Australia Week – Interview with Dan Memory of ONI Guitars

Oni Guitars is an Australian guitar builder who specializes in unique, handmade multiscale extended range guitars. He has developed what’s called the E-scale, a kind of curved fan fret.

Tell us about you and your business.

My name is Dan Memory, I build guitars under the Oni name. My primary focus has been 7 and 8 string electric instruments. I built my first guitar in 1996, then found work in repairs and acoustic guitar building. Oni was founded about 10 years after that. Right now my time is split between guitars and family. On the guitar side I’m in the process of refining how I build some fairly complicated instruments, and moving everything into a new workshop space.

What made you want to start building guitars?

I’ve always had an interest in music and making things. I remember my dad had an old woodworking magazine with an article about building an electric guitar. That was probably the start of the obsession, before I’d even started playing the instrument. I was modifying my first electric not long after getting it, trying to make it easier to play and better sounding. The first build was part of an assessment in my final year of high school, I think we had 3/4 of the year to design and build whatever we wanted.

Tell us about the models that you offer.

I’m primarily building my ‘e-scale’ 7 and 8 strings, though I plan to introduce more conventional 6 and 7 strings in the future. The ‘e-scale’ models feature curved fanned frets which give a more natural feel compared to the standard approach, particularly above the 12th fret.

What is your design philosophy?

I want the guitar to feel as natural as possible, minimising fatigue and discomfort. In terms of tone, I’m interested in retaining the qualities that make an electric guitar what it is, I want them to sound like electric guitars but with extended range.

What other Australian builders do you like? How about internationally?

I haven’t been following the scene much in recent years, but it looks like Cilia and Ormsby are doing good things, and there’s Mallia basses too. Of the luthiers who I know personally I’d say Ochoteco acoustics are fantastic, and Jeremy Fullerton in Victoria has been doing some cool stuff with guitars and ukes. Internationally I really like Matsuda’s work, Somogyi, Thorn, Conklin. One luthier whose work constantly surprises me is Saul Koll. It’s the kind of stuff I normally don’t like but he does it so well, merging classic aesthetics with modern quality, refinement and playability. Honestly, I’m fairly out of touch, I’m probably missing some great builders I’ve never heard of, and some obvious ones I do know.

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What bands play your instruments?

Oden from Like Thieves plays an 8, he’s local to me and a cool guy. I know Brandon from Heisenberg has one because he’s always popping up in my Facebook feed. I try to build the best guitars I can and hope my customers get what they need from them, whether they’re making a career from it or simply playing for their own enjoyment.

It seems that your instruments are popular with metal players. Why do you think that is?

I’d say that my customers mainly play metal, jazz, or both. As far as electric guitar relevant genres these are the 2 that allow for progression, the rest are primarily interested in maintaining the status quo in terms of sound and image, which means only certain brands and types of guitar are valid in those player’s minds. I’m sure there are open-minded, progressive electric guitarists outside of jazz and metal, but it doesn’t seem as common and they may not gravitate to what I do. Jazz and metal can both be incredibly traditional and close-minded too. Maybe those genres are so broad now that anything that’s not something else is automatically put into one or the other?

Do you generally listen to and play metal?

As a guitarist I definitely come from a metal background, though I’m not really sure what I play anymore. I listen to anything and everything, and seem to be enjoying a lot of music without guitar in it. It’s hard to just enjoy the music as a whole when one part of my brain is picking the guitar to shreds, telling me someone’s intonation is slightly out on the B string.

What is the music scene like in Australia?

I’m honestly not sure what the scene is like here now. I get the feeling things have improved over the last ten or fifteen years, there seem to be more young bands around. I’m 36, have kids, and don’t function properly if I stay up past 10pm.

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Who are your favorite Aussie musicians/bands?

I’ll have to say Like Thieves, just to appease Oden. In fact, that alt/rock/metal/prog scene seems to be pretty strong, bands like Dead Letter Circus etc… I don’t really get into that stuff much but I do appreciate it, as I appreciate any musicians getting out there and playing their own music on actual instruments and doing it well. In the metal scene I do like what Ne Obliviscaris have been doing. Again, I’m massively out of touch. I can tell you I much prefer Lah-Lah to the Wiggles.

