How a humble guitar hand-crafted in a backyard Melbourne workshop made its way into the hands of music legends Keith Richards, George Harrison and Elvis Presley – and why one sold for $650,000
- Maton Musical Instruments Company was founded by Bill and Reg May in 1946
- The business has always operated from Melbourne and is now based in Box Hill
- Maton guitars are distinguished by being hand-crafted from Australian timber
- They have been played by Jimmy Page, Keith Richards and George Harrison
- A new exhibition at the Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum celebrates these guitars
As Keith Richards played the final notes of Gimme Shelter when recording the classic Rolling Stones album Let It Bleed the neck of his guitar fell off.
Careful listeners can supposedly detect the guitar breaking on the original 1969 take but few would know the instrument was an Australian-made Maton EG240 Supreme.
The last time The Beatles played Liverpool’s Cavern Club in 1963 the guitar George Harrison was wielding was not his usual Gretsch Country Gentleman but a Maton.
That Mastersound MS-500, which had been lent to Harrison while his favoured Gretsch was being repaired, sold for just shy of $650,000 at auction in 2018.
Maton may not have the mainstream recognition of makers such as Fender, Gibson or Rickenbacker but the Australian-built guitar has held its own on the world stage for more than half a century.
Keith Richards played an Australian-made Maton guitar while recording the classic 1969 Rolling Stones album Let It Bleed (pictured). The guitar had been left at his London apartment by an acquaintance and he snapped the neck while playing the final notes of Gimme Shelter
The last time The Beatles played Liverpool’s Cavern Club in 1963 the guitar George Harrison (far right) was wielding was not his usual Gretsch Country Gentleman – but an Australian-made Maton Mastersound MS-500 (pictured)
Guitar god Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin has played a Maton, as have Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong and Queen of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme. Page is pictured picking a 12-string acoustic Maton which still has its sale tag on
Billie Joe Armstrong of Californian rock band Green Day is pictured wielding a 50th anniversary Maton Model 1958 MS500. He manly uses Fenders and Gibsons now. Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum is staging an exhibition celebrating Maton’s 74-year history
Guitar god Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin has played a Maton, as have Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong and Queen of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme.
Elvis Presley played a Maton HG100 Hillbilly in his 1957 movie Jailhouse Rock and Harry Vanda of The Easybeats was picking a Maton when he wrote Friday On My Mind.
Ray Davies played a Maton – which he once unkindly called a ‘fake Australian Gretsch’ – throughout You Really Got Me in 1964 for The Kinks’ first number one hit.
The Maton factory has also made guitars for Neil Diamond, Men At Work’s Colin Hay, Harry Connick jnr and Crowded House lead singer Neil Finn.
Keith Urban, Missy Higgins, Ben Harper, Jack Johnson, John Williamson, Archie Roach, Garry Beers of INXS, Diesel, Paul Kelly and Daniel Johns of Silverchair all play Matons.
Australia’s leading guitar manufacturer began in a Melbourne backyard workshop in 1946 when jazz musician and woodwork teacher Bill May formed the Maton Musical Instruments Company with his older brother Reg.
The company’s trademark is a combination of the May surname with ‘tone’ and is pronounced ‘MAY-tonne’.
Elvis Presley played a Maton HG100 Hillbilly in his 1957 movie Jailhouse Rock
Josh Homme, lead singer of Queens of the Stone Age, plays a Maton on stage at the Soundwave Music Festival in Melbourne in 2011
Australia’s leading guitar manufacturer began in a Melbourne backyard workshop in 1946 when jazz musician and woodwork teacher Bill May (pictured) formed the Maton Musical Instruments Company with his older brother Reg
Maton was the first guitar manufacturer to use Australian timber on a large scale, with models created from local maple, walnut, bunya, blackwood and satin box.
Bill May’s business philosophy was simple: ‘If you make a good guitar, the right guitar, people will want it.’
