Creativity Meets Sustainability at the Vancouver International Guitar Festival

It used to be that the question “Who played it?” was a key determinant in gauging the caliber of an item of guitar gear. These days, however, we’re fronting better, more incisive questions, like “Who built it?” and “Where did it come from?”

From June 23 to 25, guitarists had both questions answered at the first ever Vancouver International Guitar Festival. The event gathered a diverse group of sage and startup luthiers alike, whose handicraft told the vibrant story of Canadian guitar builders on the national and international stage.

Sustainable BC Timber & the Catalyst of the Vancouver Luthier Scene

Few inaugural events successfully launch with a major milestone. But the team behind the Vancouver International Guitar Festival pulled it off by paying due homage to acoustic guru Jean Larrivée with the Luthier Industry Builder Award.

Now celebrating 50 years in the industry, the forefather of the western Canadian luthier community recalls selecting humble Vancouver as his homebase for one simple reason: the spruce.

“The wood brought me here,” recalled Jean. “We still to do everything we can to use only protected wood. It’s getting to the point that people won’t accept a guitar that has uncertified wood on it.”

Not unlike the farm–to–table philosophy of locally sourced cuisine, the show highlighted luthiers adopting the park–to–player approach of sourcing materials from sustainable and reclaimed sources.

Larrivee Guitars

Prisma Guitars

In the case of Meridth Coloma, the fallen timber of Stanley Park (Vancouver’s iconic coastal forest) provides unique and pristine tonewoods for a selection of acoustic guitar designs.

For American builder Nick Pourfard of Prisma Guitars, it’s the skate parks of San Francisco that serve up an endless supply of snapped decks to be reimagined and reformed as one–of–a–kind masterpieces.

With a limited run of acoustics constructed of reclaimed wood from the very walls of Jimi Hendrix’s childhood home, Vancouver Island’s Joi Guitars aimed to channel the vibes of Seattle’s first six–string prodigy.

As Shaw Saltzberg, producer of the event, commented, “Our makers are plugged into sustainability in a big way on the west coast.” In these ways, the scene that started with an eye for the humble spruce has bloomed into generations of luthiers whose quest for innovation in sustainability is second only to their commitment to creative design philosophies.

Design Philosophies Blurring the Boundaries Between New and Vintage

The axioms of form and function have resulted in something of a core repertoire of electric guitar shapes. Yet one of the themes that emerged from the festival was rookie and novice builders who at once embraced this classic heritage, while re–envisioning it with creative designs that hinted at something familiar but demanded head turns for their fresh looks.

Just north of the border, Prestige Guitars is knocking out the perfect blend of reimagined forms with enhanced function. As President Mike Kurkdjian remarked after 13 years in the business, “Our goal is still to provide that custom guitar feel right off the rack.”

Following on a year of accolades pouring in over the Prestige Todd “Dammit” Kearns Anti–Star signature model, Mike is hoping to strike the market again with the newly launched Prestige DC Coupe.

Prestige Guitars DC Coupe

Kauer & Titan Guitars

A 14–hour drive south in Sacramento, Doug Kauer of Kauer and Titan Guitars is taking the concept a step further by committing to an accessible range of retro–modern designs, with the added benefit of plug–and–play interchangeability of pre–wired and loaded pickguards.

“From a player’s point of view, this means you can swap out and experiment with pickups. Because the Titan design in terms of wood selection is all very natural, it also means any quality pickup that sounds good will sound phenomenal in Titan. It pairs with everything.”

As noted by Saltzberg, when he first met with Vancouver luthier and musician Meredith Coloma to discuss the goals of the event, a core component of the vision was to provide a space and experience that would captivate the minds of young players with a simple yet astounding idea: that something painstakingly handcrafted out of wood was at the pinnacle of contemporary innovation.

A West Coast Vibe Cultivates a Community of Builders

While any show is exciting for the gallery of instruments and gear it provides, the Vancouver International Guitar Festival was about collaboration and community for the builders who set up shop for the weekend.

As Saltzberg and Coloma roughed out a plan for the event, it was about finding that perfect blend of “A–list” and emerging talent.

“Of course, we have a big guitar builder and instrument maker community in British Columbia, and we have a big one across Canada,” commented Saltzberg. The event provided an ideal space to bridge the Canadian and international scenes, as well as to connect different generations of luthiers.

When asked about the significance of receiving the career contribution luthier award, Jean Larrivée said little about guitar making. Rather, for him, it signalled that effective apprenticeship was what made the most lasting impact.

Frank Brothers Guitars

Letain Guitars

“When I started, there was nobody. Even here today, there’s many of my apprentices. I’m proud of that, it’s a great privilege.” A perusal of the stunning guitars of Jean’s past apprentices who are now established builders in their own right — such as Grit Laskin, Linda Mazer, Shelley Park, and Jeff Letain — proves that the investment was well made.

The community ethos was certainly evident throughout the festival, as builders took the time to both demo and discuss their builds, as well as entertain regular distractions from peers in the industry.

As Kauer reflected, shows like this are as much about connecting for inspiration and the exchange of ideas as they are about presenting the latest from the shop floor.

In face, he related how a small builder’s conference was a major impetus for launching the Titan lineup. “These events give us a chance to talk about our ideas and challenges. Nick Frank over at Frank guitars and I were talking over how they do their heel caps and how I do my bindings. It’s all these nerdy little details that go into a build that keeps us current.”

In the end, the event was a long–awaited and well–executed first for Vancouver. Its success in bringing together builders from across the sprawling True North and attracting international guests from further afield should be taken as cue to start planning for next year.

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