work do you put into defining the tone, look and feel for each instrument?
I let the design decisions heavily influence how the guitar will sound. There are some tricks, like letting the top of the box be as free from screws and things pushing on it, to let the wood vibrate and resonate. But honestly, aside from a few "learning opportunities," they actually all sound pretty damn good to my ears. Higher quality wood/cigar boxes adds
to this, but also increases the cost and changes the unique personality of an instrument.
Gavin: Is it mainly guitar and bass mods you work with, or can you design anything guitar-related at this point?
primarily do 4-string electric and acoustic cigar box guitars. I also do quite a few ukuleles and occasionally banjos. I am not quite ready to dive into the deep water of instrument-building I'd be swimming in with mandolins, violins, etc.
Gavin: What kind of results have you seen selling out of an Etsy shop compared to a brick-and-mortar business?
Etsy and Craft Lake City have been better venues for me. I have been in a couple of local shops in SLC, but I find that my market is looking for something one-of-a-kind and handmade. They are willing to pay more. They are willing to pay for shipping. They often are giving them away as gifts. Etsy and my own website make more sense for me at this point, although, I do see the potential to get into the right boutique stores in the right cities to set up a business model where I build them in batches and they market them out of their storefronts.
Gavin: What’s the response been like from local musicians who have bought your instruments?
I have had a lot of interest mixed with curiosity, though I can't say for certain if any local musicians are currently playing a Hanson Music Works guitar.
Gavin: Do you do any custom orders for people? And if so, what do they need to do?
I LOVE working with people to design and create custom instruments. People can visit my website to learn more, or else
they can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Gavin: Are you looking to expand the business or the kind of instruments you make down the line?
Not right now, although eventually I can see myself branching out in many directions.
Gavin: What can we expect from you over the rest of the year?
Sheer brilliance matched in scale and intensity only by utter lack of direction.