All the Right Notes

A pioneering group of Canadian guitar makers is shaping the sound of music around the world.

Fifty-two. That’s the number of strings on Toronto-based guitar maker Linda Manzer’s Medusa, owned by Danish jazz musician Henrik Andersen. It’s the most strings she’s put on a single guitar – a step up from her 1984 Pikasso, named as such for its Cubist inspiration, which only has 42.

“The thing about the Pikasso – to walk onstage with a guitar like that, you can’t just play anything ordinary. You have to rise to the occasion,” Manzer says. The Pikasso’s owner, American jazz-guitar virtuoso Pat Metheny, still plays it, along with the 25 or so other guitars Manzer has made for him. “Each one has a different sound; each triggers a different side of him, musically,” she says.

Linda Manzer

Manzer is a revered luthier whose guitars possess a tonal quality she describes as bell-like, with a piano-like fullness. She aims, in particular, for clarity and the ability to sustain a note: “Sometimes people would call that a dark sound.” That sound resonates with musicians around the world; as a solo worker, she has a year-long waiting list and makes about a dozen guitars a year, each ranging in price from $20,000 to $55,000.

Linda Manzer has a year-long waiting list, with guitars ranging in price from $20,000
to $55,000.

Guitars in Canada with that kind of price tag are made by an inner circle of masters who painstakingly pore over even the minutest details, from the angle of the neck to intricate inlay art. Client lists like Manzer’s are extensive, marked by household names such as Carlos Santana and Gordon Lightfoot. The bulk of her client base, however, is dominated by people the average person may have never heard of – the session musicians, the backing band members, the solo guitarists and the singer-songwriters behind some of the world’s favourite music.

Manzer has been honing her craft since 1974, when, at the age of 22 and after having made a few dulcimers (a kind of zither) in between attending art-school classes, she set her sights on becoming a guitar maker. She caught wind of Jean Larrivée, a luthier from a small community near Montreal who’d settled in Toronto, and called him up repeatedly to ask him to teach her. He finally agreed, inviting her to visit his workshop. “As soon as I walked into his shop, I knew. I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”

Larrivée hired her as his apprentice – making her the first woman to fill the role, and the country’s first female luthier. Excited to have found a mentor who could show her the ropes, Manzer joined Larrivée’s first cohort of apprentices: George Gray, David Wren, Tony Duggan-Smith, William “Grit” Laskin and Sergei de Jonge. Together with Larrivée, they form the informal Canadian school of guitar making – the originals who pioneered the craft and the keepers of the Canadian tradition. All are accomplished luthiers, although Manzer’s natural propensity to make unusual and experimental guitars has made her stand out.

Linda Manzer works on a new guitar frame

Veteran luthier Linda Manzer works on a new guitar frame in her Toronto workshop.

“Even as an apprentice, on my very first guitar with Larrivée, I changed two of the design features on his guitars,” she says. She had modified the neck joint and the depth of the body, neither of which yielded particularly good results. The experience did teach her an invaluable lesson, however: “You’ve got to have a purpose for experimenting.”

Beat of his own strum

Jean Larrivée is exhausted.

It’s the start of December, and he’s just come back from Europe, where he drove 7,500 kilometres visiting distributors, consulting with wood dealers and holding guitar clinics.

“I’m always working. I work all the time,” says the 72-year-old guitar maker who now lives in Oxnard, California, near Santa Barbara. He moved there from British Columbia in 2000, setting up a U.S. production facility to more easily access the American market, which constitutes a majority of his clientele.

Larrivée was born in L’Abord-à-Plouffe, a community north of Montreal that no longer exists, in name. He began his working life as an auto mechanic, which eventually led him to the General Motors factory near Toronto in the mid-1960s. Not long after, he met German luthier Edgar Mönch at a concert, telling him, “I would give anything to learn how to make guitars.” To which Mönch replied, “Come tomorrow!” Under Mönch’s tutelage, Larrivée built his first guitar at the age of 22.

