The story of Township Guitars sounds like a movie. Imagine an award-winning jazz guitarist interrupting a meeting about a home-made oil-can guitar. He asks to try it out. Impressed, he places an order with a business that does not yet exist.
This famous guitarist is South African jazz artist Jimmy Dludlu and, yes, he did order the guitar, along with other famed musicians, including members of the English group, UB40.
The year was 2002, when the late musician and engineer Graeme Wells met business adviser Roy Bermeister with views of the Waterfront in Cape Town as the backdrop. As Graeme proudly showed Roy the craftsmanship of the oil-can guitar on which he had spent months labouring, the script played out as follows:
Jimmy Dludlu: “Do you mind if I take a look at that?”
Roy Bermeister: “No problem. Do you play? Sit down and try it.”
Jimmy admiringly picks up the guitar and begins to strum gently. He is clearly an accomplished musician. After a few chords and finger-picking runs, he turns to Roy.
Jimmy: “I want one of these guitars. Where can I get one?”
Graeme Wells is on the phone. Roy beckons to him to get off the phone and assist.
Graeme Wells: “Well, we haven’t started making them. Don’t even have a business yet. Give me your name and address – it’ll take about three months and we’ll gett back to you.”
Jimmy reluctantly hands back the instrument.
Jimmy: “As long as three months?”
Jimmy writes down his name and mobile number.
That was the moment that sealed the birth of Township Guitars, which today are manufactured by hand to exacting musical standards. They are crafted from five-litre oil cans and a combination of hard woods, with genuine fret wire, machine heads and an adjustable bridge. The volume knobs are made from used bottle caps and the warm tone adds to the township look and feel.
The idea is based on an ancient Khoi instrument, the !gutsib, now more commonly referred to as the ramkiekie (a Portuguese word). According to ethnomusicologist Gavin Coppenhall, the original instrument by the Khoisan was made from a calabash covered in buck skin, with three strings usually made from gut. It then evolved to small round tin cans, then to oil cans.