Meet the maker - Leila Sidi of Tunatone Instruments
If you've followed the Home of Tone for any length of time, I'm sure you'll have noticed my admiration & appreciation of luthiers who forge their own path through guitar design and their approach to building. I love seeing a luthier display influences from outside of the guitar world, and I particularly love to see a designer & builders own personality apparent in their final works. After all, so many of those early guitar designs that have been coveted so much since their inception started this way, with perhaps Leo Fender being one of the greatest examples of this. His iconic designs originated from the mind of a non-musician, a designer and inventor who felt like he could contribute to the music world, and that he certainly did. So with that being said, we still need those people who think ahead, the people who wish to think outside of the traditional box whilst being respectful of it to help keep the guitar world exciting and innovative. Someone who has appeared to me to encapsulate that from following her work for a while now, has been Leila Sidi of Tunatone Instruments. So it seemed fitting for me to get back to my 'meet the maker' blog series by reaching out to Leila and speaking about her work!
Leila is based in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada working from a shared workshop space nicknamed 'The Clubhouse' alongside Adam Turley of Turley Guitars & her mentor Dion James of Dion Guitars, something we'll be discussing in the interview too! Although Leila's journey into luthiery may be in it's relative infancy on a timeline currently, her outlook and approach is that of sophistication which has been proven by the respect of her within the guitar making community. I'm a fan of her work and am particularly excited about learning more about Tunatone! So let's get to the interview!
J - The steps that lead a creative person to luthiery is always an interesting one to me. There are often similarities from maker to maker, but sometimes some surprising steps along the way. From following online and reading other features too, I believe yours to be a great mixture of that, could you talk us through your journey to luthiery and what drew you to it? How does your background before luthiery affect your designs?
L - There was a time in my life where I was so deeply heartbroken that I found myself spending time in abandoned factories because being surrounded by environments that mirrored the way I felt somehow gave me comfort. One day, I took some pastel coloured drawers from a derelict laboratory to the bicycle shop that I volunteered at and made a chest for them out of plywood and two-by-twos. Making something out of objects that had been left behind was a turning point in my grief. I sought out more and was blessed to find Brad Geortz, a furniture builder who spent four years generously teaching me the fundamentals of woodworking. After Brad left the shop, I found myself wanting to continue learning under close mentorship so I asked my shopmate and friend Dion James if he would teach me how to build an electric guitar. We’ve been working side by side since. Building and personal growth have always been closely connected for me
J - Through following your work online, I see you build from a shared workspace alongside the likes of the brilliant Dion James of Dion Guitars. I’d love to hear more about perhaps the creative impression that must have over perhaps working from a solo workspace, and as Tunatone Instruments grows do you ever see yourself working from a solo workspace?
L - I think my greatest strength as a guitar builder is my propensity for collaboration. My designs and building process are influenced heavily by conversations with my shop mates Dion James of Dion Guitars and Adam Turley of Turley Guitars, but I build in the context of a whole community of people that I share values with. Some, including friends who help me with design, electronics, parts manufacture, finishing and pickups, collaborate on my guitars directly. Others are chosen family who nourish me emotionally and intellectually. So I consider my projects to be rooted in community and shared. I hope to always work in a shop with others because of the way it expands the growth, creativity and intimacy I’m able to cultivate with my community.
J - I have read that you prefer to use locally sourced materials for your builds, both in terms of woods chosen to hardware produced. Was that a conscious decision, or one that felt natural to your ethics of approaching producing your guitars? Has it, if at all, provided any limitations or hurdles along the way?
L - There is what I consider to be a mythology around the idea that “exotic” (tropical) woods make superior tonewoods for solid-bodied electrics. I decided I wanted to build full and responsive sounding guitars out of readily-available woods. In part, this is an exercise in building an instrument where solid energy transfer is happening as a function of a tight build and quality electronics, rather than other factors. The ethics of wood is a complicated conversation; rather than simply local, I’m trying to use woods that have the highest degree of transparency attached to their harvest.
I started building my own hardware as an exploration of what was possible in my blue-collar city, one that is largely geared toward production for oil extraction. I am interested in imagining what this place will look like when we finally decide to keep oil in the ground.
J - Any particular favourite locally sourced woods you love to work with? I loved seeing Spruce listed for your guitars for example, a wood that perhaps isn’t as commonly seen in solid body electric guitar building. Would be great to hear about choosing to work with that too.
