Pleinview Guitars keeps a particularly low profile. The company doesn’t have a website or social media presence, so if you want to see in-progress shots of its instruments, you’ll have to follow luthier Raymond Morin’s personal Instagram page, which focuses primarily on his solo guitar project, Jagtime Millionaire. This level of online mystery has made things all the more compelling. Having seen Pleinviews in the hands of such deep players as Steve Gunn, Nathan Salsburg, and Ross Hammond, I knew there must be something special about the guitars.
Pleinview’s reputation has spread predominately through word of mouth, an approach to marketing that has worked well for Morin and his assistant, Adam Rousseau. Despite an output of fewer than ten guitars per year, Morin has been able to use his connections to the underground guitar scene to get his instruments into the collections of the aforementioned heavy hitters. “Basically, for the foreseeable future, anyone who buys a Pleinview is in on the ground floor,” Morin explains.
Acoustic Music Works, a fretted instrument boutique in Pittsburgh, functions as somewhat of an incubator for Pleinview, which has become the store’s in-house brand. It wasn’t until Morin began working there in 2012, at the age of 35, that he decided to take a two-week immersion course at the Whetstone School of Lutherie. Soon after that, he began building guitars in the back of the shop. “When I started here, Steve just let me run wild back here,” Morin says of owner Steve Miklas. “He just said, ‘Do whatever you want.’” And, just like that, Pleinview Guitars had not only a home but access to a local customer base.
Acoustic Music Works is what brought me to visit Morin and talk about his work. In October 2019, I was scheduled to perform at the store and took the opportunity to play some Pleinviews. I’d previously only encountered one, a small jumbo, in person. Despite having played that guitar informally for just a few minutes, it remained in my memory, and I was eagerly awaiting another occasion to have some more time with these guitars.
The morning after my gig at Acoustic Music Works, I caught up with Morin and had a chance to try out three of his guitars. Two were what he calls his Looky Loo models, clearly inspired by Collings’ Waterloo series, but available with custom specs, such as different tonewood choices and the use of pore filler. Just as the similarities are apparent in aesthetics and construction, so too are the differences in tonal profile—Pleinviews tend to have more low end and less punchy midrange than their Waterloo equivalents. They’re guitars with a familiar feel but with a distinct sound that make it hard to argue with Salsburg, who has called his the “littlest and loudest guitar I’ve ever called my own.”
For the occasion, one of Morin’s clients lent a swanky Pleinview SJ purchased in 2017. Featuring a German spruce top and Oregon myrtle back and sides with deep, multi-dimensional figuring, it really stood out alongside offerings by Collings, Bourgeois, and other high-end makers as one of the nicest guitars in the store. The SJ’s quick responsiveness, deep bass, warm but punchy tone, and easy playability have left an impression I expect to be thinking about for quite some time. While I played this and other guitars, Morin and I spoke about his life in lutherie.
How did you get your start as a builder?
I used to manage an art supply store around the corner, and I would come down here on my lunch break and just started hanging out. I had what I thought was the best guitar ever at the time, a Larrivée OM. I knew that there was stuff that was more expensive, but I didn’t really understand how you could make a better guitar than that.
Steve, the store’s owner, asked, “What do you play?” I said, “A Larrivée.” He’s like, “Oh, that’s a good guitar.” And I said, “Well, what is this stuff, Collings? Five thousand dollars? Is it that much better?” He’s like, “Play it. You tell me.” So I just started getting it. I heard how high-performance they were as far as giving back what you put into them.
So, Steve took a shine to me. I think I just asked the right questions. He saw the moment where I got it—he liked that. And then one day he said, “I was talking to my wife, and she thinks I should steal you away from your other job.” I had already decided that I would like to learn to build guitars. When I knew I was going to get the job I thought, “Well, this will definitely help me,” and that’s why I started.
I’m sure it was a resource to work here and have access to all these instruments.
You have all these great guitars to study, and the value that it’s added to the shop has been really interesting. When people come into this room and see the woodshop and all the molds, they get an extra level of excitement, like, “Whoa! Do you guys build guitars?”
I get to take the customers back and show them the instruments in pieces. It really fascinates people. At the end of the day, other than just the satisfaction of making something and being a craftsman, I also enjoy the authority that I feel when I’m describing a guitar or what different woods do.
How did Pleinview start and where does the name come from?
After I built four or five guitars on my own, I immediately had people wanting to buy them, which was weird. I had this guitar, number one, and I’d gotten back from Whetstone. I was meeting a friend of mine at a bar who I hadn’t seen in a while, and I brought it. This woman emerged from the shadows and was like, “You built that? Will you make me one?” I said, “Let me learn what I’m doing first, but we’ll stay in touch.” She ended up actually getting my sixth guitar.
A friend of mine was going through a really hard time, and I said to Adam Rousseau, who does Pleinview with me, “I’m thinking of building this guy a guitar, and it would be really cool if it came from both of us,” because Adam, through this mutual friend, was the first person that I met when I moved to Pittsburgh.
