Linda Manzer remembers it like it was yesterday, even though it happened in 1996. She moved her spray gun slowly from side to side, passing a blue mist over the soundboard of the guitar with hypnotic precision, gradually layering colour on the instrument she had painstakingly built. Manzer, a master luthier, had already toiled more than 100 hours on the project.
The blue guitar had been commissioned for a collector in the United States, Scott Chinery, who had engaged 22 luthiers to create custom guitars, all the exact same shade of blue.
As one of the world’s top collectors, Chinery wanted to celebrate the guitar as a cultural icon, and planned to invite talents like jazz great Tal Farlow, rock ‘n’ roll legend Steve Howe, longtime Elvis guitarist Scotty Moore, and blues virtuoso Johnny Winter to meet the luthiers and play the guitars, which he would later loan to the Smithsonian Institution.
But first they had to be finished. Chinery was exacting, and Manzer had already stripped the colour once after he blasted all the luthiers with a warning letter: the colour had to be perfect.
“I was spraying, I had everything perfect, layers upon layers of the blue,” said Manzer in an interview from her workshop in Toronto. The end was in sight. She was supposed to be on a flight the next day to celebrate her best friend’s birthday in Denmark.
Then, as she moved through the final pass, the spray gun spat a large droplet of blue paint.
“I saw that drop of blue flying through the air and it landed on the guitar right in an area where it wasn’t supposed to be. I knew I had to cancel the flight, and I missed my best friend’s party.”
Manzer had to sand the guitar down to the bare wood and start again, but ultimately she didn’t mind. She loves the process: shaping and sanding the raw timber, breathing in its dust, picking slivers from her fingers, feeling, tapping and dropping the wood so she can listen for its brightness, its buzz, developing a relationship with each piece of wood, and puzzling those pieces together like a jigsaw.
Luthiery is a demanding craft.
“As you get closer and closer to the end of building the jigsaw puzzle, the guitar, the stakes get higher and higher,” she says.
“The closer you get to it being done, the more dangerous it gets … the wood doesn’t lie. You can’t talk it into sounding good. You can’t blame anyone else if it doesn’t.”
Festival celebrates craft
Manzer is one of 70 luthiers from around the world who will be in Vancouver from June 23 to 25 for the first Vancouver International Guitar Festival.
The luthiers will run workshops, give master classes and offer aficionados, players and collectors the opportunity to meet them, listen to music and play their instruments.
The event is a natural fit for Vancouver, say producers Shaw Saltzberg and Meredith Coloma. Saltzberg, 63, is an amateur luthier. Coloma, at 26, has already spent nearly a decade obsessively honing her craft and building an international reputation.
Canada is a global leader in the craft of guitar-making, and B.C. produces 80 per cent of the most sought-after tone wood luthiers rely on to create the tops — Sitka and engelmann spruce and western red cedar — as well as the curly maple used in backs and sides.
The VIGF will present its inaugural Industry Builder award to Montrealer Jean Larrivee, an internationally renowned maker known as a “wood savant” and peerless craftsman, who is widely credited with building Canada’s reputation for luthiery.
Larrivee, who now lives in L.A. and is celebrating 50 years of making guitars, mentored an influential group of Canadian guitar makers. His guitars are sought after by artists like Sarah McLachlan, Keith Urban, and Brad Paisley. It was a Larrivee guitar that Chris Hadfield played in space.
Larrivee trainees known as pioneers
Manzer, who has built custom guitars for artists like Pat Metheny, Carlos Santana, Paul Simon and Bruce Cockburn, is one of a “group of seven” guitar makers mentored by Larrivee in the 1970s.
The group, which recently commemorated their fraternity and artistry by designing a flight of guitars that honour Canada’s Group of Seven painters for an exhibition at Ontario’s McMichael gallery, includes Sergei de Jonge, Tony Duggan-Smith, David Wren, George Gray, Grit Laskin, Manzer, and Larrivee.
Manzer says Larrivee helped Canadian luthiers become some of the most sought-after designers and builders in the world — and not just his own apprentices but the generation that has followed them.
Luthiers of the “Larrivee school” are known as innovators, pioneering features that have become industry standards, like Laskin’s arm bevel, a bevel on the edge of the guitar so it won’t cut into a player’s arm; Manzer’s wedge, an ergonomic way of shaping the body of the guitar into a wedge to make it more comfortable; and Larrivee’s symmetrical X-bracing, which created a more balanced sound.
Manzer was inspired to seek out Larivee in Toronto in the 1970s after being captivated by a Joni Mitchell performance. Manzer styled herself after Mitchell, and set out to become a folk singer.
“(Mitchell) played a dulcimer, and I just fell in love with it,” she said. A music-store clerk convinced Manzer to buy a make-it-yourself dulcimer kit and the then teenager dropped her performance aspirations and began to build guitars.
After convincing Larrivee to take her on as an apprentice she spent years learning the intricacies of the trade alongside the other now-legendary builders.
Larrivee moved to the West Coast in 1977, a move that helped shape B.C. as a centre for luthiery — about 500 of Canada’s 1,000 or so professional builders are in this province.
‘Obsessed’ since age 16
Inspiration for the guitar festival came out of a small workshop on Main Street, where Coloma, a Chilean-Canadian singer-songwriter, is furiously building her own reputation as a master builder through a combination of crafting, mentoring, teaching and outreach.
Like Manzer, Coloma found her path through an apprenticeship. After stumbling on the workshop of a luthier when she was a 16-year-old student, Coloma says she became “obsessed.”
She briefly attended Summit School of Guitar Building and Repair on Vancouver Island before reaching out to renowned electric-guitar builder Roger Sadowsky (Bruce Springsteen and Keith Richards play Sadowsky guitars) in New York.
“I emailed him and he said, ‘If you’re ever in New York, come by my shop.’ I booked my flight, and I was there the next day,” says Coloma.
She also apprenticed with B.C.’s Michael Dunn, who Coloma calls the Willy Wonka of the art guitar.
“Anything is possible in his shop,” says Coloma. “I wouldn’t have a business without him. He made the crazy things in my mind, possible in my hands.”
Coloma is renowned for her artistic inlay work, Gypsy-style mandolins, and asymmetrical guitars. She is also a teacher, so when Saltzberg, a woodworker and former senior vice-president of The Feldman Agency — the booking agent for many artists, including Michael Bublé, Diana Krall, Bryan Adams and McLachlan — showed up at her workshop last year she agreed to take him on as a student.
In many ways Saltzberg epitomizes a new clientele that is injecting the handcrafted guitar market with money and energy: retired baby boomers with time and money ready to pursue “passion projects.” But, says Saltzberg, “the millennial craft movement” is also pushing interest in the industry.
As they worked side by side in the August heat last year through the 100 hours it takes to build a guitar, Saltzberg learned that one of Coloma’s dreams was to raise public awareness of the art and craft of luthiery, and to help the industry grow.
Saltzberg saw an opportunity for a partnership that would connect his music industry background with Coloma’s guitar-building community.
“The dream of instrument makers is to have their instrument in a musician’s hands,” says Coloma. “We are bringing dealers, musicians and clients to builders and to the public. It’s my way of giving back to the community that has brought me so much success.”
The festival will give hobbyists, DIY enthusiasts, musicians and woodworkers a chance to come together and celebrate their craft, purchase tools, tone wood and kits, and attend roundtables where they can connect with mentors and meet some of their guitar heroes.
• For more information on the VIGF, go to vancouverguitarfestival.com