Guitar maker champions use of local woods
Quebec luthier using Vancouver festival to promote value of locally sourced wood
In the world of high-end guitars, there are two kinds of buyers.
There are the musicians who get by with their reliable workhorse instruments, the Larrivees, Martins, Gibsons and Taylors.
Then there are the collectors — aficionados with deep pockets who scout hand-crafted instruments that feature exotic woods and meticulous artistic detailing. These enthusiasts, who may or may not play guitar, collect them the way other wealthy buyers collect wine or fine art or cars.
The emergence of guitar shows around the globe, like Berlin’s Holy Grail and the Vancouver International Guitar Festival, scheduled for Aug. 11-12 at Creekside Community Centre, are a testament to this emerging trend, attracting musicians, aficionados, luthiers (guitar builders) and music fans.
Quebec luthier Marc Saumier who will be at the VIGF in August, is determined to build a bridge between the two guitar collecting communities when he brings his “local wood challenge” to guitar builders at the Vancouver festival. The local wood challenge was originally run at Berlin’s 2016 Holy Grail guitar show, and Saumier was so excited about it, he decided to bring it to Canada.
In addition to workshops, concerts, guitar demos and craft workshops, some of the world’s top luthiers will present guitars crafted entirely from local B.C. woods such as Sitka spruce, red cedar, curly maple — perhaps even reclaimed or salvaged woods.
Collectible hand-crafted guitars often feature rare and exotic woods such as Ebony, African blackwood or rosewood on their sides, backs or necks, but are generally considered too valuable and impractical for touring musicians, Saumier said in a phone interview from his home in Quebec.
Saumier, who has always specialized in using local wood to build guitars that are both beautiful and functional, wants locally sourced woods to get the respect they deserve.
“Rosewood, ebony and mahogany are very stable and they sound good,” said Saumier, “but their use doesn’t reflect best sustainability and ecological practices.”
Many exotic and tropical woods prized for high-end guitars, such as Brazilian rosewood, are considered endangered and their use is restricted under the international CITES agreement (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora).
“If you show up at a border with a guitar made of one of the protected woods, and you don’t have paperwork to show its wood was harvested responsibly, you could lose the guitar,” said Saumier.
For luthiers, the wood issue is double edged, said Saumier: Collectors willing to pay top dollar for an instrument want something unique or rare — the beauty of bubinga or African blackwood.
“It takes 100 to 200 hours to build a guitar, and you want to be able to sell it for a good price. It’s never sure you’ll sell a local wood guitar, but one of the goals of the challenge is to educate the buying public.”
There is no place better to hold the challenge than B.C., which supplies 80 per cent of the tone wood to the global guitar market.
B.C.’s Englemann and Sitka spruce are two of the most sought after B.C. woods, but Dave Nadin of Bow River woods in Chilliwack has seen a growing interest in other domestic woods. “There is more interest in local woods. None of it’s endangered and it’s a renewable resource. It’s wonderful to see a nice piece of cherry used for a guitar rather than flooring,” said Dave Nadin who sources wood for Bow River.
“Cherry was once considered one of the best tone woods by European builders and now because cherry (is cheap) it’s considered a bad wood,” said Saumier.
As a local-wood luthier who uses found and fallen cherry, butternut and Maple, Saumier says he has often felt like “the poor kid on the block.”
When he attended his first guitar show in 2009, Saumier says the flashier guitars made of rosewood and mahogany were getting all the attention. “They were calling me the crazy Frenchman because I was using wood from my neighbours’ farms.”
But interest in regionally sourced woods has been steadily growing as sustainability and protection of natural resources become more important — and Saumier believes using locally sourced wood is the way of the future.
Historically, European stringed instruments were always made from local wood: maple, spruce, boxwood, cherry and cypress. The transport of exotic woods like Brazilian rosewood and mahogany was linked to colonization and exploitation of resources.
In a way, says Saumier, using regionally sourced woods is a return to the origins of the craft. The local wood challenge doesn’t offer a cash prize, and there won’t be a winner but if a conversation is started, that’s good enough for Saumier.
“The challenge to guitar makers is to start thinking out of the box,” says Saumier.
Dozens of luthiers will be on site at the Vancouver International Guitar Festival Aug. 11-12 to showcase their handmade guitars, among them Vancouver luthier Michael Dunn who will be awarded the 2018 Luthier Industry Builder Award.