Bob Laughlin, Luthier — All About the Sound

Luthier (noun): The word "luthier" comes from the French word luth, which means lute. A luthier was originally a maker of lutes, but the term now includes makers of stringed instruments such as the violin, guitar or mandolin.

When luthier Bob Laughlin heard a giant maple tree on Anvil Island had come down in a Pacific storm, he went to see for himself.

Anvil Island resident and amateur musician Peter Hill met Laughlin at Porteau Cove in his 18-foot runabout and spun him across Howe Sound to the island.

Twenty minutes later, the two made their way to the blasted tree: a century-old Big Leaf maple that, once sawed and milled, would be transformed into a thing of beauty. A guitar with singular acoustic properties.

But first, the four-foot slab had to be lugged through the woods and back to the boat. Eventually the maple slab could be seen drying in Laughlin’s workshop off Commercial Drive in Vancouver.

Over the next two years, Laughlin would treat, prepare and shape the wood for use as a back for a stunningly carved small-bodied guitar. The instrument took pride of place at Laughlin’s exhibit at the recent Vancouver International Guitar Festival.

Laughlin’s exhibit at the festival drew attention from customers, gawkers and musicians. It also gave him the opportunity to talk shop with other luthiers he admires.

His instruments are strikingly beautiful. And they resonate with a clear, rich timbre.

Peter Hill, who used the guitar in a later recording session, describes the sound this way: “The tone is clear and warm at the same time. You can feel it warm up the more you play it. This guitar actually gives me musical ideas. It somehow allows me to remember long forgotten songs or create new ones. And how can something that plays so well look so good?”

The instrument has a carved Sitka spruce top, with a side port so the musician can better monitor her or his playing. Top-of-the-line tuners, selectively chosen and carefully tuned woods fit out an acoustic machine with the best of 21st century technology.

How to explain Laughlin’s 40-year career trajectory? A modest man who evinces the wisdom and patience that comes from working alone, Laughlin once studied mathematics and psychology, winning a major scholarship to a prestigious U.S. university. But he turned that down and turned instead to computing science, winning an NSERC scholarship to Simon Fraser University. After graduation he taught computer science at a local college.

But Laughlin had another life, one all about music. He had grown up in the Ottawa Valley and, as a teenager, had listened to Bruce Cockburn, David Wiffen and Willie P. Bennett.

Later, moving to the West Coast, he rented a home on Trafalgar Street in Kitsilano, holding musical open houses several nights a week. People of all talents were made welcome—folkies, three-chord rockers, aspiring opera singers, flutists — and would show up with guitars, dulcimers, mandolins and boxes of beer. There were occasional attempts at taping such sessions—a Revox A77 with two AKG mics was sometimes in evidence—though only a few aural scraps remain today.

Friendships were forged during 12-bar blues and D-minor Celtic dirges, lasting, in some cases, a lifetime. The music was often heartfelt, and every once in a while, profound.

Songwriters would drop in, with scraps and “mumbles such as promises” because Laughlin’s was the place to try out a new idea. Even as musicians warily eyed each other’s chops, an inclusive sense of belonging allowed people to relax, to stretch out, try new ideas.

Things could get loopy. Mimicking the Rolling Stones during their “country period” one songwriter chipped in: “I’m just from Kitsilano/But what the fug do I know,” fueling a roots-based jam that lasted days.

All the while Laughlin kept learning, absorbing information from books and attending conventions put on by the Guild of American Luthiers, taking in the hard stuff: the physics, the quality of the woods, the bracings, the gluing, the myriad and time-consuming steps that go into each instrument.

Was it worth it? Laughlin answers with a resounding yes: “The reason I do it is simple. There is nothing that compares to stringing up an instrument for the first time.”

Q & A With Bob Laughlin, Luthier

Q: How long does it take make a guitar?

A: For something I’ve made before about six weeks—I only work two to three hours a day now; this makes the process much more enjoyable—or about 60 to 100 hours per instrument on average. I only make one instrument at a time so there is lots of rejigging time involved, glue/finish drying time. I spent a year making my first violin.

Q: How many guitars have you made now? Other instruments?

A: Sixty-eight guitars. More than 100 instruments in all. For much of my luthier career, I had a good day job that allowed me to avoid financial struggle while doing something I loved.

Q:When did you start?

A: In 1977—a Bill Lewis night course at a Vancouver high school. Lewis is a legendary figure in the luthier world. He started the first luthier supply company, Luthiers Mercantile now based in California. His electrics are renowned, worth $100,000, owned by the likes of Jimmy Page and David Gilmour.

Q: Yours seems such a solitary craft. How do you handle that? A: I’m a loner to begin with; I play music for a social life. The upside is total control. This appeals to me greatly.

Q: Do you prefer to work with B.C. woods?

A: Yes, I prefer local woods: Yellow cedar, Sitka spruce, Big Leaf maple. Some of the best tonewoods in the world grow here in B.C., including Red cedar which I don’t use. I prefer softer hardwoods for back and sides. This makes for a lighter guitar with a smoother, more balanced sound.

Q: How is the luthier business changing?

A: I only make what I want now. Recently I’ve made some very small-bodied guitars simply because that’s what interests me. I play mandolin and appreciate a smaller instrument. Then, of course, I have to sell them.

Q: How do you make a living as a luthier?

A: Many are attracted to this exciting field and soldier on with little remuneration, myself included. Yes, a few stars emerge to make a decent living. But no one gets rich in such a solitary enterprise. Some go on to start factories—Larrivee, Taylor, for example—that's where the money is. But that's not for me.

Q: You emphasize it's all about the sound. Please explain.

A: It is all about the sound! Any luthier will say this, even visual artists and experimenters like Grit Laskin, Linda Manzer and Michael Dunn. The end product of luthiery goes to waste unless interacting with a player. The sound can inspire a player to new heights. Of course, you also need longevity and playability. And appearance can go a long way to selling instruments. But it’s all about the sound.

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