This was Gar Gillies shop for 20 years, and he was famous for the Garnet Amp. So there's a lot of good karma here.
—Al Beardsell, luthier
He can count Lou Reed of the Velvet Underground and John K. Samson of The Weakerthans among his customers, and now, Al Beardsell is making custom guitars in a shop with an important connection to Winnipeg's music history.
Last year, when Beardsell was looking to expand from his small shop in a converted garage in the West End, a property he had tried to buy several years earlier was back on the market.
A Beardsell guitar sits alongside a Garnet amp in Al Beardsell's new shop. (Cate Friesen)
The house had been renovated but the attached, commerically zoned shop was left intact. It had been a repair shop run by Gar Gillies, the inventor of Garnet Amplifiers, whose amps helped define the sound of Winnipeg's 1960s rock scene, thanks to acts like the Guess Who and Bachman-Turner Overdrive.
For Beardsell, it was the perfect place to continue to build his own musical empire. The musician and luthier has been playing, repairing and building guitars for the
past 30 years, and building them professionally for
about half that time.
He builds a range of guitars, mandolins and banjos and typically creates 10-15 instruments a year.SCENE
asked for a behind the scenes tour of this luthier's new workshop.How did you come to be a luthier?
My older brother Dave started taking guitar lessons at a music store in Vancouver called Bill Lewis Music. That store was an early adopter of handmade acoustic guitars. It always amazed me that people could actually make that kind of thing. Later as a working musician in Toronto, when I didn't have a lot of cash, I took a short course in instrument making at the Ontario College of Art so I could make my own instruments. And then other musicians started asking me to build for them. I've been building for other people since the mid '90s.What made you decide that this was what you wanted to do for a living?
Making something and getting paid for it! Really it's making something completely from scratch that represents my own artistic impulse -- it looks and sounds like I imagined it would. And then it's bought and played by someone who can use it to express themselves. I think the first time that happened for me was when I made a tenor guitar for Vancouver musician Veda Hille.What qualities make a really good guitar?
It depends on the player. Some kinds of music require loud sharp attacks, some require sustaining and resonance. A good guitar will fit the requirement of the player. Form and function is key. It should look good and play even better. It shouldn't impede the player's intentions.
What is the hardest part about building a guitar?
Finishing. Actually putting the finishing touches on and letting it go.
What makes a Beardsell guitar unique?
To make his own tail pieces, Beardsell starts by carving a model from wax. The wax model is used to make a plaster cast mold for the final bronze tail piece. (Cate Friesen)
I think it is mostly the ergonomic choices I make: The shape of the neck, the cutaways and the arm rest make it really easy for a player to play it. The rim and the neck are both built much stronger to allow freer movement of the top and back -- kind of like a drum.
And that creates a really big sound. It also looks different than what a lot of people are used to seeing. I've got these sound holes (side ports) in unusual places, for instance.What was the most unusual custom guitar you've built?
Last year I built a guitar for a musician in the U.K. Henry Olsen is an experimental field recordist. His guitar was built to be taken to the far reaches of the world, and plug right into a laptop to make situational recordings.
It seemed like every week Henry would send me another idea he wanted me to incorporate and in the end I think I managed to make the guitar that he had imagined. It's an 8-string, multi-scale, side-ported instrument, with a cranked top (like a Django-style guitar) and microphones built right into the body. What are you most excited about with this new space?
It's a lot bigger. For the last 10 years I've been working in a shop the size of a one car garage. So now I have room to stretch out and make more instruments. And I'll have room to take in repairs again, and I like that kind of variety.
I also love the music history of the building. This was Gar Gillies shop for 20 years, and he was famous for the Garnet Amp so there's a lot of good karma here.