Toronto’s William “Grit” Laskin is truly a Renaissance
kind of guy. He’s been building guitars since 1971, but
he’s also a guitarist and songwriter, and he runs a successful
record label, Borealis Records, with a partner.
He’s written a novel and a major reference work on
lutherie, The World of Musical Instrument Makers:
A Guided Tour. He is a founding member of the
Association of Stringed Instrument Artisans (ASIA) and
wrote the first ever Code of Ethics for Luthiers. In 1997
he won Canada’s very prestigious Saidye Bronfman
Award for Excellence in the Crafts, and shortly after
that his work was captured in a book, A Guitar Maker’s
Canvas: The Inlay Art of Grit Laskin
. He’s also a very
articulate man who has spent almost as much time contemplating
the craft as he has pursuing it.
You’re a very gifted player and songwriter in addition
to building these lovely guitars. What made you
decide that you wanted to pursue lutherie?
For me it was near the beginning, shortly after my 18th
birthday. I was just very intrigued by the idea of building
guitars. I loved woodworking and playing, so it encompassed
everything that interested me. I had left a job I
was in and was just living off performing when I ran into
Jean Larrivée. This was before he even had a shop; he
was working in his basement and showing his wares at
the Mariposa Folk Festival. I had seen his instruments
previously, and being a naive teenager, I asked if he’d
take an apprentice. He said when he started up again in
the fall to come on by and we’d give it a shot. This was
before the climate controlled shop so he couldn’t build
in the summer: it was too humid. He said, “We’ll try it
out for three months and if you have no aptitude for
it, I’ll tell you.” So I think I must have done pretty well!
This was in the first shop he rented. I was there when he
strung up his first steel string.
Some luthiers are very formulaic—this
brace goes here, this piece has to be so
thick—and some feel that every piece of
wood is completely different and needs
to be shaped, braced, scalloped or thicknessed
completely to its own spec based
on the flexibility, grain, and so forth. Where
do you fall in that spectrum?
It depends on the instrument, or the wood. I’m
searching for woods that meet my criteria so it’s
not like there’s a huge variety. I’m looking for
similar qualities to deliver what you want for tone
and strength and color and flexibility. When you
find them you can build in the way you know
instead of having to adapt and intelligently guess
how it might respond and change things accordingly.
You can’t get exactly what you want every
time, in terms of grain, weight, strength, color.
This tells you how it’s going to vibrate, withstand
tension, how it’s going to play its role on the guitar.
Where instrument making veers into art from
science is in the variables in each piece of wood.
When you take into account thickness, scale
lengths, string gauges, it’s very difficult to predict
with any certainty how it’s going to sound, but
the goal is to ensure some consistency, or you
won’t have anybody on your waiting list! That
comes with time, and anybody who pays attention
to the details, and has been through enough
materials and instruments and experience, will
be able to more accurately predict this.
You are very conscious of the physical
demands on a player and have been an
innovator in the ergonomics of guitars. Tell
us about those innovations.
The most important thing has been the Laskin
Arm Rest, to relieve your playing arm as it
reaches around the body. I first did it over
20 years ago, but I have to admit the first
impulse was not from me or my problems.
There was a classical guitarist who said he was
fed up with leaning on that edge. Classical
players have their hands suspended over the
strings, right on that edge at a 45-degree
angle. He asked if I could round the edge off
more. I asked, “Does it matter how much?”
He didn’t have anything specific in mind, so I
came up with the design I’ve been using ever
since, and boy did he love it. Most people
thought it was weird, but I talked more
people into letting me do it, and it became
a standard on my instruments. I showed it
at symposiums, wrote about it in magazines.
People who had it wrote me and said playing
their old guitar was like playing a razor blade.
Then I started getting support letters from
medical clinics, particularly one very important
one in Bethesda, MD. A doctor heard about
it from a patient. The doctor said, “Thank
you, thank you, thank you! I’ve been waiting
for years for somebody to do this!” Career
guitarists who have to reach around day after
day have strain that radiates down into the
arm, up into the neck. It’s insidious and hard
to relieve, muscles that have been abused too
long can’t recover. So I’m really pleased about
how well it’s been received.
