Mario Proulx | 2008 | Luthier Interview | “Canadian Bluegrass”
TT – Mario, you’re really well known in the bluegrass circles for building a mean dreadnought, isn’t that a little unusual for a Canadian builder given the L’arrivee influence?
MP – I don’t think so at all, because my influences were the likes of Tony Rice, Clarence White, Doc Watson and Norman Blake. Their’s is the tone I was after, so it seems natural for me to have studied the dreadnoughts. I also have a sound, a distinct tone, in my mind’s ear, of what an acoustic guitar should be, and that tone is what lead me to where I am.
I’m a Bluegrass music fan(I’d say 80% of what I listen to is Bluegrass), and a Bluegrass player(I’ve played upright bass in a Bluegrass band since 1998 or ’99, but also flatpick guitar, mandolin, and also tease the bow across the fiddle’s cat guts at times), and I’ve long understood that Bluegrass is about tone.
You can’t take Bluegrass music and play it on electric instruments. Doesn’t work. Yet country, blues, even jazz, were able to transition from acoustic to electric, and then mix the two sounds. But Bluegrass can’t do it; we can mic the instruments, and we can even “plug” them in and with today’s technology, achieve a decent acoustic tone, but that tone MUST be natural, or it simply won’t sound like Bluegrass.
There’s an aggression to Bluegrass; Bill Monroe had a chip on his shoulder growing up, being cross eyed and the youngest of the family, yet he also was strong willed. He had attitude! Understand that fact, and you can begin to understand why he took his music where he took it, and why we can’t play his music, correctly, without that same attitude.
I understood that attitude early, and wanted my guitar to have that agressive, in-your-face tone that I was hearing in Clarence and Tony’s tone, especially in their rhythm tone. But I was also drawn to the warmth and more melow tone that I heard in Doc’s early recordings, and especially in Blake’s 70’s albums.
I’ve also not studied with any other guitar builder, therefore I wasn’t influenced by anyone’s building “style”. Jean Larrivee’s influence on Canadian lutherie is due to the relatively large number of people who worked with him before striking out on their own, either because they felt the need to do their own thing, or because Jean moved quite often.
And they in turn have had others work with them, so the Larrivee influence is real, and still growing, but it never reached me, for better or worse. I am completely self-taught.
I strongly suspect, though, that had I worked with or studied with Jean, or Grit Laskin, or anyone, that I’d still have ended up exactly where I am today with my designs and innovations, because it’s simply my nature to dissect everything I touch and reassemble it the way I think it should be.
I’ve done it all my life, from breaking down toys and “fixing” them to make ’em better, to landscaping my yard to make it fit my vision of what it should have been all along. In short, I’m the poster child for “can’t leave well enough alone” <lol>
TT – So am I right in thinking that your building involves a lot of R&D and refinement?
MP – Oh, completely! I’m always thinking up new stuff, new methods, new materials or new uses for old materials, always working toward my end goal.
TT – Speaking of new methods and materials, what’s your take on the various finishes- varnish is a hot word now, especially with Collings offering it as an option…
MP – Well, that’s a subject worthy of its own book….. series!
But my findings have been that as long as I’ve kept the finish thin(meaning under .005″, with my ideal of .003″), it doesn’t much matter.
Now, for necks, I’ve long offered French Polished shellac as an option, because of its feel. here, it can make a big difference from players who’ve found their guitar necks to get either “grabby” or slick and hard to hold onto in the past.
The FP shellac feels just wonderful and natural, and being a protein based finish, it never gets slick or grabby to your left hand, and feels very much like an old, time-worn vintage neck where th finish is worn off. And for those who’ve never had issues, I’ll do my usual glossy neck finish instead.
TT – I agree with you on the French for necks. They play great! Although you’re best known for your dreads, I understand the OM/D is great for fingerstyle too…
MP – Since I don’t play fingerstyle at all, I can’t pretend to know what makes a good fingerstyle guitars at all, but I’m often surprised at how many Proulx owners also fingerpick on their’s, and they tell me they(my OM/D and Dreads) work out really well for they style, also. My guitars are very responsive to light touches(especially if I knew the owner plays with a light touch, and build with his/her lighter touch in mind), while also have a lot of headroom when pushed hard, so I guess that helps them cross over.