L - I’ve loved working with Sitka Spruce as body wood, but Poplar might recently have taken place as my favourite! I like working with softer woods because they are lightweight; my guitars weigh approximately 2.5kg. The carbon fibre reinforced necks and deeply inlaid bridges make for an efficient system, and the lightness of the build allows for a lively response.
J - Previously touching on hardware above, I’d love to talk a little more about your wonderfully clean bridge, nut, string tree and tuner choices. Particularly the, could I say ‘inlaid’, Bridge and nut? Was the decision to make your own hardware something you wanted to do right from the beginning or frustration found from utilising hardware already produced and bought perhaps? Also I must add, I love the shaped intonation notches on your bridge too!
L - I can’t talk about my nut and bridge without talking about the influence Dion has on my work. His guitars are known for being highly responsive, clean and modestly appointed, while each element is built robustly.
I am eternally grateful for his attentive one-on-one mentor-ship both in the building process and in analyzing guitars down to their most essential form. The bold simplicity with which I design is heavily influenced by Dion’s guitars and those conversations.
The captured nut was Dion’s idea to start and I got to prototype it first on an instrument I finished earlier this year. Now our whole shop uses the design as a signature!
And similarly, due to the influence of sharing a shop with acoustic guitar builders, my bridge design and intonation is essentially identical to that of an acoustic saddle.
J - This is a question I can’t help but ask each luthier I’ve interviewed for this series, so forgive the repetition! There are so many stages of a guitar build, it’s a long journey from wood to musical instrument, do you have any particular steps which you can’t wait to get started on?
L - Because I’m a new builder, the early steps in a build (making neck blanks, body blanks, fingerboards) feel most exciting because that’s when I am most easily able to see my progress as a woodworker. A task that took me 2 days the first time I did it might take me 20 minutes now and it’s encouraging to see my growth in skill and confidence.
If you’re curious about the steps that I dread, it’s anything that involves a router, because I’m scared of them!
J - I’ve had a number of conversations recently with other makers, of how I’ve found the modern guitar market interesting in that for the most part the guitar consumer appears to naturally look for similarities to classic guitar designs like the Les Paul, Tele or Strat when seeing a new design for the first time. Rhetorically, Is this simply buyer habit, do they need reassurance of familiarity from these timeless designs. Is unique really that scary a concept for the consumer? I was interested to hear your take on this as upon reading your feature on the brilliant Fretboard Journal, it was noted you don’t play guitar yourself so I’d love to learn more about how you approached your own model designs when there perhaps isn’t any preconceived notions of how a guitar should play or feel?
L - Having entered into luthiery as a woodworker rather than a musician, I had no reference to guitar or gear culture previously; I wasn’t attuned to the intense lore associated with certain factory guitars or parts as the ultimate design.
That culture serves to constrain the instrument to what was successful in the past, however, in its absence, I have been able to design by my own set of constraints and values.
Inspired by vintage guitars that aren’t widely exalted, I aim for simplicity and cleanliness in function and execution, thoughtfully sourced materials, and centering comfort for those who have typically been left behind in the music industry.
J - For some makers you can clearly see some personal musical influence on their designs and work, be it through the styling or pickup choices perhaps. Do you feel your personal music tastes find their way into your guitar designs, either directly or in-directly? If there are, I’d love to hear what artists or styles influence your work in any way or perhaps what music finds its way onto the workshop speakers!
L - My goal as a guitar builder is to make an exquisite tool. My hope is that the tone and feel of my instruments will inspire a musician to play something they wouldn’t have played on another guitar, but I have no particular attachment to what that sound might be.
In the shop, we are primarily listening to Democracy Now or talking about everything from anti-capitalism and the climate crisis to our chosen and biological families, our aspirations for ourselves and our communities and making horrifyingly bad jokes.
It’s those sounds that influence much of what I build.
J - I think I can safely say that we are both lucky enough to be involved within a wonderfully supportive and open community of like-minded industry people & guitar makers. I think this vibe within the community can and has had a positive effect on the consumer too via platforms like instagram for example where the level of encouragement between luthiers is clear to see through the interactions with one-another. I was interested in hearing your thoughts on this, perhaps how important the luthier community is to you and any effect it has had on your journey as a luthier?
