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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Grimes Guitars: Archtops & Ukuleles

Originally Published in our “American Guitars II Issue”

By Steve Rider

Steve Grimes is a friendly and knowledgeable individual who offered up his time to talk with us at Guitar Connoisseur Magazine. He’s a man who, even as a child, had a curiosity to know how things are made. Over forty plus years, Grimes has gone from taking apart his father’s broken watches to expose their inner workings to his current status as one of the most sought-after custom guitar builders in the world. His story is one of love. Love of craftsmanship. Love of the archtop guitar. Love of a life that allows him to express his curiosity and creativity through hand building musical instruments.

Guitar Connoisseur: Let’s start at the beginning. How did you get into building instruments professionally?

Steve Grimes: I’ve always been interested in working with my hands. As a kid, I was very curious about taking things apart and reassembling them. I started playing guitar as a teenager and then got into electric guitar when I wanted to start a band. That was around when the Beatles came out. So I started accumulating parts and junker guitars and trying to see if I could fix them, and I had some success. I turned guitars that couldn’t play well into guitars that could, and I started to realize that I was really enjoying that. During that time I was in college studying engineering. I grew up in Baltimore and moved west to check out what the whole hippie scene going on in San Francisco was about. I kind of caught the tail end of it. By that time it was full of burned out druggies and the peace and love had largely moved out. I left and went up to Seattle and lived there till I moved to Maui. I got a job as an engineer at Boeing, and found it was tiring, boring work for me, and found that I had joy in musical type things. I had a mentor who was an authorized Martin repairman. He tutored me a little bit and I just started reading everything I could read, and in 72 I started building mandolins and building instruments, just copying other instruments. Then in 74, I built my first acoustic archtop guitar. I knew I was hook, line, and sinkered into lutherie at that point.

GC: Do you think that training with a violin and mandolin maker gave you a different perspective when you started building your archtop guitars?

SG: I worked with a violin maker, and I was watching, learning how things went together. But I never actually made a violin. That was my beginning, learning with someone who made violins and he also made Balkan instruments. He taught me about graduating tops, carving tops, feathering braces, whiskering finishes rather than sanding them. I think it did influence me. My first few instruments, I copied a Martin flattop mandolin. It wasn’t even a great sounding mandolin. I just figured it was a great model to start with. Then I got into doing a Gibson teardrop A model mandolin. And I just thought, man this is where it’s at, this is what I want to do. So my first forty or fifty instruments were mandolins. I used what I had learned in mandolin making to build an archtop guitar. Oddly enough, I was down in LA visiting some friends and I went to the music store called McCabe’s. And there was this archtop hanging on the wall and it was made by LR Baggs. And I didn’t know him at the time, but it was an oval hole archtop guitar, but he did something different with the arching of the top and it was inspirational to me. I know Lloyd well at this point; I’ve been using his acoustic pickups for thirty or forty years now. He jokes with me that he knows which archtop guitar that was, hanging in McCabe’s. So the first few archtop guitars I made were oval hole guitars.

GC: What were some of the challenges you faced early on?

SG: I think, like everybody, the challenge early on is can you do this long enough and intensely enough to make money to survive? In the early years, I did a lot of instrument repair that was financing and helping my learning process about building instruments.

GC: You designed your first “slack key” guitar as a collaboration with Kaola Beamer, a local slack key player. How did this inspire the design of this model and later models?

SG: When I moved to Maui in 92, I met a couple people who really helped launch my career and one of them was Kaola Beamer. He had a double hole guitar, which needed repair. He found his way to me and had this guitar, which I just thought was quirky. It had two round sound holes on either side of the fretboard instead of one center hole. I looked inside and realized right away that it wasn’t how I would build it. It seemed to be overbuilt. I asked him if I could build one of these double hole guitars and use my own philosophies about flat top guitars and see if I could build one that he liked. If he didn’t like it he didn’t have to buy it, etc. So I made one for him and he liked it a lot and he bought it. He ordered a couple more and he really kind of launched that part of my career and I still make these double sound hole flat top guitars. They are my biggest selling guitar, more than archtops. My passion I think is still in making archtop guitars and I still make many archtops a year. But I make these flat top guitars that are both cutaway and non-cutaway and they offer a whole different tone approach to guitar top making. It’s a different animal. Kaola has publicized these guitars so well that orders started coming in, I couldn’t make enough of them! It’s great for anyone who uses a lower tuning. This double-hole design really lets the bass utilize a larger amount of the soundboard. It’s like using a bigger speaker. It makes the bass have a richer sound. It’s not louder, but it’s a fuller, richer sound to the bass notes. And it’s stronger because the center sound hole is a weak point. So moving the holes to the side, they gain the support of the sides and less bracing is required across the whole of the soundboard. I moved the brace over towards the treble side, balancing out the treble and tone.

