There’s something of the mad inventor about Jon Free. Draped in a grey apron with his spiked black hair standing tall, he tiptoes around his Stoke Newington workshop (“a small home for experimental projects”), dodging the tools and miscellaneous antiques that nestle into every corner.
In this front room of his Georgian home, once occupied by author Daniel Defoe, a thin layer of sawdust coats everything; the by-product of the sawn guitars and botched lumps of wood littering the floor. A Johnny Cash poster and signed Nancy Sinatra 7” hang on one wall, while countless drawers overflow with paraphernalia.
The room looks onto Church Street, where passersby often stop to ogle at the bizarre stringed instruments dangling from the window, while Jon tinkers within. It’s a tiny workplace (we have to remove a double bass so I can sit), but in its clutter lies an inherent charm. In one corner of the room sit a box of table legs and a shelf lined with old tins. And it’s these two unlikely components that have contributed to Jon’s most successful creation yet – the Tin-Tone Sonic Fascinator guitar.
The four-stringed, ukulele-like instruments look beautiful, but emit the kind of dirty blues rasp you would have heard on the banks of the Mississippi River circa 1925.
Each one of his 73-strong fleet has its own unique look. But it’s the naming of each instrument that Jon deems “the hardest bit”.
He pulls one guitar from the wall, playing a bluegrass riff almost in the same movement. “This is called Lux Box,” he says in typically soft-spoken manner. Having used an old metallic lunch box for the body, he finished the model on the day Lux Interior died, singer with one of his favourite bands The Cramps, so the hybrid came naturally.
He produces another, christened The Esquire, saying: “The box I used was my bedside tidy-up tin and the book I was reading at the time was called Bedside Esquire, so the two just went together.”
From junk to art
With nearly 25 years experience in guitar repairs – Tom Waits, Laura Marling and Martha Wainwright are on his clientele list – the idea of replicating the cigar box guitars of 1900s America had been tickling him for some while.
“It was my friend Kev’s birthday in 2008 and I didn’t have any spare cash to buy him a present, so I thought, ‘why not make him one of these’,” says Jon.
He traipsed around the area’s charity shops, finding nothing but a biscuit tin, which he eventually purchased after failing to find a cigar box. Upon returning home, a surprise lay outside his front door.
“I’d dumped some wood out the front, but locals took it upon themselves to add whatever wood they liked,” reminisces Jon. “I just remember seeing an old table leg sticking out and I couldn’t help but think it looked like a guitar neck.”
He forged the components together in rudimentary fashion and gave it to his mate who declared it “amazing”. So, the Sonic Fascinator was born.
Jon worked on another four models, which he gave away as Christmas presents, but their reach has grown much further than his close friends. Neo-blues legend Seasick Steve and alt-rockers Sonic Youth are now proud owners, as well as Mick Harvey, Nick Cave’s right-hand man. Deep Purple bassist, Richard Glover, recently turned up at Jon’s door, announcing plans to use the instrument on his next album, after his daughter gave him one as a gift.
Showing me a range of amplifiers he has housed in old cigarette tins, Jon’s gift of turning one man’s garbage into another’s pleasure becomes all the more apparent. Indeed, the 40-year-old Londoner says he “sees instruments everywhere”. He bangs a large wooden chest beside him, which he has mutated into a double bass.
“I saw this and thought ‘why is this large resonant chamber in my house? I can do something with that.”
His “obsessions” have also started to grate on his wife, who is “just about fed up” of him interrupting films, shouting: “Look! That table has the perfect leg for a guitar.”
This idiosyncratic fascination with instruments started as a 13-year-old, when his uncle gave him a “battered” Czech guitar, with the attached warning: ‘You don’t want to play bass guitar – there’s no glory in that.’ Jon bashed and banged the instrument until its strings resonated like he wanted them to.
Indeed, family has played a huge part in shaping his musical ingenuity. He proudly pulls out a dusty bangolele that belonged to his grandfather and attributes his creative streak to his mother, who is an artist. But it’s his father’s “thriftiness” that is most apparent in his creations.
His father was part of the groundbreaking teams that developed lasers, robotics and visual recognition systems. Jon discusses him carrying out “strange domestic repairs using whatever came to hand” and recalls one incident where he dismantled an £800 cooker to use as a TV aerial.
Jon laughs at the folly of his dad’s madcap DIY, but it isn’t long before he is reaching into a drawer showing me “the bit that makes microwaves go ping”, which he uses to electrify his instruments.
He picks up a guitar, playing a slick riff before launching into a spiel about the alternations he’s added to give the instruments their distinctive sound. He sees through my cluelessness.
“Yea…so, something like that,” he says, before putting his head down and breaking into tune once more.
Tin-tone Sonic fascinators cost bewteen £150 – £300 www.tin-tone.com