The Saltmine is a sprawling guitar workshop perched above Oxford Street in Sydney, run by the magnetic Matt Bulluss, and shared with fellow gear artisans, Earthling Designs and Bondi Effects. We caught up with Matt amongst the tools, classic rock posters and sawdust to discuss his life as a guitar mechanic.
We chat to Matt Bulluss from Saltmine Repairs about how he got his start in Sydney, navigating the local pub scene in the early 2000’s, and the art of repairing guitars.
ENMORE: When you started tinkering with guitars, what aspect did you get into first?
MATT: A bit of everything, I guess. When I was growing up, my dad was one of those guys who did it all. He ended up doing a masters in computer science – he was very academic. But before that he’d done plumbing, he’d done sparky work, cable-making. So he always encouraged me to pull things apart and put them back together again.
ENMORE: Where were you working out of before you started working out of The Saltmine?
MATT: Around 2011 I was working at a place called Bass People, which was a bass boutique in Annandale, on the site of an old place named The Bass Player. And then the financial crisis came along and we folded up – we weren’t run out of business, we just decided to close up shop. The owner was a very astute businessman, and he saw it coming. That was a point where I was doing a lot of tech work. First I was managing, then I started doing more and more technical work out the back until it was basically all I was doing. Then my wife said, you know, “if you’re going to do it, do it now – go off on your own.” And I went “cool.”
ENMORE: Was that a big call for you at the time, or did you slide into it pretty easily?
MATT: It was a bit of a dream for me. My whole life I just wanted to work with guitars.
ENMORE: Did you know in what capacity?
MATT: Man, I actually didn’t care. Make them. Build them. Modify them. As long as I’m around them, you know what I mean. I enjoy it all.
ENMORE: When did you start playing?
MATT: Oh like 12 or 13. That’s when I started tinkering. I’d seen the Woodstock movie on the ABC or something, and I was like “oh my god.” I’d never seen anything like it. I thought it was insane. This was like 1990 or ‘91. Insane time for guitar music – a changing time, which I was too young to realise. It was going from hairspray to flannel very quickly and everything else since then.
So yeah that’s when it all started. Eventually my uncle lent me what I now know was an exquisite Japanese acoustic guitar – and it was bloody hard to play. But it sounded better than everyone else’s guitars in the TAFE class I was in. I wanted to know why. And because there was no internet I started going to the library, my dad lent me a book on physics, and I tried to figure out how it all came together.
ENMORE: That’s really interesting. I guess a lot of guitarists take that information for granted, and don’t really try to understand how guitars works or why they sound the way they do.
MATT: Yeah well for me everything kind of came together perfectly. Dad was handy and knew how to do a whole lot of stuff. I was always pulling things apart. And then I had an instrument, which made me even more curious. Then I started playing more, and eventually I became a bass player. But I always wanted to know more about guitars. To figure them out.
I used to chase bands around town when I was 16 or 17, like Gerling or whoever was playing at Manning Bar or whatever, and say “I’ve got strings and shit, let me work on your stuff.” I’d even speak to Maton Guitars in Victoria and be like “hey, this guy needs a pickguard, can you help me out?” They’d be like “who are you?” And I’d say I was just helping them out – here is the make and model and timber and year and everything, because I’d done my research.
ENMORE: How did bands respond to you approaching them?
MATT: They didn’t mind. I’d go to Manning Bar or the Hopetoun around the late 90s, early 2000s. Again, sort of pre-internet. It was a very… analog kind of thing, chatting with bands. Then I made friends with Jeff Mallia, who was a phenomenal guitar builder and repairer – all round genius – who was based in Concord. Still is actually. I’ve known him for 18 years now. He’s like a full-blown guitar luthier, who can make just about anything.
ENMORE: Was he your mentor?
MATT: Yeah, but I never apprenticed with him. He’d always be like, “try and fix things first…come to me with solutions, not problems, then I’ll help you out.” He taught me how to learn. And I still have that today. You know what I mean? You’ve gotta jump in and try something. Not experiment on valuable instruments, but try something.
