Bob Laughlin, Luthier
It's All About The Sound
by Alex Rose
Edited version of an article that first ran in Walhachin Press.
When luthier Bob Laughlin heard a giant maple tree on Anvil Island had come down in a Pacific storm, he went to see for himself.
Anvil Island resident and amateur musician Peter Hill met Laughlin at Porteau Cove in his 18-foot runabout and spun him across Howe Sound to the island.
Twenty minutes later, the two made their way to the blasted tree: a century-old Big Leaf maple that, once sawed and milled on the island with a portable rig, would be transformed into a thing of beauty, a guitar with singular acoustic properties.
But first, the four-foot slabs had to be lugged through the woods and back to the boat. Eventually the wood could be seen drying in Laughlin's workshop off Commercial Drive in Vancouver.
Over the next two years, Laughlin would treat, prepare and shape the wood in order to use it as the back, sides and neck for a stunning small-bodied guitar with carved front and back. The instrument took pride of place at Laughlin's exhibit at the 2017 Vancouver International Guitar Festival.
Laughlin's exhibit at the festival drew attention from customers, gawkers and musicians. It also gave him the opportunity to talk shop with other luthiers he admires.
His instruments are strikingly beautiful. Resonating with a clear, rich tone.
Peter Hill, who used the guitar in a later recording session, describes it this way: "The sound is clear and warm at the same time. You can feel it warm up the more you play it. This guitar actually gives me musical ideas. It somehow allows me to remember long forgotten songs or create new ones. And how can something that plays so well look so good?"
The instrument has a carved Sitka spruce top, with a side port so the musician can better monitor her/his playing. Top of the line tuners, selectively chosen and carefully tuned woods fit out an acoustic machine with the best of 21st century technology.
How to explain Laughlin's career trajectory? A modest man who evinces the wisdom and patience that comes from working alone, Laughlin once studied mathematics and psychology, winning a major scholarship to a prestigious U.S. university. But he turned that down and turned instead to computing science, winning an NSERC scholarship to Simon Fraser University. After graduation he taught computer science at a Vancouver college.
But Laughlin had another life, one all about music. He had grown up in the Ottawa Valley and, as a teenager, listened to Bruce Cockburn, David Wiffen and Willie P. Bennett.
Later, moving to the West Coast, he shared a rented house on Trafalgar Street in Kitsilano in the 1970s, holding musical open houses several nights a week. People of all talents were made welcome - folkies, rockers, opera singers, flutists - and would show up with guitars, dulcimers, mandolins and boxes of beer. There were occasional attempts at taping such sessions - a Revox A77 with two AKG 1200E mics was sometimes in evidence - though sadly only a few aural scraps remain today.
Friendships were sometimes forged during endless 12-bar blues and D-minor Celtic dirges. Lasting, in some cases, a lifetime. The music was often heartfelt, every once in a while, profound.
Songwriters would drop in, with scraps and "mumbles such as promises" because Laughlin's was the place to try out a new idea. Even as musicians warily eyed each other's chops, there was an inclusive sense of belonging that allowed people to relax, to stretch out, to try new ideas.
All the while Laughlin kept learning, absorbing information from books and attending conventions put on by the Guild of American Luthiers, learning the hard stuff: the physics, the quality of the woods, the bracings, the gluing, the myriad and time-consuming steps that go into each instrument.
Was it worth it? Laughlin answers with a resounding 'yes'.
"The reason I do it is simple. There is nothing that compares to stringing up an instrument for the first time."
Q & A With Bob Laughlin, Luthier
How long does it take make a guitar?
For something I've made before about six weeks - I only work 2-3 hours a day now; this makes the process much more enjoyable. I only make one instrument at a time so there is lots of rejigging time involved, glue/finish drying time. I spent a year making my first violin.
How many guitars have you made now? Other instruments?
74 guitars - about 150 instruments in all. I mostly make mandolins these days since thats what I play. For much of my life in luthiery, I had a good day job that allowed me to avoid financial struggle with time off for other things. And I lucked out with shops where I've lived over the years as a lifelong renter in Vancouver.
When did you start?
In 1977 - a Bill Lewis night course at a Vancouver high school. Lewis is a legendary figure in the luthiery world. He started the first luthier supply company, now Luthiers Mercantile in Santa Rosa California. His electrics are renowned, owned by the likes of Jimmy Page and David Gilmour.
Your's seems such a solitary craft. How do you handle that?
I'm a loner by nature - I play music for a social life. The upside is total control. This has great appeal for me.
Do you prefer to work with B.C. woods?
Sure, what's not to like - Yellow Cedar, Sitka Spruce, Big Leaf Maple. Some of the best tonewoods in the world grow here in BC, including Red Cedar which I don't use. Besides the Big Leaf from Anvil Island, I also have Yellow Cedar beachcombed by Gerry Chicalo on Lasquiti Island.
How has the luthier business changed for you?
I only make what I want now. Recently I've made some very small bodied guitars simply because that's what interests me. I play mandolin and appreciate a smaller instrument. Then, of course, I have to sell them.
How do you make a living as a luthier?
You don't. Many are attracted to this fascinating endeavor and soldier on with patchy remuneration, myself included. A few stars emerge to make a decent living. But few get rich in such a solitary enterprise.
You emphasize 'its all about the sound.' Please explain.
Any luthier will tell you this, including top-of-their-game visual artists and experimenters like Grit Laskin, Linda Manzer, Michael Dunn. The end product of luthiery goes to waste unless interacting with a player - the sound can inspire a person to new heights. You also need playability and longevity - and appearance can go a long way to selling an instrument. But it is all about the sound.