Don Morison has long been fascinated with expensive machinery and alluring contraptions, all beyond the reach of his modest means. It hasn’t stopped his desire to own them – so he has used old-fashioned ingenuity and industry to build them himself.
These aren’t simple items: powerful telescopes, metal-bodied resonator guitars, mandolins or ukuleles. Then there’s the purely whimsical; cutting the roof off an old Chrysler Royal to create his own convertible, welding a barbecue into the shape of a bull. Everything is distinctive, amusing, and above all else, they work.
“I never understood people’s lack of curiosity about how things worked,” says 53-year-old Don with a disbelieving shake of his head. “I was the kid who was always pulling apart a toy racing car to look at its mechanism and then having a hell of a time trying to put it back together.”
“He made one of the first portable arc welders from an old South Australian Electricity Trust transformer. It was so big and powerful that it used to drain all the available power from the neighbourhood, so ETSA came and told him that he couldn’t use it after 5pm,” recalls Don. “He made a chook shed out of steel; everything was big and solid and made to last. I think I’ve picked up that legacy.”
Not surprisingly, when Don recently moved to a house in Summertown in the Adelaide Hills in South Australia, establishing a new shed as a functioning workshop was his first priority. And in this humble backyard abode, Don has created an industry that has become the talk of the music world – Donmo Guitars.
At a pair of spacious workbenches, and with a modest array of tools, he makes about 40 Donmo guitars, mandolins and ukeleles each year – mostly to United States buyers, sometimes elsewhere in Australia, but rarely in Adelaide, where he hails from.
“They’re not cheap – everything is hand made – so I think people here don’t believe that a guitar made locally can be worth a price tag of $2500. It’s funny though; Americans don’t have the same problem.”
The distinctive musical character of Donmo instruments – an acoustic instrument with its own built-in amplification from a resonating aluminium foil cone – is their incredible volume. “Like my personality, I suppose,” offers Don with a grimace.
There’s no reason for him to cringe: since the mid-1980s, Don has been one of Adelaide’s most loved rock’n’roll performers, firstly in raw blues band The Sensational Bodgies playing beside his younger brothers Geoff and Brian. It has continued through countless ensembles – including the notorious Hillbilly Hoot radio program on public radio station threeD that has spawned a hit independent feature movie and CD – and solo recordings.
It was this love of performing – particularly with acoustic instruments – that led Don to build his first guitar in 1998. It’s still what drives him now, to work about 35 hours a week alone in the shed crafting his distinctive instruments.
“That’s about as much as I want to do. I can only put up with myself in this shed for so long,” says Don. “I wouldn’t say that building them is my absolute passion, but it sure has me playing more music than I ever have before, and it sure beats being in an office.”
Incredibly, for several decades all this frantic shed activity was happening while Don held down a job in the Australian tax office. “That was like purgatory, and all the guys in there had these incredible hobbies they would devote themselves to. You just had to have a life outside of that office.”
For Don, that manifested itself in many ways, from performing music to racing motorbikes. And in the shed, it led him to build the largest refractor telescope in the southern hemisphere that remains in private hands. “Dad was interested in astronomy, and I picked up on that too,” he explains.
“A guy taught me that I could grind glass to make lenses, so then I realised I could make my own telescopes. I kept fiddling with different designs to make them more powerful. And then I built the big one – I had to grind four perfect optical surfaces – and that was the end of it. I’d had enough by that stage. I’ve spent my shed time making guitars instead.”
The guitars he builds are largely the type of instrument Don feels comfortable playing himself. Some customers are surprised to learn they have been road tested by Don on busking outings – most famously in the Adelaide Central Market with Prawnhead, the acoustic trio he fronts with his sons Eddie, 24, and Jake, 20 (the name came from the fact they performed outside Cappo Brothers fishmongers).
“I want to know that the guitars work as they should; you gotta be able to hear them,” Don says. “I still find it amusing that people call these custom-made musical instruments. I certainly can’t meet people’s specific requirements of how they want the instrument. There are no exact, precise measurements; I go by feel. I make what I believe is a good guitar.”
The building process started from pure trial and error; the first guitar body was cut from an old Volvo car door and proved too heavy for any guitarist to carry. Opting for lighter steel, he kept making more bodies, and deemed the third effort good enough to string and play. It sits in the shed now as a reminder of how things started, still too damn heavy for any guitarist to use in performances.
“I used to lie awake at night thinking of how I could do it properly,” says Don. “There were no books, no plans to follow, not even pictures of the original American steel guitars. I had to figure it out for myself. I actually used to thumb through old Classic Bike motorcycle magazines to get tips on how to fabricate metalwork.”
Several years ago, in his quest to keep making lighter guitar bodies, Don thought of using galvanized iron as a body fabric, then used a vinegar and peroxide finish to create The Rustbucket – a distressed metal finish that is coated with lacquer, and has become the toast of guitar collectors internationally for its “vintage” look. It’s the style that now attracts the most orders that come to Don through his Internet site.
Don has kept two Donmo resonator guitars for his own use. He pulls up his favourite – a galvo guitar, made from the shed he pulled down to create his new workshop, with a jarrah fretboard fashioned from floorboards pulled up in the kitchen of neighbour that live next door to his mother. He slips an old car sparkplug socket over his finger to use as a metal slide and starts playing some dusty ol’ blues.
“There’s a story behind every guitar that I make, and that’s why there’s a market for them,” Don explains. “There’s a million shiny metal guitars being churned out in Korea now – all very nice, but there ain’t nuthin’ quite like this.”
“DonMo CEO” Photo by Thomas Wielecki
“Red Guitar” Photo by Thomas Wielicki
“Donmo Guitar” Courtesy of Donmo Guitars
“Prawnhead” Photo by Mia
“Rustbucket Guitar” Photo by Andy Rasheed