Guitar maker Joe Egan plays one of his own creations in his Cassidy studio.

Guitar maker Joe Egan plays one of his own creations in his Cassidy studio.

Zen and the art of guitar making

Patience a pre-requisite for virtuoso Ladysmith guitar maker’s course

If you want to make music, and make the guitar your music is going to be played on, Joe Egan has a course that will make your dream come true.

Operating out of a workshop located at the very rural end of Carden Road, west of Nanaimo Airport – lock the gate behind you – Egan runs a custom guitar making business he’s been building up for the last six years or so, since he moved from his home in west Ontario to Vancouver Island.

His custom made guitars are sold locally, and increasingly in eastern Canada and the US. Building a guitar for someone is sort of like learning to sing in two part harmony, often over the phone and the internet.

“We talk: What kind of music do you want to play with it? Tuning? What kind of music are you into?” Because he’s working with clients “that you’ve never met, that you’re probably never going to meet,” communication is vital.

Egan says there are lots of guitar builders on Vancouver Island – probably over 50 of them, he thinks. At an annual get together in Errington this October, 20 builders checked-in to show their stuff and swap ideas.

It’s that enthusiasm for the craft he’s building on with his workshops, which are one-on-one experiences. He fits them in two-days a week, offering one six-week course in electric guitar making, and a nine-week course for acoustic guitars.

Guitars have been a part of Egan’s life since he was knee high to a Fender – his first memories of strumming and plucking go all the way back to “grade three or four.” But a love of playing, that morphed into a stint on the road performing, has melded into a passion for designing and building instruments.

“When I finished school I did the music thing; I’ve toured for five, six years, hard,” he recounted.

At the end of that stint he went back home to Lake Superior for a while, and discovered a clipping he’d saved from his high school days about a guitar building course.

Actually, his first attempt at building a guitar took place in grade 11. He never finished that project, but the roughed out body of an electric guitar serves as a reminder of his eventual transition from musician to craftsman – it is mounted on the wall above the entrance to his workshop.

The rediscovered clipping reawakened his interest. “I found that clipping of that program. So I went, I took the program, I didn’t know if that was what I wanted to do. I wanted to build a few guitars, but I kind of fell in love with it.”

Egan has three modes of guitar making: the freestyle of making his own instruments; to dialogue with clients, figuring out how to assemble their perfect instrument; to making them on spec as the guitar building equivalent of a ghost writer.

But it was the art of guitar building that first resonated, and it’s still his passion. “There’s an artistic approach to it, just like music, so I kind of fell in love with that side of it,” he said.

The weirdest design in his shop is a guitar-harp combo – call it a guitharp, perhaps – which he’s letting sit for a while as the idea takes shape; the most beautiful, an acoustic with a uniquely sculpted maple back and frets angled to produce a sound all its own.

What does it take to build your own guitar? At one level it’s a specialized form of woodworking that requires shaping, gluing, cutting, assembling, all with a sharp eye for detail. On another, it’s a life experience in patience and problem solving. Egan says you have to master your emotions and learn discipline as well as craft to build a good guitar.

“I wasn’t this gifted, prodigy builder. I had to work hard at it. I still have to work hard at it,” he said. So do his students, and that’s part of the experience. When the notion of Zen and the art of guitar building is bandied, Egan thinks it’s a fit.