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Pick the theory – an Interview with Sergei de Jonge from 1986

This interview took place in the old Lariveé workshop where many of Canada’s leading guitar makers apprenticed. It was now Sergei’s studio, Lariveé had moved to Canada’s west coast to set up a small factory. It was an early autumn day and we sipped tea together.

Sergei had been smitten by the first concert guitar he had seen which was built by Edgar Mönch. After that concert he found the retail price of such an instrument so intimidating, he resolved to build himself one. “I met Jean Lariveé after that concert and asked if I could work for him. He said to come by on Tuesday. That Monday I went to teacher’s college and quit and I started working for John the next day. It was a while before I made my first guitar; I was broke when it was finished so I sold it. That left me no further ahead.”


This had taken about six months, and “by that time Jean [Lariveé] and I were pretty tired of each other. We had both quit smoking and were in foul, raunchy moods… and I still needed a guitar.” Having just seen a TV show that featured Pat Lister, who had just built a guitar for Julian Bream, Sergei started work with his second mentor. “I went to work with Pat Lister, where I lived in a tent by the river for about a year. We didn’t get work much, we talked about philosophy, lay in the sun and went swimming. I made about one and a half guitars working with him.”

Moving back to Toronto in September 1971, Sergei set up his own workshop. He spent three months back in Lariveé’s while he saved up for tools and supplies and finally got his own space set up in December. Working long hours he finished fifteen guitars that year.

With the same spontaneity that led him to this vocation, de Jonge decided to move on. After two and a half years of building guitars he sold his supplies and went traveling. The trip took him across Canada, then to the Southern US and finally to Arizona where he spent two weeks on a Hopi reservation. “ I was staying with a 96 year old man – although his friends said he had stopped counting years before. He seemed perfectly fit – at least he could run and jump. One day he said, ‘We need rain’, and I could see that it was pretty bad already so we went walking for a few miles. When we got back he started to play his drum and to chant quietly. Then others began to join in. Gradually the chant became more intense and I joined in. We started to move and we danced in a circle around the old man, increasing the speed of our gesticulations. As we finished the third verse, which was the climax, with a leap into the air, our faces high, beating our chests, the clouds burst. We were soaked by the time we returned to our tent.”

Back in Toronto for the summer of 1974, three unsold guitars remained which allowed him to resume his business. It was laborious having to purchase all those supplies again. On future sabbaticals, he stored his gear rather than selling it.

A few years later, he went to Europe with his wife. “ My idea was to spend about seven years traveling around the world. We had a baby in Amsterdam and then travelled through Greece, [the former] Yugoslavia, Turkey and finally to Israel. This was just a stopover for India, Nepal and points further east. But my wife had other thoughts. We were with a three-month old baby, and came back to Canada where I had to make a living. This is all I know how to do: makeguitars.”


As he builds guitars, he tries new ideas: “ Every guitar is an experiment. I spend more time than is practical testing different finishes. Sometimes I have to strip a guitar and start over.” He chuckles for a bit, “this happens fairly often.”

“I like to use animal glues rather than the industrial ones. Natural materials can be heated and taken apart easily, which is an advantage for doing repairs. It’s strong, maybe not as strong as resin glue, which is a modern substance that hasn’t stood the test of time. I’m working with wood – a natural material and I’d like to hold it together with a natural material.”

For a while in the early 1980’s, Sergei gained notoriety for his multi stringed instruments. They were built for Toronto guitar teacher Ted Lebar and included an eleven, fifteen and finally a seventeen string model.

A de Jonge guitar always has a good bass sound so he concentrates on producing good trebles. “In Spain, you can pick up any cheap guitar and the balance between the treble and bass is always very good. Theses instruments are from places that make five guitars a week, and the overall sound may be small, but the treble-bass balance is good. I’m sure they don’t spend hoursthinking about it.

“The more I make guitars, the less I know. One theory is to make the top as thin as possible, while still maintaining the structural soundness. Yet the guitars I’ve made with thick tops have turned to be among my best. Another theory says that the denser the wood in the neck, the better the sound will be while another dictates the opposite to be true. I just use whatever available wood is lying around and pick the theory to suit that.”

Sergei prefers North American spruce to European because he can always get the best. “I usually get split trunks sent from Oregon or British Columbia. That way the grain is straight, and I know exactly what I’m getting. I cut all the tops myself. With European spruce, I don’t have a good supplier for split trunks so I have to buy cut tops.”

Oct2009courseSince this interview, Sergei has moved a couple of times. For years he has had a School of Lutherie that heruns from his workshop. Thousands of students have come from the world over totake this world course. The young man who was in teacher’s college has come full circle.


