Irish guitar–maker reaches the stars

“Holy Shit.”

When American rock musician Steve Vai uttered those two words upon first seeing a sophisticated electric guitar made especially for him, Ireland-based luthier Alistair Hay knew he’d achieved a dream.

It has been a long learning curve over many years, from designing children’s toys, go-karts, speedboats and finally guitars, but now the amiable founder of Donegal company, Emerald Guitars, is enjoying the fruits of his hard labor with sales of his instruments rising worldwide.

Emerald Guitars, Irish guitar maker

Photo used with permission from Emerald Guitars

Son of Bobby, a fourth-generation west Donegal farmer in the seaside town of Creeslough, Alistair recalls “growing up fixing stuff,” especially so when his father started his company, ‘Kestrel Toys.’

“My father was a natural designer. It seemed he could create whatever he wanted. He even set up a little workshop for me when I was a child. Having my own tools and wood, I’d just chip away and make things.”

When his father joined an engineering firm, Alistair’s family moved to St. Johnston in east Donegal where Emerald Guitars is still located today. “The house where I lived from the age of eight is right beside the factory that we still work in thirty-two years later,” he said.

bespoke guitars,

Photo used with permission from Emerald Guitars

His father then set up his own fiberglass and engineering company, first making boats, then children’s play equipment, everything from swings and slides to go-karts. “By my early teens, I was helping make all this stuff. It was hands-on, practical, at-home experience.”

Alistair’s big break, however, arrived later while studying polymer engineering at the Athlone Institute of Technology in the Irish midlands in 1992. That’s when and he got the chance through the ‘Wider Horizons’ program as a 19-year-old to go to St Louis, Missouri, “to learn the American way.”

“It was a remarkable period for me,” he recalls about the experience he gained working with Bill Seebold Jr., a legendary US Formula One boat racing world champion. “He took me under his wing, bringing me to lunch many days, teaching me, inspiring me to achieve something with my life. One day he told me, ‘Anybody can be a world champion – if they find what they can be a world champion in.’ That made me think about what I could be best in the world at.”

Donegal guitar maker

Photo used with permission from Emerald Guitars

Then a fateful moment occurred.

Seated on a flight to Virginia to celebrate Thanksgiving with friends in 1994, Alistair picked up a guitar magazine and the idea for making them from carbon fiber struck him. “I saw one similar to one a friend had. As I had been working with this material for the Seebold company, I thought, ‘Maybe I can build one out of this.’ Though I played guitar, I wasn’t very good but I’d always been obsessed by their combination of structure and sound.”

Returning to northwestern Ireland filled with enthusiasm, Alistair set out to achieve his dream. It wasn’t to be an overnight success. “I spent three or four years making guitars, each one better than the next but none good enough to sell. Some are still screwed to the roof of my workshop as reminders.”

Kristel Tenzin Dolma Ouwehand

Kristel Tenzin Dolma Ouwehand painting the Shan Shui-style mural on the Emerald Guitar.

Then the cover of ‘The Ultrazone,’ an album by one of his musical heroes, Steve Vai, caught his eye. It depicted a half-human, half-alien creature cradling an outrageously designed guitar. There and then Alistair decided he was going to build one just like it for the musical maestro, an electric one, not the acoustic kind he had been tinkering with.

But first he wanted to meet the man himself.

“There was a trade show in Los Angeles that I knew Steve would be there,” Alistair said. “I found him in a corner with several people around him. Looking back, I had a brass neck. The guitar was only partially-finished. I only had a drawing to show him. We talked a bit and he said if I ever finished it I should contact him.”

Emerald guitars

Photo used with permission from Emerald Guitars

Buoyed, Alistair rushed home, dedicating around 1,000 hours to fashion his creation. “When I’d finished the guitar, I immediately sent him an e-mail, but I got no response. Time went by, still nothing. I ended up contacted everyone even remotely connected to him. Then one day, a response. One of his minders said, “Bring it on over.” The only problem was – they were in the heart of LA and I was in rural Donegal.”