Since its basic beginnings, Maton has created more than 200 guitar models and gained an international reputation for building the highest-quality instruments.
The May brothers opened Australia’s first major guitar making facility at Canterbury in 1949 and moved to a bigger facility at Bayswater in 1990.
Bill May, who died in 1993, is regarded by many Australian luthiers, or makers of stringed instruments, as the founding father of their industry.
His importance to the history of music has been recognised at the Australian Music Association Awards, where he was posthumously inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Maton guitars have been hand-crafted in a factory at Box Hill since 2003 and the company, which employees 70 people, is still family-owned and operated.
New Zealand born country-pop singer Keith Urban, who began learning to play guitar aged six, is pictured on stage with a Maton. He usually plays a Model EBG808 or EMD6
Daniel Johns, onetime lead singer of Newcastle rock band Silverchair and now a successful solo performer, is pictured playing an acoustic Maton
Singer songwriter Missy Higgins is perhaps better known for playing piano but when she picks up a guitar it is usually an Australian-made Maton (pictured)
When Creedence Clearwater Revival frontman John Fogerty was in Melbourne on a solo tour more than a decade ago one of his first stops was to the Box Hill factory.
Musicians who have played Maton guitars
– Keith Richards of Rolling Stones
– George Harrison of The Beatles
– Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin
– Ray Davies of The Kinks
– Harry Vanda of The Easybeats
– Keith Potger of The Seekers
– Neil Finn of Crowded House
– Garry Beers of INXS
– Daniel Johns of Silverchair
– Colin Hay of Men at Work
– Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day
– Elvis Presley, John Fogerty, Neil Diamond, Keith Urban, Josh Homme, Harry Connick jnr, Jack Johnson, Ben Harper
– Missy Higgins, John Williamson, Archie Roach, Paul Kelly, The Wiggles
The writer of Bad Moon Rising, Proud Mary and Fortunate Son came with his two sons and ordered an exact copy of a Maton he had been given by The Wiggles.
Now Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum is staging the largest ever exhibition of Maton instruments, its first major show since reopening on June 1 after being shutdown due to COVID-19.
Maton: Australia’s Guitar will feature more than 130 guitars covering Maton’s history from its first models to its latest.
The exhibition also includes photographs of musicians playing Matons from Eagles of Death Metal guitarist Jesse Hughes right back to Keith Potger of The Seekers.
The retrospective will tell the story of Maton’s influence on the local and international music scene through genres including folk, jazz, country, rock and roll and classical.
It will showcase some of the rarest Australian guitars ever displayed, including custom-made instruments and the first guitar Bill May built as a teenager.
Harry Vanda’s guitar is in the collection alongside virtuoso Tommy Emmanuel’s first Maton, an electric Mastersound MS500M with hand painted case.
‘I have spent my whole life playing music to people in Australia,’ Emmanuel said. ‘I mainly perform with Maton as I love playing an Australian-made guitar.
‘It’s great to see the unique history of this part of Australian music heritage brought to life for visitors in the major exhibition.
‘I’m thrilled to have my first Maton on display here. My Father Hugh gave me that wonderful instrument in 1960.’
Indigenous singer songwriter Archie Roach, best known for his 1990 album Charcoal Lane and the song Took the Children Away about the Stolen Generation, plays a Maton (pictured)
Ray Davies (far left) of The Kinks is pictured playing the Maton he used to record the band’s first hit You Really Got Me. His bandmates pictured centre to right are Pete Quaife, Dave Davies and Mick Avory
The Maton played by Harrison is not in the exhibition but how he came to use it is.
Barratts Music Store in Manchester had lent the guitar to Harrison and he played it in a dozen gigs from July to August 1963 including the last time The Beatles performed at the Cavern Club.
The instrument features a solid body and mahogany neck with a bound rosewood fingerboard, sunburst back and flame maple top finish.
