Luthier finds passion in fixing — not playing — guitars
Nearly 5 decades on, Regina’s Sawchyn Guitars still going strong
Made to Last is a series of profiles of Regina-area artisans who have a passion and talent for hands-on jobs creating or repairing unique, high-quality pieces that require time and personal care. These arts stand to be lost in the age of mass production and planned obsolescence.
A humidifier gently puffs steam into the air, keeping rows of guitars safe from the chilly, dry Saskatchewan air outside, while Peter Sawchyn works to repair a guitar on his shop table.
Sawchyn, whose Regina-based shop shares his name, started doing repairs and customization work on guitars about 47 years ago, although the retail space is much newer.
He's one of only a handful of people in the province who do this kind of work — and he's garnered some famous clients for it. He's made a guitar model for Colin James and while he spoke with CBC News, he was repairing a guitar for a member of Saskatchewan's own The Dead South.
"I've always been interested in instruments for some reason — I don't know why just the mechanical part of the instrument, not really playing an instrument," Sawchyn said.
He remembers looking at his brother's guitar and his sister's mandolin and wondering how they work.
For Sawchyn, building guitars comes with the anticipation of guessing how the guitar will feel for the player and what it's going to sound like.
Meanwhile, repairing guitars might seem comparatively repetitive and uninteresting, but Sawchyn said each guitar is unique, lending creativity to the process.
Sawchyn said the experiences learned from one side of the job translate to the other part of the job.
"When you're initially starting, when you're young, you learn from all of those experiences so every time you fix a guitar for somebody, you find out why that problem existed and you — as a builder — can put it into your own guitars to try to counteract [that problem]," he said.
"That's why you keep going; you get hooked on that 'what's new, what's next' — tomorrow's going to bring something new."
Being in the business for so long, Sawchyn has seen a shift in quality when it comes to string instruments.
In the last 15 to 20 years, Sawchyn said he's seen an influx of cheaply made guitars coming from Asian countries. While these may be more accessible to the wallet-conscious consumer, he said buying a more expensive product will save money in the long run.
Sawchyn feels "pretty good" being part of a legacy of Luthiers that dates back centuries, but he's finding it challenging tracking down people who have the right tools to carry on the tradition. It's the issue of finding someone who has the right balance between skill and passion.
"On the repairing side of things, it's a little bit easier to find someone who's been tinkering on their own … they've maybe already been adjusting guitar actions or these kind of things and changing pickups and whatever you need to do," Sawchyn said.
But on the production side of things, he's having challenges finding a younger person who has knowledge of power tools.
"You used to learn that in school. Now you don't, you just don't. You have to go learn it yourself now," he said. "Lots of people are interested in building guitars, but they have no skill set to do it."
Skills aside, teachability has also been a problem with some Sawchyn has hoped to enlist to help build instruments.
He used to work with a person with formal training from Italy, who referred to him as "master," and although Sawchyn said that's not really required, he said it showed that person was willing to accept there was someone out there who knows more about the craft than he does.
In the Internet era, Sawchyn said that's not always the case anymore.
"I really believe there's a culture [in Europe] of respecting older people and what they've accomplished and what they know," Sawchyn said. "Some guys here think they know a lot already … and they don't. They don't know anything."
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