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

June 29, 2018

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.”

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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.”

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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.

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