Marc Beneteau Guitars. | 2010 | Luthier Interview
TT: Thanks Marc for taking the time to speak to us. You’ve been building for a considerable period of time now, I was wondering how you got started in lutherie?
MB: I was playing electric blues and rock in a series of bands in the early 70’s and used to frequent my local music store, Bill Lewis Music in Vancouver. Not only did they sell acoustic and electric guitars but they also were involved in instrument building classes as well as selling builders supplies and materials. Though i didn’t become involved at that time, 1972, the thought stayed with me and two years later, in 1974, I decided to have a go, having realized that the life of a musician on the road just didn’t suit me.
By this time I was back living in Windsor, Ontario, my home town. After another move to Ottawa, Ontario I set up my first shop in a spare bedroom and set about learning to build guitars. I took me 7 months and many setbacks to complete my first guitar and by this time I was well and truly hooked. There was no turning back! It’s worth noting that these were the pre internet and computer days. The only information available then was in the form of a very few books on the subject, hence I largely learned by trial and error. I was able to sell my second guitar to a friend for $150 and that enabled me to build my third and so on. By my 10th instrument I had advanced to the point where I could place my instruments in the local music store, The Ottawa Folklore Centre, who were kind enough to support me when I most needed it!
TT: I read you were inspired by Jean Larrivee- did you study under him?
MB: This is a question I have been asked many times. Though I didn’t study under him, he was definitely an early positive influence on my career. When I decided to pursue guitar building in 1974 my only frame of reference was the well known American acoustic guitars of the day, Martin, Gibson and Guild. On top of this by far the most popular model was the dreadnought or some variation of it. When I saw my first Larrivee I was amazed because it looked nothing like those others. Instead it had wooden purflings and bindings instead of plastic.
This was a unique approach for steel string guitars at that time, and a beautiful feature that I’ve used to this day. Instead of inlaid plastic purflings around the sound hole, the Larrivee had a classical mosiac of inlaid wood. To top it off the shape was much more rounded and, to my eyes, more appealing.
The overall effect was, at least to me, stunning by comparison and I immediately decided to follow the Larrivee influenced design direction. My early guitars really reflect this influence and though my instruments have evolved steadily over the last 35 years I certainly owe him a debt of gratitude for the trail he blazed all those years ago.
TT: So you’re definitely self taught? I say that because I’ve always held the impression that you didn’t train under Jean in that your guitars look and sound like they come from a broader range of inspiration…
MB: Well, as I said, my first instruments were definitely influenced by Larrivee in terms of body style and detailing. As a matter of fact I even started out bracing my tops symmetrically like Jean’s guitars though I dropped this at least 20 years ago. From the beginning my instruments have undergone steady development and to this day I am regularly refining my designs, hopefully for the better! Overall my influences have been wide in some ways but more often narrow in scope. Let me explain. In 1986 I moved from Ottawa, Ontario to St. Thomas, a town of 30,000 in southern Ontario about half way between Toronto and Detroit.
Because of this I was somewhat isolated, having no other guitar builders nearby to exchange ideas with. As a result I have spent much time working out problems by myself. For this reason I am quite sure that my methods of dealing with the construction process are, in some cases, somewhat unique. I have to add though that attending guitar shows such as the Montreal Guitar Show or The Healdsburg Guitar Festival have given me the opportunity to touch base with other builders and check out what they are up to.
TT: Would you like to give us a flavor of your build philosophies?
MB: Hmm. That’s a good question. I am basically a fairly conservative builder from a standpoint of both visual and structural design and a big believer in logical incremental development. If you traced my instruments from the 1970s to the present it would be possible to see a connecting thread from beginning to last. I feel that it would be impossible to track my progress, let alone cause me much stress, if I were all over the map with my ideas.
I also believe that when I build an instrument it is not only a musician’s working tool but also a piece of visual art. In my mind the guitar has to have equal measures of both in order to be a truly fine instrument. My ideal aesthetic is of the “less is more” school of thought. Elegant and understated is what I strive for. This philosophy extends to my approach to inlay work as well.
TT: And construction wise? Are you more leaning towards traditional (hide glue, dovetail joint etc) or modern (bolt on necks etc)?
MB: Well let’s just say that I’ve had a foot in both worlds. For the first 20 or so years of my career I used a dovetail neck joint but with a twist. My dovetails never had glue in them. I fitted the joint normally and then, instead of using glue, it was held in place with one screw. This idea was given to me by Grit Laskin and it served me well until switched to a bolt on system around 15 years ago. Believe me, I wouldn’t dream of going back. I’ve experimented with many wood glues over the years except for hot hide glue.
