Vancouver Guitar Fest spotlights original craftsmen

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      More than a half-century on from his apprenticeship in Spain, Michael Dunn recalls some good advice—advice that continues to inform the various guitars and ukuleles that emerge, slowly, from his East Vancouver workshop.

      “One of my maestros, a guitarmaker I worked with, said that you should be able to take a close-up picture of six different parts of a guitar, and anybody looking at them should be able to tell that they all come from the same instrument,” Dunn relates, in a telephone interview from his home. And that, he doesn’t need to add, should be easy enough to do when it comes to his own creations. Although they owe a stylistic debt to early-20th-century innovators such as Mario Maccaferri and Chris Knutsen, Dunn’s guitars also often incorporate elements drawn from visual-arts movements such as cubism and art deco.

      No one else builds instruments that look like his.

      The same could be said of Joe Yanuziello and Ervin Somogyi, two of the many master luthiers who will join Dunn at the second annual Vancouver International Guitar Festival this weekend. Yanuziello, who made cabinetry for high-end retail stores before turning to lutherie full-time, has a jeweller’s attention to detail, custom-fabricating his own metal parts and finishing his electric guitars and mandolin-family instruments in an array of gemlike colours. Somogyi, a contemporary of Dunn’s and one of the key architects of the ongoing rise of the handmade guitar, has an uncanny eye for wood’s innate beauty and a penchant for intricate carvings that take their inspiration from historical instruments, Arabic geometry, and Asian painting styles.

      All make functional objects that double as art. And all will make something for you, if you have deep pockets and comparable patience. But there’s more to commissioning a guitar than buying something beautiful that will sit on a stand or in a corner cabinet; ideally, the handmade guitar is a collaboration between builder and client, and different luthiers will allow for differing degrees of customization.

      Dunn, for instance, isn’t entirely keen on ceding control of the aesthetic dimension. “If they want an artistic guitar, so to speak, I say, ‘Can you just let me have carte blanche? I’ll make you something really nice,’ ” he explains. “’Cause I try to make the whole thing holistically.” But that also includes assessing ergonomic and sonic needs, which are arguably more important than the visual dimension.

      “First of all, I’m a guitar player,” Dunn says. “I’ve been playing all my life, so I can spot certain features of somebody. I’ll ask somebody to play something on their guitar, or on a guitar. I just want to watch their hands. I want to listen to what they play and
      I want to see what they do with the instrument, because that gives me some idea of what they’ll need.”

      Somogyi is similarly attentive. “My method or technique or preferred way to do that is to talk to the client quite a bit,” he explains from his Oakland, California, home. “I try to figure out ‘Who is this person, and is there anything that they want that’s beyond or over and above or in addition to the things that they’re telling me?’ Because usually they tell me bare-bones things. You know, ‘I’d like an OM cutaway guitar in Brazilian rosewood,’ or something like that. So I try to ascertain…what kind of sound is it that they would prefer without knowing that it might be important to include in the conversation.”

      Sometimes, of course, it’s not only the clients who get what they want. Somogyi cites how one customer’s unusual request for “drop-dead fabulous bass response” led him into a deeper study of the physics of stringed instruments; he’s now an authority on that topic, and has written a pair of books on “the responsive guitar”. And input from client Kevin Breit, a Toronto-based but internationally recognized session musician and multi-instrumentalist, helped Yanuziello develop his Cupcake and Stella Bella Strada models.

      We can’t reveal too much about the latter, which will make its public debut at the guitar festival. But the former came from the peripatetic Breit’s need for a fully functioning electric guitar that he could carry as overhead baggage, and has since become a popular addition to Yanuziello’s line. “It’s kind of a big-boy guitar, but it’s really small,” Yanuziello reports from his home near Niagara Falls, Ontario. “The nice thing is that whenever somebody suggests something, it gives me an opportunity to really think on it.”

      Sometimes, too, client requests can be entertainingly odd—like slide-guitar specialist and Vancouver Island MusicFest artistic director Doug Cox’s most recent commission from Dunn, which incorporates slivers of wood from blues great Muddy Waters’s childhood home.

      “They’re very small pieces, nothing solid enough that I could use them as inlay or anything,” Dunn says. “They’ll be under glass in the headstock of the guitar. So that’s fun; that kind of thing is a joy to do.”

      The Vancouver International Guitar Festival takes place at Creekside Community Centre on Saturday and Sunday (August 11 and 12). For more information, visit