Classical Guitar Builder Joshia de Jonge on Experimentation and a Life of Lutherie
By Emile Menasché
Joshia de Jonge has never known a world without the sights, smells, and sounds of guitars in the making. As the daughter of noted Canadian luthier Sergei de Jonge, the shop floor was literally the playground of her earliest memories; sawdust was her sandbox. “My dad was a guitar maker before I was born,” says de Jonge, via Zoom from her home in Québec. “As a little kid, I used to go to work with him and hang out on the floor playing—basically like driving cars in the sawdust or sanding blocks of wood.”
Playtime in her father’s workshop would eventually start de Jonge on the path to becoming a world-class classical guitar maker in her own right. She began her first instrument in middle school as something to do with her brothers after classes. Before she turned 20, she was good enough to earn a standing ovation for the guitar she presented to the judges at the 1998 Guild of American Luthiers Convention. But early recognition didn’t make her complacent, and being in the family business didn’t mean staying put. And her approach to guitar making has never stopped evolving.
While she calls her father her biggest influence, de Jonge also draws on her travels and the tutelage of other master builders. Today, she’s renowned for combining traditional methods with modern techniques like sandwich tops, lattice bracing, and neck twists. Perhaps the most important lessons de Jonge, now in her early 40s, learned growing up were less about specific building techniques than about a thirst for new ideas and the courage to try them out. “I experiment,” she says. “I’m pretty lucky to have a father who’s done a lot of experimenting.”
After years working alongside her father, de Jonge now experiments in her own shop, which she built four years ago in the Gatineau Hills of western Québec, with her husband, luthier Patrick Hodgins—the ideal venue to talk about her journey from playing in sawdust to making world-class instruments.
As the daughter of a noted luthier, when did you first become aware of the guitar?
I don’t really remember. My father used to play when I was little, so I can’t remember not being aware of the guitar as an instrument. When I was around age six, he got commissioned to make a guitar and the client wanted it decorated with a child’s art. So I got to paint the guitar—just draw on it. But I think it was around like grade 6 or grade 7 that I started realizing he was a guitar maker, and that not everyone’s parents did that sort of thing for a living. That’s when it started to interest me. I started to think it was cool that he did that—which I guess is when I started building as well.
Did you play before you built?
No—I mean I play very, very little. I took lessons here and there when I was younger, but it was really the building that interested me more. I love classical guitar and I love listening. I do play enough to try each guitar. But it’s really the building and design that’s been more my personal focus and passion.
Did your father actively suggest you start making guitars?
It actually started when my younger brother, Sagen, who was eight at the time, was playing around in the shop; I think my dad was away for the day. He’d drawn up this small guitar that he and my dad turned into an instrument. It’s kind of a ukulele-size four-string, which my brother gave to me that year. Anyway, after Sagen started building one, I was like, “Wait a minute, I want to do this as well!” He was 11 and I was 13, and we both started building our first guitars side by side.
How seriously did you take it?
It was very much a hobby—some weekends, sometimes after school, basically whenever we were bored. We didn’t have a TV growing up. It was just a fun thing to go do. For me, that first guitar took three years. I was 16 when it was finished. But once I finished the first, I guess I got the bug for it. I wanted to keep building. The next one was more serious, like, “I’m actually doing this.” I was still in school, so building was not full time—although I managed to get a co-op program going in my high school, so I was able to go work in the shop every other afternoon. That was kinda cool.
Do you still have that first guitar?
Yes, I do. It’s a funny little guitar, an alto. For some reason, I guess because we were kids, my dad figured we should build smaller guitars. He’d also been making instruments for a guitar orchestra in Japan at the time and had been building a fair number of alto guitars.
When did you start to realize you wanted to build guitars for a living?
Probably in my late teens or early 20s. I was building guitars and going to festivals. I started getting more serious about it and realized I really liked it. I was just going to keep doing it until something else came along that interested me. I still wasn’t sure it was going to be my career, but I was pretty into it by then.
Did you study with luthiers other than your father when you were starting out?
A little bit. When I was 17, I went to British Columbia and worked in Jean Larrivée’s workshop for a couple of months. It was a small factory at the time—around 50 people. I was doing inlay there. At that point I was building both steel-string and classical instruments and wasn’t sure where I wanted to go. And inlay really interested me.
Years later, I spent a little bit of time with [Vancouver-based luthier] Geza Burghardt, an incredible builder who makes violins and all kinds of instruments. I went to him to learn French polishing. Before that we had been using lacquer on the guitars. So I really started to get more into the traditions of classical guitar.
How do those influences come together?
My classical guitars are a modern contemporary build, but I also follow a lot of the tradition. My main influences are Geza, a little bit of Larrivée, and mostly my dad. I also did a lot of traveling to guitar festivals in my late teens and early 20s and met so many guitar makers who became inspirations—teachers in a way, but more by just my seeing their work. Also, growing up I knew Grit Laskin and Linda Manzer because they had learned from Larrivée with my dad. My dad used to work in Grit’s shop when he was between shops, so I spent a lot of time there as a kid. There was inspiration there for sure, even though I don’t build steel-strings.
How did you develop your own vision of what a classical guitar should be?
My dad has taught a guitar-building course for more than 20 years now, so there were always a lot of students coming through and a lot of ideas. My dad also is an experimenter. He is always trying different bracing patterns. My world was filled with so many different guitar makers and so many different ideas and styles of building. I think that’s what got me into lattice bracing and, more recently, double tops after visiting Gernot Wagner in Germany. I guess my style developed from just seeing so much of what other people were doing and then finding the things that really work for me and amalgamating that.
