Adding another string to his bow

Cork-based musician Iain Maclean was touring when he was hit with a brain-wave luggage solution: a travel guitar that doubles as a suitcase. He tells ELLIE O’BYRNE about his ambitious crowd-funding campaign to bring his invention, the Notekase, to Cork and the world.
Adding another string to his bow
Cork based musician and guitar maker Iain Maclean.Picture: David Keane.EEjob Echo News27.01.2018

“I WAS planning on going somewhere warm. But I got as far as Cork, and that was it,” Iain Maclean chuckles.

Like so many of Cork’s blow-ins, Scottish musician Iain seems to have arrived almost by accident in the Rebel County. In the year 2000, working on a road-building project in the sub-zero conditions of a Scottish Highlands winter, Iain suddenly got an unexpected windfall, a tax rebate from a previous job.

“That job was like being in Russia or something,” he remembers. “We had to get up in the morning and wrap all these scarves and balaclavas around us, and go out in the driving snow on dumper trucks all day.

“When the money came through, I just wanted to pack it in and get somewhere warm.”

Setting off in his campervan, Iain first visited a friend in Newry before driving south as far as Cork, where he rapidly got immersed in new friendships and a music scene that he found welcoming and inspiring: “That was it, really.”

Eighteen years on, Iain is an honorary Corkman, firmly rooted; he has a daughter in her teens, he teaches guitar lessons in Gort Álainn, plays fiddle with gypsy jazz trio Quango Reinhardt, and stays true to his folk roots with regular trad sessions.

Iain’s earliest memory is of his father playing the guitar. By the age of ten, he was playing fluently himself; he’s been a musician all his life.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that his business eureka moment involves his twin passions of music and travel.

The Notekase is Iain’s invention: a full-size, dismantlable guitar that doubles as a suitcase, and fits cabin baggage restrictions too — potentially saving travelling musicians a small fortune in additional baggage costs.

Currently, Ryanair charge a €50 fee to carry a guitar as check-in luggage. Then there are fears that if you check-in your baggage, it could get damaged by handling, and the only other option is to go the whole hog and pay for a seat for the instrument.

Iain’s just back from a visit home to Scotland; he used his own prototype Notekase to travel with.

“It’s not like having a guitar with you at all,” he says. “I had one nice, light bag with my clothes in it. I got home, assembled the guitar, stayed for two weeks, played it, and came back to Ireland. It’s the most efficient way to carry a guitar. And I saved 100 quid.”

It had occurred to Iain, while he and a band were touring the Czech Republic three years ago, that their double bass player was struggling around with what amounted to a large “box of air”: he started thinking of the amount of luggage that could fit inside the instrument and the rest, as they say, is history.

There have been lots of challenges along the way for Iain: as any guitarist knows, even the tiniest looseness of any of the component parts can cause all sorts of rattles and buzzes when an instrument is played.

Cork based musician and guitar maker Iain Maclean, at his gig in Sin E on Coburg Street.Picture: David Keane.
Cork based musician and guitar maker Iain Maclean, at his gig in Sin E on Coburg Street.Picture: David Keane.

Surely the first thing ever musician want to know about his guitar is what it sounds like? Essentially, do the strings hold their tuning?

“It takes about 20 minutes to settle after you tune it,” Iain says, “It does take a minute or two. When you put it together, you have an instrument that’s microtonally out of concert pitch, because you don’t de-tension the strings to take it apart.”

He launches into a detailed technical description of the system he has designed to hold the guitar neck in place, and to remove the back for luggage storage.

But as well as design elements, he’s also had to make his first forays into the world of intellectual property, patent law and business. There are other travel guitars on the market, but many of them rely on reducing the size of the guitar body, with a corresponding loss of volume and tone. Often, they’re also very expensive: Iain knows his target market is young back-packing buskers, and can produce a Notekase for the price of a low-range acoustic guitar in any music shop, although he also offers bespoke guitars at a higher price.

Enterprise Ireland, Iain says, seemed “sceptical” when he approached them with his idea.

“I’d like to build something real, in Cork,” he says. “Initially, I believed I’d have the work for between five to 10 people.”

St John’s College of Further Education runs a dedicated instrument-making course and Iain believes graduates would be in an excellent position for employment in the Notekase workshop he dreams of.

“I’d like to employ some of those people,” he says. “There are huge advantages to having something that really is a world first in your area.”

Now, he has decided to go it alone with an ambitious crowd-funding project on Kickstarter, with a goal of raising €30,000.

“The response I’ve had to my campaign has been fantastic,” he says. “I’ve only had three pieces of constructive criticism, and even they’ve been really lovely and respectful.”

He’s certainly piqued the curiosity of Cork’s musicians: singer-songwriter Lynda Cullen was keen to try the Notekase for herself and recorded a video of her performing one of her own songs on the unusual instrument.

Iain also recently introduced the guitar to several of his trad-session buddies at an informal launch in the Sin-é bar.

This isn’t his first unusual musical invention; Cork people may have seen him in past years on the street, busking by playing the fiddle and strumming the guitar with a device he invented for his feet.

But it’s in the Notekase and other travel instruments that he sees the most potential. In the future, he wants to add other inventions to the Notekase family.

“I’m going to sell lots of different ideas for travel instruments,” he says, mentioning an idea he had for interchangeable instrument necks for the same Notekase sounding box, and then, looking thoughtful: “I don’t know why keyboards don’t cut in half, for example,” he says. “They’re just big boxes as well; you could hinge them in the middle and fold them right up….”

For more see www.kickstarter.com/projects/1075894598/notekase-travel- guitars. To watch Lynda Cullen use the Notekase see www.facebook.com/lynda.cullen.9/videos/10159800252585065/

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