Pick Of The Week: Dion No.4 in Quilted Maple & Italian Spruce
Clean lines, minimalist design, a striking Florentine cutaway—and some of the most beautiful quilted maple we’ve seen. This guitar from Dion James’ workshop in Alberta, Canada, is our pick of the week. And for good reason…
It’s hard working at The North American Guitar. Yup. Hard. Wanna know why? Because when you have to put pen to paper and write a pick of the week, how are you supposed to choose? We have so many incredible instruments at any given time, but this week I’m choosing Dion James’ No. 4 model as my pick of the week. The quilt on that maple. The Florentine cutaway. The maple fingerboard. The headstock veneer. The soundport. And a lack of back braces (yeah, more on that in a bit). Even though I’ve just gushed over those striking appointments, I’d still argue that this is a truly understated guitar.
We first met Dion James’ work via the Boutique Guitar Show (BGS). The BGS helps raise the voice and profile of many small workshop luthiers by offering ways to be exhibited at leading shows such as NAMM, Summer NAMM. The BGS Tour then travels the world giving the luthiers—and their work—a truly global reach. Thanks go to BGS’ founder and curator, Jamie Gale. If it wasn’t for him perhaps we wouldn’t be writing this article.
Under his Dion Guitars moniker, luthier Dion James builds handmade acoustic guitars in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. After we saw his work via BGS at a Winter NAMM show, we knew we had to get his instruments into The North American Guitar. And so here we have this No 4. from Dion Guitars—our first commission from him. But his journey didn’t start there, of course…
“It was 15 years ago. I was 23 at the time I started. But I grew up in a really small town in Canada with only 5,000 people. Y’know, super rural. The internet was new and was still only dial-up so I wasn’t really exposed to anything to do with guitar making. But I’ve always been a tinker and I was always taking things apart, like guitars,” Dion says.
“But I had no idea this world of guitar making existed and certainly never knew you could make a living from it. People always say you get the bug for something and this is true. Before I’d finished my first guitar, I was already thinking about the second one.”
Collaborating in Quebec
In an effort to expose himself to more luthiers and increase his skillset at that point in his career, he moved to Montreal where he met the luthiers running the Mile End Guitar Coop, a collective of guitar builders working from a collaborative space in the heart of Mile End, Montreal, Quebec. The Guitar Coop was set up in 2008 by luthiers Michael Kennedy and Jeremy Clark, two former students of Sergei de Jonge (who himself was the first student of Canadian lutherie royalty, Jean Larrivee). So good company, I guess…
“I just needed to be exposed to more builders and the Mile End Guitar Coop did just that. When I moved in with them, things really took off from there.”
Dion’s guitars let the quality of the materials speak for themselves. A sublime aesthetic, gorgeous curves and understated elegance. But I’m going to be honest here… I love maple. I especially love the sumptuous look of figured maple. And Dion does too.
“I fixate. Whatever I’m into, I’m into it for a while. I’m given a lot of freedom by my clients, but my maple fixation started because I love the aesthetic and I really love the sound. I’d say it’s a favourite among favourites.”
Another reason this is my pick of the week is that headstock veneer and fingerboard. Look at it! Both are bookmatched maple, made using off-cuts from the back and sides. It’s just flows, doesn’t it? The fingerboard right into the headstock. It’s a small touch, but a really beautiful one.
“Well, I wanted to do something interesting for my first commission for you folks! It took me three weeks to get that just right,” he says, laughing. “I just let the wood do what the wood does!”
The top is a beautiful piece of Italian spruce which pairs perfectly with the quilted maple back and sides. This combination makes for a beautifully unique guitar, with a bold and punchy tone. Maple has a shimmering clarity and a quick note decay that separates it from the more commonly used mahogany and rosewood backed guitars. One appointment we specified as we ordered this guitar was the addition of a Florentine cutaway (Dion’s standard No. 4 output comes without a cutaway) giving easy access to the upper frets, and just looks stunning against the Ebano binding.
Innovation inside and out
While we’re talking about the body of this No. 4, you’ll see the upper bout soundport which gives the player a bit more ‘me’ in the playing experience. But one thing you’ll notice when picking up this No. 4 from Dion Guitars is that there’s an incredible amount of sustain, which is quite a challenging thing to achieve with maple. But that might have something to do with the fact that he doesn’t consider himself a ‘traditional’ builder. This is because the backs of his guitars aren’t ladder braced. Or braced at all for that matter. Peek through the soundport or the soundhole and you’ll see.
“I refer to it as a hollow core back rather than a laminated back. The term ‘laminated’ in our industry has a real negative connotation,” Dion explains.
Dion started building with this hollow core back in 2017 and now all his guitars feature this. The idea came from his time at the Guitar Coop and working closely with its founder, Jeremy Clark, who is the classical guitar luthier mastermind behind the 52 Instrument Company.
The back on the No 4. we have here is made from four layers of wood of alternating grain orientation with a core of Nomex (a lightweight honeycomb fibre). The Nomex acts as a spacer between the outer pieces. Like an I-beam, the strength of this structure comes in part from the distance between the outer layers and allows for a lightweight and stable structure.
“I carefully test each layer of the sandwich before gluing it up to ensure the desired sonic results. The design allows me to create a very evenly stiff, very active back contributing greatly to the volume and tone of my instruments,” says Dion.
“I’m building very modern guitars. From the outside they look like a guitar, on the inside there’s lots that I’m doing because to make it in this industry you have to find your own voice—and that’s how I’m doing that. But I’m always questioning myself. And I think that’s important because you can’t land at the first thing you create and say ‘yes, that’s it’. I’m always waiting to see and hear my instruments in the hands of players and what they have to say about it.”
Check out our pick of the week, Dion Guitars No. 4 in quilted maple and Italian spruce, below. We’ve got another two of his guitars incoming, so be sure to keep your eyes peeled for those.
If you want to hear more from Dion James, listen to our Talking Guitar podcast with him here.
Top: Italian Spruce
Back & Sides: Quilted Maple with Side Sound Port
Rosette: Simple Wood Rosette (Maple and Ebano)
Body Binding: Ebano
Neck: Honduran Mahogany
Fretboard: Bookmatched Maple (off-cuts from Back & Sides)
Frets: Evo Gold
Fretboard Radius: 16"
Head Veneer: Bookmatched Maple (off-cuts from Back & Sides)
Tuners: Sloan Waverly 3-on-a-plate with Ebony Buttons
Nut Width: 1.77"
Scale Length: 25.4"
Hard Case: Visesnut