My Essex Life: Martyn Bailey, musical instrument maker

Martyn Bailey in his workshop

Martyn Bailey has been creating and repairing instruments for nearly 50 years - Credit: J. Roskrow

Musical instrument maker and repairer, Martyn Bailey, began his career 50 years ago and has worked on instruments that are centuries old. 

After nearly half a century of creating and repairing orchestral instruments from violins and cellos to double bass and mandolin, Martyn Bailey has a wealth of incredible experiences that all began quite humbly when he was a young apprentice with a passion for music. 

Originally from Shooter’s Hill in South London, Martyn of Martyn J. Bailey Luthier Ltd moved to Sible Hedingham near Halstead after spending nine years in France and is based in the north of the county, residing amid the ‘quintessential countryside’ and he comments how clients often describe what a treat is it to drive though this delicious slice of Essex landscape when visiting his workshop. 

In a career that has seen Martyn repair and create instruments for some of the leading musicians of the most famous orchestras in the world and even repair stringed instruments dating as far back as the 17th century, Martyn did not originally set his sights on a career allied to the music industry. 

'Martyn has repaired and created instruments for some of the leading musicians in the world and even repair stringed instruments dating as far back as the 17th century'

'I left school after O Levels and became a student apprentice, as they used to be called, and I worked for an engineering company. I was even offered a place to do a degree in engineering, but I was fed up with it and knew that it wasn’t for me. I just couldn’t see myself doing that for the rest of my life. 

'I had always enjoyed music and had an interest in the instruments, and I played the violin. I especially liked the cello, even taking lessons later in life. I made enquiries and came across J.P Guivier & Co Ltd. They were looking for an apprentice and I knew it was the job I wanted. That’s where it started.  

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'Originally I was really more interested in fretted instruments, like guitars and mandolins, but certainly financially, I am very pleased I went into the violin world. There’s a much bigger market in the orchestral stringed world than anywhere else. I got more and more interested in violins and really never looked back. It was a bit of a happy accident really. 

‘The apprenticeship lasted four years and then I ended up teaming up with the workshop’s foreman, Roger Dawson. We shared a workshop together and continued to work together on and off for many years. Roger always had this philosophy that there were no trade secrets as such and he was always so willing to answer questions. The viewpoint was that if you were capable you would find it out anyway and if not, then no matter how many times you asked, you would never remember anyway.'  

Martyn continues: 'Work can be longer for things like major rebuilds, taking any time between six months to a year, while other jobs can be relatively quick. The work very much finds you, you don’t find the work. In the early days, there were many dealers looking for repair work, but the vast majority of the work today is referrals.  

'I do use wood that is sourced in the UK, as well as from abroad sometimes. I mainly use maple, especially for violins, and spruce wood or ebony for the finger pad. The finer the quality, the nicer it is to work with.' 

Musical instrument repair workshop

Just one of many repair projects that Martyn Bailey prepares in his Essex workshop - Credit: Martyn Bailey

It could be said that the key is perhaps not overworking the instrument during repair. Martyn explains: 'In spite of the value of the instruments, one thing that very rarely happens is an instrument ending up with more work done on it than is required or economically justifiable. That’s not true for all instruments, of course. It can be likened to a car or house. Sometimes there is more time and money invested than it is worth, but that is often for sentimental reasons.’ 

In a career that has spanned nearly 50 years, Martyn has had many clients from famous opera houses all over the world and one of the very oldest instruments he has worked to repair dated as far back as the latter 17th century. 

'My former colleague would often say, if only we could get one of these old instruments to talk and joke that there might even be a lot of embarrassing stories.' 

There’s a popular opinion that older instruments always create a better sound, but Martyn wouldn’t necessarily agree. He explains: 'Age isn’t everything. From my experience, the age of the wood doesn’t necessarily make it better. There are more factors than just the wood. It may be structurally deteriorating, but it’s largely down to condition. If something has a good condition once it has been rebuilt, it can gain a brightness that it didn't have prior to the repair or a clarity that will really stand out in the orchestra. It’s actually then easier to play; something that is very mellow or indistinct is harder to play in tune, you can’t hear it.' 

Although Martyn is trained to create instruments, it is the repair work that is his greatest passion. 

'I like double bass, they are just so varied and there are so many different models. They are just like people really, tall, long, short, fat and thin. Creating an instrument can be repetitive. I will often be asked to shorten instruments or to replicate an already existing instrument. A musician who is working every night will often need an instrument for home and another for a concert, for instance. I’m just happy to do the work clients ask me to do and to see a smile on their faces when they see the result.' 

So next time you hear the exquisite air of a violin solo you might indeed be listening to the sound of Martyn Bailey’s much-loved craft. 

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