GC: Let’s talk about materials? What kinds of wood do you use for your instruments? Do you use woods native to Hawaii?

SG: I use a lot of Koa. There are five different species of Koa. Some people don’t like Koa, but you can get so many different kinds. It depends where the trees are growing, the qualities you get. If you have a tree growing at 7,000 feet, growing small, that is very dense. They tend to be dense like rosewood. And then you have trees growing down at sea level and have more of a density of Honduras mahogany, which is a real warm sound. I don’t use a lot of local woods; really Koa is the only one that I use. For pretty archtops, I’m kind of a traditionalist. I’m one of the only people who use carved Koa for backs, and it’s a wonderful sounding wood and it’s curly.

GC: Does a player’s style affect your choices for tonewood?

SG: Absolutely. Different guitarists play with different styles. If someone comes into my shop and they’re looking for a flat top guitar I’ll find out how they play, with picks, just fingers, do they have a real strong attack? I want to build a guitar that’s going to enhance their playing style. And of course most of the people who come to me, they have a pretty strong opinion about what tone they’re looking for, but I’ll work with that and engage with their ideas and mesh it with my ideas. For instance, Engelmann spruce will give you its best at a lower attack. And certain red spruce or Carpathian spruces are very stiff woods, and I would steer them in that direction. So knowing someone’s particular style is important in what kind of instrument I’m going to design for them.

GC: It seems like everything you do is geared towards bringing out the most tone from the materials. Could you describe your building process?

SG: There’s a lot that goes into it. The characteristics of the wood. The arching of the top. I like to build with a not very high arch. I’m not really looking for big carrying power. Back in the day, it was very important, but now you have pickups and PA systems to carry the sound. A lot of people are just playing for themselves, so you want a good balance between treble and bass, not just a powerful nasal sound, cutting through the air that you can hear from three hundred feet away. For me, warmth and fullness are paramount. More arch on the back and a harder wood on the back gives a greater projection. Harder wood on the top gives a brighter sound, but you also have to balance that with thickness. I like to make what I call a “lower stress archtop guitar” where the arch, neck angle, and bridge are not as high. So the downward pressure on the top of the bridge is not as great. That setup cuts the pressure from 57 to 28 pounds, almost in half. So because of that, you can make the top and the braces thinner as well as the thickness and dimensions of the back. The guitar is quite a bit lighter. It’s very responsive to the touch. It has a wonderful sound at close range and still has that classic archtop tone. It has a much warmer and full and balanced tone.

GC: What is tap tuning and why is it important to you?

SG: There’s just no telling. Sometimes you’ll just pick up a piece of wood and it looks great but just doesn’t have any musicality to it. So by holding a piece of wood in a couple of different locations, and these locations correspond to notes on a string on a guitar, you can hear its musicality. I’m listening for how ready this wood is at vibration. I’ll listen for notes in the wood and how long they last. Then, when you decided it’s a piece you want to use, you remove about 80% of the wood from this block. And when you get close, tap tuning and listening to the woods response to fingers taping is telling you where you need to go to achieve the final tone.

GC: Could you tell us about the “stress-free” soundboard guitars you developed with Ned Steinberger? Is this your standard method now?

SG: Ned is a great designer and a good friend of mine. In a flat top guitar, the strings pull up and forward. In an archtop, they push down on the top and they’re attached to a tailpiece. So he thought about a design where the strings go through a wider saddle, and change the hole of the saddle. The strings go through a hole in the saddle that’s a quarter of an inch wide. And the hole is angled so that the strings react with the saddle and go on to the tailpiece. The strings don’t have a break angle coming off of the bridge. The strings have the exact same angle coming out of the saddle as coming in. So the top is not being stressed by the strings, the tailpiece takes all the tension. The top is then interacting with the strings at the bridge. So it’s kind of like a speaker. A speaker is not under any tension, it’s just waiting for a signal. The top of the guitar is not under tension from the strings, so we were actually able to make a top with no braces at all. It didn’t sound like much because the top needs discipline. So we experimented a lot with bracing on these stress-free tops. Gibson bought the design in 92 and they experimented with it. They raced it against Martin and Gibson models and it actually won in many categories. They printed out this six-page report on it. But I think Ned is actually still experimenting with these types of guitars. It had some overtone issues. It actually sounded like a resonator guitar. If you strum a chord on a dobro and mute the strings, you still have these rampant tones because the resonator is still vibrating.