ENMORE: And for you, a lot of this was based on reading and research?
MATT: Yeah. This was a rapidly changing time for technology, culture, everything. Places like Stewart-MacDonald – where I get half of my tools from – came up. And they had heaps of information. But as you can see around me, I’ve got books and cheat sheets on everything. And I still use them for reference. Information on circuits and diagrams of electronics. Even though it’s all now online, it’s good to have that stuff on hand, stuff you’ve put together yourself. Guitar work is an old-school kind of trade like that.
ENMORE: How do you find yourself spreading your time. Are your days pretty varied?
MATT: It might be a similar task that I’m doing day-to-day, but it’s never the same job, you know what I mean? Everything from customers saying “hey, these strings aren’t sounding right” to “my guitar’s not playing the same as it was.” And for me it’s a service, in the way you’d service a car. Timber is an organic fibre, and it contracts and expands with weather and humidity, so things often need to be adjusted. So around the time seasons change I’m super busy. Especially with the dry winter and humid spring we just had. Everyone’s instruments need adjusting. But you know, regular use, heavy touring, it all has that impact.
ENMORE: Do you approach every guitar as a clean slate when you go to work on something?
MATT: Yeah I approach everything fresh. But half of that is because the instrument is individual. Let’s say I had two Telecasters. They’d never be exactly the same. They’re from different trees. But the most important thing is that they’re for two different people, two different players.
ENMORE: So when you work on someone’s guitar, is it a collaborative process?
MATT: Every time. Look at this workshop. It’s open plan. Sometimes I have a player standing next to me while I work. I’ll hand it to them. We’ll go back and forth. That way they can get a feel for it. Everyone’s hands are different. And that’s really really important. You can have all this technical knowledge in the field. But if you can’t communicate with a client, if you can’t get a proper feel for what they want to achieve, you’re not going to nail it. For me, that’s the most important thing. I guess it’s the same with anything: getting a haircut; having a cocktail made.
ENMORE: Have you ever thought about dabbling deeper with another musical element, say like synths or pedals?
MATT: Yeah, yeah. But the thing is, as a discipline, all those things are so deep: cabinet-making, finish work… you’ve only got so much time. Don’t get me wrong man, there are some geniuses out there, like the aforementioned Jeff Mallia, who can do it all. And I’m getting closer. But the best thing about this kind of job is that you can never master everything. And there’s always something to learn. But yeah, I make my pickups, and stuff. Which I love doing.
ENMORE: Nice, are there any third-party pickup makers that you really enjoy working with?
MATT: There’s a brilliant guy called Dave Leddin in Queensland. I worked with some of his pickups recently, and man, they’re something else. He really has a good ear for winding. I like anyone who jumps in and gives it a shot. This is old school, man. An old craft. Like making bread or pottery or something. It’s very hands-on.
ENMORE: Tell me a bit about when you first started out on your own. Were you working out of this space?
MATT: No, no. I was actually working just down the road in a ten square metre storage room. I called it The Saltmine because before when I was working in Annandale, there was no airflow and there was dust everywhere, so it was like working in a mine. And it was doubly so when I moved in there. I was like a crack house. But it was exciting. It was my first business. You know?
And I think because of the nature of guitar tech work, I guess that place fit the vibe. I kitted it out. I put in the Edison lights and posters and built the bench I work on now. This bench here was literally the span of the entire space. It was tiny. But it was inexpensive, and I had some clients that followed me from Bass People, and it went from there. It was cool. Hot. But cool.
ENMORE: Have you ever thought about manufacturing – building guitars from scratch?
MATT: Of course. When I was 19 I built that thing up on the wall. But I think… if you’re going to manufacture in Australia, shoot high. The labour costs against the population here, while there is just some remarkable stuff coming from builders internationally, mean you’d better make it something that is really high quality. And you’d better make it something that isn’t that duplicatable. So I’ve been looking for years at local timbers – non-endangered local timbers – and making my own electronics, body shapes and things like that. But it’s not like I’m dying to build instruments. As long as I’ve got my hands around a guitar, I’m happy.