…the flower petals flow downstream

June 16, 2018

After carrying my parents’ ashes for over thirty years, I wished them goodbye again this morning. It was a sense that the time had come to release their earthly remains back to the world.

I am poised between the ages of their passing: dad at 52, while mom left us at 71. A dear friend and mentor, Robert Evans, gave me the vase I have been carrying them in. Robert’s kindness helped me through the time of mother’s passing and it was in the lake near his cottage, six months after the funeral, when I felt my spirit let her go from my heart.

I turned 52, which was a year filled with trepidation. There was a similar feeling on the one year anniversary of my heart attack – it is good to have passed those dates. Over the years since his death, I’ve written to my father numerous times with personal questions. Sometimes there was a benevolent feeling that came to me as those emotions were expressed.

Today, my questions to him would be about songs. He died young and hadn’t sang and played guitar often during our time together. It still seems he sang more than me. He must have had a fabulous memory because he learned everything by ear without the aid of tape recorders. In contrast I naturally drifted toward the “security of written music”. I would ask him what he loves to sing about and what makes a great song.

His guitar playing life was cut short for a while by an industrial accident, which removed the tops of three fingers below the nail line of his left hand. Assuming he started playing when he was 18, he could only have sung and played for 12 years before this enforced stop. There were two or three times that he borrowed an instrument. It is with great fondness that I reflect on those serenades when he sang to me for hours. At family parties I remember him singing and playing for what seemed the whole evening. Even though those finger stumps looked too wide to fit between the strings, he managed somehow and sang with joy and gusto as the whole room joined in. Dad passed away while I was in my first year university a few months after I turned 18.

I would ask my mom about the times when her dad doted on her before he died. She hadn’t yet reached her teens. Under the umbrella of that affection her dreams and hopes would have been optimistic. I remember her singing in the kitchen as she baked fresh biscuits in the morning. She introduced me to the joy of picking and eating fresh vegetables off the vine, and explained to me how my father preferred the home made ketchup to be quite spicy.

Leaving her in Toronto, I went to study in Paris, learning French and new ways of looking at the world. Returning to graduate from the University of Toronto, we lived together until I left to start my own life. We met regularly for dinners going to interesting little places that were opening up on College Street between Dufferin and Lansdowne.

flower petals in bowlThis morning we burned some sweetgrass and sage to honour the first nations of this land. We added some herbes de Provence to honour my distant paternal French ancestry and black tea to honour my mother’s English heritage. We cast flower petals on the river to give us a visual metaphor for the flow of ashes and to create a target for our prayers.

We also brought the dog, who, danced in the water with glee. Unknowingly, she functioned like a sacred clown, contrasting the somber atmosphere with unbridled joy. It is good not to be stuck in one emotional sphere.

Later today, we will listen to You’ll Get Used To It, an old Wilf Carter song that I remember dad singing to me at least twice. We will also listen to a goofy song: Today Is The Day We Give Babies Away With a Half a Pound of Tea. Mom sang this to herself and always smiled when she got to the part, you just open the lid and out pops a kid.


Goofy, somber, gleeful and serene.

Not as Much as Tomorrow

In the past few days I started learning an old song from my youth, “More Today Than Yesterday” by The Spiral Starecase [correct spelling – they did named themselves after a Hitchcock film but corrupted the orthography]. There was a video available of the group playing the piece, so I watched the guitar player/singer’s hands on the fret board to make learning it easier. The opening chords were from exercise number two from the Mickey Baker book, “A Modern Method in How to Play Jazz and Hot Guitar. Pat Lipton, the singer/guitarist/composer was alternating between G Major 7 and G 6 much of the time, as per the dictates of Mickey Baker’s lesson. It turns out that Mr. Lipton had learned a new chord but couldn’t find a pop song that used it, so he wrote one himself.

chelva alley it goes up and upThis made me think of a Randy Bachman story, about his lessons with Jazz guitar legend Lenny Breau. During One lesson, Breau taught Bachman an ending formula. The next week Bachman came in to his lesson exclaiming, “You know that ending you taught me last week? I used as an intro in my latest song.” At which point Breau said, “You can’t do that man, everyone’s going to think the song is over before it begins!” The song was “She’s Come Undone, written in 1969, about a girl who dropped lsd and was never the same. It was an appropriate observation, for a good Mormon boy like Bachman.

