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Monday, April 21, 2014

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Meiron Blackstien makes hand-crafted guitars

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Meiron Blackstien’s shop is in the heart of the Kensington Market.

TORONTO — Typically, the vast majority of acoustic and electric guitars for sale in stores today are made in anonymous factories like so many sausages rolling off assembly lines. A select few, however, are individually hand-crafted.

Meiron Blackstien, born in Toronto and raised in Israel, is an old-fashioned craftsman who makes custom-made guitars one by one, turning out each guitar with love, care and skill.

A young and upcoming luthier on the Toronto musical scene, he is the founder and proprietor of Six String Garage, located in the humming heart of Kensington Market, a stone’s throw away from his father’s birthplace.

Blackstien and his parents made aliyah in 1985, settling in Givat Shmuel, the home of his Israeli mother, Tami.

He left Israel after completing his national service as a teacher’s assistant, leaving behind his parents and younger brother, Gal. “I didn’t think there were too many opportunities for me in Israel to be what I wanted to be.”

Now 28, Blackstien is, so to speak, a rebel with a cause. “They told me you can either build or repair guitars. They said you can’t do both.”

He has proven the skeptics wrong. Blackstien repairs guitars and builds them from scratch in his second-floor shop. He has built one acoustic guitar and four electric guitars so far and hopes to make 30 to 50 guitars each year once he is fully established.

“But I’ll probably never stop taking repairs,” he said. “They keep me thinking. No two repairs are the same. Repairing a guitar is a great problem solver, and it pays the bills.”

He was initiated into the world of guitars by his father, Gary, a dentist and guitar aficionado.

“We had guitars all over the house,” Blackstien said in a reference to their home in Givat Shmuel, a small town near Tel Aviv.

Before he reached his teens, he took piano lessons, but disliked the instrument so much that he dropped out of music altogether.

At 12, he gravitated toward the guitar and was immediately captivated by it.

“I don’t exactly know why the guitar was appealing,” he said. “It’s a mystery. But the guitar is a cultural icon. It’s accessible, and you don’t have to be a dedicated musician to get into it. I just thought the guitar was really cool.”

Blackstien, tall and lanky, began taking guitar lessons and was hooked. Although he plays double bass in a local band, Christian D and the Hangovers, he still takes guitar lessons.

Blackstien started tinkering with guitars shortly after he started playing one at home. “The guitars I had access to were cheap and required adjustments. I did my homework and figured out the basics.”

Having become a guitar fanatic, he enrolled in the Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery in Phoenix, Ariz., in 2003. And in a bid to upgrade his budding skills, he apprenticed with Joe Veillette, an accomplished guitar-maker, in Woodstock, N.Y.

He then joined the service department of Steve’s Music Store in Toronto as a guitar technician.

With the help of a government loan, he opened his own shop, Six String Garage, in the Parkdale district in 2010, but he did not fare too well in his first venture as an independent businessman. “I wasn’t getting enough traffic, and the rent was too high,” he explained.

Last September, he moved to Kensington Market, a neighbourhood brimming with garment and food stores and Asian arts and crafts shops.

“It was very slow for the first few months. It took time for people to find me again. But this is a much more convenient area and easier for customers to reach.”

His clientele consists of hobbyists and professional musicians.

Hobbyists come in once or twice a year for what is known in the trade as the guitar setup, a process encompassing adjustments and cleaning to optimize performance.

He also teaches a course in guitar setup. “It’s not a complicated procedure, but it can be intimidating if you don’t know what you’re doing.”

Professional musicians need setups as well, but they’re usually looking for custom options and enhanced upgrades.

In the future, Blackstien hopes to spend the bulk of his time making guitars. It takes him about 200 hours to build a guitar, for which he charges up to $3,000.

“What I do is very unique in terms of design, hardware and engineering,” he said. “I don’t copy an existing shape.”

Blackstien’s guitars, adorned with plastic components, are carved from fine woods. He uses alder for the body, apple for the neck and ebony for the fretboard.

When he is working on the body, weight, cosmetic appeal and workability are the key factors. When he gets to the neck and fretboard, the issues that concern him are strength and sonic characteristics.

His ultimate objective is always the same: to build a clean, simple guitar.

In his view, patience and humility are the hallmarks of a good craftsman.

  “You have to realize there is a constant learning curve and always room for self-improvement,” he explained. “You also have to have a good eye for detail and shapes. Cosmetic appeal is important, too. And you need a good ear. It’s the test of what we do.”

Despite his formidable skills, he has to struggle to survive.

“It’s a very tough market to break into,” said Blackstien, whose local competitors number in the dozens. “You’re asking for a lot a money for a custom-built guitar.”

Nonetheless, he aspires to be a paragon in Toronto’s community of guitar builders.

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