Guitar maker Robert Godin aims to make instruments that open up new sonic possibilities

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      Were Robert Godin a philosopher, he’d most likely be a disciple of Jeremy Bentham, the 18th-century Brit who famously coined the maxim “the greatest happiness of the greatest number is the measure of right and wrong.”

      The founder and CEO of Canada’s largest guitar company has certainly made thousands of musicians happy, mostly with very good guitars that sell for even better prices. (Parent company Godin Guitars has a number of entry-level sublines, including Seagull, Art & Lutherie, and Norman.) He’s brought hundreds of jobs to economically depressed areas, notably eastern Quebec and New Hampshire. By using locally sourced trees such as birch, silverleaf maple, and Canadian cherry, he’s kept his carbon footprint low while relieving pressure on stocks of the endangered tropical hardwoods favoured by other guitar makers.

      “Why use rosewood?” he says in a telephone interview from Montreal. “I use wood that grows around here, that’s got some chance to regrow, you know.”

      But primarily, he says, he’s interested in “making instruments that musicians need”. Instruments, in particular, that open up new sonic possibilities, or that bring ancient designs such as the Spanish guitar into the modern, amplified world.

      Godin, who began working with guitars in the 1960s as a much-in-demand repairman in Montreal, opened his first factory in 1972, going into business with a former manufacturer of wooden window frames. His first instruments were tough, affordable steel-string acoustics meant to offer a quality alternative to the inferior Japanese-made instruments then in vogue, but he soon identified a different and somewhat higher-end market niche: Latin music.

      “Latin music started to get known in the ’60s and really came on strong in the ’90s, but there were no instruments to play it on—not guitars, anyway,” he notes. “Then I created the Multiac.”

      A thin-bodied, spruce-topped nylon-string guitar, the Multiac is equipped with a high-end pickup system, allowing Latin players to share stages with loud percussionists and powerful brass sections. Not surprisingly, the model has also been adopted by an array of rock and jazz performers. Godin’s also adapted Multiac technology to steel-string and 12-string instruments, and he’s especially proud of his electric oud, which solves an assortment of problems that have long bedevilled players of that Middle Eastern lute.

      The innovations continue, as Godin will explain during his keynote address at this weekend’s Vancouver International Guitar Festival, which brings together dozens of luthiers both innovative and traditional, along with an avid crowd of players and guitar fans.

      “We have a nice team of researchers, and we’re always in development,” he says. “I can’t say more now, other than we’re inventing machines to test the wood, to verify each piece. And this is something. Why do we say this acoustic guitar is a thousand dollars, and the next one is three thousand? Nobody can answer,” the master luthier continues. “They all say, ‘Well, it’s nice wood,’ but what means nice wood? Nothing. But now, with McGill University in Montreal, we’ve invented testing machines, and we’re going to come out with a new certification [program] where you’re going to be able to read the resonance on a sheet of paper attached to the guitar.”

      In other words, Godin’s builders will be able to tailor individual instruments to a particular sonic profile, while ensuring greater consistency across the entire production line—and that’s going to make even more guitarists very, very happy.

      The Vancouver International Guitar Festival runs at the Creekside Community Recreation Centre on Saturday and Sunday (June 29 and 30). For a full festival schedule, visit the Vancouver Guitar Festival website.

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