This makes me very happy, to think about, creative spirits who expand their knowledge base and use it to write pop songs. In doing so the vocabulary of the idiom grows, and we all become a little bit richer. Any idiom that stops growing and changing risks becoming stale. I think now of George Harrison as I listen to some old Beatle songs and marvel at his guitar parts, which are sometimes inflected withjazz or country styles and the appropriate mannerisms.

alan-bell-wood-on-beachHere I sit as a classical guitarist pondering these things. When one of my dear friends was studying viola in Paris in the early 1980’s, he once did a gig with a pick-up orchestra for a pop singer. Word of this got back to his viola teacher, who threatened to ban my friend from his studio because this association with popular music would ruin his good name. The alignment of music with the class structure was so strong at that time that I wonder how much I missed during my own time in France. In Toronto’s current economic climate, many freelance violinists work regularly with mariachi bands to supplement incomes.

Necessity has broadened our horizons…

Nasrudin was dining with the sultan, who leaned over to ask him about the stew. “I thought it was quite good your majesty,” said Nasrudin smiling.

The Sultan replied, “I thought is was terrible.”

“Quite right, your Majesty, it was horrid,” said Nasrudin.

The Sultan frowned, “did you not say it was quite good a moment ago?”

“Ahh, eerrm, yes,” said Nasrudin, “but I serve the Sultan, not the Stew.”

The past is behind and the present all around. Writing music is a way of uniting all those voices…  

          At some point this past year I realized that my recent work wasn’t new music. Certainly it is freshly composed, but it no longer explores sonic frontiers. Rather, it seems to explore older areas. I wish that when hearing one of my pieces, a listener might say: “That sounds like something I have heard before, like something that has always been there.”

valencia graffit apt 2This is reminds of the semantic confusion during the 60’s and 70’s when people were said to be writing “folk music.” Properly understood, folk music would be that which has been passed down from older generations. The successful songwriters of that period immersed themselves in the songs from the past and have made our world richer by adding songs like “The Circle Game”, or “ Me and Bobbi McGee” to our world. Perhaps there is a blur between the old world and the new now. So much music available from so many different places.

Having composed for prepared guitar, and having employed extended techniques, my goal now is simpler: to take an idea and make the most of it. In order to do this, one must let the idea dictate the paths to follow, be they tinged with bluegrass, old folksongs or the limits of a church mode. We create within limits and there is a joy from trying on different clothes, so to speak.

A critic once commented about one of my CD’s that there wasn’t a cohesive style. There were rags and choros, followed by imitative parodies and innovations. One can’t really imagine Steve Reich or Phil Glass doing those different things on a recorded project. I’d like to think that there is a bit of myself in each of these styles, that my ears are made afresh with every project. Each piece is an adventure, be it through the world of 12 bar blues or through a looping pedal. Each piece is a different way to use my resources.chelva steep incline 2

It is also the response of a teacher hoping to share the joys of discovery with the guitar world. Ragtime and blues music present the challenge of using certain harmonic patterns, while the restrictions of a mode may force one to think of melodies and drones. Each new problem is a bit of a stretch. My place in the music world may be modest but is filled with wonder.

One day Nasrudin went to visit a neighbouring village. He stopped to rest, and while doing so read a bit from his favourite book. He put it down to have a drink before getting up to leave. It wasn’t until he was at his friend’s house that he realized his book had been left behind. It was no longer there on his way home and he worried that it was lost forever.

A week later a goat came by and dropped the book at Nasrudin’s feet, which inspired the master to leap up calling, “it’s a miracle, it’s a miracle.”

“Not really,” said the goat, “your name was written inside the cover.”

All the stories live in our bodies­ – Linda Hogan

I have been frustrated recently hearing people play upon the guitar. I have heard experienced composers and professionals just playing the correct notes and rhythms. It seems to me that we play through the guitar, we invest time to gain knowledge of the inner workings of a piece of music. We invest energy trying to deliver that wisdom as best we can. Putting our fingers in the correct place is only a small part of that journey.

valencia roman door


All the notes of a piece have a status and some of those are pretty small like arpeggiated accompaniment figures. They fill space and time, surrounding the more important notes with harmony. The successive notes of a dominant melody all have more or less importance and generally have a gravitational pull to a destination. Bass lines also have gravitational pulls but also add buoyancy to the music.

Our job as we learn a piece of music is to understand all of these aspects and embody them all. We have reached a point where computers can be called on to create a “human” feel. Frequently this means slight changes of tempo and the occasional flub. I would say that we must render music with details that get smaller as we improve. Every note should have its own colour, touch, timbre and inflection. Improving our control over those details is the only way to be a musician.chelva square and fountain

It is never easy to know what a piece of music is saying. As someone who plays his own music, there are times when I sing a line over a hundred times just to know how to convey the various aspects of its meaning. I may write new music, but I want it to sound old. I’d like to be able to entertain the fantasy that one of my pieces was always there and was somehow just plucked it out of the infinity cupboard, the wellspring of art.

