Edmonton handcrafted guitar business sees boom despite pandemic

·3 min read
Dion James built his first guitar 15 years ago — at the time, he did not even play the instrument. (Axel Tardieu/CBC - image credit)
Dion James built his first guitar 15 years ago — at the time, he did not even play the instrument. (Axel Tardieu/CBC - image credit)

An Edmonton man has found success building handcrafted guitars with a waitlist that has actually grown during the pandemic.

Dion James built his first guitar around fifteen years ago. He was 23 at the time and living in Saskatchewan.

He and a friend were tinkering with an old guitar made of plywood. Logging on to a dial-up connection, James did an Ask Jeeves search for guitar building and found a class two hours away.

He has come a long way since then, going professional around six years ago, but he still has that first guitar.

"If my house burned down, I'd grab my child and my partner and then my guitar."

James has honed his craft and turned it into a sought-after business with customers — both individuals and dealers — located around the world.

Each steel-string acoustic guitar takes him around 250 hours to make — slower than some others in the craft, he says — and starts at $10,000 each. He builds between 8 and 10 a year.

The pandemic has slowed down the process, however. James shares a workshop with two others so he's shortened his work week from five or six days a week to only three in order to maintain distance. Some supplies like certain hardware pieces are also on back order.

But that doesn't mean sales have dropped off — in fact, they've grown.

"It's obviously a strange time — and I recognize my privilege within this time — but for my business, I've experienced a bit of a boom in orders."

Dion James working on a guitar in The Club House studio in Edmonton.
Dion James working on a guitar in The Club House studio in Edmonton.(Axel Tardieu/CBC)

A new order now would take about two years to complete. But that timeline may actually make the handcrafted guitars more attainable for some, James said.

"Price isn't as big a barrier as I imagined when I started to get to that price," he said.

While he has dealers and collectors as clients, James said middle-class buyers will also put down a direct deposit and save up while in the queue.

James said one of the reasons people are drawn to his business is that in a world of anonymous mass production, guitar craft workers form a personal bond.

"I think people are attracted to something that they have had made with someone they know or have had a relationship with," he said, adding that many customers come back more than once.

A guitar-in-progress in Dion James' workshop.
A guitar-in-progress in Dion James' workshop.(Axel Tardieu/CBC)

Another reason is the quality of sound.

"The guitars we're building as handmakers are more like concert instruments, like that of cellos and violin players in the orchestra. They're more delicate and because they're more delicate … they produce more sound and more complex sound."

Guitars are a lightly-built instrument, James said, and the goal is to find the balance between that delicateness and long-term durability as they control air movement and produce sound.

Factory-built guitars are also not as customized as the ones guitar makers can produce with their ability to tailor neck shape, widths and other.design aspects.

"They're not built to a mass [specification], they're one offs," James said. "Each guitar sounds much better than you would get out of a factory."

James said the business of handmade guitars is on an upward trajectory as more and more people become aware of it. He said while there are business-minded folks in the industry, more common are people in it for the love of the craft.

For him, the autonomy and chance to hone a skill to mastery has made the work "more satisfying with each passing year."

"It's the best life I could have imagined."