Life on a string: Guy Harrison makes award-winning violins and cellos

Guy Harrison stands in front of a row of his violins. Photo: Peter Robb

When Guy Harrison was a lad in Adelaide, Australia he took violin lessons. But it turned out he was more interested in the violin’s make-up than he was in learning how to play it.

“I wasn’t a great student,” he admitted in an interview. “I was a bit lazy.” Instead of practicing scales one day he took his instrument apart to see what made it tick and then he put it back together.

Of such things is a career made and today Guy Harrison is an award winning luthier living in Ottawa. He makes and sells violins, violas and cellos.

“There was a tradition of woodworking in my family so I grew up with a lot of tools around. For me it was a natural fit to make something out of wood with music as well. I just had a fascination with sound and that is still with me.”

Guy Harrison sits at his work table holding the back plate of a violin and surround by the tools of his craft. Photo: Peter Robb

As a teenager, Harrison got a part-time job in a violin shop in his hometown where he worked on the instruments. He liked the work but he also realized that he needed to learn more about the craft.

So, at age 19, he went to school in England at a respected institution called the Newark School of Violin Making for three important years. That gave him a foundation for his future, but he needed hands-on experience. He found that in Finland where he worked for another three years in a violin shop making and restoring instruments.

And then he fell in love with a Canadian and he ended up in Ottawa where he set up his own business.He’s been busy building and restoring instruments ever since. It has helped that there are professional orchestras in town and lots of other musical activity.

Today Harrison is one of seven Canadian members of the American Federation of Violin & Bow Makers and there is seemingly no shortage of demand for his creations and his skill. He has won several awards for his work, the latest this past November at the 23rd International Violin Making Competition for a violin and a cello.

His colleague, Charline Dequincey, also picked up two awards at the same competition for a cello she presented. Dequincey, whom readers of ARTSFILE will know, has been working with Harrison for the past 12 years.

A sample of Harrison’s award-winning work. Photo courtesy Guy Harrison.

But despite the accomplishments, Harrison believes his training is on-going. He regularly attends workshops at Oberlin College in Ohio and keeps up to date with the latest trends.

The internet helps, he said, but because it is such a tactile craft, “you really have to see what people are doing.”

What is interesting is the profession, that used to see workshops operating in isolation and in secrecy, is experiencing a new openness, Harrison said.

“There has been a revolution of sharing in the violin business.”

One reason might be that the violin-making business is actually thriving.

“Often the public feels trades like violin-making are dying, but it’s not true. On contrary, it is growing. I sell mostly in Canada and the trade is quite healthy.”

The sharing started when some makers set up a summer workshop at Oberlin College and it snowballed, Harrison said.

“People realized fairly quickly that they could benefit from sharing information and the standard of instrument making would go up and it did go up. It’s a matter of coming together to build better instruments.”

There are different ways to sell instruments. Some makers sell into established shops. Others, like Harrison, sell directly to clients who are in the main mid-career professionals.

“I prefer it in the sense that I get feedback from them and you build up a relationship over time.” He says that constant contact has helped him produce better sounding instruments.

There is something mysterious to the outside observer about how a piece of wood can be formed to make a beautiful sound. But the process of making an instrument is built on precision and intuition, Harrison said.

“Because we are dealing with natural materials, every piece of wood is slightly different. The task of building a good sounding violin would be different if it were made out of brass. You could have the same material every time but because violin is made out of wood, we have to adapt always to the wood.

The wood used is selected for density and quality of grain. Courtesy Guy Harrison

“There is some intuition, but there is also a lot of scientific research.”

Each piece of wood is weighed and tested for its sound frequency. To detect the sound frequency, the maker taps on the wood and records the sound on a computer. In that way, Harrison accumulates a lot of data.

“I then apply my feeling of what is good and what looks right. Often the look is a very powerful tool. If something looks right,  it will sound right.”

After seeing many instruments over his career, Harrison does has a reservoir of knowledge.

But when he’s finished putting an instrument together, the job is not done. The violin or cello then needs to be fitted to the client.

There are adjustments … there are always adjustments.

The maker tweaks the type of strings used. The bridge, which is a small piece of wood that guides the strings moves around to find the proper setting.

This is actually another part of Harrison’s business which involves sound adjustments on existing instruments both new and old. He also does restorations.

One violin he has worked on belonged to Pinchas Zukerman. Harrison got to work on the former music director of NAC Orchestra’s 1742 “Dushkin” Guarnerius del Gesu violin. It’s definitely the most valuable instrument he has worked on.

He has worked with many members of NACO.

“I know most of the players there. Sound adjustment is a very personal thing. Some people will go back to the same sound adjustor. That craftsman knows them and how they play and that can make adjustment straightforward. You need to know both the human and the instrument.

It is important, Harrison said, to observe how a musician plays, so he spends time watching and listening.

“Some people play ‘in the string’ with a heavy bow; others may have a more fluid bow arm and a lighter approach.” (Maestro Zukerman is a heavy bow arm kind of guy and that requires a certain kind of set up).

“The trick then is to take all that information and then for me as a luthier to decide that I may have to remove some wood here, or move this and change that.”

You have to be careful because one wrong move means a bad adjustment.

“You have to know when to stop.”

Harrison accepts commissions and has instruments for sale in the shop.

Harrison and Charline Dequincey both were winners at a recent international instrument making competition. Photo: Peter Robb

Generally he gets business by word of mouth. Someone has one of his instruments and a prospective client sees that.

“I like it when the commissioner knows what they want. Otherwise it’s a deeper investigation. I often build instruments for mid-career musicians. They know what they want. It sets the standard high but the goal is clear.”

Crucial to success of an instrument is the wood used and Harrison spends a lot of time sourcing wood. He’ll travel to see the product on offer.

He uses a lot of European wood which mainly comes from the Balkans. But he does use Englemann Spruce from British Columbia. He gets this wood from a dealer who cuts wood for musical instruments. The front of a violin or cello is often of spruce. He uses maple from Europe as well.

“We are looking for a certain grain structure in the wood, a certain density. It’s hard to find. Good wood has always been difficult to find and expensive to purchase.”

The wood needs to be cut a certain way and dried correctly.

Harrison does most of his work by hand at a work bench that must look a lot like those of an older time. It takes about five to six months to complete an instrument and he makes about six a year.

The work is hard. You have to follow precise measurements and fit things together accurately. It takes a very disciplined approach to produce an instrument.

“People sometimes ask me, ‘How do you know the sound will be good in the end?’ There is a process that works. You have to follow the steps, have good training and understand what you are doing.” Harrison and his colleague Dequincey are also sitting on shoulders of the makers who came before.

Work in progress. Photo: Peter Robb

These days, Harrison said, the appeal of a modern instrument made by a craftsman is growing. Today, makers such as Harrison go to school to learn how to make instruments of their own so they are not just restorers of older instruments solely. As a result there is a very high level of modern violin making, he said, that is prompting a true renaissance of the craft.

But cost is also a factor. Professional players may be loaned a Strad or a Guarneri, but eventually they’ll want to own their own instrument, but perhaps they won’t want to pay $250,000 to get one of quality.

That makes a modern instrument a sensible and affordable option. And Harrison’s door is always open.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.