" Well, Thierry is French-Canadian, so one mustn't be surprised by a certain directness of speech. - Go Thierry! But his work is as unique, and fully his own, as is Michi Matsuda's and Ken Parker's are; those guys are simply brilliant "
- Ervin Somogyi,
Ervin's Woodstock afterthoughts, November 2013
When A Guitar Roars
English text by J.H. White
When luthier Thierry André first picked up a guitar he felt as if the vibrations of the strings were bound to the divine.
At that moment, the theories he was learning in high school—from physics to chemistry— started to make sense, as if they were encompassed within that one note of music.
“It was like discovering a new universal language,” André says.
This eureka moment was a call of destiny the young man couldn’t ignore.
“A big door opened in front of me. That vibrating string gave me a road to follow,” he says.
A musical calling
From fixing a friend’s bike to building a ramp for the local skate park, André found joy in working with his hands. Nonetheless, his private high school was guiding him toward theoretical professions like law or medicine.
“I was honestly feeling a little lost, and I didn't know where to put my energy. I didn't find that satisfaction in my academic studies,” André says.
It was during this time that he fell in love with the guitar. He possessed a strong sense of musicality but it never dawned on him that he could make such a magical instrument with his own hands.
This changed after André realized that a guitar’s structure and form follow the rules of design. These rules encompass both the materials used—screws, fret wire, wood, paint, and coating— and their assembly.
“When I understood that I could learn to make a guitar, that I could create sound with my own hands and toolbox, I cried,” he says.
At 19, André entered Bruand, a luthier school in the Montreal area. He was grateful for the opportunity, but struggled with the design process until Fred Carlson, a celebrated luthier from California took him under his wing in 2004.
André observed how Carlson spent days or even weeks sketching an instrument, planning the intricacies of a complex built on paper. This taught the young man to understand the value of a lengthy design process, which led him to apply it to his own craft.
Finding his worth and freedom
These days, André’s guitars often sell for over $20,000. On average, each of his clients owns three of his bespoke guitars. But when he began on this career path, creating a sustainable, fruitful business was a challenge for him.
“I started this work as a love affair for the instrument and the music. It was difficult for me to charge money for the actual craft,” André says.
The Montreal Guitar Show in 2008 taught him a valuable lesson. He was showcasing his newly completed guitar Sakura, which was crafted from Sitka spruce and black cherry, native of British Columbia and Quebec, respectively.
When a collector saw it, he instantly fell in love with it. But André thought it could use a few adjustments, so he dropped the price from $3,500 to $2,500. Instead of motivating the collector, the latter lost interest.
André returned home and added the finishing touches to the guitar. He put it on sale for $6,000, and the same collector bought it immediately. André realized that bespoke guitar collectors aren’t interested in bargains. They’re drawn to craftsmanship, quality, and rare designs that speak to the soul.
Through this experience, André learned to value himself and his work. He started to charge a fair price for his creations, and was thus able to pour more time into them. It was the beginning of his true independence and freedom.
“Only when the basic needs of an individual are covered can the expression and inspiration take place and touch others,” André says.
An impossible feat
André has always pushed the boundaries of what is possible with the sound and structure of his materials. For one of his most highly acclaimed creations, the oudtar, he gained inspiration from the oud, the predecessor of the lute.
This was also made possible by his location.
André’s luthier workshop is based in Montreal, a cosmopolitan city that gathers musicians from all over the world. Artists from Turkey, Africa, India, and the Middle East have regularly brought him instruments for repair.
“This gave me the opportunity to see lots of different instruments—old world instruments,” he says.
Many of these musicians play the oud, meaning “from wood” in Arabic. The oud was the first stringed instrument to be crafted with a wooden top. Before that, all the stringed instruments had a skin top.
“At one point, I was repairing the oud more than anything else. This was a big influence on me,” he says.
While working intimately with the instrument, André had a nearly impossible idea.
In Europe, the lute was popular before the introduction of flat-backed guitars. André felt like there was a missing link between the lute and the modern guitar.
He thus created the oudtar, an instrument that combines the features of both instruments.
To pull of this imaginative feat, André had to innovate new methods of construction. He received a grant from the Quebec Council for the Arts and spent a year and a half building the new instrument.
The most challenging aspect of crafting the oudtar was its double-curved back. A regular oud has one convex curve, which means that it’s easy to pull the shell out of the mold. But André’s oudtar has two curves.
To make the double-convex back, he built it into two parts and pulled-it out of the mould sideways. Then he joined the two parts at the end. The difficulty was fully worth it.
“A standard steel-string guitar has a compliant back. When you strike a note, the back will pump air and move. It will give you bass notes in this way, acting as a trampoline,” he says. “But with the oudtar, the double-curved back makes the whole soundbox reflective. It’s like a dome or vault that gives reverb to the sound.”
André likens this to the acoustics in a cathedral whose design allows people to hear their voices echoing up the walls. Since the oudtar doesn’t have the sharp edges of a guitar box, the sound resonates like an oud or a lute, instruments that also have a rounded back.
“The bass of the oudtar roars like a lion,” André says. “It sounds deep, but it has no flexible material around it. So it's full, strong, and focused.”
Built from his passion and devotion, André’s career is like the deep, resonant roar of his oudtar. Its special sound lingers on.