What is the very first instrument you ever owned?

A Boosey and Hawkes clarinet. I played a bit of piano and other instruments we had in the house before that. Guitar-wise I started on my mum’s cheap classical, followed by one of those really nasty BC Rich electrics that were around in the mid-nineties.

How have trends in requested specs changed over the years you’ve been a builder?

I don’t really take full custom orders any more, and keep my options lists as small as possible. I still get the occasional email about a totally custom guitar and it seems not much has changed in the last ten years or so, but keep in mind I’ve always stuck myself in a niche with my work. I’d say there are more specific requests for hardware and pickups due to there now being a broader range available.

What do you thing is the most courses a guitar can have and still be playable? Where do you stand on the guitar strings arms race?

Playability is fairly subjective, it’s going to depend on the player’s mind and body. It’s possible to build a guitar family instrument with a huge range, and make it playable, but it won’t necessarily sound like what we now expect from an electric guitar, it may not feel familiar enough to be immediately comfortable, and certain techniques may not work so well on it. I believe guitarists have certain expectations of tone, string tension and overall feel. It’s tricky to balance all that stuff out. Each added string makes it harder to mute the ones you’re not playing, you need to become much more mobile with your picking hand, and may need to work on precision with the fretting hand. Then there are the practicalities of things like finding strings to fit. If you’re talking about extra low strings you need to know what size ball end you’re dealing with, the windings need to taper between the nut and tuner otherwise the string core will snap, so that means you need the wound length of the string exactly right. If the tuner shaft diameter is too small the core will snap. That’s just the bass strings as an example of the practical limitations.

I feel that 8 strings are the sweet spot as far as playability, practicality and all those compromises. I’ve done some 9 strings but I really can’t come up with a design I’m 100% happy with. For me that means the instrument will work with strings that are commonly available, feel familiar with typical guitar techniques like string bends, and sound balanced tonally from the bass side to treble side while being identifiable as an electric guitar. A 9 (or more) string bass is going to be easier because you’ve got that expectation of higher string tension and broader frequency range, along with the amplification to handle it.

Personally, I tend to go between 6, 7 and 8 string, often spending a few months primarily focused on one or the other. I’ve mainly been playing 6s recently.

Do you think fanned frets will ever replace traditional frets entirely?

Very doubtful. From a production standpoint parallel frets are far easier and quicker to produce. Maybe 50 or 100 years from now there might be a shift towards them, but parallel frets won’t disappear.

Do you think there will ever be another truly original guitar design?

That depends on what you consider a guitar is. Some people felt the electric guitar was not really a guitar. In terms of electric guitar shape, the limitations are set by the human body. It’s evolving to be more ergonomic but in smaller steps than in the past. Ideally you’d play a different design seated than standing to ensure you had close to ideal posture. A lot of people consider looking cool worth the back pain that comes with it. Short answer – I don’t know. I think the guitar is still an evolving instrument, it’s still being defined.

What do you think will be the next big thing in guitar design?

Whatever the next guitar hero is playing. Maybe fabric covered whammy bar arms. Or tassles. Faux-leather tassles around pickups. I’d like to say there will be a genuinely useful innovation that catches on but history says it’s unlikely. I’m not sure if the extended range thing is ‘big’. That last really big thing I can think of was the Floyd Rose trem.

Do you think the guitar will ever fall out of favor as the world’s most popular instrument?

I think it’s likely, eventually. Maybe it’s already that way in reality, that seems like a statistic pulled purely from sales volume?

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As Editor-in-Chief of Gear Gods, I've been feeding your sick instrument fetishism and trying unsuccessfully to hide my own since 2013. I studied music on both coasts (Berklee and SSU) and now I'm just trying to put my degree to some use. That's a music degree, not an English one. I'm sure you noticed.