There’s no substitute for experience. My own 20 years of experience as a guitar player allows me to quickly spot incredibly well-made guitars. Bismarck native Matt Markel’s 20 years of experience allows him to build them.
Upon being tipped off to John Mark Guitars (JMG) – the brand name under which Matt crafts his instruments – I visited their website, where my jaw promptly dropped. The pictures of Matt’s hand-crafted instruments jumped off the page. I thought I was looking at the top custom shop axes from the world’s largest guitar brands, until I saw the price tag. If I’d been asked to guess prior, I would have predicted JMG guitars would be twice as expensive. They easily could be. But the guitars listed were so affordable comparable to their quality, I became concerned Matt was underselling himself.
When I got the chance to speak with Matt, who is not only the man behind JMG, but also the owner of Bismarck’s newest music outlet Solid Rock Music, it was obvious he knew exactly what he was doing – making his custom guitars accessible to the average player.
Custom-made guitars are usually objects of lavish intricacy, thus commanding high prices and logistical complication. It seems JMG has not only done away with the outlandish prices, but also the complication. Check out the website and you’ll see what I mean. The first link you’ll encounter is “Build Yours Today” which takes you to a straightforward page where every possible spec is laid out for you to choose from. Just select your preference from each of the easy-to-use drop-down menus. It’s a guitar player’s dream.
If you’re wondering how one guy in his early 30s can make such beautiful instruments, it all boils down to experience. Matt began his musical journey at age 11 when he got a Squire P-bass. He was inspired to pick up the instrument after seeing the high school jazz band perform. The performance would serve as a pivotal, inspirational moment which would guide the remainder of his life.
Around the same time, Matt’s friend picked up a guitar. The pair began to jam and soon they were spending all their time at the local music store, Nightlife Music. They were at the store so much that at age 16, the owner offered Matt a job. He would remain at Nightlife for the next 12 years.
Besides learning all about the instruments and accessories for sale at Nightlife, Matt began to help out with repairs. He gained important foundational skills, undertaking setups, string changes, and minor fixes. On his own time, this grew into an interest in “Partscasters,” i.e. buying various parts to assemble your own guitar. It wasn’t quite luthier work yet, but Matt was clearly on his way.
Early John Mark prototypes, before they were John Marks at all, were lessons of trial and error. A school of hard knocks type learning experience, for which there is no substitute. Clearly, it paid off. Within a year or so, Matt had a guitar worth selling. Soon after that, the stunning axes you see on the JMG website were his standard.
Today, not so long after that humble beginning, Matt not only has a high-level custom guitar brand, but is the proprietor of a new music shop as well.
Solid Rock Music opened its doors in 2020 to a very enthusiastic customer base. Bismarck’s first new music shop in many years is fully stocked with everything musicians love. With an experienced luthier at the helm it’s also the town’s premier repair shop. Solid Rock has also brought brands including Taylor, Gibson and Ludwig Drums back to Bismarck – not to mention bringing JMG guitars to an accessible storefront for the first time.
While the shop is still new, its early success is yet another testament to the value of Matt’s years of experience. And if experience tells us anything, it’s that Matt, John Mark Guitars, and Solid Rock Music will do well.
Please visit johnmarkguitars.com and solidrockmusic.co to learn more about Matt’s music businesses.
By Anthony Chiofalo