‘Grit’ Laskin, (1953) is a Canadian luthier, a member of the Order of Canada, a
musician, an innovator and maybe the most representative inlay artist nowadays.
He owns a record label and directs the Canadian Folk Music Awards. His guitars
(Steel-Strings, Flamenco and Classical) are amazing works of art. If you want a
Laskin handmade guitar in your collection, you’ll have to wait a couple of
years, at least…
1. GUITARS EXCHANGE: How did you end up becoming, or start out as, a luthier?
William 'Grit' Laskin: I was a guitar player since 9 years old, and always loved woodworking but never had much chance to do it—didn’t have a father who was into that kind of thing. When I came to Toronto age 17, to begin working at a recording studio, and playing club gigs on weekends, I learned that there was this new guitar maker (Jean Larrivée) who’s emerged in town, and saw one of his guitars at the local Folklore Centre. Two months later (summer, 1971) I bumped into him at the Mariposa Folk Festival, where he was in the crafts section, showing his wares for the first time. Being a naïve teenager I simply asked if he’d ever take anyone on as an apprentice. To my amazement, he didn’t dismiss this scruffy, hairy teenager, but actually told me to come by in the fall when he started up again for the season (before climate control) and we’d see how it goes. If I didn’t work out after the first three months, he’d tell me so and that’d be that. Well, after those three months, he got rid of 2 other guys who were hanging around the shop at that point, saying I was the only one he enjoyed working with, then it was just Jean and me for the better part of 2 years. (David Wren came by in the evenings, after his day job, during the last six months I was there.) So of all the people who have worked with Jean I was the only one lucky enough to have a typical one-on-one master/apprentice relationship with him. I still feel lucky about that, almost 44 years later.
2. G.E.: What inspires you to design and manufacture a new guitar?
W.G.L.: The challenge never ends. No matter how many you make, you are always making an effort to elicit ever more subtle and spectacular musical responses out of the box. Additional to that are the challenges that come from clients, whether it’s tonal needs, ergonomic issues, or design—and inlay, of course, which is an additional constant (exciting!) challenge since I never repeat a design.
3. G.E.: Do you look for a given sound for any particular reason?
W.G.L.: Yes, I want to satisfy myself. And my taste is for a warm, mature sound that also has clarity. What I do not like is a percussive sound, which I know has some appeal in modern times. My own feeling about that is simply that younger people’s ears have gotten attuned to bad guitars and/or bad pickups, and they have grown to believe this is what a guitar is supposed to sound like.
4. G.E.: Select one and talk about: soul, jazz, blues, rock, pop…or other.
W.G.L.: I am open to all kinds of music, from Classical to blues, from Broadway to songwriters to rock, and even some rap. I only ask that that the music is good, and connects to me in some way. In short, it communicates successfully. Over and above that I admit I am a capital F Folkie. I love traditional music and contemporary music composed in the idiom. You may know I am the founder of Canada’s Folk Music record label, Borealis Records, and also the creator of national juried Folk Music Awards for Canada (CFMA).
5. G.E.: Are you a jobbing artist or a solitary artisan?
W.G.L.: I don’t perform a lot these days. Just too damn busy! If I play solo now, it’s only local fundraisers or group performances. However, I still do play in a band that’s been together since I was 18 years old. We do 4 or 5 concerts a year. We’re more like a family, still just having fun. We’ve all aged together, seen kids grow—and now some grandkids! (Side note: The son of one of our band is the tall red-headed guy in Arcade Fire).
6. G.E.: What was the last record or CD you bought? And listened to?
W.G.L.: Hard for me to answer. My label releases 7 or 8 albums a year, and I love and listen to all of those of course. My current favourite, that is on very heavy rotation in my life, is “Sliding Delta” by Michael Jerome Browne. It’s his brilliant re-interpreted renditions of country blues from the 1920s and 30s.
7. G.E.: Electric or acoustic?
W.G.L.: I only build acoustics: steel string, flamenco and classical. My favourite woods these days is African Blackwood or Ziricote for back & sides; Sitka Spruce for the tops. Yes, I find superb quality Sitka superior in all tonal respects than Engelmann, or European Spruce, etc.
8. G.E.: What is the secret behind your choice of wood?
W.G.L.: My steel string necks are central American Mahogany; my classical and flamencos are Spanish Cedar. There is no secret behind choosing the woods. You learn how to judge all its characteristics, based on decades of experience. After you have perhaps 100 or 200 guitars under your belt, you begin to be able to make very informed guesses about how certain woods, with certain properties will respond in combination with other species, scale lengths, body shapes. More than 700 guitars bear my label by now and I have learned much in all these years. Thankfully I am able to say I consistently surpass my customer’s expectations, in all respects, which is what a solo luthier should always aim to do.
...AND TWO HANDS
9. G.E.: Why should we consider luthier-crafted guitars as a viable option to guitars made by the large manufacturers?
W.G.L.: That’s easy. The very best instruments, for pretty much every type aside from Pianos, will only come from a (talented) solo builder, from a single brain sifting all the data during construction and bringing all of that knowledge—and all of his/her experience--to every decision. That, actually, is the root definition of hand-made, irrespective of the tools or technology that the luthier uses along the way.
10. G.E.: Who plays your guitars? Who would you like to have play your guitars?
W.G.L.: Too many people for me to recall! Hmmm…Here’s a sampling: Jesse Cook (Canada), Lillebjorn Nilsen (Norway), Kobukuro (Japan), Cathy Fink (US), k.d. lang (Canada/US). And in the trade: Bill Collings (yes, of Collings Guitars), Dick Boak (of Martin Guitars) , Chuck Erickson (Duke Of Pearl). There are so many more, of course. As well, some of my guitars have been sold through dealers over the years—and around the world—and I never know who owns them until I see them on TV or see a photo in the newspaper. Who would I like to have play my guitar? This could be a long list, but I’ll pick two of my favorite acoustic guitarists: Tony McManus and Beppe Gambetta.
Official Laskin Guitars website: www.williamlaskin.com