Reprinted with Permission of the Guild of American Luthiers.
Edward Victor Dick has been building and repairing guitars for almost thirty years. He is a superb luthier possessing a broad base of practical knowledge informed by a deep musical intuition. He currently lives in Denver, Colorado where he divides his time between running the largest repair shop in town and building stringed instruments of all kinds as well as some fascinating sound sculptures.
Looking back on it now, were there precursors to your lutherie career when you were a child?
I grew up on a Mennonite farm in Leamington, Ontario. There was a workshop where we had the basic tools and I learned to fix things at an early age. You’d be sent off to work the back forty and if the plow broke down you’d have to fix it. You’re twelve years old and you’d have to fix it. You get stuck, you figure out how to get unstuck. I learned self-reliance. Also I learned to be in business for myself, right from elementary school. I would make things like jewelry and sell it to the kids at school. I’d cut copper or aluminum pipe with a hacksaw and shape it on a bench grinder — you can do a lot with a bench grinder. I’d make rings and necklaces and sell them to the other kids for a quarter.
Wasn’t jewelry frowned on in the Mennonite church?
Oh definitely, but that’s what made it desirable. I was always making something or taking something apart. But mostly I was into playing hockey. Every boy growing up in Canada wants to be a professional hockey player. Then when I was about fifteen or sixteen I discovered hippiedom, music, art, and girls — hockey suddenly seemed violent and uninteresting. When I reached the age of nineteen I left home.
Where did you go?
I wanted to see the world. I hitchhiked across Canada with a high school buddy and spent the entire summer camped beside the Yukon river. We lived off the land. We caught all the fish we could eat. I had a copy of Euell Gibbon’s Stalking the Wild Asparagus which showed you all the plants you could eat in the wild. It was my bible. When September came I got a job and made enough money to go to Europe. That really woke me up to culture and particularly art. I finally went back home and, not knowing what else to do enrolled at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario. The academic life wasn’t for me, though, and so I quit after a year and went to school to learn woodworking and carpentry.
So where does guitar making come in?
Right about now. It was a time when I was desperately searching for a deeper meaning and purpose to my life. I took a long walk one stormy October day and I found myself standing at the top of a hill. I suddenly decided that by the time I reached the bottom of the hill I would know what I would do for the rest of my life.
That’s a lot of pressure for one walk.
Youth doesn’t adhere to the bounds of normalcy. In any case, I proceeded to march down this hill and when I got to the bottom I literally heard a voice say, “You will be a builder of musical instruments.”
Did you feel that this voice was God — that you were hearing God’s will for your life’s work?
I guess in hindsight you could call it that. It was a pretty powerful experience. At the time I was totally disenchanted with religion. I was shocked to hear this voice and I didn’t quite know what to make of it. But I continued my walk, somewhat befuddled, when I came upon a building with a freshly painted sign that said: “Guitar Maker.” Now this just totally blew me away. I found out who the owner was and went right over to his house. Interrupting him in the middle of dinner, I announced I was going to work for him. His response was, “Can you hang a door?” and I said, “Absolutely!”
So the next day I went and hung some doors for him in his shop. He was a schoolteacher who’d decided he was going to be a guitar maker. He had done a fair amount of woodworking — hobby woodwork, building furniture, and so on. He’d built a dulcimer and had a lute half done, but he’d never built a guitar. His idea was that we would start by building a dozen guitars. At one point he told me to carve some necks. When I asked how he wanted them carved he said, “Well, everybody’s different — make them all different!” It was really a bit of a joke, this apprenticeship. Fortunately the dozen guitars never got completed because they would have been pretty bad.
He eventually found work building furniture. Since there was this sign on our building that said “Guitar Maker,” people would wander in with instruments they wanted repaired, and it soon became my job to repair them. I had one book, which was Irving Sloane’s book on guitar repair, but mostly I was totally winging it. The first time I dressed frets I took a fret crowning file and very carefully took down each fret one at a time, checking my work with a straightedge. I was very green, but I was too naive to know better. I had no fear.
You didn’t know you couldn’t do it.
