Joy Mullen leads us on a tour of some of the incredibly talented instrument creators to be found in British Columbia. This issue: Violins, Pedals, Cigar Box Guitars, and more drums.
You never know what treasures can be found in workshops and woodsheds tucked away in BC. Here are a few talented instrument builders for you to check out.
Wallace Violins, Laura Wallace – Sunshine Coast
Laura Wallace grew up hanging out in her father’s woodworking shop. When there was something they wanted, he would challenge them to build it and this gave Laura the idea that she could make anything. Her mother played the violin and Laura began playing at age 11. She became obsessed but discovered her obsession wasn’t with putting in the hours of practice required to become a serious musician, but with the instrument itself. She got her degree in biology, but realized her true passion was building violins, so she apprenticed with R. Kim Tipper and has been a full time luthier ever since.
As with many builders, she splits her time between repairs, restoration and building. It is a tricky balance to keep the repair business going and setting aside time for building. She started building on Guarneri models, and has lately moved to building Stradivari models. At first they look quite similar, but at closer look you can see big differences in the corner shape, the f-holes, the scroll. She uses local Sitka spruce and big leaf maple, as well as Balkan maple and Italian spruce. Each wood carves differently. She makes her own varnish using a recipe from Stradivari’s workshop. Everything is done with hand tools, her favourites being a Japanese saw, chisel and gouges of every size. There are also toothed thumb planes and her trusty Lie Neilson block plane in her toolbox. She doesn’t use sandpaper, but instead uses scrapers for the final smoothing of the instrument.
Her obsession with violins has been life long. “Looking back it’s so clear that I was meant to do this. I think about violins constantly, I listen to the music and I research endlessly. I think that violins are the most beautiful tools in the world — and they are tools — that happen to produce some of the most beautiful, heartbreaking music.” Her shop is her favourite place to be, and she loves the process of working the wood and creating a work of beauty that will allow someone to express themself. For her it is an honour to be a part of the process that brings this music into the world.
She enjoys playing around town in a guitar and fiddle duo with her husband. They call Powell River on the Sunshine Coast their home, and she is often in Roberts Creek to meet with clients and do repairs. You can find her violins at Larsen Music and her fiddolas at Tapestry Music. She also ships her products around the world. She maintains a workbench blog featuring her different restoration projects. Although she lives in an isolated community, she has found a great sense of sharing and mutual respect online with the building community. wallaceviolins.ca
Union Tube and Transistor – Chris Young and Kirk Elliott.
Chris Young was working at the now defunct Not Just Another Music Shop in Vancouver BC, when he met Kirk Elliott at a pedal building workshop. The two hit it off and after Chris had finished his degree in industrial design, the two of them decided to partner up and make a couple of small runs of pedals. The pedals quickly sold out, and they have been rolling with it ever since.
Union specializes in gain stages going from clean to dirty, but they are very selective of which parameters they offer for adjustment. They typically limit their pedals to one or two adjustment knobs, but have also offered a zero knob fuzz for Third Man Records called the Bumble Buzz. Their desire to build pedals stems from trying to find a sound that is not available on other brands of pedals or an improvement on a classic pedal.
Chris is the co-owner of Vancouver music store, Exile, which specializes in vintage and boutique guitars, amps and pedals. He is also an active member of the BC music scene and has teched for various Canadian bands over the years. He plays bass in Spoon River, guitar in The Rentalmen and electronics in Slowmobile and has a solo project called Formula 977.
Union pedals have gained quite a bit of notoriety and have been used by some big names such as Neil Young and Jack White. Their products are sold across Canada, United States and abroad in Japan, Denmark and Australia. You can also order them online at uniontone.com
Boxstar Guitars Sean Symons – North Vancouver
Sean Symons is the owner/operator and builder at Boxstar Guitars and he makes cigar box guitars and in his words, other musical oddities. His guitars are unique one of a kind instruments that are not only great conversation pieces but also sound great. He has been playing for 27 years and is a fan of all many musical genres. He became interested in slide guitar and various open tunings and purchased a cheaper Dobro style resonator guitar that he played daily to hone his slide skills. One day the Dobro was accidentally knocked it over and the headstock broke. In his search for a new Dobro, he stumbled on a cigar box guitar and became fascinated by them.
His guitars are one-of-a-kind functional art pieces, that are both beautiful to look at and fun to play. These handmade guitars have anywhere from 1 to 4 strings on them, and they can be fretted or unfretted for slide. They sound incredible acoustic or electrified and come in a variety of scale lengths, ranging from soprano ukuleles to Gibson scale full size electric guitars. The body’s sound chamber is usually a cigar box (typically made from cedar). Because cigar boxes come in a variety of shapes and sizes, each guitar has it’s own tonal characteristic. He also makes acoustic and electric stomp boxes and glass slides for guitars.
Sean used to play in a group called City Of Envy, but now just enjoys jamming with his friends. Every Friday they meet up for 5 hour long jams. “All the guys can play all the instruments, so we all switch up and jam to our hearts’ content. We play a few shows here and there, but mostly just enjoy the freedom that comes from unstructured improvisation, it’s just so good for the musical soul.”
At this point, Sean just builds on spec and can be contacted through his website at boxstarguitars.com
More BC music resources
It has become apparent in this exploration of the local building talent that it can be quite difficult for these builders to find ways of selling their goods and getting their names out there.
The independent music store has been key to building this community and helping the builders get their product out for people to play. Allan Harding runs the Rufus Drum Shop in Vancouver. He is passionate and committed to working with independent BC builders because it allows him to directly deal with the artist pouring their soul into building the products. He enjoys hearing their stories and passing them on to the customer. Being a boutique shop allows him to carry products made by smaller builders and inventors that chain box music stores would overlook. Supporting locally sourced instruments adds character and variety to the shop, supports local economy, builds a stronger community and supporting each other in an industry that is all about doing what you love to do. Rufus Drum Shop carries Klemm Drums (Ladner), Woods Drums (Langley), Dunnett Drums (Richmond), Sweet Spot Clutches (North Vancouver), Kelly Cajons (Kelowna) and Groove Master Percussion (Richmond) and Ayotte Drums.
Another community music store that proudly stocks locally made instruments is Victoria based store, Larsen Music. They carry locally made guitars, ukuleles and violins. They like supporting burgeoning luthiers and let their customers have a chance to try them out against other local builders and international manufacturers alike.
Some former employees got their start in building while working at Larsen, most notably Galen Hartley. Galen has since built many violins going for over $10,000 a piece. Galen has recently moved to Bordeaux France and is now building cellos. Larsen Music is proud to have been a have been a part of nurturing this local talent.
So be sure to support the local builders and retailers building this community of BC musicians and instrument builders.
BC Instrument Makers Part 2