I also offer the option to bevel the back edge,
where it’s against the rib cage. I call it the Rib
Rest. Most thoughtful hand-builders will tailor
things to people. There are variables on the
neck that are helpful. Flat fingerboards on
classicals are traditional, but a radiused fingerboard
brings the strings and frets up to the
fingers. Imagine a barre chord: the more you
press, the more pressure is at the ends and
not in the middle. Pressing down on the center
of a flat fingerboard is harder. But if you
bring the strings and frets up to the finger,
you make it easier to play. That solved problems
of strain beginning for classical players,
because it’s physically easier to play. Also you
can shape the neck asymmetrically, steel-string
style where the thumb goes over the top, or
classical style with the thumb at the center
of the back. You can look at all those things,
solve some problems, make it easier to function,
and lessen the pace of muscle problems.
Left: The Laskin Arm Rest on his 1997 “a la Erte” guitar. Right: The Laskin Rib Rest on his 1997 “a la Erte” guitar. Photos courtesy The Twelfth Fret, Inc/12fret.com
There are new innovations, too, like the
Manzer Wedge (Premier Guitar, July 2009),
where you wedge the body so it’s shallow on
the bass side and deeper on the treble side,
and I’ve used that on couple guitars. That
combined with my arm rest make it so easy
to play, you feel like you’re playing a smallbody
instrument, but you have the full-body
sound because the inside of the box is the
same dimension. For larger people reaching
around is even more difficult, so if we do the
wedge and arm rest and rib rest, it’s so much
more comfortable. I do the arm rest all the
time now, every guitar.
Many builders are incorporating bevels of
some sort. Even Bob Taylor has it as an
option on his R. Taylor guitars—I’ve seen it in
the ads: “With Laskin Arm Rest.” That’s very
gratifying, and it simply is the way to go.
Let’s talk about tonewoods. In recent years
the number of woods available, and considered
viable, has exploded. We’re seeing
woods we didn’t know existed 10 years ago.
What woods are you discovering and incorporating?
What kind of properties are you
looking for as you look at your tonewoods?
For a small hand builder, there’s a waiting list
of orders, and I’m building what they want.
I don’t make guitars for dealers, and I can’t
often do just what I like, so I am restricted in
that way. At one end of the scale it’s got me
using Brazilian more than ever before the ban,
which is frustrating—there’s profit in it for
everybody, but I’ll be happy when I can’t use
it anymore. That’s a problem for someone like
me: to do something daring when I’m making
a small number of instruments. On the other
side, I do—more often than you’d expect—
get customers saying “What kind of woods do
you like?” They’ve got more than one guitar,
they’re open to a tone color, a different species,
for various reasons, and I have a chance
to mention other species. One of my favorites
is ziricote from Mexico, which is rare but not
endangered. I think it sounds as good as old
Brazilian, and is as appealing aesthetically. The
soundboard woods I use come from people
who cut blow-down from the rainforest. I’ve
been staying with them a while, and that’s my
only source for tops, so it’s not impacting the
rainforest to any large degree.
Tell me about the Flamenco guitars. There
are not a lot of builders crossing over into
that world. First of all, can you give us a crash
course in what exactly a Flamenco guitar is and
how it differs from the classical nylon string?
Close-up “Grand Complications” headstock
Detail from “Grand Complications” fretboard.
Close-up of “Imagine” headstock
Close-up of “Imagine” fretboard.
“Acoustic Vs. Electric,” with Jimi Hendrix testifying before
former Canadian Chief Justice Laskin.
It is a nylon-strung instrument like a classical.
The starting point for the difference is that the
action is extremely low. The strings are closer
to the frets, almost as close as an electric guitar,
and yet it’s using nylon strings that need a
much wider vibrating area. So there’s buzzing,
but only certain buzzing. The bridge is also
extremely low, close to absolutely parallel to
the top, so the tensions drop off dramatically.The body is shallower, and there’s less tension
on the neck, so there’s no neck reinforcement
bar at all. So it’s lighter and shallower, and the
back and sides are cypress from Spain or Italy—
light yellowy wood, virtually soft wood, a soft
hardwood. There’s a lot of bite, and a lot of
edge, but not a lot of sustain. That grew out of
the guitar’s rise inseparable from dancing and
singing; players wanted it to cut through.
At one point in the 20th century Flamenco
became a solo performance style, and players
wanted something with more of a round bottom
end but didn’t want to loose Flamenco-y
nature, so we began to see rosewood. Those
are called Flamenco Negras, which is Spanish
for dark. The backs and sides are rosewood.
The style is very percussive, called golpe,
which is tapping on the top, which is why
they have the tap plate. Hitting the top is
critical—another element to the fact that the
bridge and saddle are very low so you can
do it. If they [Flamenco guitarists] picked up
a classical guitar, they couldn’t play it: the
action was too high, they couldn’t hit the
top to tap. To me, getting a Flamenco guitar
right is the most difficult thing to achieve.