What is your guitar-making philosophy?
I try to get every detail as perfect as I can—to an OCD level. It’s the woods, the combination of woods, the bracing patterns—it’s a tricky question to answer because every single detail is important to me. I try to stress and obsess about it less now, but on every single job, I’m always trying to do my best. It can never be absolutely perfect, but I guess I’m seeing the beauty in that as well.
Are there specific techniques or materials that define your style as a builder?
My bracing pattern on the top is definitely one, although it’s very much inspired by something my father designed in the late ’90s. But it’s kind of changed. It’s hard to describe without nerding out [laughs]. The braces are overlapped; it’s a lattice pattern and there are three basic braces and three that go on top. This might only make sense to other guitar makers . . .
Nerd on—our readers like that kind of stuff.
A lot of what I think about in building is balance, and that’s what my guitars often seem to be known for. This bracing pattern [was originally] a course of three braces with another course on top. Now they’re kind of woven so they’re all the same height. They used to be one lower course and one course on top—and the top was not quite as uniform. This kind of woven lattice is a lot more balanced.
I also used to use a big X brace that was more rooted in steel-string ideas, and now it’s got the more traditional harmonic bars. So I guess the bracing—without going too into detail—is something that has really come a long way over the years. More recently I’m adding in a double top—a sandwich top with a layer of Nomex [a lightweight honeycomb-patterned composite] in between—and putting in a tornavoz [a resonating cone added to the soundhole, pioneered by the legendary luthier Antonio de Torres], which I did for just the last two guitars. That’s what I really like about guitar building. I’m still learning. You can always learn with it.
Any other recent changes in your approach?
The bridge. My dad has a unique style of bridge that I used to do. But I’ve gone to a more traditional design while still incorporating some of his styles that aren’t traditional. The back bracing comes mostly from my dad but has been changed as well. The neck twist I do [de Jonge shapes a subtle twist into the necks of her guitars to allow a more comfortable playing position] comes from Eric Sahlin. I’m doing my own version, which is an amalgamation of his and my dad’s.
Describe the neck twist.
It’s kind of like a helicopter blade—it really twists. But it’s straight on every string, so building that can be tricky. If you take a straight edge, it rocks if you put it diagonally on the fingerboard. But if you put it along each string it’s straight. It has to be, or it would buzz. The twist makes the saddle an even height. On classicals, more traditionally the bass is way up. I just like the way it looks and the way it feels to play. You can twist just the fingerboard but I do it in the neck and the fingerboard; I think it’s more comfortable.
How do you construct your sandwich tops?
A lot of people are doing them and one of the popular ways is with Nomex, which is super light, but if you compress it, it’s super stiff. I use a really thin layer of spruce, a layer of the Nomex, and, right now, a layer of cedar. You can do cedar-Nomex-cedar, any combination. It’s tricky to do it because you need to make the layers very thin. The top layer of spruce is half a millimeter; the bottom layer of cedar is like 0.3 millimeters. Then, you use just enough glue that it will stick, stay, and be safe, but not enough to fill up all the honeycombs in the Nomex. The sandwich design makes the tops stiffer and lighter, so you get more movement and more volume. I’ve done only a handful of double-tops, so I’m still learning about them.
Do you have favorite tonewoods?
I always say that whatever I’m building with at the time is my favorite. I’ve lately been really into ebony for the back and sides. I use a variety of species: pale moon ebony; gaboon ebony, which is what most fingerboards are made out of; katalox, which is a Mexican ebony. I’m using a lot of the ebony woods that traditionally weren’t used as much on guitars because they’re prone to checking and developing cracks. But I’ve been laminating my backs and sides with Spanish cedar and am basically safe from that happening. I really like Spanish cedar on the inside because it gives off a lovely smell, and I also like the sound better. I also love the rosewoods, ziricote, maple, wenge—I mean there are so many.
What about for tops?
I like European spruce, Canadian Engelmann spruce, and western cedar. That’s not to say redwood and other woods wouldn’t work well for tops as well.
How do you arrive at your wood preferences—or do you get specific requests from players?
I’m not one to take big chances, but when I see a wood that inspires me, I experiment. For example, when I saw pale moon ebony for the first time a few years ago, I fell in love with that.
I have wood dealers I’ve known for a long time. My father has an extensive collection of wood, and I have a bit of a collection as well.
As for commissions: Most people do have a wood in mind that they’d like to use. I say my favorite is what I’m working on at the time because so many woods are so beautiful. You can make most woods beautiful the way you work with them.I like the natural finishes and tend to stay away from coloring the woods, though that can be beautiful.
You said you were influenced by your father’s students. Now that you have your own shop, are you planning to teach as well?
I assisted my dad for years when we had the course at his shop, but my husband, Patrick, and I had just decided to start offering courses. We were supposed to have one going right now but with COVID we couldn’t do it.
What’s on the horizon?
I’m really excited about starting to teach and getting the shop set up. I’ve had my own shop for four years, and before that I worked in my father’s shop, which is about 20 minutes away. I have orders for the next few years, and I’m excited about all those guitars. Also, I build one guitar a year for guitar festivals, and that project is already really exciting because I can do whatever I want. I usually spend about a year thinking about it. It’s a chance to experiment and try things I’ve never done before.
This article was originally published in the January/February 2021 issue of our sister publication, Acoustic Guitar.