Snow falls outside the James Bay workshop of luthier Marcus Dominelli.
Following a sign telling the visitor to come in, one hears a distinct sound of fingerpicking coming from behind a downstairs door. This is, after all, a man who not only enjoys the challenge of making quality, custom-made classical guitars, he still loves to play.
Dominelli emerges wearing an apron, looking very much like the artisan he is. His two-room work space is split between a storage room, where thinly milled pieces of wood are stacked and dated, and the main assembly and finishing room.
“This is a lot cleaner than it is sometimes in here,” he says.
Dominelli, 45, appreciates the subtleties involved in his unique trade, especially when compared to his original pursuit: furniture making. “I couldn’t find a workshop that was creative enough,” he says, adding he became tired of “churning out” pieces without soul. “I just really wanted to build guitars.”
After training under veteran luthier David Freeman in Saskatchewan, the Vancouver native was hired as a repair specialist by Dave Cahill at Old Town Strings in Victoria. After five years repairing instruments and experimenting with building various types of guitars, Dominelli struck out on his own in 2003 focusing on classical.
“It was a risk. I didn’t have much money,” he recalls. At first he was building instruments on spec as he worked to develop a reputation.
These days, the majority of his work comes from custom orders, for which he has a wait list of eight months to a year. While his website contains detailed information about his guitars, he estimates roughly 90 per cent of his sales come from word of mouth.
Most of his customers are guitar teachers or touring professionals, but he has bigger goals in mind.
“One day I hope to be selling to more famous people. That way you can set your price higher and your wait list grows longer,” he says. Easier said than done, he admits, given most top players already have many instruments.
“I’ve shown my guitars to a lot of people. But the market is difficult. Unless you have something that’s going to blow their socks off, it’s (a tough sell).”
Dominelli’s specialties are a hybrid cedar lattice-brace guitar and a more traditional concert model, but he has begun building more double-top guitars. Designed with concert players in mind, the double top has a bigger sound, a ring that seems to shout, ‘I am here, listen to me!’
To demonstrate one of his hybrid lattice models, he plays a soothing version of George Harrison’s While My Guitar Gently Weeps.
The difference between this guitar and the double top is evident – both have amazing presence, but the latter would clearly be more effective in a larger concert hall.
Asked whether he ever gets emotional hearing one of his instruments played in performance, the humble craftsman thinks for a moment, then answers.
“It’s a good feeling when someone who is a really good player appreciates the instrument.”
Find out more at dominelliguitars.com