When it comes to luthiers, Linda Manzer is one of the world’s finest; renowned for her arch tops, flat tops and harp guitars, her building skills are well-respected in the modern guitar world. Acoustic caught up with the Canadian to find out what’s new
Words: Emily Bielby
It was while on holiday in the UK with her parents that Toronto-based Linda Manzer first heard the Beatles, a discovery which led to her lifelong love affair with the guitar. “I wanted to play like George Harrison. Mostly I was just really excited by their music and was an honest to goodness screaming Beatle maniac,” she admits. “My first guitar was just a prop so that I could play air guitar along with the Beatles but eventually I learnt to play it and started writing my own songs. Thank you Beatles! I was a huge fan of the Beatles and then the North American folk scene of Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and the whole British musical invasion in the 70s. I first became interested in musical instrument making when I went to see Joni Mitchell in concert in the 60s and she was playing a dulcimer and I wanted one.”
That was all it took for the Canadian teen to develop an itch for guitar building. “I went to purchase a dulcimer and it was too expensive so the fellow at the music store talked me into buying a kit that I could assemble that was about half the price. From that day forward I started making dulcimers as a hobby,” she says, before explaining how her route into luthiery started. “I attended two art colleges and I kept finding myself in the woodworking shop until I decided to formally apprentice with somebody; that person turned out to be Jean-Claude Larrivée. I studied with him between 1974 and 1978 and we built over 1,500 flat top acoustic guitars during that time. In 1978 I struck out on my own and had my own shop shared with a light maker above a pool hall in downtown Toronto. A couple of years later I met James D’Aquisto who invited me to visit him in his shop in Long Island and eventually I ended up studying arch top guitar construction with him in his shop in 1983-84 on a part-time basis. It was an incredible experience working with both of these two master builders.”
PAT, PIKASSO AND OTHER STORIES
Conversation quickly moves to design as Linda reveals a little more about her style and inspiration. “My design sense has been inspired by my love of visual art; I went to art colleges and spent a critical time in my youth around very creative people who loved and embraced all forms of the arts.” What is it about arch tops that she loves so much? “I enjoy building arch tops because of the challenge; they are more difficult to build and more sensitive to string tension in a similar way that a classical guitar is. A little change in construction can make a big difference, but I also feel like there’s a special musical magic that can only come out of an arch top – if they are designed and set up just right and of course if they’re in the hands of the right player.” However, arch tops and flat tops are not the only guitars that master luthier Linda is well known for building: the Pikasso guitar, also known as the ‘Manzer Wedge’ is a harp guitar which caught Acoustic’s eye due to the amount of strings it had.
“The Pikasso guitar was made for Pat Metheny; he asked me to make him a guitar with ‘as many strings as possible’ in 1984. We played around with several ideas but finally settled on the design that seemed possible for me to make and for him to play. The ‘Manzer Wedge’ came about through a discussion I had with my friend and guitar maker Tony Duggan-Smith. Tony is a terrific idea person. The idea of squeezing the upper bout which is underneath your playing arm and widening it on the knee side was so that the top would lean back and the player would be able to see all the strings. Because there were 42 strings crisscrossing I wanted Pat to be able to look down on the strings instead of across them. It worked but it turned out to be incredibly comfortable as well, so I started doing it on all my guitars.”
Since designing the Pikasso guitar, Linda has gone on to design and build about 12 original multi-necked and multi-string harp instruments and has just finished a 50-string instrument for Canadian musician Terry Tufts. In all, she’s built probably 25 original guitars for jazz musician Pat Metheny, covering all genres, including some that have never been built before – big, small, harp guitars, sitar guitars, baritone guitars, the list is long. “The thing about working with Pat is he loves to encourage people to push the envelope and he was unbelievably supportive of anything I tried to do. He is a dream to work with,” says Linda. “I’ve also just finished building 30 guitars that Pat and I co-designed to celebrate our 30 years of collaboration and friendship, called the Metheny Manzer series. This guitar series is designed and based on the original first instrument that I made for Pat in 1981. I tried to emulate the vibe of that first guitar by selecting woods I thought would duplicate the sound of that first guitar. Then we added an elaborate hand cut intricate inlay based on Pat’s drawings and then some newer design features including the Manzer Wedge. It’s a limited signed edition that both Pat and I have signed plus there is a book that accompanies it signed by both of us. The series is almost entirely sold out, there are only a few left.”
A DAY IN THE LIFE…
Traditionally, arch top guitars are made with curly maple back and sides with a spruce top. How fussy is Linda with her wood selections? “I have tried different woods for the back such as koa, walnut and for the top, cedar. Really the trick with selecting wood is to just close your eyes – ignore what kind of wood it is and be sensitive to what the potential is. Even if you’re using the same species of wood, there are tremendous variations depending on how the wood was cut and how old the tree was. It’s an inexact science that requires following your intuition. Over the years I’ve amassed a really incredible collection of woods that I’m now getting around to using. As unscientific as it sounds, I prefer to buy wood from people I like and trust. I actually think the journey the wood has taken makes a difference. So that’s part of what I’m deciding when I’m selecting woods.”
A typical Manzer day starts pretty much the same as anyone else’s: with a list of things to accomplish that day. She’s happy if about half of them get done.
“I usually start doing something easy just to get the motor running, then the challenging stuff, and then the more mundane tasks later in the day when I’m less focused. If I get a second wind, look out! Sometimes if I have intense deadlines I’ll work an 18-hour day – I love getting lost in the work. I pinch myself every day that I get to do this for a living. Not only do I get paid to do what I love but the extra reward is I get to be part of somebody else’s creative journey. A lot of people ask me if I get sad when a guitar leaves my studio after all the hours I put into it and at first I used to have trouble letting them go but now I realise the moment they go out the door, that’s the beginning of their life.”
How should someone enquire about a custom order? “The first thing I want to know is what their intention is acoustically: the most important thing about a guitar is how it sounds. Secondly, you want it to technically work so it’s easy to play and suits their playing style with string tension, neck shape, body size and this is where I really need their input. The third and least important – but most fun – aspect is what it looks like; where I get to have fun and play. I love designing guitars so this is my favourite part; deciding which woods to assemble to get the sound I want, drawing shapes, lots of design on paper – this part can be very creative. One of the most rewarding aspects for me is carving necks, even though you can have measurements to guide you – it’s all about the feel. I love it when you get it just right. The hardest part is the finish. Every guitar maker on the planet will tell you they’ve had nightmare scenarios with trying to make a guitar as shiny as possible – you can get everything just right and find one little blemish that may force you to refinish the entire guitar.”