L - I am a new builder and am essentially learning in public on platforms like Instagram. I’ve been lucky enough to find my way into a segment of the luthier community that doesn’t dismiss me for the number of guitars I’ve built but instead celebrates me for the quality of instrument I’m producing. Similarly, since I embody a number of identities that are underrepresented in the world of luthiery, I run the risk of being artificially embraced as a diversity token. The particular community I’m attached to understands and embraces me for bringing a unique and needed perspective through my instrument design and approach. It is in that nuance that I feel seen, accepted and encouraged.
J - My wife & I recently discovered the 'Reversal Of The Muse' podcast with Laura Marling, in particular the episode with Karen Elson & Jonathan Wilson which touched on some interesting points regarding the struggles Karen found in the music industry as a female. From experiences in the studio to even how she felt in guitar stores. There's some thought provoking points made that certainly made me furthermore conscious of my approach in being as welcoming to everyone as possible. Hearing this podcast lead me to reviewing my general social media analytics and upon checking my Instagram follower insights was presented with a huge 94% to 6% difference in male to female audience. Among other thoughts, I wondered whether those negative guitar store experiences for women have found their way to how the guitar gear world has been perceived online too making it feel equally as unapproachable.
So this of course makes me interested in hearing your take on this from your side of the industry as a female luthier too. Does that audience figure mentioned above reflect how you have experienced the guitar world thus far?
L - I try to stay away from speaking about sex/gender as a binary partly because I don’t fit the binary in many ways and also as a way to express reverence for the fact that my world is made richer, better, and fuller by my loved ones who also exist outside of its narrow parameters.
Alienation based on gender is a thing that occurs in the gear world, from factories only designing guitars with the average cis-man’s* body in mind to gear forums that are perpetually posting jokes and comments that establish those spaces as “boys clubs” which are unwelcoming to anyone else. I’m proud to be a person in the industry alongside such forces as She Shreds Magazine, Get Offset Podcast and Input/Output Mag who are not fighting to be included in spaces that don’t want us, but instead, are creating transformative spaces that are centered around our own communities. And I do see those values and that work reflected in whom I build for. Compared to many of my peers, I am fortunate to work with a more diverse audience, one that represents a lot of my own identities and the communities I invest wholeheartedly in.
*When I say cis-gendered man, I am describing a person who was assigned the sex of male at birth and the gender of boy/man and those identities resonate comfortably throughout their life.
J - The Tunatone Instruments line-up is a streamlined affair, with the wonderfully named Teeny Tuna & Barituna. Could you talk us through those models and what brought you to design and offer a short and baritone scale model range?
L - First I should probably say that the references to Tuna are a loving gesture to my recently deceased cat. Though she may have left this world, she remains a legend among my community and the namesake of my instruments.
The Teeny Tuna is a 24.75” (628.4 mm) scale length 6-string and the Barituna is a 27.5” (698.5mm) scale baritone guitar. Both are equipped with a hand made carbon fibre U-bar to reinforce the neck, a handmade truss rod by Mark Blanchard and a hand wound single coil pickup by Ken at Roadhouse Pickups. The neck plate and tailpieces are custom designed and made of stainless steel. The brass adjustable bridge, captured nut and string retainer are made in house by me. Each guitar is finished with 12% satin polyester UV cure finish at Vancouver Guitar Finishing.
I didn’t initially intend to have a baritone model but my second guitar was a gift for Dion to thank him for his mentorship, and he requested a baritone scale. On that build, I started experimenting with my own design and that was the prototype that translated into my current models.
J - Where do you see Tunatone from here out, any new designs in the works, upcoming guitar shows to attend etc?
L - I am excited to be building a new 6 string model with an irreverent shape, additional pickups and a vibrato system that I’m collaborating with Maximilian Heidemann in Berlin on. I’m very grateful to be busy with builds at the moment, so within the next couple of years I hope to carve out some space to build a short scale bass!
You can find out more about Leila's work here -
Website - https://tunatoneinstruments.com/
Instagram - https://www.instagram.com/tunatoneinst/
Facebook - https://www.facebook.com/tunatoneinst/
Guitar images courtesy of Leila Sidi.
Main workshop and portrait photography by and courtesy of Jessica Fern Facette
Website - http://jessicafernfacette.com/
Instagram - @jessfernphoto