Nasrudin slipped and nearly fell into a lake, but was caught by a friend walking next to him. From then on, every time Nasrudin saw this friend, the incident was shared with everyone who was near.

Over time, Nasrudin grew weary of this, so one day led that friend to the same lake. With clothes and shoes on, he jumped in and lay there saying, “Now I’m as wet as I would have been if you hadn’t saved me that day.  Stop reminding me about it!”

From these old walls…

Sitting on my deck looking out over fields that are under cultivation, with an old terraced mountain behind them, I think of the valley that lies between. I got on a bus nine days ago to come to this village in order to write some music free from distraction. Here, at the busiest time of day I might see ten people in a cafe and be passed by three cars and a motorcycle. No need to hurry, the shopkeeper might keep you waiting for ten minutes as they finish a converasation on the phone.

In the midst of this tranquility I wonder about various kinds of internal suffering. There is of course the Buddhist doctrine, “All life is pain.” Today I seem to equate busy-ness with pain. One of my students told me that he has been able to concentrate much better since he had his knee replaced a couple of years ago. He figured it was the unconscious underlying pain that prevented him from paying more attention when he played guitar.

I have spent decades training myself to pay attention, to the music as I learn it, to my students as they play and to the people that share conversations with me. Since reading about the problems of “internal dialogue” in Carlos Castaneda in the 70’s my life’s work has involved managing my ability to focus.

For all these years of work there has been an underlying theme – to communicate something of musical value. One might say this is about attracting a certain kind of attention. Here, I play my guitar, far away from my friends and colleagues: there is no hope for attention. As I was playing the other day something very interesting began to happen: the melody of the piece started to take on another character. In my imagination it felt like a sustaining instrument. Between these medieval walls in this apartment in an old village, the tune came through as never before.

So, as the melody continues in my imagination as a sustained line, I convince myself that it might be possible to project  this sense to the listener. They might hear a flute or a violin playing the tune. There might be some sleight of ear taking place – there might be magic.IMG_0037IMG_0035

A Magical Simultaneous Vision

Editing creates more and more sense out of a work or text. Everything in a piece is there for more than one reason; a chord might support the melody and develop a counter melody. An inner voice might give breathing room to the main tune but add a small, unexpected surprise to the texture.

I have just re-imagined a set of songs originally written over 20 years ago and observe that the harmonies were chosen often to clash with the vocal line. They were chords and clusters selected with joy, I was happy just to play them so long ago, but now I work to meld them into a cohesive shape.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The tones written must be there for multiple reasons and these rationales often make the music easier to play. A mind perceives the reasons behind those tones, and as it does so, the patterns become more interesting, more musical. The more musical a phrase is, the easier it is to play.

alan bell chainsA few days ago, I was playing through the revisions with a singer* who stumbled numerous times on a particular word. Turned out that the composer might have set the syllables in a slightly un-natural way and as we worked through the issue we found a better way to do it and the problem ceased to be. The stumbles helped us fix an issue with text setting.

The set of songs were recorded in one three hour session with a violinist who was sight-reading. Finishing the pieces, I began to embed vocal cues in the guitar part to increase the chances of getting it all done on time. Each wrong note would decrease the chance of getting the right ones recorded. Every cue would help the singer find the correct pitch with greater ease.

I prefer to work from a complete take while editing a recording. There is increased listenability since the performers felt the entire gestalt unfold in real time. This flow is one of those subtle human things that listeners sense on an unconscious level. Performers broadcast all of that subtle stuff and that focus draws listeners in. It is a complex array of big goals and small, note-to-note shaping but also phrase and section shaping. Each gesture will in some way affect many subsequent ones and a small change in dynamic on page one means that others must be altered as well.

The whole and the parts are knit together – all the secrets of the world are in a grain of sand. Adjusting a delicate inner voice means there will be other changes as well. I like to think of this as the human mind working at its best: evolving the macro and micro pictures in a magical simultaneous vision.

*Doug MacNaughton

One day, Nasrudin went to the local doctor. “Every night for the past six weeks, I’ve had dreams where I am wrestling with donkeys.”

The doctor gave Nasrudin a herb. “Eat this, and your dreams will go away.”

“I will have to start them tomorrow.,” Nasrudin said taking the package, “Because I’m in the championship match tonight.”