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IN THE PINK: Leila Sidi and TunaTone Guitars

Leila Sidi knew it was risky to build a pink, short-scale guitar. “I was worried about falling into the stereotype of building a pink guitar for women,” says Sidi, owner of TunaTone Guitars, over the phone from her woodshop in Edmonton, the capital of Alberta, Canada.

June 12, 2019
Written by
Steph Wong Ken
Photos by
Shirley Tse

This piece originally appeared as an article in Issue 17 of She Shreds Magazine which was released in April 2019.

Leila Sidi knew it was risky to build a pink, short-scale guitar. “I was worried about falling into the stereotype of building a pink guitar for women,” says Sidi, owner of TunaTone Guitars, over the phone from her woodshop in Edmonton, the capital of Alberta, Canada. The color was inspired by the work chair she sits on every day while cutting, sanding, and shaping wood—dusty rose with flecks of grey from the daily wear and tear of the shop.

When she stumbled across a similar shade (“Mars Red”) in a paint store, she knew she had to take the creative risk. “I recognized that people were going to interpret a guitar in that color in whatever way they wanted, but I also knew I was going to build a serious instrument and it was going to look good,” says Sidi. “So I did it. And a vast majority of my orders for next year are in that color.”

As a luthier, Sidi isn’t afraid to push boundaries. She designs her TunaTone guitars in Mars Red, black and white, and natural finishes that have a distinct, mid-century-meets-futuristic feel—a look she credits to her love of “1950s and ‘60s guitars sold in Sears catalogs.” Sidi’s style emerged out of her first project as a luthier, a replica of a friend’s 1969 Fender Musicmaster Bass that had been used mostly by children in an elementary school.

“Guitar companies like Fender and Gibson would make short-scale basses, but they wouldn’t include them in their professional series,” Sidi says. “Part of their reasoning was systematic. The Musicmaster Bass was made for children to learn on, or for women. So it was never considered a serious instrument and builders didn’t pay the same attention to detail that they would with full-scale guitars.” 

Originally, short-scale guitars were designed to be cheap and accessible, so they didn’t have a high-quality sound. Sidi took this as the ultimate design challenge: to create her version of a short-scale bass for women. “As I was thinking about who short-scale instruments were made for, I realized I wanted to build smaller scale, lightweight guitars that are serious instruments, but also accessible for all body sizes,” Sidi says. “Most short-scale guitars are built for large hands and male bodies. I want to build beautifully-made, high-fidelity instruments that are comfortable for the rest of us.”

Sidi leaned on a community of woodworkers and artists in Edmonton, where she grew up after emigrating from Nairobi to Canada with her family. Growing up, she always enjoyed working with her hands, starting out as a bike mechanic before switching to woodworking. Currently, she shares a workspace with her mentor, Dion James, who crafts acoustic guitars under the name Dion Guitars and was especially supportive of her goal to build a guitar from scratch. The guitar took Sidi a year to complete, partly because she was only able to work on it between jobs, and partly because she had to learn from her mistakes.

“The creative process is pretty emotional for me,” Sidi says. “It’s a good feeling to see my skills grow, but it can also be very demanding.” She admits she has ambitious standards when it comes to her designs, considering her seven years of experience in woodworking, which is relatively low by luthier standards. “It can be frustrating to see details that I want to achieve, and then having to do it and redo it to get what I want. But the process teaches me a lot about myself. I’m always dealing with the potential for failure. Eventually, I have to learn to accept my fear of failure and be able to keep going.”

Sidi is quick to point out that designing, prototyping, and building a guitar is a collaborative effort. Though she builds each part of her TunaTone guitars by hand, she relies on friends in graphic design and electronics to help her learn 2-D modeling and guitar wiring. Being a queer woman of color in the guitar world can be a challenge, especially as a builder, and Sidi is grateful for the support she’s found.

“As someone who embodies a lot of different identities, I have managed to build a community of people around me who have been so generous with their collaboration,” Sidi says. “Every single one of my collaborators are white, cis men, and they are sharing skills that they have acquired with me. They’ve been willing to uplift me and help me get better at my craft.”

