The Settler: The Mid-Century Guitars of TunaTone’s Leila Sidi

October 2018

Leila Sidi’s journey to guitar building began in an unlikely place. Bicycles.

“Working on bikes empowered me.” Volunteering at a local bike co-op in Edmonton, Alberta made her realize that there things she could do that she hadn’t previously thought possible.

It gave her the confidence to approach a local furniture builder named Brad Geortz about becoming his apprentice. For four years, they worked together to build mid-century-inspired furniture. “We were building heirloom quality furniture, inspired my mid-century furniture. I’m really into that sort of era of design.”

Eventually, Brad left their shared workspace, but Leila wanted to stay. So she talked to the other tennant, Dion James of Dion Guitars about a mentorship. He agreed, and she began working on a copy of a friend’s Fender Musicmaster bass, the short-scale bass guitar (there’s also a six string guitar version) originally intended for students and children.

The Musicmaster has its fans, but it’s far from a quality instrument. Its shorter scale certainly makes it more comfortable for smaller players, but the fretwork is sloppy and the pickups are telecaster six-pole pickups that don’t align with the strings. “I would just notice [my friend] would talk about it here and there, that there were parts of the fretboard she wasn’t able to play, but it was such a beautiful piece of woodworking. I wanted to make her a bass that actually worked but was just as beautiful as this one.”

It took a year, but Leila finished her Musicmaster copy with help from Dion. Next up for Leila were original designs.

She built a baritone guitar for Dion as a gift (she’s currently working on another one), but she got right back to what she wanted to build: high quality, short-scale guitars that are comfortable for smaller players.

Her design is inspired by her love of mid-century modern instruments. “I don’t play the guitar, so I don’t have a relationship to the nostalgia and the sort of attachment to vintage factory instruments that many musicians do, like to a ‘62 Telecaster. It’s not part of the culture that I’ve been a part of.”  Building Tele- or Strat-style guitars never appealed to her in that respect. Instead, she looked to both the furniture she’d been building with Brad as well as guitars sold in catalogs from the ‘50s and ‘60s.

“I started to think about the reason people love these instruments currently, despite that they’re not perfectly intonated or that they are certain imperfect instruments and they don’t have a classic kind of tone like a Strat or a Tele and I think the reason people love those instruments is that they sound unique.” And, despite not being a musician herself, she realized through watching friends try different guitars in local shops that players adjust their playing based on what guitar they were holding. It made her realize that guitars themselves – how that look and how they sound – can inspire the music.

Mid-century instruments also had a unique conundrum, “There was a futurism about the design, but they were using materials that were available to them. There was this futuristic position, but there was a pull back, because you only have the tools and materials available to you.”

With that in mind, Leila set out to build from a similar position. Instead of using exotic woods often popular in guitar building, she uses wood from trees that grow more locally and abundantly so that harvesting them isn’t a threat.

She sources hardware locally whenever possible. Edmonton is known for being an industrial town in an industrial province, and she takes advantage of that industry by manufacturing parts that come from local sources and are made locally, and tries to make as much in house as possible. That includes her neck plate and bridge, which are both original designs.

Using sustainable resources and locally produced parts wherever possible brings us to another part of what drives Leila as a builder. “I often think about the world we live in and the world I would like to live in.” In an effort to build up the community around her, she’s opened up her workshop to build confidence in skills that women and gender nonconforming people who are “usually restricted from in some way or grow up thinking they can’t do or that the learning environment is unsupportive.”

Though she’s still at the beginning of her career, she’s already using her woodworking skills to raise money for causes that are close to her, including Tiny House Warriors, an organization she recently raised money for by selling cutting boards she made. “This is my responsibility as a settler here … I think that we all have things we can do, we all have skills we can offer, things we have access to, or something we can organize around, and if all of us are using what we have to offer to do something, then we can change the world that we live in.”