You grind the frets down after they’re in.
When you get it right, they’re in love. They
hit the guitars all the time, and they’re made
lighter. They break braces from the force of
hitting the top, and they are not unhappy!
As soon as a traditional player sees an instrument
get knocked up and patched up and
back into the fight, they feel that the instrument
has done some suffering, and is more
loose and ready to play.
When and how did you get into building
That’s an interesting story. He’s no longer alive,
but the man in Toronto that was the hub of
the Flamenco scene was music director David
Phillips of the Paul Marino Spanish Dance
Company. He tried to get local builders to build
Flamenco guitars. He had Edgar Munch make
one and it came out sounding like a Flamenco-looking
classical. Jean [Larrivée] made one—
same thing. So he asked me to give it a shot
and took on the task of educating me. Every
time a new guitar was coming through, he’d
call and I’d run over with my ruler. He gave
me books to read about the attitude, to get a
sense of the world of Flamenco. I said I’d try
it, and the first one turned out so good he had
three people bidding on it. It had a Spanish
cedar neck and a cypress body.
Let’s talk about the inlay a bit. You are an
artist of the highest order. What’s the story behind your interest in inlay, and when did
that start for you?
Well, let me just say one thing first: no matter
how stunning the guitar looks—gorgeous
woods, gorgeous inlay—it’s a failure if it
doesn’t sound good. It’s a tool first and foremost.
Because I push the envelope of what’s
possible, it’s incumbent upon me to make
a superb instrument every time, even more
incumbent upon me than any other luthier.
And you know, I love it because my customers
say they’re the best sounding guitars, and
they get excited because they have something
that sounds good. It’s a tool for their
creative impulses. It’s my creativity on multiple
layers: building, creating a sound, construction,
and then the inlay—my design, their own
symbols, something very personal to them.
It’s a very rich experience, and I’m blessed
with customers that feel that way about it. I’m
not just decorating the guitar, but I think of it
as just art, the fingerboard as a blank canvas
that a painter stares at and fills up with what
he or she wants to say; a story to tell, or a
mood they want you to feel. I’m just applying
Art 101 principles to the instrument that is
my world. I love building them, I love playing
them, and now I get to make these instruments
that combine my arts.
You design each inlay you do, in addition to
actually doing it. What’s involved in designing
for such a strange, narrow palette, with
tuners, strings and frets in the way?
The machine heads, the frets and strings, they’re
limitations that are in my mind all the time. There
are elements that must be away from machine
head washer. When I’m laying a design out on
the fingerboard, I cannot have a fret cut across
the design there. I’m used to those restrictions.
After doing it all these years, my brain is already
looking at how to convey what they want to say
within the limitations on this narrow canvas. It
forces you to be more creative. Wouldn’t it be
great to just have a big expanse to inlay into? I
don’t even think about that. There are limitations
in anything; you can apply this to any art. To me,
those are some of the most exciting incentives
to creativity, and I kind of sensed this in my gut in a way I never put into words until my wife,
who is in education, showed me work on cognitive
processes. They find that people who pursue
careers that require creativity within limitations
are the people that are utilizing the largest
portion of their brain capacity at once. To make
art with no limitations, just do whatever the hell
you want with whatever medium, that’s great.
But to create and be original equivalently within
limitations requires more brain skills. That’s just
how people understand cognitive processes. It
applies to anybody in the creative arts or crafts
that are making functional things yet still doing
newly creative things in that functionality.
You have to have the desire to do it, and then
you learn patience. You could be struggling with
something, saying, “I’ve been at this for hours,”
and you walk away. But an experienced luthier
might take two days to do that job well. I think
you develop an attitude once you do it. I never
repeat a design, that’s a policy (though I do
have drawings of everything, so if your guitar is
destroyed I can remake it). I do that as much for
my own personal satisfaction as anything else.
So what in the whole wide world is next for
you? Music, building, writing, inlay art, and?
I’d love to do a subsequent book to focus
on my more recent inlay work. Other than
that, I’d love to be making guitars right up
to the minute I drop dead. My ideal would
be in my wife’s arms, but we’re both somehow
at my workbench! Despite all the other
things I do, building guitars is still my first
love. It’s been more than 38 years and I still
love it when I get a miter joint perfect on
the first try. That can still make your day.