Talking Guitar: Getting to Know Dion Guitars
We recently announced that we are working with the wonderful one-man operation Dion James, of Dion Guitars, based out in Edmonton, Canada.
We reached out to Dion to talk to him more about his path into lutherie, the guitars he's making and his philosophy behind it all. We'd like to thank Dion for taking the time to talk to us and curating this incredibly interesting interview, I for one am eager to see/hear the hypothetical all Mahogany guitar which Dion would make for himself...
TNAG: Hi Dion, we hope you're well and safe during these strange times.
Can you tell us about your journey into lutherie?
Sure, yeah. I built my first guitar in 2004, with David Freeman of Timeless Instruments in Saskatchewan Canada. I was 23, had quit university, spent a year snowboarding in the mountains and was looking for a direction to head. My family owns a grain farm in Saskatchewan and I was back home for the spring to help my father plant the crop. A friend of mine came over one afternoon with an old guitar that had been spray painted silver, it was hideous and we naively believed that under all that paint there must be some sort of beautiful wood just waiting to be liberated. Well, it turns out that under all that paint was plywood and a plastic wood grained veneer.
My mother is a crafter, she can make just about anything she decides to dedicate herself too. My siblings and I grew up immersed in her projects, often being encouraged to help or make something of our own. Great preparation for the career I’ve now chosen. So, with a confidence informed by this history of making things, I suggested to my friend that we go on the internet (being rural folks this was pretty new to us and ridiculously slow) and order a guitar building kit. One of the first search results was the Timeless Instrument guitar building course. It turned that David’s shop was only three hours from my hometown, so I signed up for a seven week immersion course for that fall. It was one of the best experiences of my life, completely altering my life’s trajectory.
In the years following the course I built a few fairly crude instruments on my own in my parents wood shop, but really wanted to find a way to get better. I had no idea this whole world of handmade guitars existed, but was eager to learn. I moved to Edmonton, Canada naively hoping to meet builders. That didn’t pan out, but I did meet my partner! We packed our belongings only a couple months into our relationship and moved across this very large country, in the middle of one of our very cold winters to Montreal Quebec. Still not knowing anything about the boutique guitar world, but young and ambitious/foolish. We landed in Montreal in January and less than a month in ended up at a party at the newly formed Mile End Guitar Co-op, which was just getting up and running. At that time the co-op was just Jeremy Clark of The 52 Instrument Company, and Mike Kennedy of Indian hill guitars, they had extra bench space and invited me to join them. Both of them had just finished a three year apprenticeship with the pioneering guitar maker Sergie De Jonge, and as such had skills far greater than mine and a philosophy of sharing. Mike and Jeremy not only informed my guitar building but my life in general, introducing me to many things, including food fermentation and vegetarian cooking. Because of my years with those two fantastic people, my guitar building is informed by the De Jonge method, which is a continuation of the Larrivee method.
I’m now living back in Edmonton, where I share a shop with Leila Sidi of Tuna Tone Instruments and Adam Turley of turley guitars. Both Leila and Adam are students of mine and build wonderful instruments punching far above their years of building experience.
What do you think you would be doing if you weren’t making guitars?
If I weren't building guitars I’d probably still be running a business of my own, likely in urban agriculture. Growing up on a farm has led to me being self motivated and very resistant to having someone tell me where to be and at what time. I come from a long line of farmers, and I’m keenly interested in the capacity of the urban landscape for food production.
Tell us more about the models you offer…
I’m currently only offering one Model, my No.04. It’s an OM sized instrument with modern lines. I had been offering a smaller Model No.03 until last year at which time it was retired. There are so many skills to gather as a guitar builder, elegant design perhaps the most elusive. I’ve got two new models in the works, though at this point they are just lines on paper. It takes me weeks to bring a new shape into its final form, drawing a few curves, hanging it on the wall for a reflection, adjust, repeat. If I can get the shapes down, I’ll have a drenought-ish shape and a smaller 12 or 13th fret model ready to build sometime this year.
Can you explain Dion Guitars signature sound?
Sure, yeah. My guitars are quick to respond, even with a light touch, and can be played very loud without breaking up. This creates a huge dynamic range which makes for a very expressive instrument. The sound is clear and the sustain shimmers.
Do you have favourite woods to work with?
Hmmm.. that changes all the time. For the last couple of years it's been maple, anytime I get a chance to build without input from clients maple has been my chosen material. I love the quickness of response, and It’s incredibly beautiful. Another favourite wood for back and sides is Lapacho. I’ve got a good stack of sets from a mill here in Canada. It was harvested in the last 20 years from an area that had been flooded in the making of the Panama canal and has taken on mineral content from it’s time underwater. It’s hard and dense, beautifully brown, has gorgeous figure and rings like a bell. But I’d say my constant favourite wood is spruce, it’s understated appearance and crucial role in the guitar leaves me with a deep admiration for all of it’s varieties.
