It doesn’t take long speaking with Linda Manzer to realize how exceptional she is.
Overcoming challenges linked to poverty and navigating a male-dominated industry, she has risen to prominence as a globally renowned luthier. Now, marking her 50th year in the industry, Linda adds another accolade to her impressive career: an induction into the Order of Canada.
Manzer said receiving the news about her award was “stunning because of the gravitas of the award. I didn’t even know I had been nominated – now that I’ve had time to sit with it I’m really understanding what an honour it is. It’s been a slow reaction, it’s just such a huge honour”.
Linda is renowned for her arch-top, flat-top, and harp guitars, as well as for building the first baritone guitar. Her illustrious career includes crafting instruments for musicians worldwide, such as Carlos Santana, Gordon Lightfoot, and Paul Simon. Notably, she has built 25 instruments, including the Pikasso with 42 strings and four necks, for jazz guitarist and composer Pat Metheny. What sets Linda apart is her unconventional introduction to the industry, giving her technique a distinctive artistic edge.
Born and raised in Toronto, Manzer was attending art school with the prospect of becoming a painter when she built her first instrument. She divulged that as a young woman, she was inspired by music and musicians, particularly Joni Mitchell.
“At the time, there was a huge boom in folk music,” Manzer reminisced. “I was so inspired by Joni Mitchell, I wanted to be a folk singer like her… of course no one could be like her.” Manzer said with a laugh.
It was seeing Mitchell in concert that began the start of Manzer’s career. She was drawn to the three-stringed instrument she saw Joni play. Visiting a music store, Manzer found she couldn’t afford the instrument, a dulcimer, but was able to buy a kit to make her own for about half the price.
“Making guitars combined everything I was interested in: music, design and I really liked the scientific aspect,” said Manzer.
In 1974, Manzer became an apprentice of Jean Larrivée ,where she found her community. “They’re still my best friends to this day,” she remarked.
After working on her own, she agreed to study with Jimmy D’Aquisto in New York, known for making arch-topped guitars used in jazz music. Manzer reflected on getting to train with “two of the best living teachers at the time” and learning new things from each of them. Becoming a luthier meant “I got to do what I loved, I didn’t care whether or not I could make money from it. It made me wake up with a fire in my belly, and I still wake up with that fire”.
In the 1970s the luthier industry was completely male-dominated, though she says it’s starting to change now. She said Larrivé almost didn’t hire her as an apprentice because she’s a woman.
“I remember a phone call with him where he said he wasn’t sure about hiring me because he’s a male chauvinist. I knew he couldn’t be that bad because I heard his wife laughing in the background when he said that.”
Manzer remarked that the industry attracts progressive men, so her mentors and friends in the industry always had her back and stood up for her. It was the customers, woodworking shops and guitar shops that weren’t prepared for a woman in the industry.
“People wouldn’t buy a guitar from me because I was a girl, they didn’t think I knew what I was doing,” said Manzer. “I almost believed them. I had to start looking for the things in the industry I couldn’t do and eventually realized the only thing I couldn’t do was carry two five-gallon pails of varnish at a time. I knew I could get around the strength thing, so here I am.”
Manzer says growing up in a house with two brothers gave her the experience she needed to deal with a male-dominated industry. Growing up with brothers meant she “knew how to push back and make the space for myself.”
It was Linda’s two brothers who nominated her for the Order of Canada.
“They did a pretty good job keeping it a secret for three years,” she laughed.
Fifteen years ago, Linda moved to Almonte. After being told about her Order of Canada award, she was asked to choose whether to say she was from Toronto or Almonte. Linda chose to say Almonte because “that’s where her heart is and her tools are… home is where your tools are!”
Manzer remarked that she appreciates the serenity and beauty of Almonte and knowing the artistic community is all around her.
“You can just feel it. It’s a great place for an artist to thrive quietly,” she said of her home.
When asked about what’s next, Linda teased a lunar-themed project, expressing excitement about collaborating with her niece, an astrophysicist.
“I’m at a stage in my career now where I can do more of the projects I want to do and people seem to like it when I go off the beaten path… I’ve got a few surprises in store!”