Theo Scharpach: “Our Archtop looks like a very simple instrument but it’s a very complicated instrument.”

 By Amanda Dickey

Guitar Connoisseur: Can you tell me about your company and your collaboration?

Theo Scharpach: So, this is how it happens. I established the company, I started to make the company under my name brand for 15 years, I don’t know exactly. And then I didn’t want to make all the woodwork myself. At the end of the day, it’s repeating and half work. But it’s very hard to find someone that you could work together with. Because all the guitar makers know what they want to do. But that’s okay because you need to do that. It’s like, “I don’t care what you’re saying, I have my methods.” That’s the way it should be because then you get your product on the market.

So I was looking for someone who would be willing to cooperate with me and I told Menno (Bos) quite frank, you know, “I’m happy if you say no. But if you work with me, this is going to be the way it’s going to happen. It’s my instruments, my concepts.” But of course you build the relationship and get feedback and you have to change this, etc. but I said: “this is the idea and it’s my brand.” And of course, we work together. And he’s responsible for his part and everything. So now he’s doing most of the wood-work and I do most of the design work and most of the marketing and the varnishing work. All of the varnish work is my work.

Before I started as a guitar maker I was a furniture restorer and I had a very high level of education and I like to work with patinas. I think you see that because our archtop looks like a very simple instrument but it’s a very complicated instrument. But that’s what we tried to do. Make it look like it was very plain, very simple with not much mother of pearl. Very, very simple.

Menno, when we met, also built a lot of Flamenco guitars which is not very common for a Dutch guy to build Spanish guitars. Because they’re very keen on being Spanish but Menno is very good at that.

But, as I was saying, most of the wood-work Menno is doing. For instance, we have the binding on the f-hole which is inlaid with wood as opposed to a lot of people who use plastic which is easily bent and easily glued. But wood, sometimes it takes two days to bend two pieces of wood because they bend and they crack. And sometimes it doesn’t. And we can leave that all out and make something else but we decided to go that way in the tradition of bowed instruments, that style of look and that type of appearance. People are now seeing and understanding the quality of the work which is very interesting.

GC: Where is your workshop and where are you from?

TS: I’m from Austria and Menno is from Holland. I still have my Austrian passport but I have lived for some time now in Holland. We have two workshops. One is the wood workshop where Menno is making all the wood-work and I have my own workshop where I do the design. The computer design. I’ll do drawings on the computer and I have all the varnish work. And sometimes I carve some wood-work for prototypes and ideas. I come up with new concepts sometimes and ideas and then we discuss that and then he’s building it. So that’s how we communicate.

GC: Are your workshops close by?

TS: We are just one hour away from each other.

GC: How long were you building guitars before you decided that you wanted to include Menno?

TS: I didn’t need help, it’s not because I had so many orders that I couldn’t take them. I had a good portfolio. The dollar at that time wasn’t that bad but that was not the reason that I asked Menno to work with me. I didn’t like to do the wood-work. I still do it sometimes but I don’t enjoy it so much and I wanted to have someone who could benefit from the brand that I already established and so it’s easy to sell these guitars. Nobody knew his name at that time and now it’s sometimes difficult to let people know that he’s a very important person in the workshop.

GC: What is the demand like for the guitars and are you seeing an upward trend?

TS: I don’t really see a trend. This year, we delivered three or four archtops. One year we don’t have an archtop and then next year we have three, and so there’s no clear trend. It’s a balance. Sometimes a little bit more and sometimes a little bit less. There’s no clear trend going on. I have an impression that the archtops are going a bit lit stronger, though. So it looks like the archtops are gaining field.

GC: You said you had a background in restoring antiques?

TS: I wanted to educate myself and I tried to get a working place in Germany with famous German guitar makers but they had so many bad experiences with students so they said they didn’t care anymore. They were very friendly but they weren’t interested because of so many bad experiences. But I said okay I need to have some education with wood-work. I did that with a teacher in his workshop. I worked two years as a tourney. I finished my education there with him and then I think worked five years every summer, three or four months together with him on big projects and then in the meantime, I started to build my guitars. The combination, making a little bit more money in the summer because, in the beginning, you’re selling guitars for few Euros but you’re happy to sell it for that money because you have to make a living. And it slowly did get better and so that’s how it happened for me and I was quite lucky that we had some Dutch players who are supporting me and are willing to pay more than the actual guitars are worth, you know. But the problem is these guitars are still there (laughs) and now, sometimes I get a call. “Listen, I have a real Scharpach guitar.” And I say, “Oh, how old is it?” “Oh, it’s that old.” “Oh,” I say, “forget it!” (laughs).

GC: How did Menno get his interest or start?

TS: Menno graduated as a professional guitar player. He did a lot of teaching and then he started to build Renaissance guitars, old instruments, lutes, flamenco guitars and I had seen some of his work which was very high-quality work so I just remembered that. And then this moment came and I said I want to work with someone.

GC: How long ago was that?

TS: Between 15 and 20 years ago.

GC: Do you have a musical background?

TS: Not at all. Nope. I played a little bit in high school, I don’t call that guitar playing. But I like to build something instead of furniture like a musical instrument because it’s alive. It’s not furniture and it’s really demanding a different kind of craftsmanship. When such an instrument is ready and you find a player that brings life into it, it’s a great sensation. My joy comes from when a good player plays my instrument. It’s incredible. Yesterday they showed all these professional players making great music on our instruments. That’s fantastic.