When Harrison eventually returned the Maton to Barratts it was bought by Roy Barber, guitarist with Dave Berry and The Cruisers, who went on to have hits with Memphis, Tennessee and The Crying Game.
Murray Cook, one of the founding members of The Wiggles, is pictured playing a Maton. The Wiggles gave former Creedence Clearwater Revival frontman John Fogerty a Maton
American singer-songwriter Jack Johnson (left) plays a Maton at the Falls Festival in Victoria. Multi-instrumentalist Ben Harper (right) performs with a Maton at the Myer Music Bowl
Barber later kept the guitar in storage for decades until it was exhibited at The Beatles Story museum in Liverpool after his 2000 death.
His widow sold the guitar through Sotheby’s in 2002. It sold again in 2015 for £373,000 and for a third time three years later for £347,000. Harrison died in Los Angeles in 2001, aged 58.
Richards inherited his Maton from an acquaintance who had stayed at his London apartment and whose name he can’t recall.
‘He crashed out for a couple of days and suddenly left in a hurry, leaving that guitar behind,’ Richards once told Guitar World. ‘You know, “Take care of it for me.” I certainly did.’
Jesse Hughes from Californian rock band Eagles of Death Metal, formed in 1998 with Josh Homme, is pictured with a Maton. He favours the Model MS2000 and BB1200
Richards played the Maton throughout the Let It Bleed sessions in February and March 1969. It’s distinctive sound is notable on Midnight Rambler and Gimme Shelter.
‘I had a soft spot for him,’ he once said. ‘An Australian guitar.
‘It was just at the end of the recording, just as we’re tailing off on Gimme Shelter, and I feel this sort of rubbery feeling – everything’s going rubbery.
‘And the neck just fell off. I said, “Well, thank God it’s a fade-out, because obviously this song is over.” He died in the harness, that one.’
Richards told Guitar World the Maton ‘sounded great’ and ‘made a great record’ and that its neck breaking could be heard on the original Gimme Shelter take.
Richards, who is said to own 3,000 guitars, still has his Maton but the maker presented him with an intact replacement on an Australian tour.
Naomi Battah of the ARIA-nominated Sydney rock band Skulker, is pictured with her Maton
The Powerhouse exhibition relies heavily on Sydney collector Wadih Hanna who has lent items from his personal treasure trove of guitars, ukuleles, lap steels and amplifiers.
Hanna has played guitar since he was a teenager but his obsession began when he was given an acoustic Maton by his now wife Lucy as an engagement present.
Powerhouse chief executive Lisa Havilah is delighted to be able to show off Hanna’s collection.
‘Maton is an integral component in the development of Australian music both nationally and across the world,’ she said.
‘At the Powerhouse, we are committed to communicating the history of our cultural and scientific heritage to our visitors and we are thrilled to be able to tell the success story of this homegrown manufacturer.’
Harry Vanda of The Easybeats wrote the band’s hit song Friday On My Mind on this Maton Sapphire. The Easybeats were among the Australian guitar maker’s earliest ambassadors
Maton is now run by Bill May’s daughter and son-in-law Linda and Neville Kitchen and is Australia’s largest guitar maker, turning out more than 8,000 a year.
‘Neville and I took over the Maton company from my parents, Bill and Vera May back in 1986 and we are very proud of our involvement,’ Linda Kitchen said.
‘Over the last 40 years there have been changes and challenges like any business, but the main constant has been and remains our unabated focus on maintaining our high levels of quality and workmanship.
‘I very much look forward to seeing the exhibition, including Wadih’s significant collection, and we’re extremely grateful to Powerhouse for creating an opportunity to share the Maton story with the broader community.’
Maton: Australia’s Guitar opens at the Powerhouse Museum, 500 Harris St, Ultimo, on July 25 and will run until October 11. Entry is free but bookings are essential.
This Mastersound MS-500, which was lent to Beatles guitarist George Harrison while his Gretsch was being repaired in 1963, sold for just shy of $650,000 at auction in 2018