Expert Testimony: Making Guitars for Stars

Given by Canadian luthier Linda Manzer to Jim Roberts

Linda Manzer

“Linda’s guitars are amazing—beyond amazing, actually,” says Pat Metheny, praising Canadian luthier Linda Manzer, who has been building instruments for him since the 1980s. “There is a certain mixture of diligence and artistry in a classic instrument that allows it to grow and change and blossom over time. There is a sense that some instruments have of being alive. Linda’s guitars have that, and then some. A lot of what makes her guitars so special is how special she is. Linda is a fantastic person, and I feel her personality and presence in her instruments in a unique and special way.”

Based in Toronto, Manzer works mostly solo in her shop, hand-building a small number of acoustic guitars every year for demanding customers such as Metheny, singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn, and jazz guitarist Julian Lage ’09. Her line includes steel-string and nylon-string acoustics as well as archtops and custom creations such as the 42-string Pikasso guitar she built for Metheny.

Manzer traces her interest in luthiery back to a Joni Mitchell concert she attended as a teenager. “Joni was playing a dulcimer, and I wanted one,” she says. “I went to the Folklore Centre in Toronto, and there was one for sale for $150, which I couldn’t afford—but there was a kit for half the price. A guy there talked me into buying it, and I’m grateful for that.” The kit led to more woodworking projects, and Manzer says “the bug bit me.” After high school, she enrolled at an art college, thinking that she might want to be a painter—but soon realized that her interest in music, design, and woodworking could be combined in building guitars. In 1974, she convinced luthier Jean Larrivée to accept her as an apprentice in his shop, where she remained for three-and-a-half years before she started her own business, Manzer Guitars (www.manzer.com).

How did you know it was time to open your own shop?

I just felt I was ready. Of course I wasn’t, really, but the baby bird has to leave the nest at some point. From the moment I walked into Larrivée’s shop, the moment that I saw what they were doing, I knew that was what I wanted to do.

Was it tough going at first?

Yes, but I was OK with being poor. I was going to do it with or without the money. At first, I sold my guitars through a store. They did all the marketing and introduced me to the players in Toronto. One of my first customers was Gordon Lightfoot. The store owner searched for me to tell me that they’d sold him one of my guitars. I was in a restaurant, and he came rushing in to tell me. I almost had a heart attack.

How did you learn to build archtops?

After I’d been in business for about five years, I got a call from Jimmy D’Aquisto. He called me because of an article he’d read where I mentioned him. We ended up talking and becoming friends. One thing led to another, and I went down to his shop on Long Island and studied with him. His philosophy was that the archtop can do everything. It’s the most versatile guitar—but it’s much harder to build. To me, it’s still the most complex of all the instruments. If you get it right, it’s amazing, but it’s easy not to get it right.

How did you meet Pat Metheny?

I saw him at a concert in 1978 or ’79, and it was like my earth went off its axis—in a really good way. I connected so completely with what he was playing; it was one of those moments. About a year and half after that, I sent a note backstage at a Pat Metheny Group concert in Toronto. I had an apprentice from Denmark, and he conspired with Pat’s drummer at the time [Danny Gottlieb] to have me go back to their hotel with my guitars. I took two guitars so Pat could see what I was doing. He ordered one that was a combination of the two, and I delivered it two months later. I saw him about a week later, and he offered to endorse me. I went, “Wow!”

What’s the story behind the Pikasso guitar?

I started it in 1983, after a conversation with Pat in Boston. He was in his office, doing a lot of interviews, and in between we would talk. He said, “How many strings can you put on a guitar?” So I said, “How many do you want?” At first I came up with a design with all the strings parallel, but he said, “No, how about all over the place,” and he did a windmill thing with his hands. So I thought, He wants them all crisscrossing. I started drawing stuff, and it took about four months to come up with a design that could work. I went nuts, and then we reined it in to something that was physically practical—something that he could play without injuring himself [laughs]. From when he ordered it to when he got it was about nine months.

You’ve had a long and productive relationship with Pat. How many guitars have you built for him?

I’ve lost count, actually—I think it’s around 25. Pat is really good at pushing the envelope. He’s good at encouraging the people around him to explore artistically. I have this lovely safety net with him, where I build a guitar for him and then he’ll adjust to it and see the best in it. Sometimes he would ask for something and I would do my best to nail it, but if it was not exactly what he thought it was going to be, he would still come up with something quite spectacular musically, using that guitar. He’s got endless ideas and he’s really positive. He just goes forward.

Aside from your ongoing collaborations with Pat, what else have you been working on recently?

I’m right in the middle of a project with seven other guitar builders that is going to be in a gallery [the McMichael Canadian Art Collection] later this year. The others are Grit Laskin, Sergie de Jonge, David Wren, Jean Larrivée, George Gray, and Tony Duggan-Smith. We’ve been working on it for about four years. It’s a collection of eight guitars honoring a group of painters that are not well known outside of Canada but are beloved here; they were called the Group of Seven. My artist for this project is Lawren Harris. The eighth guitar is for Tom Thomson, who died prior to the group forming but is associated with them. Each of us has built a guitar for one of those artists, and collectively we’re building the eighth guitar for Tom Thomson.

What advice would you give to someone who’s considering a career as a luthier?

I would encourage a new luthier to keep good records and document as much as you can with each guitar. That way, you can see where you’ve been and know where you might want to go. I wish I had kept better records. If you make mistakes—and we all do—learn from them and move forward. The more experience you get, the better builder you will be, so just do it. And remember the guitar is not for you; it’s for the musician. Try to inspire them!

It must be gratifying to build a guitar and then hear what someone like Pat Metheny or Bruce Cockburn does with it.

I never get tired of it. It actually blows my mind that I get to work with these people. I still can’t believe that this has happened to me. I’m incredibly grateful.