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Axe-worthy

Luthier puts Winnipeg on the guitar map with his dedication and designs

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On a routine basis, Winnipeg luthier Allan Beardsell ships his precision-built, custom-made instruments to music aficionados all over the globe.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 09/09/2017 (1968 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

On a routine basis, Winnipeg luthier Allan Beardsell ships his precision-built, custom-made instruments to music aficionados all over the globe.

If you’re lucky, he might even deliver one to you, in person.

In March, a few weeks before a scheduled gig with singer/songwriter Scott Nolan at the West End Cultural Centre, Damon Mitchell of the New Meanies paid a visit to Beardsell’s workshop at 706 St. Matthews Ave., to place an order for a new guitar.

After settling on everything from frets to finishes, Mitchell mentioned his upcoming show with Nolan, jokingly telling Beardsell if he could have his axe ready by then, that’d be great.

“Even though he said not to worry about it at all… that he was totally kidding and had lots of other guitars he could play that night, I took it as a bit of a challenge to get (the guitar) done on time,” says Beardsell, who, with his tousled white hair and black, horn-rimmed glasses, bears a passing resemblance to Christopher-Lloyd-as-Doc-Brown in Back to the Future.

Allan Beardsell ships his precision-built, custom-made instruments to music aficionados all over the globe. (Justin Samanski-Langille / Winnipeg Free Press)

True to his word, Beardsell put the finishing touches on Mitchell’s guitar, which he describes as a “three pickup gold-fleck top with a Bigsby tremolo,” 90 minutes before the concert was slated to begin.

Beardsell inspects an electric guitar he made around 1996 that has found its way back into his workshop for some repairs. (Justin Samanski-Langille / Winnipeg Free Press)

Carefully placing it in the back seat of his vehicle, the married father of two drove to the Ellice Street venue where, lickety-split, he manoeuvred his way to the front of the line.

After being told by an attendant what dressing room Mitchell was holed up in, he made his way downstairs, plucked his latest creation from its carrying case and announced, “Here it is.”

“At first he was like, ‘thanks so much, but I’m not even sure I’ll use it tonight, since I usually like to get a feel for my guitars first,’” Beardsell continues, reaching past a phalanx of necks and fingerboards in various states of construction to turn down his stereo, which is tuned to a talk radio station.

“As it turned out, though, he ended up playing it practically the whole night, which was a blast to see and hear.”

Al Beardsell has been building and repairing guitars and other instruments in this workshop for five years, but he has been building guitars for more than 20 years. (Justin Samanski-Langille / Winnipeg Free Press)

Beardsell, 52, grew up in Vancouver. He took up the violin at age 8 but switched to guitar in high school, figuring it would be a better way to meet girls.

One of Beardsell’s custom electric guitars sits on the floor of his workshop. (Justin Samanski-Langille / Winnipeg Free Press)

One problem: because he was soon spending hour upon hour with his Mann Les Paul, perfecting the licks to tunes such as Cream’s White Room and Dire Straits’ Down to the Waterline, he had little time for members of the opposite sex, he says with a laugh.

Following Grade 12, Beardsell enrolled in a two-year music course offered at Vancouver Community College.

He dropped out midway through his second year primarily because “by then, I was more interested in the playing part of things, than the theoretical.”

After relocating to Toronto to pursue a music career, he caught on with a range of bands, including the Pollyannas and Red Collar Boy, both of which he toured Europe and North America with, as well as a U2 tribute act dubbed Firedance Overture.

“At one point, I was playing in something like seven different groups — everything from heavy rock to alt-country,” he says.

“But in order to make ends meet, my day job of choice was working with cabinet-makers, doing refinishing work. That’s where I learned a lot about hand tools and such.”

Beardsell uses different types of wood to achieve different looks and feels for his guitars. (Justin Samanski-Langille / Winnipeg Free Press)

Beardsell guesses it would have been around 1989 when he began turning his attention to folk music.

He went shopping for a few folk-centric instruments but because money was tight, he decided it would be cheaper in the long run to craft his own.

Future guitars in Beardsell's shop. (Justin Samanski-Langille / Winnipeg Free Press)

One of the first things he fashioned after completing an instrument-building course at a nearby art college was a mandolin his 21-year-old son Sam uses to this day when he’s performing on stage with his own band, Paisley.

In 1992, Beardsell landed a job repairing guitars at Songbird Music, a Toronto retailer that reportedly counted Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy and Oasis’s Noel Gallagher among its clientele.

