Kagawong luthier a master craftsman of exquisite musical instruments

One of Matt Maranger’s beautiful finished guitars.

KAGAWONG—Manitoulin is home to a growing population of artists and craftspeople whose work is inspired by its quality as a refuge of peace and tranquility from the over-stimulation and consumption of the world around us, and talented artisans can be found in every nook and cranny of this Island.

Behind the door of an unassuming little house in Kagawong, a dog named Dolly is overjoyed to greet a visitor, while her two cat housemates are a little more circumspect, as befits their nature. Joining them in a warm welcome is their ‘human,’ Matt Maranger, crafter of hand-made guitars and musician in the wryly-named band Housewives of Kagawong.

Matt’s home, shared with partner Megan Middleton, is a wonderful example of the ‘repurposing’ that goes on here with some of the older homes that sometimes sit unloved and neglected until creative types come along to breathe new life into the humble structures. Megan and Matt’s home highlights features that are often too easily overlooked in the quest for the new.

A woodstove in the centre of the living room keeps the whole place warm and cozy; bumpy wood floors, in their original peeling orange paint, have been left intact, drawing attention to the history of the little house to great effect, dotted here and there with small area rugs; characteristics that many would consider too dated to keep have been given new life in pale paint colours that emphasize the rustic charm.

It is here, in a former bedroom upstairs, that Matt Maranger has set up the small, efficient and tidy workshop where he crafts his hand-made guitars of exquisite woods. Born and raised in Sudbury in a French and English-speaking home, Matt remembers playing music since he was thirteen. An early appreciation for aesthetics led him to study graphic design at Cambrian College for three years and this experience, along with his love of music, led him to want to blend his skills into the art of guitar-making.

“I wanted to combine aesthetics and functionality by developing my own unique style of designing and building instruments,” says Matt. “What’s important to me is not just construction, but the ability to manipulate sound.” He obtained a Masters Degree at the Summit School of Guitar Building and Repair in Qualicum Bay, British Columbia, where he learned to carve acoustic and electric guitars. “The teachers are all guitar-making experts; I did 3,000 hours of apprenticeship.” At the Summit School, he learned how to make plans for his own design for guitar necks—the part that holds the strings and frets and leads to the tuning pegs at the end. He created a removable neck, a distinctive feature that makes the guitar more compact for travel, and produces “the ability to adjust the playability.” This element, more common in electric guitars, was virtually unknown until now in the acoustic versions.

Matt Maranger carves both flat-top and archtop acoustic guitars and adds another of his inventions, a one-piece bridge that holds the strings in place on the body of the guitar. “Bridges are usually in two pieces, but I found that a bridge carved in one piece actually makes the guitar sound much better,” says the artisan. “I try to use domestic woods as much as possible, like sugar maple, black walnut, white spruce and ironwood that are native to the Island. These reflect the resonance of the guitar in a way that sounds better and better over time.” His own personal guitar is made of western red cedar, with back and sides of Indian rosewood and a binding (or edging) of tiger maple. “Cedar sounds fantastic right away, that’s why I love it. Many guitars are made of spruce and it can take those 15 years to age to the perfect pitch of a cedar guitar. I like to see straight lines,” he adds, “parallel and uniform, to create an immaculate end product.” Matt then hand-applies environmentally-friendly varnish with “no solvents, nothing airborne” to the finished instrument that takes him about seventy hours to complete in a series of 1,000 steps. He can then build a custom case for the guitar with its removable neck, or it can be packed easily in a suitcase for travel.

When he’s not huddled over the carving table in his workshop, Matt plays with the Housewives of Kagawong, an acoustic and electric band with “two to four” musicians on guitars, drums, bass and vocals that performs “all kinds of music, especially rock and country, but also blues, mountain music, bluegrass and old-timey songs.” The popular local group plays community events and concerts and released their first CD, ‘apocalypse,’ in 2012 (now sold out), with ‘north of nowhere’ following in 2013.

What’s next for the talented craftsman and musician? “I’ve been offered a fantastic opportunity to work for three months with a master luthier [French for ‘maker of stringed instruments’] in California and I hope to make archtop guitars with him in the near future. Archtops are a niche market, only 10 percent of all guitars made are this type, and making them suits my unconventional nature, and his too.” Right now, though, Matt has work commitments in Kagawong that will keep him rooted for the foreseeable future. He takes commissions for his hand-made instruments and does all sorts of renovations and repairs, “re-finishing, re-fretting. I even repaired a guitar that someone sat on.” In addition to getting his workshop on a schedule of building “about one guitar a month,” he wants to keep production sustainable by replanting trees on Manitoulin at the rate of one oak or maple per year to reduce depletion of our natural resources. “Handmade with a conscience” is contained in Matt’s business logo.

Matt Maranger and partner Meg Middleton moved from Sudbury to the Island permanently in 2012. Meg has family here, says Matt, “so that gave us the realistic view of Manitoulin to balance my own romantic views, acquired during visits here in summer.” Looking out the windows into the lovely bluff and ravine views of Kagawong, the craftsman waxes romantic about his adopted village: “Kagawong felt so warm, receptive and welcoming. It seems to have a creative force, not to mention a new outdoor stage!” As Dolly the spaniel cordially provides a farewell escort through the kitchen, Matt smilingly adds a final note, “Creatively, I’m very happy here.”

Matt Maranger’s guitar models can be viewed and ordered through his website at www.humco.com.

 by Isobel Harry