Yeah, I didn’t know I could screw it up. Right about the same time, there was a musician friend of mine — he would travel down to the States and buy instruments and bring them back to Canada. He asked if I wanted to go with him because his car was broken, so I had to volunteer my car and my gas money. Our first stop was Syracuse, New York — a shop belonging to a fellow named Tom Hosmer who is now a big name violin guy. I noticed he had this mandolin in a box — all in pieces. It was an old Gibson A. I asked him what he was going to do with it. He said he was going to fix it up one day, but I finally got him to sell it to me for $20. Then I asked him how he would go about putting it back together, and he reluctantly gave me some basic instructions. I went back to Canada, glued it back together, sprayed some lacquer on it and sold it for $300, and my business was born. I mean, this was more money than I’d ever made in two weeks. So I took that money and went on another trip. I would buy instruments — all the broken ones — the ones with a half-inch of dust on them that every repair shop has lying around. I went to New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore, and I ended up developing a whole little circuit getting to know a number of different dealers. I knew that one guy was looking for SS Stewart banjos, somebody else was looking for older small-body Martins, and so on. I would buy and sell and trade and come back to Canada with a whole car full of broken instruments, fix them up and sell them.
Were you a guitar player already at this point?
I became a builder and a player and a repairman all at the same time. Anything and everything musical became my passion. I was working probably eighty hours a week in my shop and playing music every Friday and Saturday night — bad country bands, jazz bands, rock bands, bluegrass bands — I played bluegrass banjo — it was kind of total immersion. I met a lot of musicians who needed work done. In the fall of 1976 I opened up a storefront. I was having so much fun. I remember telling people why wait until you’re sixty-five to retire — retire now! I was literally doing my hobby. And you know, you’re twenty-two years old, your rent is cheap, and you drive an old car — I never had any debts. If I had $200 in my pocket I’d go buy a bandsaw or a chunk of wood or a broken instrument. And as it was, I was making really good money.
I was also teaching. The guy who I’d worked for had contracted to teach a class in guitar building at the local community college. He offered the class to me and I said, “sure!” I had not built a single guitar at this point — but I taught ten other people how to build a guitar.
Are you saying they built their first guitars before you did?
They did. (laughs) It’s called you teach what you need to learn. That summer I did build my first classical but I wasn’t at all happy with it. I was just totally disappointed in the sound, the finish, the craftsmanship — to me it was just a mediocre guitar. But I sold it for $350 and had money to buy more materials so that I could now build the best guitar ever. I’ve been in that same pursuit ever since. It’s never really stopped. I come across instruments I’ve built five, ten, or fifteen years ago and I have to admit, “These are pretty good instruments.” But whenever I finish a project I’m often slightly disappointed. I have such high expectations. I’m not quite as critical of myself as I used to be — but to me it’s always the next instrument that’s going to be the best one.
What was the next change for you in your life?
I sold my business in 1980 to my apprentice. It still operates under the name of Ed’s Music Workshop. I thought I was done with the guitar business forever. I even had a ritual guitar burning.
How could you leave the guitar business when you had been so passionate about it?
I got totally burnt out. I was working seven days a week. I had a business, I had responsibilities, I had employees — I needed a break. I was twenty-seven years old and I was feeling overwhelmed. I was successful, but it had ceased to be fun. I wanted adventure. I still wanted to see the world. So I bought a 1947 Stinson airplane, learned how to fly it, and flew back and forth across the country several times. I landed in fields, camped out, met people, helped someone build a boat, played some music, and just generally goofed off for two years. When the money ran out, I sold the airplane. I met my wife and on our honeymoon we visited a luthier named Robert Meadow who lived in Saugerties (near Woodstock) New York. He was building replica Baroque lutes and guitars for museums, and I arranged to train with him.
I realized during those two years of rambling that I’d never had a really good foundation in woodworking. Part of why I was burnt out was that I was tired of always being in these situations where I didn’t really have a clue what I was doing. But it slowly dawned on me that I still loved working with wood and that I still loved building musical instruments. And so when I met Robert it was a natural fit because he taught me the fundamentals. He was building lutes in the style of 16th- and 17th-century woodworking. Everything was done with scrapers, planes, spokeshaves, and knives. There wasn’t a sheet of sandpaper in the shop. Our only power tool was a bandsaw.
Was it hard for you to go from being the boss to being the pupil?
No, it was totally easy. I had never been a student under the guidance of someone who knew a whole lot more than I did. It was one of the best years of my life.
Did you make a lute during that time?
Yes, that one there on the wall. It’s a theorbo, a replica of a 17th-century instrument built by Tieffenbrucker. Feel the weight of it. [Author’s note: I went back later with a scale. The lute weighs 2 lbs. 7 oz.]
As much as I learned from Robert, I learned as much or more from his teacher, a Japanese teahouse builder named Makoto Imoi, who was building a teahouse in Manhattan and would come up on weekends and give seminars in sharpening and using hand tools. I spent two months just learning how to sharpen. I’d show him a tool I’d been working on for two and a half hours and he’d shake his head and say not good enough. And then I’d have to go back and figure out why it wasn’t good enough.
