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T.O.T.T. - Tools Of The Trade -

An occasional series on the instruments and methods of some of the worlds great guitarists. These are guitars that really have a story to tell.


1. John Etheridge - Rosendean JE signature Black Ruby & 'Smallman' acoustic
To link to John's site click here > www.johnetheridge.com

Although if you choose to categorise John Etheridge you might say he is a jazz player, his musical range covers everything from Django to Hendrix and Zappa. Perhaps it's more appropriate to simply describe his playing as complex, eclectic and beautiful.

His main choice of guitars is perhaps just as unusual. For his electric work John favours his custom built Rosendean, although he also owns a Fender Telecaster, last seen loaded with extremely heavy gauge flat-wound strings, a Gibson SG and an Ibanez AS200.


John’s Signature model Rosendean Black Ruby was made by Trevor Dean and is a semi-solid design with seven internal compartments. It features a hand carved bear-claw pine top and a black-eyed Persian or Iranian larch back and sides. The neck is of mahogany with a rosewood fingerboard and headstock facing.

Despite the, quite complex layout, of three custom built Kent Armstrong pickups, John says he mostly uses only the neck pickup.

Photograph 2003 T.Relph-Knight - Do not reproduce without permission    


This is the 'dusty end' on this guitar. You can tell Mr Etheridge is a proper working musician by the state of his string ends 8-)).

You can contact Trevor Dean via his website -


Photograph 2003 T.Relph-Knight - Do not reproduce without permission    

For playing in the ‘Gypsy Jazz’ style with the band Sweet Chorus, John uses an unusual, two soundhole, acoustic guitar, he refers to as his 'Smallman' guitar.

John tells the story of being on tour in Australia in the seventies and being approached by a ‘couple of characters from the outback’ who offered to sell him this guitar for a $1000. He said ‘No but I’ll give you 400 for it’. The two gentlemen drew aside and conferred for a few minutes. On their return one of them said ‘Tell you what mate, we’ll give you the guitar’.

Photograph 2003 T.Relph-Knight - Do not reproduce without permission

Meeting Greg Smallman many years later John mentioned the incident and Mr Smallman at first said that he just didn’t remember and then later said ‘oh yes now I remember, that was a horrible guitar’.

In this picture John is demonstrating an interesting 'reverse picking' technique combined with Mongolian thumb fretting on the left hand.

Photograph 2003 T.Relph-Knight - Do not reproduce without permission    

Photograph 2003 T.Relph-Knight - Do not reproduce without permission


The makers label, clearly visible through the upper soundhole (inverted in our picture so the text can be more easily read) identifies this guitar as made by 'Peter Biffin & Greg Smallman,Wentworth Falls,1978'. Although now somewhat worn, it's a quite plain, but very well made instrument, with a nicely figured rosewood back and sides, a small rectangular rosewood scratchplate, a western red cedar top and red cedar internal braces, New Guinea rosewood neck and an ebony fingerboard. The guitar is finished with an orange tinted lacquer.


According to Peter Biffin in the '70s he and Smallman built a number of experimental designs and this guitar was one of them.

In outline, the body of the guitar follows the classical Spanish plan, although it’s a little larger than most classical's. Externally, the two small soundholes on the upper bouts are the most obviously experimental feature. These help volume and projection by keeping more wood in the areas where the soundboard flexes most. Internally the bracing is parallel, along the length of the body, providing a light but stiff structure. The light weight also helps volume, but combined with the stiffness of this design, provides little sustain. When played this guitar has a fast, bright, dry tone with a short sustain, making it suitable for the French swing style.

Greg Smallman

Australian luthiere Greg Smallman started building guitars in 1972 and became well known through his development of the lattice bracing system and consequent sale of lattice braced guitars, to John Williams. In 1999 the Smallman business became Smallman & Sons, as Greg was joined in his workshop by his two sons. Damon and Kym Smallman had actually worked with their father since 1994. In 2002 Smallman & Sons moved from their, rather inaccessible, 'bush' location to a new workshop in Melbourne, Victoria.

As far as we know Smallman & Sons are not currently represented by a web site.

22/02/11 - Update - Damon Smallman has been in contact with some news - Smallman & Sons now has a web site -


Peter Biffin

Although perhaps not quite as well known as Greg Smallman, Peter Biffin is a respected and gifted instrument maker and musician. At the time that John acquired the guitar Peter and Greg were co-developing their ideas on instrument design and construction and they made a number of experimental guitars together.
Peter now specialises in instruments of the ‘spike fiddle’ family. He has developed a new bowed instrument he calls the Tarhu, that uses a lightweight wooden resonator cone suspended inside a carved spherical body, to provide great volume and a large dynamic range.

See www.spikefiddle.com

We contacted Peter with questions about the construction and history of John’s guitar and he made the following comments:-

It was interesting to read your email about John Etheridge's guitar. That design produced a sound that was so one dimensional, that 25 years later one wouldn't expect the original owner to still play and value it. I suppose that one specific dimension just happened to be what he wanted a guitar to play. So far as Greg saying it was horrible, I think he washed his hands of all the guitars we made in that design, because as an overall balanced instrument they were horrible. For myself, I think they did do one job particularly well, and I recall John's instrument as being a good representation of that sound.
The guitar has a relatively thin soundboard with reasonably deep, narrow cedar struts parallel to the grain. Along-the-grain the stiffness of the soundboard is extremely high, which when combined with light weight creates a fast, loud, punchy sound with no warmth in the bass and not much sustain.

Thanks to John Etheridge for letting us take the photographs and to Trevor Dean & Peter Biffin for supplying the background information on the instruments.