GC: What motivated you to come to this show?

TS: Actually, there are a few guitar makers who pushed me to become a member of the EGB because I actually don’t like this kind of stuff. Tao Guitars and some other guitars and Tania Spalt knew me and they just said well you have to be here. And I said, “You’re right, I have to be.” It’s a bit difficult, these kinds of organizations. What’s the benefit of being a member? I always question that. Maybe it’s a good solution we have not seen. It’s a good show, it’s a serious show, they did very good work. So.

GC: What about wanting to network with the other luthiers?

TS: That’s not a priority for me. And I’ll tell you why. For instance, we have a very good guitar building school in Belgium for guitar making. How they learned to make guitars was they started to copy master instruments. I never did that. Maybe it’s wrong, maybe it’s right, I don’t know. A lot of people judge about it, I’m not sure. But I never did that so that’s why I’m not so interested to talk with colleagues because I respect them and their work but I don’t need to know how they build their guitars. I don’t care. It’s very important that you don’t think it has to do with arrogance but it has to do with because I just don’t care. I do my own stuff and I do this from the first day I decided to become a guitar maker. I worked very hard to make my own things. I made many mistakes which could have been prevented if you go to a school because I see these guys at the school after three or four years who make fantastic instruments. Really good, high-quality instruments, but then where do they go from school? Where is their career? It’s the same thing with musicians, you know? They study four years in high school and then so what? You know how to play the guitar or you know how to make the guitar but if you’re building the same thing that everybody is doing already the market is very small. So I try to find my own brand. But I’m not sure if it’s the right way.

When I say I don’t think networking is important it’s not that I don’t look around.

GC: What about the exposure aspect of the show?

TS: It’s always a good thing. Really, of course, it’s a good thing. Anyone who says they don’t care about exposure is lying.

GC: It seems like the people here are really interested in what is being offered.

TS: Definitely. That’s a very important part. You have a place where you find these instruments. Where people go there. I don’t know maybe but let’s go see what quality of instruments are there and maybe their new interests are being triggered by being exposed to new stuff. Of course, it’s important. That’s a good thing about the show. And for others, networking. I can imagine for a young guitar maker that’s important.

Something about Facebook. I started Facebook a couple of years ago. I have so many guitar makers as Facebook friends. I’m not in a position where I say okay, should I invite all these guitar makers on my Facebook? It’s amazing how many guitar makers want to be friends with you. I mean, they don’t buy my guitars.

I once built a hurdy-gurdy, but a very big one with two organ pipes. It’s not an instrument that I designed, it’s an original instrument from 1850 and there is one in Berlin in a museum and Brussels and I looked at both and I said: “I can do that better.” But I can do it better because I have different materials than they have. Because I talked with the guys at the museum and I said why is it not playable? They said you can’t. We store it today and next week we have the same problem. Because they don’t have plastics or special kinds of wheels. Now we have all these kinds of technologies. So I built it like an old historical instrument but with modern technology. It took me almost seven years to figure it out. I calculated the whole building time for that instrument and it was over six months working on one instrument. I sold it for 25,000 Euros at that time, but it should have been 50,000.

GC: How many guitars do you produce on a yearly basis?

TS: That’s difficult. It depends on the type of instrument we have to deliver. For instance, if you build a flamenco, which is built in a traditional Spanish way of guitar making, it’s quick. We can build it in 3-4 weeks. But if we build an arch-top, it takes three months. It depends on how many types of instruments we have to deliver this year. It’s between nine and twelve, something like that.

GC: What is your favorite part of the process of building?

TS: For me, it’s the designing and the varnishing. That’s why it’s the way it is. I like the design part very, very much and I think a lot of people are seeing now that a line is not just a line. For instance one of the F-holes on my guitars is based on the original way to calculate the size of an F-hole like the bowed instruments so I studied that before I designed it. So first studying it and then designing it. And the design process takes a lot of time. Because you can just put a line and it looks like an F-hole. But it’s not. It takes a long time and I like to play with these things. I like to play with the line a little bit like that, and again today it becomes a strong design and that’s very interesting.

In the beginning, I did everything by hand and then I made it in wood and then with wood I made it more precise and then I did a drawing again and then I made it wood again and back and forth and then I’d get a perfect line.

GC: What are your goals for the future?

TS: When I’m getting toward retirement I would want to be a teacher. I would teach guitar making and varnishing. Some people have already asked me if I want to do it. I actually have a degree to teach but I’m too young for that.

GC: One question that I’ve been asking people is if you could be any part of the guitar, what part would you be and why?

TS: I think I would be the wooden top. It’s the most important part of the instrument. That translates the power of the strings to become a musical instrument. It’s the translator between the string and the sound that comes out. Everything is important but of course, the top is the most important part of that. It transforms a dead string into a lively musical instrument.

GC: Is there anything you wanted to add in general or about the mutual work that you and Menno do together?

TS: For me, it’s important that people learn to understand that although my name is on the front of everything that I’m working together with Menno and without him I couldn’t do it. It’s that simple but it’s easy to ignore it.

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