Welcome to the She Shreds Behind the Scenes Monthly Series. Each month we interview women behind the scenes in the guitar and music industry.
“She’s not going to go away, so you might as well just say yes off the bat.”
Polite persistence paid off for Meredith Coloma as a teenager, back when she was an aspiring guitar builder. She was described like this by master guitar builder Roger Sadowsky and the then semi-retired builder Michael Dunn. Haunted by the tone of her childhood guitar instructor’s acoustic Dunn guitar, Coloma approached Michael after working with Sadowsky and completing study at a guitar building school, which taught her how to use tools, but left her desiring additional instruction. She had an idea of the tonal and design quality she was looking for and wanted to get it.
Initially uninterested in taking on a new student, Dunn was intrigued. Who was this young woman that contacted Sadowsky at 17 to learn to make a better guitar? Why was she interested in acoustic instruments after spending time learning how to build electric guitars and basses? While persistent, her politeness grounded their interactions. He decided to check references, calling Sadowsky, who vouched for his former pupil.
Dunn’s decision to work with Meredith marked a turning point in her career. As Meredith puts it, “That was the beginning of my journey into the magical mind of Michael’s creativity. He taught me how to unlearn all my limiting beliefs about building an instrument without jeopardizing, and often improving, the structure and tone.”
Years later, Coloma is still both polite and persistent. She is the owner and founder of multiple businesses: her namesake guitar company (Coloma Guitars, where she builds and repairs instruments and teaches workshops) and Pacific Wood Lab, a workspace equipped with machinery for craftspeople. She also co-produces the Vancouver International Guitar Festival with Shaw Saltzberg, an event-packed experience that mixes builders, clients, and vendors.
In recognition of her work, Coloma received the Top 30 Under 30 Award from BC Business magazine—no small feat, as Coloma was the only craftsperson represented amongst awardees. Between building guitars, teaching workshops, and running her other businesses, Coloma took time out of her schedule to tell She Shreds about her work and give advice to aspiring craftspersons and entrepreneurs.
What is a typical day at your business like? How much time do you spend building instruments versus managing the business?
Teaching my customized courses and workshops to my instrument building students can be for just a couple of hours on weekends or evenings or very intensive; it depends on the student. Sometimes they are local students while others come from far away places, like Qatar. Some are retired hobbyists; some are young people wanting to start a career. There is no typical day.
Because I work with students who have a flight to catch so occasionally, if they sand through something or make an alteration, we work long hours.
Repairs and builds are ongoing, as is marketing and organizing the Festival and growing Pacific Wood Lab.
The Vancouver International Guitar Festival has a staff of three: me, Shaw and our amazing everything person, Jenny. William is my VWL partner and CNC genius. I’m also very lucky to have Henry, my invaluable shop manager, who keeps the shop running when I am away. This allows me to spread my time between everything.
What was your educational experience like? You’ve studied with different builders. It would be fascinating to know how your experience varied over time and in different educational contexts.
I learned the very basics from a guitar school that taught me how to use the tools; I had no background in that so it was very necessary. But the electric and acoustic instruments I was building there weren’t what I wanted. So I went to top specialists in their field: Roger Sadowsky for electric and bass guitars, and Michael Dunn for all types of acoustic stringed instruments.
With Sadowasky, I learned not only about superior tone wood, components and attention to detail but also about running a small business and customer service. Similarly, with Michael Dunn, I learned curved joinery; creative problem solving in building unique instruments; pushing boundaries of design esthetics; and working with non-traditional design methods without compromising on tone.
What’s something that’s misunderstood about your job?
In the most tangible sense, people don’t realize the hours of sanding and grunt work involved. From a more philosophical perspective, however, I have found that builders have resisted collaboration. I enjoy running the festival because we are proving that we can build a stronger industry for everyone if we support each other, challenge and celebrate each other, and match up the right instrument or service to the right builder. We are changing the misunderstanding that we are in competition with each other. We can all win when we support the industry and craftsmanship as a whole.
Could you tell our readers about some of the instruments you’re most proud of making?
Stand out ones are the Sun Guitar and the Tree Guitar. The Sun Guitar was an Art Deco OM guitar with an internal wooden resonator. The Tree Guitar was a lot of detailed joinery and inlay work with over 80 pieces of inlay. In both cases, I was really happy with the tonal outcome. The Sun Guitar had great write ups in Guitar Aficionado Magazine, Fretboard Journal, and Acoustic Guitar Magazine.
The stand out guitar built by one of my students is Trevor’s patchwork guitar that came from me teaching him joinery and him taking it to the next level. That kind of collaborative work gives me a high.
What’s the most challenging thing you’ve ever built?
A business! As a craftsperson, finding a balance of building a profitable business from traditional craftsmanship in one of the most expensive cities in the world is much more challenging than the perplexities of building or repairing any instrument.
What tools do you use to do your job?
A mixture of hand tools and machinery, including a band saw, drum sanders, hand planes, and chisels. My favorite instrument is a 1/16th inch micro-chisel for detailed inlay.
Do you have thoughts on how advances in manufacturing technology (e.g., CNC routers, 3d printers) have impacted the field?
I have CNC machines. There will always be traditional clients that want everything done by hand, and that’s an important tradition that needs to be honored. But for small business owner/craftsman, there is a benefit to embracing technology for certain aspects of the build, like fretboards, bridges, templates and moulds that can allow for more precision and time management.
Having the foundations in handcrafted skill, but embracing technology, allows small business owners a greater likelihood of economic viability and diversity in what we can offer clients. Robots are my friends; but so are my old chisels.
What advice would you give a reader interested in breaking into the field?
I found it effective to invest in basic woodworking and guitar building skills before I applied for individual apprenticeships. I had my own strong ideas on what I wanted to create, but I put that on hold to soak up all the knowledge I could from these experts. Then later, I experimented with combining what I learned from them and my own ideas. Michael was very helpful after my apprenticeship about being open to troubleshooting and problem solving with me on new creations and encouraging me to develop my own style.
Are there any resources (e.g. books, articles, educational programs, etc.) you would recommend to our readers who might be interested in pursuing a career in the field?
Absolutely! Coloma Guitars lol. I offer courses and workshops customized to help you build your own dream guitar.
A few books that I reference often and think every builder should have in their library are Trevor Gore and Gerard Gilet’s Contemporary Acoustic Guitar Design and Build and Ervin Somogyi’s Making the Responsive Guitar trilogy.