Linda Manzer is an unusual luthier. She builds about 10 guitars a year for exceptional musicians across the genre spectrum: Carlos Santana, Julian Lage, and Gordon Lightfoot, to name a few.
She apprenticed early on with Jean Larrivée, the renowned Canadian guitar maker, and later studied with iconic archtop builder Jimmy D’Aquisto in New York. Her role as a fiercely innovative designer and one of the few elite women luthiers working today gathered momentum when she forged a creative friendship with jazz guitarist Pat Metheny. In 1984, Metheny commissioned Manzer to design and build a guitar with as many strings as possible, resulting in the Pikasso—a 42-stringed, triple-necked acoustic chimera. One of Manzer’s signature innovations, the Wedge, was developed to make the Pikasso more comfortable with the top of the guitar slightly angled back towards the player. We were treated to a glimpse of her converted coach house workshop on a tea-fueled winter day in central Ontario.
Brooklyn Lutherie: You’re such a creative thinker—did you initially feel restricted by the inherent traditionalism in the field?
Linda Manzer: Ha, that’s kind of a complicated question!
We intended for that question to mean design-wise, but we were like, “Wait, could that also refer to gender representation?”
The beauty of when I started is I had no clue how rarified it was to be a female guitar-maker. It was 1974, and at that time there was only a handful of guitar makers in North America. It took me probably two months to even find out that Larrivée existed and then I started phoning him, bugging him … He really didn’t want to hire me, but I talked him into it.
Why do you think he didn’t want to hire you?
Because I was a woman … he told me that. It was like going to work for an auto body shop—it was all guys. But I also have two older brothers, so I was pretty fearless. I was used to fighting my way in. So, I was unfazed by this completely. And one of the times I called him, I said, “I’d like to work for you,” and he said, “Well, I’m a male chauvinist.” In the background I could hear his wife laughing and I thought, if she’s laughing, he can’t be as bad as he thinks he is. I went and did an interview and it was kind of astounding because I remember when I walked up the stairs, David Wren [of Wren Guitar Works] was working on a guitar. He was sitting on this chair with a cup of tea. He was sanding the holes of the classical guitar peghead, a little stick with sandpaper, and he went, “Oh, hello.” And as soon as I saw him doing that with the dusty windows and the yellow light coming through in this old wooden building, I thought, “I want it. This is it.” It was like a bell that resonated. And from that moment on it was basically love at first sight, and that was over 40 years ago.
Are you still in love?
I’m a little older and tired-er, but yes. It’s been an amazing career for me because the guys I worked with, as it turned out, were fantastic. They were funny, they were very supportive … and it just worked out great. The guys in the guitar-making world, and musicians in general, are open-minded. So, it wasn’t an issue for them. I think they liked the idea of having women’s energy in the shop because it made it sort of more humane.
What are you working on in the shop right now?
I’m working on a project involving Canadian painters [from] the ‘20s called The Group of Seven. It occurred to me that there was [a] similarity between their connectedness and the connectedness between this group of seven Toronto luthiers that I build guitars with: Jean Larrivée, [William] Grit Laskin, David Wren, Tony Duggan-Smith, Sergei de Jonge, George Gray, and me. I thought, “Oh, there’s seven of us, and seven of them,” and I said, “Do you guys want to do a tribute to the Group of Seven Painters? One guitar each?” They were all keen [so we] approached a prominent gallery and they have commissioned us to do this project for 2017, which is the 150th anniversary of Canada.
Which artist did you get?
I actually got the one that I wanted the most. His name is Lawren Harris. He painted mountains and was into theosophy, and was quite delightful and wonderful. It’s been quite a journey because I’ve been studying him really deeply for two years now—part of it is my roots, that I went to art college. You know, I was kind of a failed folk singer, and that was how I got into guitar making … and I made the right choice, going into the tangent of the music industry which actually ended up suiting me perfectly because it’s more me—fixing things and making things and creating things. And nobody is subjected to my singing…so…[smiles].
Can you tell us about your guitar design for The Group of Seven project?
It’s influenced by one of his paintings; it’s got two necks and two sound holes. I’m actually going to carve the top a little bit, so it’ll be a combination flat top/archtop, which is sort of weird. The top is actually really, really thick. I’ll carve the recurve into it with a hand plane so it has that nice, kinda sexy archtop look to it. It’s physically hard work. Now I’m at the grinder stage, but [first] I wanted to get a sense of how the wood sounded, which is why I started with a hand tool. I wanted to see how it would cut through, how tight it was, how flexible the wood was, how crisp it was, how tenacious it was, and I was just sort of feeling that. Now I have a sense of it compared to all the other woods.
You can tell all that from the way a blade moves through the wood?
Yeah, and how it sounds, because as it’s going through it’s making a noise and you can tell how bass or crisp or how dense it is. Mostly what you’re feeling is the density of the wood.
We’re curious about the comparison between the violin-making world and the classical-guitar-building tradition. In violin making, it can seem like there’s not a lot of room for different ideas. Have you found that people are sometimes reluctant to accept unusual design approaches?
Yeah. It was like that when I started, especially in the classical world. When Larrivée brought in the cutaway, that was actually pretty radical. I know it’s so hard to believe that now. When I came up with the idea of the wedge for the Pikasso guitar, it was more functional—it would lean the guitar back so you could see over [the top] and then it was comfortable. I started doing it on my normal guitars, but I didn’t tell anybody because I was so afraid I would get drummed out of the guitar world for being radical. It seems ridiculous now with all the innovation and wildness, but it was about 1984 when I did it. It was really radical and I was really nervous about being rejected. In fact, I did [the wedge] on many guitars and didn’t tell people. They wouldn’t even notice, they would just think it was more comfortable. And then I would actually tell them and they would say, “Cool.” So I stuck with it.
It’s interesting to hear that you were nervous when you let some of these things out into the world, things that now are clearly really cool ideas, and have been adopted by a lot of other builders.
Well, I was also trying to make a living, so anything that made me different was actually not good. My big break was Pat Metheny, because he was American. He loved what I did and started buying my guitars and immediately offered to endorse me, and that was huge for my career. That put me on the map. It really made a huge difference.
So, in this case, you are building for a specific musician; but you must get commissions from private collections and museums. How does it affect your experience to know that the instrument is going into a collection rather than to a player?
I think back to the words of [mentor, master archtop builder] Jimmy D’Aquisto [who] said that the guitar always ends up in the hands of the person it’s meant to be in. So, even if the guitar is sitting in a glass case, it just means it’s going to be preserved for [the] right person. You never know where they’re going to end up.