Edward, I have to insert here for the record that you demonstrated to a group of us how to sharpen the dullest chisel in your tool box in 60 seconds — sharp enough to shave the hairs on your arm. The solution involved power tools. (He used a belt sander with 80 grit and then a hard felt wheel and green sharpening compound.)
(Laughs) — Yes, I suppose I did, and it’s a pretty good method for chisels and knives, but I still use my Japanese stones for my planes. And I don’t think I could have figured out the other method without first learning the skill to do it on stones. With skill you can do almost anything. That’s what I learned from Makoto. He grew up in the traditional Japanese apprentice system and had been working with wood since he was seven years old. He was an absolute wizard with tools. He could cut a dovetail joint faster than you could lay it out. Before a class he would warm up just like an athlete. He’d take a 4×4 piece of lumber and saw off veneer-thick slivers of end grain perfectly square and even. “Cut it square,” he’d say. “You can see square, so cut it square!” Once someone asked him what he did when he wasn’t working. His eyes lit up and he said: “Oh — I practice.” This was his life. When he built his teahouses he did use power tools but it was a practical necessity which he hated to resort to — a concession to making a living. His secret ambition was to build a teahouse using only a saw and a plane and, of course, the knife which he always carried. This would be the ultimate expression of his skill. For Makoto, elevating his skill was more important than whatever he was building. Skill was an end in itself. His attitude made a huge impression on me. In my earlier business I had become very results oriented — because that’s what made me money, but in hindsight that’s what made me unhappy. What got reawakened in me was the joy of working wood and the desire to keep getting better at it.
After a year we moved to Ottawa and I set up business again. I tried building full time and I didn’t like it. I missed the human interaction of repair. I was selling my instruments to stores and would sometimes go a month without seeing anybody. After about year and a half of this I began doing repair work for the Ottawa Folklore Center.
So you could derive satisfaction from a repair as well as building — it wasn’t just a chore to subsidize the building?
I get just as much satisfaction from taking a guitar that’s broken and making it into a useful musical instrument as taking a scrap of wood and making it into a musical instrument.
Can you still enjoy dressing frets or making a nut for the thousandth time?
You can if your satisfaction comes from doing it a little better or more efficiently than you did the last time. If you focus on the process and not the product.
What prompted you to move from Canada to Denver?
Once again it was time for a change. I’ve always followed my inspiration or inner guidance if you want to call it that. My wife, Vanessa, and I had come to Colorado several times and we both loved it here. It came to both of us that it was time to move. The first issue was getting green cards, and if you are applying for one on the basis of starting a new business, they have a requirement that you have to hire at least ten people, so that was out. After some research I found out there was a category called “alien of extraordinary ability” and if you can demonstrate that you are in the top 2% of your field they’ll let you into the country.
So what do you have to do to prove you’re in the top 2%?
At first I thought just being a luthier would be good enough. But they wanted more. And so I got on the phone to anyone I could think of who would write a recommendation — luthiers, musicians, anyone who was remotely famous — there were also a couple of newspaper articles and TV interviews. So I ended up making a file over an inch thick which they eventually approved. I’m not sure I’m in the top 2% but they did let me into the country.
When did you get interested in building all these instruments besides guitars?
Throughout my career I’ve built instruments besides guitars. By being a repairman who has a hard time saying no, you get to work on all kinds of instruments and meet all kinds of people. Next thing you know they’re commissioning you to build something for them.
Did your choice of what to build always depend on getting the commission and building what the customer wanted?
Often, but not always. I do love collaborating. It’s one of the most exciting things — when you build something for and with a musician. That’s why I have a hard time building instruments for stores. But occasionally I get an idea for something unusual that I want to see built. It’s funny how it works. Sometimes it just seems like you build it and they will come. It’s like my first banjola. I’d played the banjo but I always wanted something that played like a banjo but that sounded more guitarlike. After carrying around that idea for years, I finally built one. I showed it to Harry Tufts at the Denver Folklore Center and he told Dick Weissman about it. Dick came into the shop carrying a similar instrument built in 1890 by a luthier named Pollman. Dick was having intonation problems with it so he sold his and bought mine. So within a week of my building it, it was gone.
On your website I saw a page on sound sculptures. Tell me about them.
With the sculptures I allow myself full freedom to follow my inner inspiration. They are visual and sonic experiments. In this piece, for example, I wondered what would happen if you stretched a string between two soundboards of different woods. In this other piece there are a number of strings all interconnecting so that when you pluck any one, the others will create a sound as well. I have a series planned which expresses five different stages of creation.