You offer some very interesting and inspiring features for your builds, such as the Hollow Core Backs and Structured Sides, can you tell us more about these and how they affect the instruments you’re building?
I’m working to build an efficient instrument, one that uses as much of the string energy as possible. According to my build philosophy, any part of the instrument that vibrates, that isn’t moving air, is taking energy that could be redirected into sound production. The structured sides are very rigid, this provides a solid platform for the back and sides allowing the energy from the strings to enter through the bridge, excite the air column and oscillate between the back and top without loss through side vibration. Along with the fully cross laminated upper bout of the soundboard, the structured sides resist forward rotation of the heel block relieving the soundboard of much of that duty. This allows me to lighten soundboard bracing creating a more responsive instrument.
The hollow core back is constructed of 4 layers of wood with a Nomex core. While most laminated back are built stiff and are intended to be pure reflectors, the hollow core back is actually an active back. It’s lightweight and evenly stiff, amplifying the air column sent down from the soundboard and adding the colour of the wood along the way. You’ll notice when you play one of my guitars that the sustain goes on forever, this is in large part due to the efficiency of the hollow core back. Because the back provides so much sustain I don’t need to lean on a heavier bridge for that task. This allows me to build with a very lightweight bridge which takes less string energy to set into motion, thus creating quickness of response. It’s easy to see how each decision the builder makes has a cascading effect contributing to the overall sound producing system.
We absolutely love the lines and aesthetics of your instrument’s, where do you draw your inspiration from when building and designing the guitar?
Thanks, I appreciate that. I’ve been pushing those lines around for a long time and I finally feel like they’ve landed where I’ve always wanted them to be.
Inspiration, that’s a tough one. The modern era has us completely inundated with images, the sources of inspiration coming in faster than one can consciously record. I’ve always appreciated well executed simplicity, beauty that is hard to articulate but easily felt. A rectangular brick building with great windows, a structure that understands its surroundings. I pair of jeans that fit just right, made of quality denim. I guess those are the kinds of things that inform my minimalist aesthetic, sense of line and proportion.
Are there any other luthiers you’re particularly inspired by?
Oh man, so many! The quality of guitars being built right now are out of this world. For fear of leaving someone out I think I’ll leave it there.
Tell us about your shared workshop...
I currently share a shop with Leila Sidi of Tunatone Instruments and Adam Turley of Turley guitars. Prior to this shop I ran and built out of an artist collective. Before that I was one of the early members of the Mile End Guitar Co-op in Montreal.
Shared spaces are great, they provide texture to one's days. Sometimes you’re alone and you create just the environment you want, but we all get sick of ourselves eventually and it’s lovely to have someone come in and kick you out of your rut. Cooperative spaces create the environment for cross pollination, everyone’s got something to contribute. I definitely wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t spent my career surrounded by other builders. I’ve got something to learn from everyone.
What would be the guitar you would build for yourself?
All mahogany, fingerboard, bridge and all. Broken only by a delicate series of .5mm black lines. No cutaway, with a slightly elevated fingerboard to allow easier access to the frets over the body. The soundboard and the back would both have the same 15ft arch. I’d take the side taper and split it between the back and the top rather than having it all in the back which would create a very symmetrical instrument no matter the angle it was viewed from. Someday I’ll build it!
Could you tell us more about the guitars which are next coming to TNAG.
For sure, I just started them this weak and I’m so excited. Pulling materials and dreaming up the design is my favourite part of the build.
The first one will be a cutaway Model No.04 with an Italian spruce soundboard, perfectly quarter sawn old growth cocobolo back and sides and a spanish cedar neck. The other details I’m still thinking about. The fingerboard will either be ebano, or cocobolo, the binding and head veneer will be made from the same material as the fingerboard. I’ll use mahogany for purfling throughout to tie it all together.
The second guitar will also be in my Model No.04 and have an Italian spruce soundboard. No cutaway on this one. The back and sides will be made from a really wonderful set of figured mahogany. I’ve got some really subtle and neat things planned for the fingerboard and binding, but I’ll keep that one under my hat for now.
It has been great to catch up with you. Thank you for taking the time to talk to us.
Likewise. I’m really looking forward to working with you folks!
For more information on Dion Guitars please email us here or call us on 0207 835 5597.
Have a lovely weekend and stay safe,