TT – So how do you alter your build to suite individual guitars? Is it just with the brace shaving or through other techniques? I know for example George Lowden will choose different tops to suite different guitars… including slightly off quarter softer tops…
MP – I view the instrument as a whole, and treat it as such, therefor, if you tell me you play with a light touch, I’ll choose every piece with that in mind, and work each one with the end goal in mind, also. Same as if you’re a heavy handed player who’s really gonna overdrive the instrument: I’ll the choose ad work each and every piece specifically for that.
So, no, it’s not as simple as shaving a brace or two, or choosing a lighter top. If I were selling through stores or dealers, then yes, I’d have to have specific models and try to walk that line, but I don’t, and instead, I can work one-on-one with the player. It’s also where being a player, in the style of the instrument(s) you make, is important, in my view. As a musician myself, I can understand what my client, who obviously is also a musician, is trying to ask for, especially if he/she isn’t sure what to ask for.
TT – Speaking of specifics, I love those curved backstrips on your guitars, where’d you get that inspiration and is it difficult to execute?
MP – Glad you like them! But, I have no idea when or how the idea came to me, but the basic idea was that I wanted to show the back’s join, and not hide it, yet I still wanted some type of backstrip. I’m from the school of thought that we shouldn’t hide good joinery, but instead, let it show. From there, somehow, the idea to curve each line to the same radius as the back somehow made sense. And no, it’s not overly difficult at all, but it does take twice the time of a single backstrip.
TT – More recently, I’ve noticed soundports turning up on your guitars- how would you say they alter your sound?
MP – Surprisingly, I don’t think they alter the sound that listeners here, but it does change the tone the player hears quite a bit. I don’t consider it louder for the player, but rather, the tone is richer, fuller, fatter. Very much akin to flipping on the ‘loudness’ button on your home’s stereo. It doesn’t make it louder, but rather makes the tone richer.
Also surprisingly, I’m not all that sold on it. While I like what I hear from a ported guitar, I can’t say I like it more than unported, and in fact, after a while, I tired of it’s tone. Maybe it’s too much ‘in your face’, but I think it goes deeper than that, and perhaps what I’m -not- hearing in a ported guitar is all the nuances from the radiated sound and tones that can surround the player.
I also find it annoying to sing while playing a ported guitar; seems I’m fighting for space or something. I guess what I’m trying to say is that while I like ported guitars, I love the standard non ported ones.
Now, I’ve recently ported a mandolin(first time for me), and even added a sliding door to it t allow me to play around; this one I like a lot more than the ported guitars, ad I’ve now removed the door because i wanted the port open all the time anyhow.
TT – I gather you have pretty harsh winters up there? How does this affect your guitar building?
MP – Well, it affects business because I have a 2 month window where I cannot ship out, generally. Other than that, it’s nothing but great! The cold weather means I must heat the shop(I have a natural gas system), and that means high humidity is not a problem.
I have to run a humidifier about half the year, which is easy and economical, the other 40% of the time i don’t have to do anything in order to remain in the ideal 42% to 47% relative humidity range, and only perhaps 100% of the time see me running a dehunidifier(expensive, troublesome and noisy).
The extreme cold(our town’s coldest recorded temperature is minus 73 degrees Fahrenheit!) also allows me to have some fun with “seasoning” my woods by drying them at extreme cold temperatures, among other things. <wink>
It also means I don’t need air conditioning. Ever. i’ve never lived in, or owned, and home/shop that has air conditioning. We simply don’t need it. In short, this may be the ideal climate to build instruments in.
TT – Thanks for taking the time to do this interview Mario. Would you like to add anything?
MP – I could go on forever; My passion for instrument making, and music in general, runs deep.
©2008 Terence Tan.
Pictures courtesy of Mario Proulx, MP3s courtsey of Bryan Kimsey- ©2007-8.