He said, “Sure.” I suggested, “Leading up to that guitar, do you want to help me with these couple other ones that I’m working on just so you get your sea legs?” Adam was here just like clockwork twice a week, every week, and we started working. He was very good, easy to direct, and with natural dimensional sensibility. He’s very good at carving, anything sculptural.
In any case, we made the guitar for our friend as a total surprise, and he was floored. By that time, Adam had helped me with a few guitars, and I said, “If I start a brand, do you want to be in on it?” We kicked around names for a little while, like a band choosing its name. I said, “I’m thinking like Andrew Carnegie, captains of industry,” and Adam suggested Daniel Plainview from [the 2007 film] There Will Be Blood. We had another friend who came in to help us with some graphics and he said, “You guys are both French Canadian, right? What about Pleinview, like plein air painting?”
Referencing captains of industry, like Andrew Carnegie, ties into local history.
That was when Pittsburgh was the center of wealth in the whole world.
What does being here in Pittsburgh mean to you and the brand?
Pittsburgh doesn’t have any pretension about it. When I came here from Boston, I very quickly realized you can do anything you want, everything is cheaper, you’ll be able to get it together, but nobody is necessarily going to give a shit. It’s not really a cool-based scene around here. You just need the wherewithal to do whatever you want and go deeper than anybody expects you to, and then you become known. If you’re good at it, you’ll have work.
These two Looky Loo models are an homage to Collings’ Waterloo line. Can you tell me about your connection to those guitars?
A year after I started working here, Steve [Miklas] and I were in Austin visiting the Collings shop. After we did the tour and picked out some wood for some mandolins, Bill [Collings] walked out with an X-braced Waterloo and a ladder-braced one and he’s like, “Tell me what you think.” I sat there for 25 minutes playing the Waterloos. And Bill’s just listening and asking, “What do you think? What do you like better?” It was so cool.
When Collings announced the Waterloo line, we presold 25 or some crazy number. Then when our very first ones showed up, I observed everything I could about them and built myself one. And that’s the one [points to a Looky Loo guitar]. I actually asked [Sales Manager] Angela at Collings if she’d send me a Waterloo pickguard. She said, “For your fake Waterloo?” I said, “Yeah,” and she’s like, “No.” [Laughs.]
How do you differentiate yourself from that with these guitars?
I don’t. There’s nothing I do that you can’t get somewhere else. I think it is just a bunch of those boxes getting checked off: this guy plays guitar; this guy likes like artsy music; this guy doesn’t do a lot of building. So when I build, I’m pretty darn focused on it.
As far as your Pleinview clientele, how do people find you?
It’s probably about half customers at the store who are already buying nice guitars and take the opportunity to get something custom ordered. The underground guitar scene is amazing. Someone like Nathan Salsburg is one of my favorite guitar players, so when he says, “Let’s get it going,” it’s awesome.
I imagine a lot of connections are from meeting people through touring with your own music.
The way it connects is that, as opposed to most of the other guitar players I know, not many of them are interested in guitars. They’re interested in making music, and I get it. But I was always particularly interested in guitars. I can make my kind of music on whatever guitar, but I thought it was fun to choose your tools. So people started turning to me with guitar questions because of my knowledge about guitars. When I got my Larrivée, that was an exotic guitar to a lot of my friends.
When I started building, it became became an opportunity knocks thing where somebody would be like, “Hey, I’ve got a little extra money this year, and I’m thinking about having you build a guitar.” Most people use it as an opportunity to get an instrument that complements their regular guitar. Salsburg, for example, is identified very much with Bourgeois guitars. He has the jumbo [JOM] and an OM and that’s his sound.
He came to me, and his buddy Jim Elkington had gotten a Waterloo. “Jim’s just loving this guitar—how about a 12-fret?” We said let’s do X-braced, so it sounds a little warmer and fuller. I was in the process of building Salsburg’s guitar, when he sent me a text, “Steve Gunn is in Pittsburgh; he’s playing at the Warhol with Lee Renaldo and Meg Baird. He’s gonna stop by and ask you about a guitar.” Steve came in—it was the first time I ever met him—and says, “So you’re building a guitar for Nathan? Can you make me the same exact thing? Whatever Nathan is getting is good enough for me.”
I noticed you don’t play a Pleinview yourself. That’s very telling, because you work in this store and speak with such reverence of all these other brands.
I’m playing a Kevin Kopp guitar, actually. I was getting ready to build myself a sloped D, a J-35 style, and then I just got really lucky. A good customer who actually now owns three Pleinviews sent this Kopp—essentially the guitar I was going to build—to the store for consignment from Chicago. So I traded him a build slot for the Kopp.
My Kopp guitar is a prototype—one of the first guitars Kevin made after he left Gibson [in the early 2000s]—and it doesn’t have a name on the headstock. So everybody assumes that I built it. But I didn’t, and I wish I had.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2020 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.