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Meet the Builders - Dana Bourgeois, Bourgeois Guitars

Master luthier, Dana Bourgeois’ passion for guitar building began early. His grandfather, a machinist, and his father, a woodworker, taught him “just enough to actually build a guitar”. He began building his first guitars while attending college in the early 1970s with help from the Irving Sloan Classical Guitar Construction book.

By the late ‘70s, Dana ran a one-man shop in Maine, where he built and repaired guitars. Around that time, he became part of the folk and bluegrass scene and was able to show his dreadnought guitars to musician, Tony Rice, who had some advice. “Tony usually gave my guitars a good test drive and graciously let me play his famous D-28.” When Rice saw the OM guitar Dana had built, he thought it had an overall better sound and suggested “putting it in a bigger package”.

Over the years, Rice’s words, his own research and some creative collaborations have inspired Dana to create what is now the legendary Bourgeois Guitar company.

What the Builder Plays
A musician himself, Dana performed a lot when he was younger and has begun playing again in recent years. “I play acoustic guitar and a variety of roots-type styles. I’m not much of a singer, but I am an accompanist.”

When Dana first began playing guitar, he started out with dreadnoughts, then went to OMs, a medium-sized guitar with a long scale. “Over the years my guitars have gotten smaller and smaller. Lately, I’ve been playing LOO style guitars - the one Bourgeois makes is called the L-DBO. My two everyday guitars are both L-DBOs that we built. It’s a short scale medium-sized guitar that works very nicely on a microphone. If I’m not playing with an accordion player or a banjo player, I’ve got plenty of volume. You can flatpick it or fingerstyle. It’s a very versatile guitar.”

And while he builds and plays guitars, Dana isn’t much of a collector. “It’s nice to have a couple of guitars, but I never really liked having a whole pile of guitars that never get played. I’ll keep a guitar for a few years to get to know it and learn from it, then move on to other things. When they start getting ignored, they’ll find other homes.”

He’s had a few fun vintage guitars over the years too. “Back in the ‘80s, I had a 1939 (Martin) D-28 that I bought for $5,000 and sold for $6,000. I thought I was smart. I had a 1940 (Gibson) Super 400, a 1930 (Martin) OM-18 and various Gibson mandolins. And again, I really enjoyed the experience I had with the instruments and getting to know them, but I don’t regret not having them any longer, except for the potential monetary value.”

Eastman Partnership
In 2019, Bourgeois Guitars was acquired by Eastman Music, a large multinational company that makes violin-family instruments, brass, woodwinds and guitars. For the last few years, they’ve been working to coproduce a new line of guitars – the Touchstone Series. “We just introduced them recently. The concept behind the instruments it that we (Bourgeois) make and tune the guitar tops and ship them to Eastman’s manufacturing in Beijing. They build the guitar with our tuned guitar top, ship it back to us and we go over it for quality control and final set up. Then we distribute it in the U.S. - so far, the Touchtone Series guitars are only available in the U.S.”

dana bourgeois and the teamThe Bourgeois team has been building and stockpiling guitar tops for two years. “We’re excited about it! The first production guitars just arrived earlier this year and now we’re getting a regular supply. We’ve had to add dedicated space to our shop for the Touchstone project. Our backorders are up and we’ve been slowly expanding the guitars that we build here (in Lewiston, Maine). We haven’t introduced any new models because we’ve got a full line of about fourteen different body styles. We’re more concerned with maintaining quality as we expand.” 

Dana mentioned that some people have expressed concern that Bourgeois has sold out to Eastman. “They say ‘you’ve sold out to a Chinese company and you’re going to be exporting jobs to China’. But Eastman is a U.S. company. Just because they have plants in China, they’re not a Chinese company.”

Dana emphasizes the positive aspects of their partnership with Eastman. “We’ve grown 50% since the Eastman acquisition and it’s really because of that relationship we’re able to grow. They’re able to expand the market for Bourgeois products and they have a commitment to our facility in Lewiston. We’re sort of the flagship guitar brand for them and they want to keep it that way. Just in case there is any misconception about this relationship, it really has been good for us, for the local economy and we’re looking to expand our facility.

“We’ve added 50% to our existing building and we’ll be looking for another building soon. And we’re continuing to hire more people. We really enjoy the partnership with Eastman - we get along great. We have very similar corporate cultures. The acquisition happened relatively quickly, we weren’t even looking for it. But I think it was because we were such a good fit personality wise.”

Bourgeois Mandolins
The Eastman collaboration has also resulted in a new line of Bourgeois mandolins. The first mandolins have arrived in stores and these new instruments won’t be the last. “These are little trickles of new product compared to what we expect to see in the next couple of years. And it’s exciting for us because it’s stuff we’ve been planning for a few years and it’s finally happening.” 

One of the obstacles has been, of course, the pandemic. “We’ve been hampered not being able to travel to China. Just before the pandemic, Eastman’s guitar shop production manager visited Bourgeois twice and learned a lot about how we build our guitars. And we sent our production manager over to Beijing once. It’s much easier to be in the room and point to a part on a bench and say ‘do it this way, not this way’ than it is to receive photographs or look at a part over Zoom. It’s taken longer than we had hoped, but it was worth waiting for.”

The Touchtone Series
Although they’ve changed some of the materials, the new Touchtone Series guitars are similar in design to some of Bourgeois’ models. “What’s different is the price is about half price of our average guitar. However, the most important part, the voiced top, is identical to our guitars, except for the materials – it’s a Sitka spruce and most of our guitars are Adirondack spruce. The backs are not voiced. We haven’t started pleking the Eastman-made Touchstones unless they need it.” 

While the Touchstone guitars differ in a few areas, Bourgeois has kept the quality in the places that matter. “That’s part of the design, and so far the response has been amazing. We’re sold out into 2023 in advance orders. And many of the guitars that have hit the stores have sold very quickly. We’ve targeted an under $3,000 price point, which occupies a no man’s land between the guitars we make in Lewiston and the guitars Eastman makes.”

And Dana and his team continue to think about the future of guitar building. “We’re always experimenting with new tonewoods and we’re never sure where that’s going to lead. We have a few things we’re playing around with but we're not ready to announce yet. We build custom guitars and sometimes those will inspire a new decorative package. And we’re working on our 10,000th guitar, which we intend to show at NAMM in April 2023. That will be an OM-45 Brazilian rosewood with a ghost flower pattern that will feature 24k gold in the inlay pattern and around the top. We had to do something special.”

Bourgeois Quality
Dana acknowledges that so far Bourgeois hasn’t been able to build less expensive guitars, but it’s not for a lack of trying. “The effort has been made. We’ve tried and failed a number of times to build more affordable guitars in the U.S. It can be done by a bigger company like Martin or Taylor, where you can bring a large economy of scale to bear with a significant investment in automated equipment. Those guitars become less handmade, but they are hand assembled. We have been unable to do it on our scale.

“You shoot for bringing the same quality to an imported instrument – that’s my goal. And that’s really a matter of teaching our partners in Beijing how we build guitars. Interestingly, they’ve adopted a lot of our techniques and methods. Many of our dealers have told us they’ve noticed a raised quality of Eastman guitars as well. That’s been fun to see.” 

A Bright Future
Dana is excited about where Bourgeois Guitars is headed and is “inspired to help grow the company to realize its full potential in light of the new partnership. I’m 69 years old, almost 70, and having the time of my life! I still get up every Monday looking forward to going to work. And – knock on wood – I’m in pretty good health, so I’ll be around for a bit longer. But when I ride off into the sunset, I’m hoping for a nice healthy stable company and I know it will be in good hands.”

Main Photo Source: Kevin Kinnear