This approach to mentorship is part of Sidi’s belief in “designing for the world we want to live in,” where an industry typically dominated by men, and their designs, is challenged by everyone involved. Inspired by the work of the Design Justice Network, a collective out of Toronto that looks at how design affects gender, race, and the environment, Sidi strives to be socially and environmentally conscious about every TunaTone guitar she builds, using sustainably-sourced wood from nearby Turtle Island, and screws and brass from local shops in Edmonton.

“I don’t subscribe to the idea that the more exotic the wood is, the better it is,” Sidi says. “In the guitar world, they’ve really normalized and upheld exotic woods as superior in quality. So many of those woods are facing endangerment or are harvested unethically.” She notes the deforestation of Brazilian rosewood, a hardy wood often used for fretboards, and the long list of endangered woods in Canada and internationally. “Guitar building isn’t the main reason why certain woods are going extinct, but I think we do have a collective responsibility to think about what materials we are using and how they are being extracted from the land.”

Sidi’s focus on sustainable materials and practices has been informed by her inspiration of the Tiny House Warriors, an organization building tiny houses to stop the Kinder Morgan TransMountain pipeline from crossing unceded Secwepemc Territory, and Indigenous Climate Action, who work against deforestation and climate change. “There are choices that I can make that may seem small, that allow me to be less damaging to the environment and not contribute as much to colonial practices,” Sidi says. “Eventually I would like to cut down my own trees and be involved in harvesting my own wood, but for now, I try to do what I can to act responsibly about my materials.”

Sidi has also found support through partnerships with Femme Wave and Sled Island, two music festivals based in Calgary, and recently facilitated her first woodworking class at her shop. Most of the participants were friends—“queer and gender non-conforming folks”—and she likens the experience to “bringing people I associate with home into my home.”

On an international level, Sidi is starting to feel like a part of the guitar building community, meeting some of her heroes and fellow luthiers at guitar shows, many of them women. “In the world of luthiers, there are lots of women who have paved the way and made space for builders like me,” Sidi says. “I’ve definitely benefited from their work.” Luthiers like Maegen Wells and Linda Manzer are two examples. When the the Woodstock Invitational Luthiers Showcase recently honored Manzer with its annual lifetime achievement Traditions Award, she invited every women luthier present to join her on stage. Sidi sees this as a necessary shift, where women are being admired for their luthier skills and are supportive of one another in the community. “I really feel like builders I have followed and looked up to are starting to see me as a peer,” she says. “I didn’t expect that and I didn’t even know I could hope for that, so that’s been a super wonderful surprise.”

There is one area where Sidi does feel left out, which is actually playing her guitars. As a non-player, Sidi has to put absolute trust in her skills as a builder, working on a guitar for months at a time before it comes alive. “Once the guitar is done and it’s being played, there is this feeling of letting go. In that moment, it becomes something separate from me,” she says. Sidi compares the experience of hearing one of her guitars being played to using a well-made tool in her workshop, where you can feel the craft and skill that went into it. “It feels like a gift to hear someone play an instrument I’ve made,” she says. “It’s this one part of its expression I could never give to myself, and in a way, the person playing it is giving a gift to me.”

With a full build list for 2019, TunaTone guitars for sale in shops in the United States and Germany, and a few new designs she’s dreaming about, TunaTone is a guitar company on the rise. Sharing a shop with her mentor, and her scrappy tabby, Tuna, who inspired the TunaTone name, Sidi feels firmly rooted in her shop in Edmonton. The staunchly conservative political environment of the region pushes her to seek out mentorship and community, creating a space where skills are shared and deep connections are made through art.

And that worrisome pink, short-scale guitar? TunaTone’s Sidi is slated to build five more this year for musicians all over the world, a prospect she finds exciting; a pink guitar women players can shred. “It’s almost the difference between a patriarchal idea of femininity and queer femmes owning it so hard,” she says. “I want to build guitars that are like that.”

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