The Cape Town company is bettering the traditional African guitars, which are handmade from recycled five-litre oilcans and have been built ever since oilcans were first produced in the early 1900s. The African oilcan guitar's heritage reportedly goes back further than any other guitar in the world.
The result is a professional musical instrument with township looks and an African sound that is being played on the musical stages of the world. Graeme Wells, a musician and former photocopier component manufacturer, started Afri-Can Guitars in January this year at Bellville business park.
On average he produces about 130 guitars a month, completing one from start to finish in just under three hours Demand for 215 guitars this month has left Wells and his two employees struggling to keep pace, and plans are being made to expand into the business unit next door or to move to larger premises and take on two more staff members. With an investment of around R800 000 in the latest computer-numeric controlled milling centre and a host of special tools designed and made by himself, Wells manufactures two models of guitar – a 'township' model and a 'professional' model – to exacting tolerances.
The five-litre oilcan provides the perfect acoustic vessel for each distinct handmade instrument. Holes, either plain or of various decorative designs, are machined in the can, which is laminated on the inside for balance weight and to 'warm up' the sound.
The addition of an aluminium-reinforced Indian rosewood fretboard and neck, proper fret wire, machine heads from the US and the Far East, a fully-adjustable bridge, a top set of strings from the US and a single coil noiseless pickup designed and built in-house, produce an oilcan guitar that is comparable to a 'real' electric guitar.
"In fact it is better in many respects," says Wells.
"What other guitar can you play outside in the sun, knock or drop – it's truly a guitar for local conditions. It can be played continuously in the hot African sun or next to a raging log fire." The use of recycled scrap materials does not stop at the oilcan body.
The pick-up cover for the electrics is made out of the metal from 500 ml oilcans, while players can choose bottle tops from their favourite brand of beer or soft drink for the volume- and tone-control knobs.
While oilcans have been out of production for about three years and are not readily available, Afri-Can Guitars has just had a bonanza – Castrol has donated 3 600 new tins to the company.
"The first batch, with a value of about R45 000, will only keep us going for the next two to three years, says Wells.
Guitars will also be completed with stickers of the South African flag and sold at the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, in Cape Town, and at Rosebank's rooftop market, in Gauteng, where tourists can buy a traditional African curio that they can really play. Some of the guitars have made-to-order artworks or Ndebele artworks, which are hand-painted by a graphic artist based at Afri-Can Guitars, V&A Waterfront.
Scattered around Afri-Can Guitars workshop are old, rusty, dented cans bought from informal scrap-metal collectors, which wouldn't normally be given the time of day. Among these, however, are some rare steel tins, including a 1950s Castrol can and a BP can, with the once-used one-gallon marking. "That one is going into my own collection," says Wells, who explains that the steel cans resonate differently and make a distinct sound from the new cans, made from tin.
The older, rustier and dented cans are also the ones favoured by South Africa's original blikmusician David Kramer, who plays his oilcan guitar 'Ramkie' in his shows. He has endorsed Afri-Can's new range of 'David Kramer Blik' guitars, which are being assembled to his own specification and will be signed by himself. Wells made his second Afri-Can for 'The Cousin', comedian Barry Hilton, in May 2001 and he has played it during every one of his shows since. Other local artists strumming his guitars include Valiant Swart, Steve Hofmeyer, Dozi, Pieter Koen, Thys Steicher – 'Die Bosveldklong', who will be playing his Afri-Can guitar as presenter on the popular TV show 'Maak 'n Las'. Over 60 of the African guitars have already been shipped overseas with another 80 leaving this month. Wells is expecting more international success, as his distributor in Nashville is closely associated to George Gruhn, who sells guitars to top artists such as Bruce Springsteen and former Beatles musician Paul McCartney. Gruhn's website (www.guitars.com), which draws 20 000 hits a day, will also feature Wells's guitars. An Ndebele guitar is on its way from there to guitarist Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, the blues-rock band from Texas, while another has been played in Nashville, the guitar capital of the world, in front of 35 000 fans by US Rastafarian artist Aashid Himmons. Bono, of U2, also has an Afri-Can 'Professional' waiting for him in Ireland when he returns from his current tour. Afri-Can Guitars is hoping to have him endorse it as the Worlds 'most environment-friendly guitar'.
Only nine months into his new venture Wells is building a travel guitar that is to be played in conditions that no other guitar can go into.
This guitar will accompany Dr Brett Sinclair, a guitarist, scientist and doctor, who is leading a trip to Cape Hallett on the coast of the Ross sea in Antarctica in November this year.
Wells also has plans to manufacture a bass guitar.