The WiMN’s Front and Center is a weekly column that showcases accomplished women who work in the music and audio industries. We spotlight successful female performers, manufacturers, retailers, educators, managers, publicists, and everyone else in between. Want to be featured? Learn how here.
Front and Center: Guitar Builder & Singer-Songwriter, Meredith Coloma
By Pauline France
Meredith Coloma from Vancouver, Canada, is one of the youngest and most accomplished professional guitar builders we know of.
At 22, Coloma has built some of the most complex and artistic guitars in the market, and has repaired everything from 25-string harp guitars to gypsy jazz guitars.
She has studied under master guitar craftsman Roger Sadowsky, and became renowned guitar builder Michael Dunn’s first-ever apprentice.
Coloma is also a singer-songwriter, violinist and guitar player with a unique style that blends influences from ska, reggae, pop, rock, and gypsy.
Learn more about Coloma below, and visit her website here.
WiMN: What instruments do you play, and how long have you been playing for?
MC: Fiddle for 12 years, guitar for 10 years.
WiMN: What type of music do you play, and where do you get your inspiration from?
MC: Traditional Irish from Brian Conway, Liz Carroll, Gerry O’Connor. Gypsy Jazz from Django Reinhardt, Denis Chang. Pop from Amy Winehouse, Cat Empire, Matisyahu
I went on tour with The Town Pants playing Irish Rock; I played Gypsy Jazz with the Hot Club of Mars; I sang with Hello Dynamo which was a band that played R&B and hip hop infused with jazz. I mainly play guitar and sing for my own music now which is pop.
WiMN: What got you started in guitar building?
MC: I went to Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute in New York when I was 16 and on the way home every day I passed a guitar and violin shop run by an ancient fellow who only spoke Yiddish. I hung around all the time and he started getting me to change the strings and I’d watch him make classical guitars and violins. One day he pushed a brochure across the counter to me about a guitar building school and I liked the idea.
WiMN: You studied under Roger Sadowsky. Tell us about that experience.
MC: My first guitar teacher, Craig McGregor, had a guitar that had a tone I really liked, so when I went to guitar school I thought I’d learn the secret to making a guitar with great sound. It turned out that school was useful to learn how to use the tools but I was disappointed that, despite doing everything they told me, my guitars didn’t have the sound I was looking for. So I went to the source.
For electric and bass, Roger Sadowsky is the king. I left guitar school, went back to New York, and knocked on Roger’s door. I explained my plan to learn from him and he was a bit amused at first, but when I showed up the next day ready to go, he figured I meant it so we got to work and it was an excellent experience all around. He is just so supportive of young people with drive and so willing to share his knowledge. And his Pop Culture Pizza Wednesday’s always fill the belly and the soul.
WiMN: You also studied under Michael Dunn. How did that come about and what is it like?
MC: I’m a Django fan, so I was familiar with Michael Dunn’s great innovations with gypsy jazz guitars. I wanted to have a good knowledge of electric guitars, but my main interest is acoustic so I went home to knock on Michael’s door.
To my disappointment, he was quite adamant that he did not take on apprentices. I left him my resume anyway and then he kept thinking that he was hearing my name around town. So he called Roger who I had as a reference and I guess Roger put in a good word for me because he called me back, and I became Michael Dunn’s first-ever apprentice.
On my first day, he had me dive in to some complicated bracing and I knew I was in the right place. People have the idea that art guitars compromise on quality of sound, but Michael proves that theory wrong. What I learned from Michael’s innovation and creative process isn’t something I could ever have learned at school. Working there was like a daily trip through Willy Wonka’s factory where everything is possible to the highest standard.
WiMN: What are some of the most exotic/difficult instruments you’ve ever built?
MC: In Michael’s shop, exotic instruments like 25-string harp guitars and Indian anandi’s are common builds and repairs, but the most difficult thing to build are Michael’s Mystery Pacific models which are gypsy jazz guitars with an internal sound box. Michael taught me his secrets to joining wood for intricate designs. A lot of times people think I paint designs on my instruments when it’s actually the natural colours of a variety of wood joined together.
WiMN: You are a young woman with some pretty hefty accomplishments. How did you get so far at a young age?
MC: I have had the great fortune to have amazing people encourage and support me. In addition to Roger and Michael, my fiddle teacher, Brian Conway, gave me a home base in New York and made it possible for me to experience acting school and my apprenticeship.
Brian is an all-Ireland fiddle champion and Assistant District Attorney. He works hard in the daytime but still makes it a priority to share the tradition of Irish music through teaching and performing. He was motivated to be good at a lot of things and his generosity gave me and many others the same opportunity.
WiMN: Who has been an inspiring female role model in your life?
MC: My mama. Every time I had an idea for what I wanted to do, she encouraged me to dream big, go to the source, and jump in head first with 100% of my effort. And repeat. Eventually you run into success.
WiMN: What sort of challenges have you faced during your career, and how did you overcome them?
MC: I was 17 when I started and people didn’t take me seriously. It worked out in the end because I got the apprenticeships that were most important to me, but I also got a lot of “no’s” especially from women. Some builders assume that for young people, the cool factor in saying you are a guitar builder is more important than the art of actually building one; they think young people don’t have a work ethic. Perseverance pays off and once you do get taken seriously, there are perks to being young.
Now that I’m becoming more established, the most frustrating thing is dealing with e-mail messages from people who care less about guitars and more about how I should market myself suggesting that my “tomboy vibe” is detrimental to my image and that I should play up my feminine side, and other suggestions that aren’t printable. I overcome the frustration by making bad-ass instruments thanks to the great teaching I had.
The practical work of designing and building guitars, as well as the pleasure of dealing with the people who are interested in the craft, are what make it more than worth the frustration caused by a few.
WiMN: Any words of advice for aspiring female luthiers?
MC: Like anything, if you have an interest, go for it. Life should not be divided by gender. Although having said that, you’ll be a minority at guitar school or in a shop, so learn to talk shop and reserve some time for regular manicures; you’ll need it.
Oh, and remember that superglue is your best friend, but keep the acetone within one arm span in case you glue yourself to the workbench – better not to ask how I know that but it involves an unproductive afternoon waiting for Michael to get back to the shop 😉
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Check out a video demo of one of Coloma’s guitars in action, as well as her live acoustic performance for CBC studios in Vancouver below: