Just north of Lansdowne station in Toronto, inside a repurposed warehouse, a ceiling-high vault door opens up to a modest workshop. Inside are the bare necessities: a drill press, a ban saw, hand tools, and a workbench. Dust covers almost everything and it hangs in the air. Hanging from the walls are the results of countless hours spent in this cramped space. Leaning against the bench are unfinished products. This is where Mike Reinhardt creates his guitars.
“You don’t need much space to build a guitar,” he tells me.
Mike is a soft-spoken man with a gentle demeanour; he gives one-word answers when probed for information about his craft. After a while, he opens up and reveals that he has been building guitars, off and on, for 12 years. But it was a different stringed instrument that ushered in Mike’s career as a luthier.
Having graduated from OCAD’s Stringed Instrument Design program, Mike, who was enthusiastic to learn more about the craft, decided to take a position at George Heinl & Co. – a violin shop on Church Street.
“They’re a third generation shop, very traditional, very serious. They liked that I didn’t have any formal training working with violins. It allowed them to teach me their way, a way that has worked for them for years. They didn’t want someone who would argue about how things should be done,” he says.
Initially taking a one-week unpaid trial period, Mike was eventually hired on full-time to work under five masters of restoration, building and repair.
It was here that Mike was able to further his skills while realizing a childhood dream:
“When I was a little kid my Mom told me her favourite instrument was a violin and the best one was the Stradivarius. I told her I wanted to hold one someday.”
He was offered that chance more than once, as many violin players trusted their precious Stradivarius violins –which have fetched over $1 million on more than one occasion—to the experts at George Heinl & Co.
When asked whether or not he got to work on one, Mike chuckles. “No, but I did get to hold one.”
This passion for string instruments is evident when Mike talks about his unique guitar designs. Many of his creations litter the workshop, including several examples of two unique electric guitar designs.
“I don’t like to make copies of established styles,” he says.
The first guitar he hands me seems to contradict this statement; it’s a yellow electric that looks like a Fender Telecaster, a popular guitar design that has been manufactured by the infamous guitar company since the 1950s. Before I can question him, however, Mike points out something very unusual about the guitar: it has five strings instead of the standard six. It’s a design that allows the instrument to be tuned to open G as opposed to typical E tuning, “How Keith Richards plays.”
I fiddle around with the guitar, fingering barre and open chords. The neck is comfortable and fast, the frets sanded smooth, the action perfectly set. I enjoy playing it, but it is Mike’s other electrics that catch my eye. A number of them hang from the wall, waiting to be played. I’ve seen nothing like them before.
“I thought of the design when I was a teenager,” he tells me, pulling one down for me to take a closer look. He hands it over and at first I’m unsure how to situate it on my lap. The body is shaped like a heart; the finish is blood red, and the headstock looks like the fletching at the end of an archer’s arrow.
To date, he has built ten electric guitars. “I’ve been sort of stockpiling them,” along with several others –a couple acoustics, a bass—because no one has bought one yet.
“I tried to get Taylor Swift to take a look at one. I sent her management a registered letter and they sent it back unopened,” he says. “I’ve given a few away, but I don’t want to do that anymore. It’s hard.”
It’s been difficult to find a market for Mike’s guitars. So it sometimes goes for anyone trying to make a name in a field dominated by established companies; it’s near impossible for consumers to take notice of a new creation when the market is littered by the prominent brands. In this case, it’s Ibanez, Fender, Gibson, Taylor, Paul Reed Smith —the usual suspects— that most guitar players usually seek. But it’s the discerning guitar player who might be intrigued by Mike’s designs.
In 1991, the Japanese all-girl, three-piece pop punk band went on tour with soon-to-be grunge legends, Nirvana. Shonen Knife’s infectious melodies, grungy riffs, and light lyrics helped build a large cult following, which included Kurt Cobain.
Two decades later, the Japanese trio is still going strong and touring the world. On October 20th, 2011, in Buffalo, New York, Naoko, the lead singer and guitarist for the band, addressed the crowd -–and in particular, one audience member– before diving into a song:
“This song is about Christmas. I want to play this song with this heart-shaped guitar. It’s very special. Can you see?”
She was speaking to Mike. She was about to be the first professional musician to play one of his handmade guitars at a live show.
Backstage, following the concert, Naoko’s guitar technician fiddled about with the band’s various guitars. Of them all, the tech preferred Mike’s heart-shaped guitar.
When asked who else he’d like to see play his guitars one day, it took Mike a moment to answer: “Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber, anyone who can get them noticed.” This comes from the luthier as a businessman. The luthier as an artist has a slightly different answer: “If I could get Keith Richards to play one of my five strings, that would be pretty cool.”
On this day he had to settle for an amateur guitarist. I took several of Mike’s axes for a spin, eventually falling in love with the first one he had ever finished. It was a light spruce top acoustic guitar. It had a rustic feel, like a guitar that had settled with age and played like an old faithful. He points out a hidden input jack, just below the strap button. I plug it in and wail away. The sound is crisp, clear and bright, each note articulated perfectly. When I start riffing Bob Marley’s “No Woman No Cry.” Mike cranks up the distortion and what comes out of the speaker is grungy and muddy – a surprisingly edgy sound for an acoustic guitar. We smile at each other and Mike seems proud.
While he’d like to sell the ones he has already made, he’d like to make custom instruments for people; inviting customers to participate in the creative process from start to finish — from the wood and pickup selection, to the shape design, and every step of the building process.
“I like to make things that are unique.” And it’s evident when you play his guitars that a bit of Reinhardt’s soul goes into each one.