Marsden is a lovely, sleepy hollow tucked away in the West Yorkshire hills.
It’s a small village with a great musical culture – the local jazz festival is one of the longest running in the UK.
It also has a great local brewery. But there’s one business in Marsden that you might not expect to find in a Yorkshire village.
Instrument maker Alastair Hanson has been designing musical instruments for years, and from his shop at the end of the Marsden high street he has been doing some pretty remarkable things. I had heard about his line of pro saxes from other players around the UK circuit but I was blown away to hear his story and find out more about this unassuming Yorkshireman.
A passion for design
Alastair made the transition from player to repairer, and then designer, very early on. “I actually set up my first repair business when I was just eighteen,” says Alastair, who started his musical life as a brass band musician learning from members of the famous Black Dyke Band.
It was instrument design and modern manufacturing techniques though that were to become his main passion, and over the last 25 years, he has honed his skills designing not only his own instruments, but also for other major manufacturers.
In fact, dig a little deeper and you’ll discover that it was Alistair who was brought in by the Chinese government to rejuvenate the musical instrument industry there in the early 2000s. “I was one of a small team that made some much needed changes there,” says Alastair modestly. “We helped them to bring their manufacturing processes and instrument designs up to date”.
A change that has made China one of the world leaders today in instrument manufacturing.
So with that sort of knowledge and experience it’s no wonder that back home in Marsden, Alastair and his team have been making some really great instruments.
Take a peak around the back of the Hanson store and you’ll discover a pretty impressive selection of machinery where Alastair now produces his own clarinets, saxophones and mouthpieces. “We started off with clarinets because we could make them here,” says Alastair. Along with his impressive range of Hanson instruments, he also produces clarinets for other major international companies from his Marsden base.
“I just wanted to design and produce the best instruments that were technically possible”
“I was frustrated that people buying entry level instruments had to put up with inferior designs compared to the pro instruments,” says Alastair. “I just wanted to design and produce the best instruments that were technically possible”. And the end results are impressive.
Always challenging the boundaries, Hanson instruments became the world’s first FSC certified maker of woodwind instruments in 2011 for using sustainable materials.
When it came to designing his own saxophones, Alastair took the same approach – make it better. I played his “top of the line” EX tenor which was amazing. “I wanted to take all the best things about classic vintage horns but bring it up to date,” says Alastair. The end result is a sax that feels like a 1960’s Mark VI but with a better, more solid mechanism – something that many small manufacturers claim but very few come close to achieving.
And I think the word is spreading around the pro player community. During my visit to the Hanson workshop I bumped into Kim Nishikawara, a long time Mark VI player who has switched to Hanson’s LX tenor. He was heading off for to perform at the famous Glastonbury Festival with UK blues artists Chris Farlowe, Cliff Bennett and Norman Beaker.
Later Kim told me “I had my trusted Mk VI in it’s case at the side of the stage but I never opened it.” “The LX blew great! I loved it. With many horns I’ve had ‘stumbling’ problems like the keys don’t keep up with the fingers. But with the LX the key work felt really good and the intonation was spot on. The altissimo speaks really well and the first register ‘A’ is in tune unlike the Mk VI. I’ve got to say I’m really happy, the LX is a super horn.”
Sitting in the sunshine chatting with Alastair over local fish and chips, it’s hard to believe that this small local business has achieved so much. Alastair’s two spaniels Charlotte and Sasha didn’t seem to care for the conversation though, they were more interested in stray chips!
Find out more about the instruments here: www.hansonmusic.co.uk