Linda Manzer of Manzer Guitars is one of the top luthiers in Canada, her work created and played by Pat Metheny, Bruce Cockburn, Paul Simon, Gordon Lightfoot, Carlos Santana, Stephen Fearing, and more. One of her most striking and famous requests was the 42-stringed three-neck Pikasso, made in 1984 for Metheny, which he still plays today.
Manzer began apprenticing in 1974, and almost 50 years later, is still hand-creating her wooden masterpieces in her Almonte, Ontario workshop. The Toronto-born artisan spoke with NMC Amplify about getting into this line of work, her mentors, signature style, and proudest moments.
What led you to guitar making? Obviously, it’s an extremely unusual occupation.
I have told this story a thousand times. I actually got to tell this story in person to the person responsible for me starting in October, which was amazing.
So I went to see a Joni Mitchell concert at Mariposa. I was a singer-songwriter, not very good, and she was playing a lap instrument called the dulcimer. And afterwards, I wanted one, so I went to buy one and it was too expensive. It was $150. And the fellow at the Toronto Folklore Centre convinced me to buy a kit that I could assemble myself for half the price. And I argued with him. I said, ‘I can’t do that.’ And he said, ‘No, you can do it.’ And we argued until I bought the kit for 75 bucks. And then I went home and built it. And the rest is history.
I didn’t even know they sold kits like that.
Back then, yeah. It was it was a long time ago. I still have that instrument. It’s pretty rough. I didn’t have any tools, but I figured out how to make it. And the pure joy of stringing up a musical instrument, and hearing it sing for the first time, is quite intoxicating. And that’s how I got hooked right away.
How did you learn the next steps, the type of wood to use, all kinds of components that go into making an instrument that’s useable and professional?
I was self-taught for a few years. I continued to make dulcimers. I was doing it in the woodworking shop of two different art colleges that I went to. I was doing it as a hobby. Then I realized about 1974, when I was at one of those art colleges, that I wanted to actually get curious about making instruments because I was not a terrific singer, songwriter, guitar player, and I wasn’t, I don’t think, a great painter. But I was really keen about making these dulcimers. So I decided to hunt for a teacher, and that’s when I found Jean-Claude Larrivée in Toronto. I was at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design at the time, and I returned to Toronto, my hometown, and took an apprenticeship with Jean-Claude Larrivée for about three and a half years.
Did you encounter any resistance as a female, or were you always shown and given respect?
I was given tremendous resistance from Larrivée himself. And he said he didn’t want to hire me because he was a male chauvinist — I think he called himself a male chauvinist.
In a joking way?
Well, this was 1974. I think it was even called the ‘year of the woman’ or something, and feminism was just starting to become a word that everybody knew about. There were lots of people talking about the issue. But my answer to him, because in the background I could hear his wife laughing, and I thought, ‘Okay, he can’t be that bad if his wife is laughing at him saying that.’ And I said, ‘Well, I don’t care if you don’t care,’ being the great feminist that I was in 1974. And that was the right answer. And he said, ‘Okay, we’ll try it.’
Turned out he was not a male chauvinist pig. He, in fact, advocated for me in some crucial moments. He just was nervous about having a woman because it was all men. Yes, some places I was not made to feel welcome, but in my actual shop with all my coworkers, I could not have been with a more supportive bunch of guys. They lifted me up, they supported me, they defended me, they treated me as an equal with great respect. And they are still my family and buddies to this day.
What you do is an art and like music, or any type of art, it is created by you and only you. When you branched out on your own, trying to make your name for yourself, how did you reach buyers so that they would purchase a Linda Manzer instrument versus someone else’s?
Because Larrivée had been my teacher, and then later another builder called Jimmy D’Aquisto, who built Archtops, I had a ready-made audience for people who knew those two teachers. So I started selling my guitars at the Toronto Folklore Centre, and they introduced my guitars to people walking into the store, and I slowly started to get a reputation. And then the moment somebody well-known buys one of your guitars, instantly all their followers, or people who watch them, know who you are. So the first major celebrity was Carlos Santana, followed by Gordon Lightfoot. And then, shortly after, somebody who I ended up having a decades-long relationship with to this day, Pat Metheny, then they would be selling my guitars more than I was. So it was really word of mouth.
When did you start including your signature on the instrument?
Stephen Fearing wanted me to put my signature in the peghead of one of my guitars. I didn’t have anything at the very beginning because it felt too much like branding and being part of corporate, but he really wanted my name on the peghead, so I started doing it after that.
What would you say distinguishes your work from someone else’s?
