Simon Budd: Fort McMurray's Premier Guitar Builder
Simon Budd’s basement is not the typical man-cave one would find in Fort McMurray. Instead of quads, snowmobiles, and beer fridges, this one is filled with Japanese pull saws, chisels, clamps, wood planes, and files of all sizes. This is the man-cave of the premier guitar builder in the region.
Fort McMurray, Alberta, is known for oilsands, wildfires and the world’s biggest trucks, but there is another side to this isolated city of just over 75,000 people from across Canada and around the world. The arts and music — that are often overlooked in the media — are what make the region more like home and provide the soundtrack for the industry workers who ultimately stay to raise their families.
“You need arts and culture in any community, I think, because it gets pretty bland if you don’t have any,” says Budd.
But this community is anything but bland with its thriving music scene, including bands of all genres, songwriters, music teachers, recording studios, (music) gearheads, and guitar collectors. The myth of having nothing to do is just that: a myth. Those who try a little harder to separate the oil from the sand will quickly find themselves buried with musical opportunities.
Judging by the apparent disorder in Budd’s basement workshop, he’s fully booked with guitar orders to build. Tools and supplies lay about the precious bench space and wood shavings litter the floor like snowflakes. A set of four hockey pucks sitting on his central workbench are a reminder that this is truly a Canadian enterprise. The toque covering his bald head like a helmet and his frosty-coloured goatee accentuate this character.
“I put guitars on hockey pucks to give the guitars stability and so they won’t get scratched while I work,” he says.
The apparent disorder is a sign of productivity in SJB Guitars’ headquarters, nestled in the heart of Thickwood in one of the cities’ older neighbourhoods. Five acoustic guitars in various stages of completion are scattered about the entrance to the workshop and Budd needs to weave his way around them just to get in and get to work.
In addition to the acoustics, he tallies up the other guitars he’s currently building.
“Six or seven electrics, and then I’ve got three more in the works that I’m going to start right away. So we’re probably talking 13 or 14 guitars.”
Nine of them are already sold. The others will be part of his stock of guitars to showcase his collection for future customers.
Along with custom builds, Budd occasionally does restorations. Two years ago, he did one for Ben Sures, an Edmonton-based singer/songwriter and regular contributor to CBC Radio’s The Irrelevant Show.
“It was an old parlour model. I rebuilt the top, reconditioned it and did a lot of repair work on it. I think he had to get it repaired because he was travelling all over the place in Europe and North America.”
Budd also builds for clients in other provinces, like the cigar-box-style guitar he did for Hank Lionhart of Uncle Wiggly’s Hot Shoes Blues Band. The top of this electric guitar is a personalized BC license plate that simply reads “Wiggly.” Currently featured in an action photo on the band’s Facebook banner, one of their followers says it all: “Check out his guitar.”
It takes time to build guitars. Depending on the complexity, some can take from eight months to a year. Inlay work can be painstaking. Glue and finish need time to cure. Wood has to settle before it will take its new shape. Even humidity levels can make wood move or crack if not managed properly.
Then there is managing expectations. Some customers are excited to get their new guitars, and they want them done yesterday. Others are a little more understanding that it can take several months.
Prices for guitars vary. Just the wood alone can cost from $300 to $1,000, depending on the type, quality and cut. As part of the selection process, Budd holds various pieces of wood between his index finger and thumb, tapping on the wood and listening to each piece for tone quality.
“Before I even get started, I’ll think about the woods and the tone. I’m going for things like that, especially on acoustic guitars. It makes a big difference. Maple that can be very bright, and rosewood can be a softer sound.”
The air in the workshop is thick with the smell of wood, which becomes more pungent when sawed, sanded, and shaped into a guitar. Some have odours like roses, while others are like olives or spices.
Much like the contrast of having a guitar builder in an isolated oil-town, the 6’5” artisan with big hands and long fingers has a soft-spoken voice and a delicate touch that is sensitive to the finest details. He has to be sensitive. Even variances of a thousandth of an inch can have huge impacts on how a guitar plays and feels.
His black-framed glasses give him an intellectual look and add a subtle reminder that guitar building is a science as well as an art.
“It’s like he knew exactly what I wanted in terms of neck shape, feel and overall playability,” says Craig Stephenson, owner of an SJB Guitar. “I have Fender and Gibson guitars, which I love and still play, but I keep coming back to the beautiful instrument Simon has built for me.”
Budd is known for his high standards. He’s thrown less-than-perfect guitar body parts into the campfire and posted the photos on Facebook only to be scolded by his followers.
“I am generally unimpressed with mass-produced modern guitars, regardless of name brand and price,” said Xach Edward, local musician. “There’s something about them that feels uninspiring. My SJB Guitar has so much more character and resonance. The balance and craftsmanship is instantly recognizable as something special. Simon’s choices of hardware and electronics are what gives his guitars an incredibly distinct and versatile sound.”
It could be Budd’s high standards of quality that makes him successful, but it could also be that he gives back to the community.
He has donated one-of-a-kind guitars to charities like the SPCA fundraiser in May 2018, and given guitars to those who lost everything in the 2016 wildfire. No small donations, since these guitars were valued at $2,000 — not including the countless hours of labour. But this is completely in tune for Fort McMurray, which is known by locals for its generosity.
While being a guitar builder in Fort McMurray does make Budd unique, that isn’t the only thing built at SJB Guitars. Each guitar also builds relationships.
“In July 2019, my most prized possession, a 2008 Gibson Les Paul Studio Smartwood, was stolen,” said Edward. “My amazing friend Scott Meller [of Campbell’s Music, Fort McMurray’s only music store] decided to give me his SJB Guitar — with Simon’s blessing. It was one of the most moving gestures and I’m eternally grateful for such a generous gift.”