Well, they’re not instruments, so musicians aren’t interested. As far as the art world goes, I took one in to a gallery once and the curator suggested that I try another medium, perhaps something using barbed wire and garbage can lids! And so I’m not quite sure where the market is. Sometimes we do things and it’s years before we understand why. I’ve sold a few through word of mouth. I’d love to build and sell more.
Do you still do repair?
Oh yes. I manage the repair shop at The Olde Town Pickin’ Parlor and I work there three afternoons a week. I have three people working for me, so I spend a fair bit of time training them. We go through 30-40 instruments a week. I still do a lot of neck resets, refrets, and restorations, however.
How do you manage to build as well?
That can be a challenge. When you repair there’s never an end to it. And so I’ve created a separate shop in a different part of town with a different phone number so that I can have some quiet time to build. I like to build one or two instruments at a time — it’s not the most efficient, but that way I can savor each one.
Tell me about your new school.
At this point I’m only teaching one night a week, with six students per class, so to call it a school is a bit of a stretch. But officially it’s called the Colorado School of Lutherie, and I hope to expand it in the future. I’ve always had apprentices, and through teaching you get a whole new understanding for what you are doing. I teach a style of building which is very flexible and versatile, and emphasizes the use of hand tools as opposed to a lot of jigs and devices. That’s the way I build, and I want my students to be able to produce a guitar with tools they can have at home. I love teaching — I’m so energized by the enthusiasm and curiosity of my students. Recently I got to be a student again myself. I took a course at Charles Fox’s American School of Lutherie where I did a week long intensive with Jeffrey Elliott and Cyndy Burton. Charles has a wonderful setup, not only for beginners but for people who are well into guitar building. Jeff and Cyndy were incredibly gracious and generous in sharing their extensive knowledge.
What kinds of bracing patterns do you employ in your guitars? Do you experiment a lot?
My bracing patterns have been relatively traditional. For my steel strings I pretty much took a ’30s scalloped-brace Martin design and have worked with that. With classical guitars I’ve done a lot of different things. I’ve done variations of Ram¡rez, Fleta, Romanillos, and more recently the Hauser design which Jeff teaches. I’ve also been working with a dometop design. You can get a lot of extra stiffness from a top by doming it, and thus make it thinner. I recently built a classical with a 12¦ radius top. It’s got a lot of volume, punch, and power, perhaps at the expense of certain lyrical qualities, and so I think I’ll back off a bit on the next one.
Experiments are fun and interesting. And it’s good to push the envelope of what we’ve already done. But they’re only as good as our ability to stand back and objectively observe their effectiveness. It’s very easy to get into your head and to convince yourself that your ideas work. They need to be tested — it’s really important to listen to what musicians have to say. And so I’ve become somewhat suspicious of theoretical knowledge, including my own. Understanding usually comes in hindsight. I embrace the empirical. I want to find out what works and what doesn’t. I feel all builders would benefit by doing some repair work. It keeps you grounded.
Lately I have this desire to take one design, stick with it, and get the absolute maximum I can from it. I’m going to focus on the classical guitar for the foreseeable future — I’m going to stick with the Hauser design, employ some of the modifications that Elliott has come up with, and see where that takes me.
What, for you, is the essence of making a great guitar?
To make a good guitar, it’s in the design. To make a great guitar, it’s in the details, and a feel for the wood.
Your guitars seem very clear and even and there’s a beautiful transparency. Are these qualities you’re going for?
Well, yes, I suppose. Even though we have all kinds of sense of the nuances of sound, we don’t yet have a very good vocabulary to describe it. We usually use vocabulary from our other senses, like “brightness” and “darkness”. So, in words, yes I want “clarity,” “responsiveness,” ” balance,” “power.” I want the whole enchilada. But more than anything I want to build instruments that say, “yes I’m glad to be alive” — that awaken the inner joyfulness — the inner aliveness. Jeff Elliott uses the word “allure.” It’s a good word. It’s why we want to listen to guitars — why we want to play guitars. You can go up in the hills and hear the sound of the wind through the trees and it just sends shivers through your bones. Or you can go to a concert and hear a guitarist play a certain passage and your whole body vibrates. To me there’s not a lot of difference between those two experiences. In both cases it’s a sound that resonates with something inside you. But you’ve got to have something inside you to begin with. You have to be aware of what’s inside you before you can create that outside yourself. Perhaps that’s the most important thing of all — to listen, to pay attention to what’s inside.
Author: Ken Goodwin