Self-described resonance man Marten ten Broek doesn’t just make great music — he also makes his own instruments that, while they might produce familiar sounds, can have a rustic “down home” look all their own.
The 37-year-old Raglan musician’s been enjoying lately the “deep, sonorous sounds” of the cello, so it was inevitable he’d start stockpiling the right bits of wood and ponder how much he needed to stick to traditional configurations as he set about making his own.
He’s liking the violin at the moment, too — particularly the chance to hear what he calls “offs”, when the sound is not quite on the note — and that has spurred the creation of another of his rough-hewn stringed instruments.
He’s also particularly interested in sympathetic strings, having been busy of late looking at a lot of Indian music like that of the age-old sitar.
Sympathetic or auxiliary strings found on many Indian musical instruments are not played directly, Marten explains — they just happen to “hum” at the same resonance as the strings above them.
The sometime barista at Bobo’s — Raglan’s popular hole-in-the-wall cafe downtown in Volcom Lane — has another project on the go too. He’s making another lapslide guitar.
Like most of his self-built musical instruments it’s crafted from the mahogany of old furniture picked up at secondhand shops like Xtreme Waste’s, and for this “experimental” one he’s changed the configuration to maximise the volume.
“I get bored if I have to do the same thing all the time,” Marten told the Chronicle last week before his ‘Broken Neck Howling Propellers’ gig at the Yot Club. “And if I get bored I get a little bit morose.”
There’s not much chance of that, judging by Marten’s juggling of his innovative instrument-making with songwriting, singing and performing, making good coffees and occasionally working for locally owned Next Level Roofing.
“Better to vary your diet,” is Marten’s philosophy.
He reckons he’s one of those people who run around with a song in their head most of the time and, with a debut album behind him, last week’s performance at the Yottie gave him a chance to air a “pile of new stuff”.
None of it rehearsed to death, he hastens to add. Spontaneous is more his style. “It’s nice to come up with a set list on the day and have a go … it keeps it (the music) fresh.”
Marten’s played music — mainly guitar — for 26 years now but it was only a few years ago that his curiosity and “financially challenged” situation compelled him to make his own instruments from recycled materials.
It couldn’t be rocket science, he told himself — and besides his father, now in France, was an “amazing woodworker”.
So Marten — a left-hander who improvised by playing a right-handed classical guitar upside-down, or flicked the strings so he could play either way — foraged around and came up with his own purpose-built left-handed guitar.
Then it was a hollow-neck lapslide guitar, like Ben Harper’s but built to his own specifications, followed by the construction of a three-string slide guitar.
After that came Marten’s eight-string ukulele, or what he likes to call his Te uku lele for the simple reason it was made in Te Uku. It’s made of the trademark recycled mahogany but the top is actually a piece of 100-year-old kauri wall which came from the local pub after remodelling, he says.
Based on the Tahitian ukulele, it’s typical of Marten’s down-home style in that it was made using only “stuff at hand”. The result is simple and functional yet aesthetically pleasing. “Utilitarian” is his word.
Marten reckons he’s taken “a great leap backwards” when it comes to instrument-making. “Rather than cutting the plank to build the ship, I’ll hollow out a log with an adze.”
While the procedure might take longer than modern methods of luthiary — the art of making or repairing stringed instruments — and depends on creating his own woodpile, it also ensures no trees are harmed and the carbon footprint extends no further than the local recycle centre.
Marten also repairs and restores instruments, making them playable again. It’s important, he says, to give each instrument “a chance to keep singing”.
“I look at the world and think it’s pretty special and my task in life is to make it more beautiful if I can,” he adds. Transforming say an old colonial wardrobe, a dusty desk or an unwanted chest of drawers into beautiful acoustic instruments is part of that process.