Masterpiece

Why He Can’t Part With His $40k Guitar

What Jiro is to sushi, David Iaonne is to guitars. It took him 200 saws and incalculable patience to cut through the pearl and mammoth tusk ivory that bedeck his masterpiece, the $40,000 “M2K.” And it’s for sale. I think.

01.23.16 5:02 AM ET

The M2K is unlike any guitar you’ve ever seen.

Let’s start with the materials. Its sides and back are made entirely of rare African ebony. It’s got gorgeous Bearclaw Sitka spruce from Vancouver Island on top. Flamed South American mahogany for the neck. Binding made from Hawaiian curly koa. And a nut and saddle carved out of ivory from a fossilized mammoth tusk.

Or how about the design? Covering the back of the M2K and spilling around to the fretboard is an impossibly ornate mural, featuring a menagerie of elephants, monkeys, bushy trees, a marching band in mid-song, and a winding river complete with waterfall—all of which is painstakingly brought to life by more than 200 hand-cut pieces of mother of pearl and abalone. In the right light, the entire back of the guitar glitters.

No matter how you slice it, the M2K is a wholly unique, 1/1 guitar that took years to build, and that will never exist again.

And it’s for sale. I think.

The brain behind this musical marvel is 63-year-old Canadian David Iannone. It all started back in 2007, when he realized his one-man shop, Morgan Guitars, was fast approaching its 2,000th guitar. Iannone started building guitars in the early ’80s, as an apprentice under legendary builder Jean Larrivée (whose handiwork you may recognize from the video for astronaut Chris Hadfield’s 2013 cover of “Space Oddity,” performed aboard the International Space Station). In 1985, Iannone decided to make a go of it himself, and he’s spent his days in happy solitude ever since, building handcrafted acoustic guitars out of the multi-chambered, custom-built studio attached to his North Vancouver home.

Over the years Iannone has built guitars for local stars and enthusiastic amateurs alike. The blues musician Jim Byrnes and folk-rock band Spirit of the West both use Morgan guitars; so does Sarah McLachlan. And as Iannone’s reputation has spread, so too have his instruments. Today he has dealers in Germany, Japan, South Korea, and the Netherlands, and individual buyers come through his website from all around the world. The internet, Iannone acknowledges, has led to a surge of start-up guitar builders, as formerly closely guarded information on techniques and materials is now all in the public domain.

But he distinguishes himself in one key way: “You can’t buy experience,” Iannone says. “And I’ve got a hell of a lot of it.”

It’s become unofficial tradition for Iannone to build special custom guitars to mark milestones in his career. To celebrate Morgan’s 20th anniversary, there was a set of ten guitars made of quilted sapele with Bearclaw spruce tops. For last year’s 30th, Iannone made a special one-time piece featuring an image of Morgan horses—one of the inspirations for the company name—scrimshawed directly onto a piece of inlaid shell on the headstock.

The M2K, however, is on a whole different level. Iannone started planning for it years before guitar number 2,000 was actually ready to be built. He squirreled away especially rare materials as he found them, and spent months going back and forth with his long-time artistic collaborator, Patrick Pothier, fine-tuning every element of the design. Pothier himself actually appears in the final mural, as does Iannone—the former helping his wife step out of a dory, the latter entertaining a monkey sitting on his workbench.

The process didn’t get any easier when it was time to actually put it all together. Iannone went through 200 saw blades cutting the requisite amount of pearl. Once cut, each piece was then numbered and stored in one of many carefully labelled envelopes. “It’s like a house: If you don’t spend proper time on the foundation, you’re asking for trouble,” Iannone says. “But this was so well designed. We took our time.” To help take the pressure off, he only allowed himself to work on this massive anniversary project outside of regular business hours. “I felt like my labour was free after dinner.”

Finally, after two years of burning the midnight oil, the M2K was finished in 2009. The asking retail price? Forty thousand dollars Canadian (approximately $27,000 USD).

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To be fair, there are more expensive guitars out there. In fact, just last year Guinness World Records officially bestowed that honour on a white, diamond-encrusted Gibson SG valued at some $2 million USD. But it’s the M2K’s combination of rare and valuable materials, its obsessive attention to detail, and the fact that it’s a one-off piece—not part of a larger run—that really elevates it to a class of its own.

Despite all the extra work that goes into them, Iannone sells each of his milestone guitars just like any other—these ones to collectors, typically. For Iannone, the process of creation is what really matters. Everything after that is out of his hands.

“If you paint a painting, you sell it, and what happens, happens,” he says by way of comparison. “Some of them are preserved forever, and some get lost in a fire. Once they’re out of your space, they’re gone.”

Still, things are a little different with the M2K. Despite being finished and ready to go, it has sat in Iannone’s studio for the past seven years, untouched on a storage rack inside a nondescript case. And not for lack of interest, either: Iannone says he’s had several offers over the years, but for one reason or another they’ve all fallen through. For a while it was on display in a glass case in a local Vancouver guitar store, which briefly caught the eye of a local collector. Today, the M2K is listed on the Morgan Guitars website, but without much fanfare, next to a bunch of other, far cheaper models.

It comes down to this: After spending so many hours on the M2K, slaving over every tiny detail, Iannone finds himself reluctant to sell it. In a way, it’s hard to blame him. He wants to make sure the guitar will go to a home where it will be taken care of and appreciated, but who could possibly appreciate the M2K as much as its creator does? Who else could spot all the minute references, or understand the significance of that little pearl Iannone figure, handing a ball—or is it a piece of food—to the monkey perched on his workbench?

On those rare occasions Iannone does take the M2K out of its case, even he still seems amazed that it exists at all. “Now I look it and go, ‘I don’t know how I ever did this,’” he says. “I can’t imagine doing it again. The amount of work, the focus on this piece—I think it’s probably my masterpiece.” But if anyone is interested, he says he’s still taking offers.

In the meantime, there are always more guitars to build. In fact, Iannone works at such a clip that he’s already fast approaching his 2,500th guitar: another milestone to be commemorated with another special project. Right now he’s still sketching ideas for the artwork. For that one, Iannone’s thinking geese.

Michael Hingston is a writer and novelist based in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. His work has appeared in Wired, Salon, and the Globe and Mail.