I finally came back to the grand daddy of yellow glues, Titebond, and have been quite happy with it. I’ve given some thought to the hot hide glue but am not convinced that the benefits (mostly arguable) are worth the extra trouble. By now it must be obvious that I am not a tradition bound builder. I have much respect for the great instruments of the past but have no problem in taking advantage of new ideas or techniques if they make sense to me.
TT: I take it that your tonewood choices are equally contemporary?
MB: Like most builders now I use a wide variety of tonewoods in my guitars but this was far from the case not too long ago. When I started building guitars in the 1970s the wood choices were pretty much limited to Mahogany, Maple, Indian Rosewood and, if I could afford it, Brazilian Rosewood. Back then it was considered a bit weird or “amateur” to use non standard woods. Though there was nothing wrong with the choices we had and to this day they are still excellent, I’m happy with the direction that the wood issue has taken.
Today the buying public is much more open to alternative choices. Not only does this open things up from a tonal standpoint, though not as much as you might think, but also and perhaps more importantly from a standpoint of aesthetics. Having a wide variety of woods to choose from for not only the back and sides but also for the trim opens up many possibilities for the luthier of today. Each wood has it’s own unique tonal and visual characteristics which can be used to great effect either alone or when combined with others.
TT: I’d like to just keep on tonewoods for a little while, if you didn’t mind. I was wondering if you had any new tonewoods you’re excited about?
MB: The bottom line here is that I love wood. All woods to be precise. I can remember loving the smell of my dad’s shop. The fact that he might be cutting something as common as Pine did not detract from the pleasure I got from the beautiful fragrance. I can truly say that I enjoy working with all woods related to instrument making because each brings with it it’s own unique quality.
It’s true that some woods are better suited to this task than others due to their tonal qualities or inherent stability. Members of the Rosewood family have a long established reputation for excellent tone and beauty. Ziricote is a tonewood that is incredibly beautiful. African Blackwood is gaining a well deserved reputation for unsurpassed tonal response while other tonewoods such as Quilted Bubinga and Quilted Pomele Sapele are absolutely stunning visually.
Even plain Mahogany, which I use for necks and occasionally for backs and sides has a quiet elegance that I find very appealing. So far I’ve only mentioned back and side choices but I feel the same about top woods. Each type has it’s own special qualities and I firmly believe that there is no single best choice.
TT: And how about tops woods? Have you tried some of the more exotic choices like Port Orford Cedar or Redwood?
MB: I haven’t tried Port Orford Cedar but I have used Redwood. In my work it unlikely that I would have the opportunity to experiment with tonewood choices unless a customer is interested. Due to my backorder situation this just wouldn’t be possible. Hopefully a customer will request Port Orford Cedar and I’ll finally get a chance to check it out. Regarding Redwood in the past year I’ve worked with Sinker Redwood as well as the famous Lucky Strike Redwood and both have been fun experiences.
I have to say that the Lucky Strike top is probably as good as any Redwood top anywhere. Truly outstanding! The Sinker Redwood was amazing looking with multicoloured streaks and an excellent tonal quality, stiff and responsive. As time goes on I’ve had the opportunity to work with an increasing number of topwoods (and back & side woods) and it’s been an interesting journey to say the least.
TT: How about we move on to the various models that you offer? It’s rare to see a luthier offer so many varied models! From Nick Lucas inspired small bodies to SJs….
MB: When I started out I think I had two models, my original Concert Standard and a Dreadnought. Incidentally when I started out in the mid 70’s the vast majority of acoustic guitars on the market were Dreadnoughts. How times have changed! Expanding my model range has been a slow steady process and has resulted primarily from special requests for a model that I wasn’t already building.
Once I’ve made the mould and all the relevant templates I’m set to build that model from then on. I now offer more than 10 models ranging from my “0” size parlor guitar right up to my SJ Jumbo. In this way I can offer every player a model that is perfectly suited to their needs and playing style. Combined with a full range if neck width and scale length options each player should have no problem in finding their ultimate guitar. Fingerstyle players tend to prefer the clear sparkle of the medium and smaller sized models including my 0M, 000 or 00 as these guitars emphasize the mids and highs of the range. My full sized instruments (my term for a guitar that is approximately 16″ across the lower bout) are what I call dual purpose models in that they perform well either strummed or fingerpicked and have an even response across the tonal range.
Models in this range include the Concert Standard, the “M” model, Dreadnought and the Mini Jumbo. For those preferring a large instrument I offer my SJ. In addition to these are special purpose instruments (Nick Lucas, 0 model, 12 Fret Dread, 12 Fret Concert Standard) and these all find a place in the hands of the right player. A cutaway option can be added to any instrument and along with the multitude of available options I literally never build the same guitar twice. I love this aspect of my work and certainly helps to keep things interesting!
