Whitney Guitars Interview
NAME: Michael Whitney
LIVING IN : Summerland, BC Canada
TRAINING & BACKGROUND: The most interesting of roads rarely run in straight lines. I find the same to be true of my path into lutherie. Through my twenties, I worked as a traditional graphic artist alongside some highly talented sign-writers and airbrush artists in the film and television industry. We were often commissioned to revamp nightclub and restaurant interiors ranging in themes from 1920s Jazz lounges to Cuban Cigar bars. Every venue was uniquely themed and we would take care of the paint, faux-finishing, plaster, wallpaper and artwork from top-to-bottom. I think this early introduction into graphic and visual arts really planted a seed in me. Creating visually dynamic and project-focused pieces was extremely satisfying.
From there, I went on to earn a degree in web development, graphic design and eCommerce and operated my own company, ‘Web + Grafik’ in Gastown in Vancouver, BC. I continued with this business on the side until about 2016 and still do the odd graphic design job if it interests me.
In my late twenties I all but abandoned my creative roots and did a three-year run in the military as an Infantry soldier with the Canadian Armed Forces. Something in me was hungry for an adventure and Canada’s role at that time as being ‘peacekeepers’ spoke to me. I wanted to do something bigger than myself and contribute in a larger way. A debilitating back injury led to an honourable release and for me to take a deeper dive into my education, namely hearing health sciences.
I then completed my practicum and board exams around 2006 and began an eleven-year career in the hearing healthcare sector. However, despite my on-paper successes, I was always hungry to get back to being creative and always felt like something significant was missing from my life. I’d worked with wood all throughout my childhood with my grandfather as well as in shop-class throughout high-school.
In 2017, I resigned from healthcare to follow my creative passions. I’d built about a half-dozen cigar box guitars on my own which was a great introduction to understanding scale-length, and some basic construction techniques. I’ll never forget those first notes I played from an instrument I had created – that lit a fire in me.
Soon after, I met the late William ‘Bill’ Okos (Laughing Tree Guitars) who sensed my passion and graciously opened his workshop to me for a one-year apprenticeship. I built my first acoustic guitar with Bill and learned how to do setups as well as repairs and restoration work.
From there, I went on to complete the ‘Masters’ program at Summit School of Guitar Building on Vancouver Island with Norwegian luthier, Sigmund Johannessen. Upon graduating, I opened my own shop and guitar building school where I now work full-time.
PLAYING: I’ve played guitar since I was fourteen. I still have the first acoustic guitar that belonged to my aunt through her teens, a ‘Mansfield’ copy of a Gibson Hummingbird. I still really enjoy that guitar and it’s a lovely keepsake from my aunt who has since passed on.
NAME OF YOUR HIGH SCHOOL BAND: ‘Tribe of the Noise Divine’ – this came from a hat full of random names.
LUTHIER YOU ADMIRE THE MOST: That’s a tough one to answer. I’d liken that to ‘name your favourite song.’ – There are so many! Here are a few luthiers that inspire me on the daily (in no particular order): Dion Guitars, Shelly Park, Palelei Guitars, Voss Guitars, Meagan Wells, Keisuke Fujii, Don Moyer, Wyatt Wilkie… How much space do I have here? 🙂
INSTRUMENT YOU DREAM TO HAVE ONE DAY: That’s a tough one, too! I’d love to own a JP Favino from 1988-1996.
LAST ALBUM YOU BOUGHT : ‘Djangophonique’ latest release on vinyl
LAST MUSIC SONG YOU PUT IN YOUR CAR: Chris Smither – ’Small Revelations’ – this guy is such an amazing finger-style player and songwriter.
LAST SHOW YOU WENT TO : It’s been a while! I think it was Iron Maiden when they came to Vancouver.
MOST IMPRESSIVE INSTRUMENT YOU EVER HAD IN HAND: I recently had a Gibson L5 roll through the shop. I’ve always had a soft spot for these guitars, from sound and feel to overall aesthetic.
MOST STRANGE RESTORATION OR REPAIR YOU HAD TO DO : That was fairly recent – the famed ‘fingerboard scoop’ on a ‘Heritage’ mandolin.
I have to be inspired to build it!
As I write this, I’m currently in the process of designing a ‘stage model’ thinline electro-acoustic nylon stringed guitar. The proportions and the curves need to feel ‘just right’.
I generally design in a CAD program as this speaks to my design background and these tools come naturally to me. I really enjoy how cleanly and quickly changes can be made on-screen.
From there, I’ll typically print my design to scale, hang it up and then agonize over it for a few weeks.
Walking by the blueprint every day in my shop allows me to make tweaks here and there until I’m satisfied.
To date, I’m most proud of my Modèle Vagabond-14 and Modèle Nomad-14 Gypsy Jazz guitars. Both typically feature replica tuners from Rainer Müller and custom tailpieces by Mathilde Tetreault, a jeweller and artisan friend of mine in Montreal.
I’m looking forward to expanding this line with more customized Gypsy guitars as well.
However, I put the same amount of care and attention into all of my guitars, so I’m not completely decided on what I would call ‘flagship’.
Gypsy Jazz guitars are quite special to me, but I really love building all acoustic instruments from custom OM guitars to ukuleles and even citterns.
While few things are ever black-and-white, maximizing the responsiveness and output of the top plate is where I tend to lean in terms of emphasis. The rest of the instrument should simply be executed as perfectly as possible.
