The Mandolin Master

Words by Buddy Roberts
Photos by Tamara Boden

Sandwiched between the revolutionary 1960s and the materialistic 1980s, the 1970s can be difficult to categorize—even by those who experienced them.

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British Columbia-based luthier Michael Heiden finds that to be the case.  

At least in jest.

“I can’t even remember the 70s,” he says with a laugh when asked for some stories about his days as a working musician in Vancouver. “It was a cool time, and there were a lot of nice folk clubs and teeny little coffeehouses to play in.”

It was the era of singer-songwriters and stringed instruments—guitars, mandolins, and dulcimers—which Michael began repairing when he wasn’t performing. He’d learned the skill after he finished high school while spending some time in a commune of instrument makers. “I developed a good reputation for repairs. I was always busy.”

More than 40 years later, Michael is still busy as owner of Heiden Stringed Instruments, an internationally-respected purveyor of custom-made mandolins and guitars. Michael’s products are the instruments of choice for such musicians as John Reischman, Ry Cooder, Barry Lawson, Jason Bailey, and Judah Akers, Brian Macdonald, and Nate Zuercher of Judah & the Lion.

Mandolins make up the majority of Michael’s business, and he produces as many as 15 custom instruments a year. Depending on a customer’s requests, a single mandolin may take a year or more to complete.  

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“Some are very specific and know exactly what they want in the size and shape of the neck, the wood, and the stains,” he says. “Some tell me, ‘I played So-and-So’s mandolin. I want one that plays like that.’  Others will say, ‘You do what you do,’ and leave everything up to me.”

His craftsmanship and attention to detail are evident when one sees his attractive instruments, but Michael hesitates to describe his work as art.

“There is art in the design and color and that it’s pleasing to the eye, but I don’t look at it as art because making one is a repetitive thing. I’m not being creative or abstract. I’m building the same thing every time. Where do you draw the line between art and artisan? Maybe it could be called functional art.”

Especially since he has never met many of his customers—and some have never played one of his instruments before ordering one—the quality of his work is important to Michael. “My whole business is mail order, for lack of a better term, so it takes a leap of faith to order one. That’s why I guarantee my work. I want everybody to be pleased with their instruments. If you’re not satisfied, don’t feel you have to keep it.”

It’s a point of modest pride with him that “I seldom have one come back when I send it out.”

Although Michael has made hundreds of mandolins since he began producing instruments full-time in the 1990s, it’s also seldom that he sees one of them played.

“I live so far from any major center, I don’t get to shows much,” he says. Michael works and resides in Creston, a town of about 5,000 people slightly north of the British Columbia-Idaho border, although he usually makes an annual trip to Bellevue, Washington, to attend the Wintergrass festival. “A lot of bluegrass bands play it, and I get to see a few of my instruments there. It sure is nice to see them played in the right hands.”

According to Michael, a mandolin is indispensable to a bluegrass band. “It’s the founding instrument.  You can have a bluegrass band without a fiddle player, but you have to have a mandolin. The rhythm aspect of a mandolin is so instrumental to a bluegrass ensemble.”

While he still loves the music, these days he’s content making the instruments rather than playing them.

“The last band I was in was touring a lot. I was only 40-something at the time, but I got sick of traveling and eating questionable food in truck stops. I always loved playing for people, and it was a huge part of my life for many years. I miss that, but I don’t miss touring one bit. I might play with a duo or trio again one day, but going back on the road isn’t in the cards. That’s a young person’s game.”

“Sometimes I get asked which mandolin is best,” he says. “It’s the next one—the one I’m making for you.”