TT: And I’ve also noticed bevels in your more recent instruments…
MB: I first encountered a guitar bevel in Grit Laskin’s shop in the early 90’s and he had been doing them for a while at that point. I think we can safely acknowledge that Grit was the first to design and use this very convenient feature. It wasn’t until seven or eight years ago that I noticed that some other builders were starting to include the bevel in their designs and I concluded that by then it was pretty much becoming public domain.
Up until now I have stuck with the Laskin style bevel and have not, as of yet, attempted the Kevin Ryan style though I will probably do so at some point. I like them both so there’s no big incentive for me to do Kevin’s other than the challenge of trying something new. I have to add that of the many options that I offer this one has been the most universally accepted by players. All agree that it flat out makes the guitar more comfortable to play, particularly in the larger body sizes. Finally I think it adds a nice artistic touch to the instrument.
TT: Along with the bevels have you noticed any trends in today’s acoustic guitars? Such as maybe a move towards more figured woods?
MB: There certainly has been a trend in the last decade or so towards tonewoods with more of a “wow’ factor. This is both a good and a bad thing in my opinion. On the plus side it is resulting in some of the most beautiful instruments ever. In the past the way to make a guitar stand out was to load it up with pearl or abalone inlays and, while this is obviously still an option, the natural beauty of some of the more figured woods available today make for a stunning instrument without the need for extra embellishment.
On the negative side is the fact that highly figured woods are not always the best from a structural standpoint and the old rule that 1/4 sawn straight grained woods are best still holds true. Just to be clear though, if an instrument is cared for properly in regards to temperature and humidity control the chances of something going wrong is lessened greatly. My other concern in regards to this trend is that some of the excellent traditional though perhaps plainer tonewoods have dropped somewhat in desirability and this is unfortunate. Woods such as Mahogany or Indian Rosewood are still terrific from a standpoint of tone and beauty.
TT: And do you think that has been influenced by the internet where images of beautiful instruments can be alluring?
MB: The internet has definitely played a significant roll in the explosion of new tonewoods on the scene. In the past, before the era of the website, the chances of a particular guitar being seen widely was fairly rare unless perhaps it made it onto the pages of a national magazine. Now as pictures are posted they are instantly available to a world wide audience. I often get requests for “the latest hot tonewood” and this would never have happened in the past.
Another way in which the internet has changed things is that I will get requests or questions regarding some of the many woods that are shown on my website. The potential customer may then go online to get more feedback about their particular choice. All in all players are more informed now than before. On the negative side there is much misinformation out there which has the potential of leaving you more rather than less confused!
TT: I supposed I should ask if the internet has resulted in folks being more concerned or picky over the aesthetics of the instrument than say, 10, 20 years ago?
MB: Definitely more interested and maybe sometimes picky (not too often). Because they have so many examples to choose from on line it’s more likely that they will see some design detail that really appeals to them. Back when the choices were a Gibson, a Martin or a Guild the variations in aesthetics weren’t as diverse. Then most acoustic guitars were similar and were made with pretty much the same tonewoods with few options available.
TT: I see- I have noticed that your instruments tend to have little by way of inlays- is that because I’m not looking hard enough?
MB: No, you’ve got it right. I’ve actually done inlays right back to my earliest days but it’s not something I’ve ever been that passionate about. My focus has always been on the instrument itself. As I mentioned earlier I would rather concentrate on the natural beauty of the woods and the way they work together to make my statement.
This is not to say that I refuse to do inlays. Most of the inlays I do come as a special request from customers and I am quite happy to work with them in order to achieve what they are looking for. I quite enjoy the process once I get into it and have done quite a few over the years. Still, my guess is that perhaps 10% of my guitars end up with inlay if that.
TT: Thanks Marc, I think we’ve taken up enough of your time, maybe before you go I’ll ask if you had any advise for first time buyers of custom guitars?
MB: My best advice is to research the builder or builders you have in mind. Recommendations from happy customers are at or near the top of my list. If a buyer is happy enough to recommend a builder to others it probably means that not only are they happy with the quality of their new instrument but that the buyer/builder experience was also a good one.
By examining the styles of the different builders along with their pricing will help to narrow down the choices. Each builder has a certain aesthetic and/or tonal approach and this should ring a bell with the right player/buyer. The bottom line is that having a guitar built should be an exciting and enjoyable experience. If it doesn’t appear to be heading in this direction I’d suggest looking elsewhere. Happy hunting!
©2009 Terence Tan.
Pictures & MP3s courtesy of Marc Beneteau © individuals 2010
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