There’s no doubt Cal Thompson is an original.
Wearing rolled-up jeans and an I Heart NYC t-shirt, he fits the description of laid-back musician. But there’s something different about him: he makes bonsai guitars.
Bonsai guitar is a name he has given to the instruments that he makes, which look like regular-sized guitars, but miniatures. Thompson estimates that he has made over 400 bonsai guitars.
Some of these instruments can be found hanging from hooks on the wall in his apartment, running the entire length of the main wall. Other guitars are or have been in the hands of famous musicians, ranging from Link Wray to Paul Hyde.
Asked who the majority of his customers are, he says that he gives most of them away to children.
“I really don’t care all that much about money, much to the chagrin of my wife and everyone else around me.”
His band, Little Guitar Army, also performs with many of his bonsai guitars.
Thompson said that the sound from a bonsai guitar, in comparison to a regular-sized guitar, is “a little bit higher, but on all of my records, no one can tell they’re not full-sized guitars until they see us play live.”
Click to hear Thompson play one of his bonsai guitars
When Thompson was seven or eight years old, his uncle gave him a guitar.
“I immediately knew that that was it. That was my first love, my first marriage. I’ve devoted myself to it, regardless of what anyone thinks, tells me or feels,” he said.
Apart from loving the music itself, he also became interested in the mechanics of guitar building. He had grown up around his father’s cabinet shop doing woodworking, so he learned some of his skills from there.
“I started doing it when I was really young,” Thompson said. “I think I came across a ukelele and decided that I could put the same things that were on a big guitar on a little guitar.”
Years later, he was taught instrumental construction by Michael Dunn, a guitar builder from Vancouver, who taught at Douglas College. Dunn says that Thompson was a good student.
“The proof is that he’s still out there making instruments. It wasn’t for everyone. It’s not an easy thing to do. It’s tough,” Dunn said.
Thompson also worked for Jean Larrivee, another well-respected guitar builder in Vancouver. It was there that he had the idea of making bonsai guitars from materials that people were throwing away.
Larrivee “was throwing stuff out and I thought there was so much waste. So I started taking everything that he was throwing out and taking it home. I built a lot of instruments on what people were throwing out.”
Even now, each time he needs materials for a guitar, he’ll scavenge alleys and trash bins in an attempt to find something usable. Thompson said that thriftiness runs in his family.
“My grandfather was a real handy fellow. He didn’t have much money and he had all these responsibilities. So if he needed something, he would come up with something or just do without…My father is the same way.”
About 90 per cent of the materials he uses to build his guitars have been thrown out by somebody.
His building process starts with a design. He’ll sit at his wooden kitchen table and sketching. Once he has something that he likes, he doesn’t mess around with the design much anymore.
“I’m pretty much done when I know that something is right,” Thompson said.
Next he’ll use math to figure out things like the scale length and how far apart the frets are going to be on the guitar. Then he collects his materials.
Once Thompson has designed, planned and gotten his materials, the building begins.
“I have a checklist in my head that I do. So I’ll make the bodies and make sure that they’re fine. Then I’ll make the necks. And I’ll marry the necks to the bodies. I make sure that they are going to function sonically and be comfortable.”
After that, he worries about the esthetics of the guitar.
“I worry about how they sound and how they feel,” Thompson said. “They can sound really good but if they are uncomfortable to play, then no one is going to make good sound on them.”
The time it takes for him to make a bonsai guitar varies. He has built one in as little as a day and a half, but he has yet to finish a guitar he started building in 1988.
It costs Thompson roughly $600 to make a guitar, but says that some of the guitars that he makes are worth upwards of $3,000.
Thompson has made hundreds of guitars, but he doesn’t feel like he has perfected his craft.
“If I come out with something that is even close to the essence of what I had in my head, I’m satisfied with it,” he said. “And the older I get, the closer I get. It’s never been perfect, and I doubt it ever will, but the older I get, the closer it gets.”
Each guitar is precious to him. Ask him which is his favourite guitar, and he’ll look shocked.
“It’s like asking what one of your children is your favourite! Yeah, probably deep down in my psyche I do [have a favourite], but I’ll never tell a soul. I’d probably feel guilty about it.”
“It’s a compulsion more than I’d like to say,” he said. “When I can make a living out of it, I do. But it’s kind of hard to make money out of being an artist.”
He has supported his art by maintaining a variety of other jobs, including carpentry and cabinet-making. Right now, he is thinking about working in a local guitar factory and a guitar repair shop up the street from his house.
But don’t expect to find him playing or crafting full-sized guitars anytime soon.
“Why do someone else’s thing, when I can do my own thing?” he asks. “It’s a hard road, mind you. If you do something that differs, in any culture or subculture, I find that people want you to conform. And if you don’t, my god. You will be called all sorts of names and you’ll find all sorts of barriers that are put up by people trying to be individuals. It’s really quite hard. It’s not easy.”
But continue he will; it’s his love.