He learned quickly, developing a particular style early on that would set him apart from American guitar makers like the Martin company. He made his guitars smaller, with steel strings rather than the nylon ones typically used on classical guitars. He’s known in the guitar-making world for his bracing style, called X-bracing, a hugely influential strutting method used to create well-balanced instruments. “The bracing – I made mine without looking at anybody else,” says Larrivée, pointing out that the books and videos that exist today to teach people the art of guitar building did not exist then. “I just played it by ear.”

Manzer's first guitar (left); guitar in progress (right)

Manzer built her first Pikasso guitar over 30 years ago for jazz artist Pat Metheny (left); Manzer shows off a guitar in progress (right).

To date, the Larrivée company has produced well over 140,000 custom and standard guitars, some of which have gone to musicians like Peter Yarrow (Peter, Paul and Mary), Brad Paisley and Bruce Cockburn, the latter of whom also has several Manzer guitars.

The Canadian guitar-making heroes, who started as apprentices, still see each other from time to time. The six, plus Larrivée, were recently reunited to participate in an art project for the McMichael Museum, in Vaughan, Ontario, in which they are each creating one guitar for each of the Canadian painters in the Group of Seven. They met in Quebec to create an eighth guitar for Tom Thomson, a painter who influenced the Group of Seven but who died before it formed. “It turned out to be an incredible three days,” Manzer says of the group project. “It was like walking into a time machine, to one of the happiest times of my life when I was an apprentice.”

Into the woods

On Michael Greenfield’s wall hangs a photo of him with Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards. The Montreal luthier met Richards when the Stones were coming through town in 2006; a personal connection hooked him up with the guitarist’s management, who told him he could build a guitar on spec for Richards.

Richards bought the guitar, and several months later asked for another. “I think it’s as cool as it gets. You wanna talk about an icon?” says Greenfield. Other notable clients include famed Celtic guitarist Tony McManus and Andy McKee, a world-renowned fingerstyle guitar player with hundreds of millions of YouTube views.

Greenfield’s workshop sits on the top floor of a 100-year-old loft building, where he and his assistant, Julien Saint-Jalmes, make handcrafted custom guitars. Together, they produce a couple dozen guitars a year. Greenfield is particularly obsessed with perfecting his guitars’ tone, achieved through dozens of intricate details that include revising the guitar’s geometry, bracing and wood thicknesses, as well as consulting physicists and a prototype machinist at McGill University.

Michael Greenfield creates a custom guitar

Michael Greenfield creates a custom guitar in his workshop on the top floor of a century-old Montreal loft building.

But first and foremost, Greenfield is all about wood – so much so that he’s referred to as “the wood whisperer” in a 2016 Acoustic Guitar article. He’s got stacks of mahogany, maple, spruce, cedar and African blackwood, all cultivated from the far reaches of the globe; all the woods have designated purposes, from necks, to sides, to tops and bottoms.

“I like buying wood with a story,” he says, pointing to a guitar awaiting completion. It’s made from the wood of a single Honduran tree known simply as “The Tree” – a legendary mahogany that was felled in 1965 and left for nearly two decades before being removed from the jungle. The rarest wood from The Tree has a beautiful, rich tortoiseshell pattern, making it one of the most precious and sought-after guitar-making woods on the planet. Its rarity has also made it extraordinarily expensive, and guitars made with it are commensurately so. However, his non-Tree guitars currently start at US$10,400.

The cost of a handcrafted custom guitar by a deeply skilled luthier may be prohibitive to some, but the experience is unlike any other. The kind of connection the guitar maker has to the instrument – and by extension, to its owner – is uniquely profound.

“It’s a very intimate journey for me, from start to finish,” says Manzer. And the journey doesn’t end simply when the guitar is carried out of her shop by a musician: “They are wrapping their arms around this thing you made and pouring their soul into it.” Once, Manzer was in a shop when a familiar-sounding song came on over the PA system; she paused, recognizing the guitar in the recording as one of her own. “I don’t want to take credit for how amazing the musicians are, but being part of that is just incredible. They give me a lot of credit for their sound, but I’m just a catalyst.”

The List: Fall 2017
Read the next article

The List: Fall 2017

From dining to style, Canadian culture stays ahead of the curve.