My thing? My thing is that I work alone primarily. I do have a couple of people who help me with certain things, but everything from start to finish has got my vibe in it. So it’s artistically, acoustically, my building style. All of us who started with Larrivée — and there would be other builders like [William] “Grit” Laskin, David Wren, Tony Duggan-Smith, George Gray, and Sergei de Jonge, they all had their own style that was similar when we left Larrivée. But as we all grew and evolved personally, all of our instruments went in our own personal direction. So there’s a visual style that is mine. There’s millions of guitars out there, but I can spot one of my guitars from pretty far away, the way it looks. I think people know my guitars, acoustically; I have a particular sound that is a little bit distinct.
You have an 18-month wait list, but how long does it take to build one?
I make many types of guitars, but a flat top guitar probably takes over a hundred hours, maybe 150 and an archtop, which is where you carve it — the wood’s more like a cello so you’re actually hogging off lots of wood by hand — those take about 200 to 250 hours. So I’m making about six guitars a year now.
Is your work sought-after by recreational players as well as professionals?
Yeah, actually I would say it is more of those, than the celebrities. My guitars are expensive and most professional musicians don’t have tons of money. So the people who do are collectors and hobbyists. So people who have a day job, so they can afford the guitar they want. I would say it’s about a third professional players and about two-thirds people who just really enjoy the guitar.
What’s the buying process if they want a Linda Manzer custom guitar. What are the questions you ask them, from the type of wood to inlays to maybe even what climate they live in?
They usually get in touch with me via email. It can all be done via email. Some people I’ve never spoken to, but a lot of people I end up having a conversation with just so we get a sense of each other and I can get a sense of ‘why are they coming to me?’ Are they coming because of a particular famous player, they’ve heard their record has it and they want something like that? And what do they want visually? What’s the most important thing? Is it how it sounds? Is it how it feels? Is it how it looks? And I get a sense of who they are. I take notes and then they send me a deposit, and then they have to wait.
What is the lowest to highest price?
$15,000 to $40,000 or $50,000. Basically, the sky’s the limit.
How would an aspiring luthier get their foot in the door today?
Well, it’s a lot easier for somebody than it was for me, because there was nothing when I started. The only way you could learn, other than finding one book with hardly any information in it, was to apprentice. Nowadays, you can find almost everything you need online, but the best thing to do is do it in person. There’s several schools. One of them is in Chelsea, Quebec. Sergei de Jonge School of Lutherie — who is one of littermates from the Larrivée days — he has a school that takes about five or six students. I always recommend people go there because I think he’s the best teacher in the country. There are other schools around that people can go to and then just get started, find some way to get started. There are oodles of information in the form of books. And now there’s places that supply all the materials and tools and everything you need. There are thousands and thousands of guitar makers. When I started, there was a handful in North America.
Have you mentored others the way you were mentored?
I’ve had three apprentices in my career. One of them I work part-time with a little bit. He and I share my shop occasionally. I also taught somebody in Denmark. And then Peggy White, who’s in Fogo Island, is building guitars. She was one of my students. If anybody asks me questions, I try to answer.
What for you have been the proudest moments? Is it seeing a big artist play your guitar at a special concert, or knowing they wrote a particular song with it, or something else?
There’s a few really high points. The first time I saw Pat Metheny playing my guitar live at Ontario Place in 1981, I was shocked because I had no idea that he was going to perform on stage with it. It was the very first instrument I made him. He played this amazing song called ‘First Circle,’ which is just this crescendo of a huge beautiful song. That was a highlight.
But I would say that one of the biggest highlights of my life happened actually last October, with the Sunflower Guitar project. That’s the guitar fundraising for humanitarian aid in Ukraine and raising awareness. The guitar I made will eventually end up in Ukraine, but, meanwhile, it’s going through the hands of a lot of well-known musicians and I have a team helping me put it in those hands. But last October I was able to go to Joni Mitchell’s home and meet her, place it in her hands, and spend a couple of hours talking to her and thank her for giving me this career, because she inspired it.
Wow, what an honour that is. That’s incredible.
It was unbelievable. It was so good to see what great spirit she’s in. I would say that was probably the highlight of my career.
Does the 42-string Pikasso remain your most unusual or ambitious request?
I would say at the time, it was probably the most ambitious instrument. I basically went from zero to 60 miles. I would say there’s a couple multi-string instruments after that that were based on that.
Is that a world record?
Number of strings? No, in fact, I have an ongoing little race with another guitar builder out in California called Fred Carlson. He’s definitely beating me [laughs]. I think he’s up to a hundred strings. I think I got 52 on one of them. But, definitely, the Pikasso was the groundbreaker. Little did I know when I built it that it was going to be the most famous guitar that I made. I just thought I would hand it to Pat and he’d play it a little bit. I can’t believe how travelled it’s gotten, reputation-wise. Plus, he plays it in concert. I think he opens every show with it. So I would say that one worked.