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Monday, 20 May, 2002, 19:10 GMT 20:10 UK
South Africa's oil can guitars
Graeme Wells
Guitars made of old containers are proving a success

Oil cans are normally consigned to the rubbish bin once the contents have been used.

Not so for Graeme Wells, from Cape Town, who uses the five-litre cans to make electric guitars.

Wells, himself an accomplished guitarist, decided to make a tin guitar for himself last year.


We thought it would sound tinny and cheap

Graeme Wells
Since then the popularity of the guitars - many of which are covered with a sticker of the colourful South African flag - has grown beyond his wildest dreams.

"When we produced the first one we thought it would sound tinny and cheap. We were initially thinking of producing low-cost guitars which could be sold as souvenirs.

"But we found the sound was really professional, which opened a new market," he says.

Wells decided to make a functional guitar after seeing many African-made guitars which served as souvenirs.

Intrigued

"There are very few real African guitars that play.

"I've seen many guitars made from scrap material - from old tins found on rubbish heaps, old pieces of wire and fishing lines for the strings - but it's very rare that you find one of those that can actually play.

One of South Africa's best known entertainers, David Kramer
Top South African musicians have adopted the guitar

"I've always been looking for one that I could play but never found one. It was then that I decided to make one of my own," says Wells, who works with an assistant, Raghieb Salie.

The popularity of the guitar spread when Wells, with his guitar alongside him, was having coffee with a friend in town.

Jimmy Dludlu, one of South Africa's top jazz guitarists, walked by and was intrigued by it.

Impressed

"Jimmy picked it up and played it, and immediately ordered one," says Wells.

Since then many of the country's top artists have ordered their own.

Some members of the top English group UB40 were so impressed with the guitar when they saw it during a recent tour in Cape Town, that they ordered their own, too.

When the empty cans arrive at Wells's small workshop, they are first cleaned.

The cans are then put onto a computerised machine which cuts out all the profiles and holes in the metal.


It's probably one of very few guitars that can be played in direct sunlight

Graeme Wells

A glass-fibre lining is placed inside the can to give it more strength.

Then an Indian rosewood neck with an aluminium brace is thrust through the tin.

According to Wells, the can is not actually an integral, structural part of the guitar.

"It actually doesn't matter what kind of body you use, because it's only there as an acoustic vessel," he says.

Township feel

In addition, the guitar pick-ups - the part of the instrument that picks up string vibrations and relays them to an amplifier - are made from 500ml oil cans.

Even the tone and volume knobs on the guitar have a township feel.

They are made from used bottle tops.

Mr Wells says the tin body makes the guitar one of the most durable around.

"It's probably one of very few guitars that can be played in direct sunlight.

"With an all-wood guitar the sun and any heat source is its worst enemy because the wood will warp and buckle.

"With this guitar, which is made from an oil can and an aluminium neck, there's very little that can warp," he says.

While the tin body of the guitar gives the instrument an ethnic feel, Wells uses only the best materials for the strings and fret wires, which are imported from the Far East and the United States for the professional models.

See also:

15 Jan 02 | Entertainment
07 Mar 02 | Entertainment
06 Apr 01 | Entertainment
13 Feb 02 | Entertainment
29 Jan 02 | Entertainment
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