What I love about guitar building is that ‘perfection’ loves to be chased. I consider myself to be a loyal follower of that pursuit and forever a student of the craft. I think the day that I no longer feel that way is the day to hang up my shop apron.
When ordering a custom ‘Whitney’ guitar, I like to know how my client plays, what they play, where they play and what speaks to them sonically and aesthetically.
I take all of these things into consideration through a preliminary interview, a lengthy questionnaire and then build their specific guitar with all of those details in mind.
As I teach the art of guitar building to others for about six months of a given year, I reserve the other half to commissions and turnaround time tends to be three-to-four months. I let my clients know during the interview process where their custom order sits in the queue and pride myself on adhering to timelines. As such, there aren’t delays so much as there is a specific building window and my customers understand that from the outset.
Regarding meeting expectations, most of my customers are coming to me for a reason – that is, they’ve either played one of my instruments, understand my design and build philosophy, or simply appreciate the work that I do from even simply an aesthetic standpoint (or all of the above). I do get the odd commission from customers coming in ‘blind’ but something has resonated with them from my website and then further nurtured through the initial interview process.
Certainly. I’ll never forget the fire that ignited within me during a pretty low and dark point in my life. I think denying a creative outlet in oneself can eventually cascade into a fairly flat and uninspired life. Rekindling that fire awoke something in me – a renewed sense of purpose and an excitement to get into my craft each day. I never loathe ‘Mondays’ anymore. When you’re doing what you love it simply never feels like work. I know that sounds cliché but when you’re living it, you finally ‘get it’ – it’s something you feel versus just kind of know.
Most of what I’m tapped into now on Social Media speaks to my personal areas of interest and most of those whom I follow are fellow luthiers and artists so I’m looking at a small subset of the population. However, I believe that there are so many people out there simply punching a clock, and living a great ‘on paper’ life but are literally starving for a creative outlet.
Having experienced this first-hand, I knew from the very start of my career in lutherie that sharing the art with others would parallel my building career. As such, I offer varying guitar building programs ranging from a one-week Cigar Box Guitar building course, a 3-week electric guitar building course, a 5-week acoustic course and even a 3, 6 and 12 month program for those wishing to ‘deep dive’ into the craft.
Depending on a student’s level of interest, we move from a ground-up approach with students building all of their own jigs and forms etc. to a more condensed course where students utilize our shop jigs – it all depends on the student and what they are looking for. Also, I strive to fill in knowledge gaps with my students and have them understand the ‘WHY’ behind the building process versus just the ‘HOW’ (aka, ‘go do this’ ,or ‘go cut that’).
Being a military veteran, I wanted to give something back to fellow vets and first-responders as well. Having the sanctuary of a workshop and the creative outlet of guitar making serves as an additional and powerful therapy modality for those suffering from mental health conditions such as PTSD and Major Depressive Disorders. Fellow brothers- and sisters-in-arms can come study at our school and immerse themselves in the art of lutherie at a special, discounted rate.
One additional project in the works that I’m excited about is a collaborative effort with Robbie O’Brien over at ‘O’Brien Guitars’. Robbie runs the ‘Lutherie Academy’ online out of his shop in Colorado. Seasoned and novice builders alike will no doubt have heard about the great work and enormous contributions he’s made to the craft for decades.
It’s through his ‘Lutherie ‘Academy’ that Robbie brings aboard other great luthiers as they detail their work and processes through video courses that he offers. Paco Chorobo, Michael Bashkin, Trevor Gore, Jeff Jewitt and Larry Robinson are just a few fellow instructors he showcases to share their craft with other builders. Not surprisingly, it was a great honour when he asked if I would put together a ‘how to’ training series on how I construct my Gypsy Jazz guitars. Detailing the process from start to finish is no small undertaking! However I’m extremely excited to be a part of his line-up and anticipate having the course completed by the Spring of 2023.
Currently, no one ‘famous’ that I’m aware of (if that is the benchmark), but some very talented artists both locally and from afar own a custom ‘Whitney’ instrument.
I don’t know that it is. There are some absolutely amazing luthiers here in Canada and from around the globe.
I don’t really think geography plays that big a roll in terms of quality of work. More accurately, I think the lutherie community is graced with some exceptionally talented people – many of which are more than willing to share ideas and elevate the craft.
I often think about how blessed we are now in a time that we can connect with others instantaneously (regardless of topic). Back in the days before computers we relied on limited library resources or letters successfully arriving to guild magazines. Everyone benefits from this type of sharing and exchanging of information — this is how ideas and creativity progress and evolve at amazing rates. Despite what the media would have us believe, I think we live in a remarkable time!
Custom orders can be placed on my website or through the typical channels (Reverb, Etsy, and so forth). Unfortunately (or fortunately), I don’t have a stock of instruments at this point and build my guitars as they are ordered. Being a one-man shop, I simply have two hands and so many hours in a day. In this way, every instrument is unique and generally built specifically for each of my customers.
As far as shows, I’ve been to a few smaller local shows and had planned to attend the Vancouver guitar show this year but was busy teaching a course. I have my sights set on the next one though!
We also invite you to follow him on his various social networks:
In the coming weeks, as for others luthiers for plucked string instruments, luthiers for bowed string instruments, amps & effects makers, wood & supplies dealers, lutherie events, jobs, schools & teachers subscribers on our site, you will be able to follow our series of mini-interviews dedicated to the fascinating world of luthiers.
See you soon…
If you are passionate about the world of luthiers, join us!