The slippery slope

Last night I stumbled on a really interesting interview with Linda Manzer. Here it is:

For those of you who want the Coles Notes version, Linda was trained by Jean Larrivée between 1974 and 1978; she then went on to work with Jimmy D’Aquisto before setting up in business for herself. As she points out in the interview, female luthiers are a rarity (and interestingly, most of them are Canadian – one of a number of ways in which Canadian lutherie appears to be unusual – see this article for another), but she has made quite a name for herself over the years, building instruments for Carlos Santana, Pat Metheny, Stephen Fearing, Liona Boyd and Bruce Cockburn, to name just a few. She now builds about ten guitars a year, and they start at a whopping $30,000 each. This strange-looking one would cost about $100,000 if she felt moved to build another one.

I started playing guitar when I was about fourteen, and played cheap guitars for the next thirty years. I got married when I was twenty, became a minister in a Council of the North diocese on minimum stipend, and quickly started having children; we then moved to the Northwest Territories where life was even more expensive. I first heard a Larrivée guitar in 1977 (played by the great Bruce Cockburn), and always dreamed of buying one, but for most of my life they were way out of my league. I played $250-$350 models, cheap laminates; I did my best to play them well, but there’s a limit to how good you can sound on an instrument like that. Still, I don’t complain; we had other priorities, and I’m sure they were right.

When Jean Larrivée started out he was building guitars for individuals, just as Linda Manzer is now. But over the years he expanded and now, although his place can’t accurately be described as a factory with a production line, it’s part way in that direction. Larrivées now run from about $1600 to about $5000 (list price – you can get them cheaper in stores), and if you want a custom model you’ll pay more, of course. I got my OM-03E five years ago for about $1200 (they’re a lot more now, though you can get them cheaper here) and it suits me just fine, although of course I always dream of a better one (no matter how good a guitar you get, there’s always a better one!).

Still, I’m troubled by the slippery slope. I don’t challenge Linda Manzer’s right to charge top dollar for her instruments – she’s making some of the finest guitars in Canada today, and she’s a skilled craftsperson who puts hundreds of hours into each of her guitars. What troubles me is that its easy for me to sideline my conscience. I’d never think of buying a top line BMW or Audi (not that I could ever afford it); to me, that would be stealing money from the poor and needy, as John Wesley would have said. So why do I dream about this guitar sometimes?

Before I bought my Larrivée, my favourite instrument was a Seagull S-6 Folk; it had no electronics, laminate back and sides, and a solid cedar top, and it cost me all of about $350 (Seagulls are amazingly cheap for the quality of guitar you get. Oh yes, they’re Canadian-made, too). It sounds a bit clunky to me now, after five years of playing the Larrivée, but it sounded just fine when I bought it. Still, I can just about justify the Larrivée; it’s one of the cheapest guitars they make, it’s all solid wood (the gold standard for acoustic guitars), and it’s very affordable for many baby-boomers like me who’ve got no kids left at home and a mortgage paid off.

But $30,000? The only people who can afford to buy a $30,000 guitar are very rich people. Probably, very rich people who make music for a living and so need the best tool they can afford. I guess I’d draw the line there (or rather, Marci would, since we’d need to take out a second mortgage to be able to afford it!).

Bottom line? Jean Larrivée is making very fine instruments, but I think he’s still making guitars for ordinary people. Linda Manzer isn’t; she’s making guitars for the pros.

But then, who am I to point the finger? After all, this image has been doing the rounds on Facebook lately:


It troubles me a little that people can be smug enough to point fingers at mega-churches when we’ve all made compromises. After all, are we all living in the cheapest possible house so that we can give the extra to the poor? Are we all driving the cheapest possible car? Do we always take the cheapest possible holidays? Do we all eat and drink at home rather than going out for meals or a $5 latte at Starbucks?

So is my $1200 Larrivée more important than feeding the poor? Wasn’t the Seagull doing just fine?

It’s a slippery slope…


4 thoughts on “The slippery slope

  1. Andrew Hicks

    It is indeed. Some while back, I wrote in my blog about shopping at the Steinway dealer, as you probably recall. There is definitely a difference between a $30,000 piano and a $70,000 piano; I sat there and played both of them. And I won’t even get started about pipe organs… some of the large ones run in the millions of dollars. Or violins.

    A fine instrument is important. It is not just that I would enjoy playing that $70,000 Steinway; it would sound better, and have a better musical result. In a church, one would hope that this musical result would be for the glory of God. But the same is true for the purely secular musician, too; their work equally glorifies God, when it is good and true.

    Analogy is sometimes made with Mary of Bethany anointing the feet of Jesus. It is Judas Iscariot who complains about wasting this perfume, which could have been sold for about a year’s wages. Thus, nothing is too good or too valuable to be offered to the Lord. We are right to lavish large sums on church buildings, pipe organs, Steinway pianos, etc.

    This argument is not altogether convincing.

    Still, the fact that people were lavish when they built Chartres, or Durham Cathedral, or any number of other places of that sort, continues to glorify God in a most mighty way.

    At the least, I think one must be exceedingly cautious with such decisions, and prayerful.

  2. Tim Chesterton

    I thoroughly agree with your last statement, Andrew: ‘one must be exceedingly cautious with such decisions, and prayerful’.

    I’m not as confident as you that Durham Cathedral and Chartres continue to glorify God in a mighty way. I think of all the people who were living in poverty around them when they were first built. I think if a church is going to spend a million dollars on an organ, it should be prepared to at least match that with giving to the poor and needy. Yes, I agree that good music can bring honour to God, and often does. But I think the teaching of Jesus would lead us to the conclusion that caring for the poor and needy and working for a better and more just world is a more important way of bringing glory and honour to God (and I say this as a dedicated musician!).

  3. Andrew H.

    Another thought that occurred to me last night on this subject: folk musicians (especially) have shown repeatedly that great music can be made on old, beat-up, cheap instruments. Some of the signature characteristics of African-American Gospel piano developed because they were playing old uprights that were indifferently maintained/tuned (if at all). And they learned to make great music on them. But most of these musicians would be very happy to play a better instrument, if it became available to them.

  4. Tim Chesterton

    Andrew, you are so right! Especially old American folk and blues music. Mississippi John Hurt made all his classic recordings on a cheap guitar, as did Robert Johnson and the rest. I laugh at how many country songs nowadays mention ‘this old guitar’, and yet the singer isn’t playing an old guitar at all – they’re playing a $3000 Martin or Gibson or Guild!

    Still, as you say, I’m not sorry that I now play on a nice solid-wood Larrivée rather than a cheap laminate guitar.

    It’s a difficult issue and I don’t ever want to get to the point where my conscience doesn’t trouble me about it.

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