British Columbia

Young Vancouver guitar maker's niche work shines at international show

Before she was old enough to vote, Meredith Coloma had apprenticed under the likes of Rodger Sawdowsky who has built guitars for some of the world's biggest rock stars, including Bruce Springsteen and Prince.

“People would come up to me and say, ‘does your husband make these?’”

Meredith Coloma mentored under some of the best guitar makers in the world before she turned 19-years-old. The Vancouver-based luthier has since become an internationally renowned artist. (Coloma Guitars)

It's tempting to call Meredith Coloma an overachiever but to do so would likely discount the ambition, dedication and talent that took her from professional musician to internationally-renowned guitar maker before her 19th birthday.  

The Vancouver-born luthier apprenticed under the likes of Roger Sadowsky (whose clients include Prince, Keith Richards and Bruce Springsteen) in her mid-teens before developing her own niche style.

"There's nothing like the sound of a sharp chisel or plane crossing wood grain, it's just so therapeutic," Coloma told Sheryl MacKay, host of CBC's North by Northwest.

Now 27, she's among more than 80 other craftsmen and women who are in town for the first ever Vancouver International Guitar Festival.

One of Coloma's custom pieces using classic Vancouver Canucks colours incorporated into the design. Colour and non-traditional joinery are constants across her work. (Meredith Coloma)

Working with masters

While studying acting in New York, Coloma would spend evenings browsing and playing in a small violin shop.

Though she communicated with the shop's owner, who spoke only Yiddish, through hand gestures and nods, she started to help in the back of the shop, where the instruments were made.

When the time came to leave New York, her teacher slipped her a piece of paper with a list of teachers and schools to consider, which lead her back to B.C. for a guitar making course.

At only 16-years-old, while touring as a professional musician, Colomo noticed how prolific Sadowsky's instruments were amoung her peers and reached out to the guitar and bass maker who wasn't accepting apprentices at the time.

He told her to pop by "if you're ever in New York;" she was on a plane immediately.

At Sadowsky's shop, Colomo was immediately taken in by the smell of maple wood, the necks of bass hanging on the wall and persuaded Sadowsky to take her on as a student the very next day.

What she learned there eventually helped her launch a business back in Vancouver.

"I learned that fret work is so important in guitar making, I did that for four months straight."

Coloma became the go-to fret expert in B.C., focussing on the precision filing, pressing and cutting that is needed to create a reliable instrument.

"For someone who hates math, I do a lot of math," she said.

Willy Wonka of guitar making

It was an apprenticeship under Vancouver's Michael Dunn that set Coloma on the path to making niche stringed instruments.

Dunn is known for using non-traditional woods to create pieces that are considered art as much as they are functional. 

"He's like the Willy Wonka of guitar making; he can make any strange instrument sound incredible," she said.

Dunn repeatedly refused Coloma's inquiries for mentorship but finally caved to her persistence, mentoring the young luthier for a year-and-a-half.

'Does your husband make these?'

These days Coloma is lauded as a leader in the traditionally male-dominated craft but that wasn't always the case.

"People would come up to me and say 'does your husband make these?'" she said. "It was really nerve-wracking because I was a third of the age at the time, I was 19."

While fighting the gender-gap and ageism, Coloma also had to prove that her funky aesthetic-forward art guitars were as good as any other.

"People kind of scoffed at first but then when they played them they said 'this sounds like exactly the tone I was looking for, it just doesn't look like it,'" she said.

Now she calls Vancouver home and when not scraping, filing and joining colourful locals woods into art, she teaches guitar making in her workshop.

Coloma's work will be on display at the Vancouver International Guitar Festival until June 25th.

With files from CBC's Radio One's North by Northwest