He was still making instruments for himself in his spare time and before long, began fielding orders from others who admired the sound and attention to detail of his six-strings.

“In 1996, right around the time I was starting to get more serious orders, I studied with a guy named Sergei de Jonge, who built these absolutely gorgeous classical guitars. For five weeks, I basically lived in his shop, building nylon- and steel-string acoustic guitars out of basically nothing… just blocks of wood.

“I developed my own website shortly thereafter — that was back in the very, very beginning of online sales — and my business just kind of took off from there.”

“People will be looking over my stuff and ask me where I’m from and I’ll be like, I live in this place in central Canada– you’ve probably never heard of it — called Winnipeg. And they’ll be like, ‘C’mon man, everybody knows where Winnipeg is.’”

Beardsell and his wife, accomplished musician Cate Friesen, agreed in 2002 it was time to leave Toronto.

They considered moving back to Beardsell’s home province but eventually chose Winnipeg, a city Friesen, who was born and raised in Altona, was familiar with.

“Pretty much the only times I’d ever been to Winnipeg was when bands I was a part of played the Pyramid or Ozzy’s,” Beardsell says, noting he and Friesen also appeared at the Winnipeg Folk Festival together, in 1994 and 1996.

“But to me, (Winnipeg) always seemed like a really nice place to raise kids. And considering our two options, money-wise, were a cramped, basement somewhere up the Fraser Valley or a nice, big home in Wolseley… well, it was a little bit of a no-brainer.”

Beardsell works on a piece of maple which will eventually become part of a fully custom-made guitar. (Justin Samanski-Langille / Winnipeg Free Press)

For the next 10 years, Beardsell was content to build guitars in his 700-square-foot, detached Aubrey Street garage.

There was little need to advertise his services locally, he says, given he was kept busy by orders from guitarists from “anywhere you can think of in Europe,” as well as Australia, Japan and Thailand.

Pieces of wood can be found all over Beardsell Guitar Workshop. (Justin Samanski-Langille / Winnipeg Free Press)

(Ten years ago, Beardsell picked up his phone, only to be greeted by the words, “Hi, it’s Lou. What do you need to know?” It seems legendary rocker Lou Reed, who died in 2013, caught wind of Beardsell’s prowess through an acquaintance of his, and was calling Beardsell to commission an acoustic guitar for himself.)

But because his workspace had gotten so cramped, and because he wanted to expand his business into the repair and restoration side of things, he relocated to a place twice the size, — the former home of Thomas Garnet “Gar” Gillies’s Garnet Amplifier Company — in 2012.

“I tried to buy this building after Gar died in 2006, but it ended up going in a private sale,” says Beardsell, who still plays as often as possible, and recently participated in a recording session with pianist Glenn Buhr, co-founder of the Winnipeg New Music Festival.

“It came up for sale again five years later and despite getting it for a pretty good price, we still had to sink about $100,000 into it, to bring it back to life.

“But because it gave me the room I needed to do repairs, it also gave me an opportunity to get to know the local scene… to get to know the players in Winnipeg.”

Justin Samanski-Langille / Winni Beardsell was looking to buy an instrument in the late 1980s, then decided it would cost less in the long run to build his own. (Justin Samanski-Langille / Winnipeg Free Press)

One of those “players” is John K. Samson, ex- of the Weakerthans. Samson was so particular about the guitar he ordered that he texted Beardsell a photo of his two dogs so Beardsell could match the colour of the guitar’s body to the colour of his pooches’ fur coats.

(When asked for a list of other noteworthy types who’ve requested his services, he shoots a reporter a “jeez-do-I-really-have-to-look,” before counting off on his fingers, “Heather Bishop, Grant Siemens (from Corb Lund’s band, the Hurtin’ Albertans), Henry Kaiser, an avant-garde type-of-player from California… and oh, a couple of weeks ago, I was at Interstellar Rodeo, chatting with the guitar player for Sarah Slean, when he said, ‘you know that guitar we talked about years ago; yeah, we should definitely do that.’”)

And OK, maybe Beardsell did spend the first two-thirds of his life living elsewhere, but when he attends guitar shows and conventions south of the border these days, and explains where his workshop is based, he has definitely adopted the same self-deprecating manner born-and-bred Winnipeggers are known for.

“People will be looking over my stuff and ask me where I’m from and I’ll be like, I live in this place in central Canada — you’ve probably never heard of it — called Winnipeg. And they’ll be like, ‘C’mon man, everybody knows where Winnipeg is.’”

david.sanderson@freepress.mb.ca

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David Sanderson

Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.

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