But not for long.

“Within hours I was on my way to the home of my musical hero,” he said.

And that’s when those two magical words ‘Holy Shit’ leapt from the rock guitarist’s mouth. “He thought I was bringing over a computer-generated image, not the real thing.” The guitar subsequently went on a world tour.

This is just one example of how the creativity of Alistair’s work has gained fame. However, even after meeting Steve, development of his business didn’t prove easy. When the world went into economic decline during the mid-Noughties, Alistair faced tough times. Then, while trying to rebuild his company he was asked to build a guitar for Asia’s biggest pop star, Wang Leehom.

Wang Leehom, Bahamut guitar

Photo used with permission from Emerald Guitars

That Chinese dragon-shaped electric guitar, now simply known as Bahamut, was a memorable occasion. After seeing Leehom’s reaction on a video and hearing of the huge success the guitar was enjoying on the tour, Alistair wanted to witness what he had created first-hand, live on stage. So he traveled to Malaysia to see Leehom perform in Kuala Lumpur on his 2008 Music-Man World Tour.

“That was my first time experiencing what Leehom’s live shows were all about, and it was amazing. There were close to 50,000 people chanting ‘Bahamut,’ calling for the guitar I had made back home in my workshop in rural Ireland – it was a wonderful feeling.”

That Leehom was pleased too was more than obvious. “I had never seen a guitar like this. In Ireland, there is a master; every guitar he makes is a one-of-a-kind masterpiece made by his own hands,” he said. “His name – Alistair Hay.”

bespoke guitars, luxury guitars

Photo used with permission from Emerald Guitars

Recently, Alistair completed a guitar for Brendan Lewis, a Chicago client, with an intricate design based on Taoist philosophy regarding water. He traveled to the Tibetan region of China accompanied by cameraman, Alan McLaughlin, to have it custom-decorated with Eastern art by Canadian artist Kristel Tenzin Dolma Ouwehand whom he had met previously in Donegal. Ouwehand was teaching at the Amdo Art Project, located in the monastery town of Labrang. “We chose a Shan Shui-style with a flowing river as the central theme based on a 300-year-old mural inside the monastery itself.”

Alistair and Alan ended up thanking their hosts for their hospitality by assisting in doing much-needed plumbing work there, building a new sceptic tank, a kitchen sink, showers and a solar-powered hot water system.

Alistair’s guitars are now being played by such world-famous artists as Bon Jovi, Bryan Adams and Sinead O’Connor. Keenly aware of his roots, Alistair even uses Celtic designs on some guitars. He has also made guitars for American performer, songwriter and record producer, Reeves Gabrels, who played with the late David Bowie during the ‘Tin Machine’ era.

“I was always fascinated by Bowie’s creativity, it is second to none. He carved his own pathway, perhaps that’s why I can relate to him. He never followed the conventional way. Hid did what he loved and, in great part because of that, he became such a huge success. I’m doing what I love in creating the best guitars I can and I feel that has been a key to my own success.”

Steve Vai, famous guitars

Photo used with permission from Emerald Guitars

As a result of its success, Emerald Guitar’s full-time staff has increased to seven, with guitars varying in price from 900 to 18,000 euro. The company’s sales strategy has changed from working with dealers to working directly with customers based on strong online marketing and word-of-mouth promotion. The US market comprises 85 per cent of sales.

“I also attend some big trade shows such as NAMM in Anaheim, California and its counterpart in Europe, Musik Messe in Frankfurt,” he adds

Alistair has taken on some very unusual projects, building 26-string double neck guitars and unusual acoustic guitars, harp guitars, seven and nine-string instruments and using carbon fiber as a medium to build guitars that aren’t possible with wood.

“The material is strong and light and gives me incredible freedom as a designer to make instruments that allow new music to exist that previously couldn’t be played,” he said. “I like to think we’re not just a company that creates interesting guitars, but one that helps create interesting stories.

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