GC: You offer several guitars in steel or nylon string, are there important differences in design between nylon and steel string guitars?

SG: There are immense differences between nylon and steel. Nylons strings only have about half the tension of steel strings, so the idea is to make a soundboard that’s light enough to work with that tension. I’m influenced a lot by the masters, so I use the basics of the masters and tried to mix that with making a double soundhole guitar. It’s taken years of experimentation, taking guitars apart and learning. People come to me for nylon string double holes. There aren’t that many makers besides me who are doing nylon string double hole. In fact, I can’t think of one! My forte is steel string acoustic archtop guitars and steel string double holes. I’ve made hundreds of them and have refined it down to a sound that most of my customers think is the cat’s meow. I have made about forty nylon string double hole guitars, and people are very happy with them. I’m working with a very good classical guitar maker named Michael Cone. We’re collaborating to design and nylon string, double hole, double top guitar. There’s a thin skin of redwood, Nomex honeycomb, and an inner skin of spruce. The whole guitar top is about 3/16ths of an inch thick. It will have no braces. Even without any braces, it will be stiffer and lighter than a typical soundboard. If we have success I’m very interested in how it will play out with ukuleles. I’m making a lot of ukuleles lately, and with this method, you can get a very good volume.

GC: Let’s talk about your acoustic/electric models. What are you going for with these types of instruments? How do you balance dual function?

SG: I can’t really say that I make an acoustic/electric. I have one model that’s an electric that has the appearance of an acoustic with a sound hole, or F-holes, I make it in both. It’s called the Bird of Paradise, but it’s an electric guitar. Unless you can call the Gibson ES-335 an acoustic guitar, but to me, it’s an electric. Now the ES-175 that’s an acoustic-electric. It’s got quite a bit of an acoustic sound and it also works fine as an electric. But the Bird of Paradise is a 70% solid body, it does have some acoustic tones, but very little. I wouldn’t call it an acoustic/electric. I guess a lot of my guitars are acoustic/electric if you consider an instrument that’s built to be fully acoustic and then you add a pickup to it. Like any of my flat top acoustic guitars that you put an under saddle pickup on it, as an afterthought. These archtops I make are acoustic first and get pickups added to them. I make acoustic sounding archtops with a lot of acoustic sound, and I put a pickup on it.

GC: I see you have a line called Anniversary, what’s the difference between these and your other models?

SG: There’s just more of everything. I try to put the best of everything into these Anniversary models. One thing that all of them get is that I’ll use the best wood that I have. The prettiest piece of wood, but not only pretty but when I tap it, I can tell it’s got a ring to it that’s superior. I mark those pieces of wood as master grade and set them aside. And it’s kind of rare to get that perfection of grain and perfection of tone. I take more time in voicing it to the customer’s specs. And there’s more time because there are features on it that take more time. I’m trying to paint my masterpiece. If or when I retire, I will do nothing but make these guitars that require so much time and detail. I wanted to build an asymmetrical archtop for years. I got a call from a customer that wanted an asymmetrical archtop. He wanted the guitar named after a very special person in his life so I named it the Camille. He just let me do whatever I wanted to do, which is the best commission you can possibly get. He said, here’s the tone I want, just make me your ultimate guitar. And I loved it so much I made it my Fortieth Anniversary model. I think I’ve made three of them.

GC: At this point in your journey, what perspectives have you gathered regarding building and the guitar world?

SG: I will say this: I’m glad guitars can’t be made with 3D printing! YET. Yet. Technology will never catch up with custom work. I will never get outsourced. I’ll never get obsolete. Because there’s always going to be someone who needs a guitar that has this size of a neck but this size of a body, this size of a fingerboard and this size of a fret. So your custom builders are always going to be somebody who can say: I hear you. Write it all down on a piece of paper and make it a reality. Job security comes from the ability to work with a customer and say, I can do this model. You want it with an oval hole, okay I’ll do it with an oval hole. And there are other guitar makers that that would just piss them off. It’s just a personality trait. If you don’t like taking custom requests, then you shouldn’t make custom guitars. I do it. I’m flexible as a guitar maker and get enjoyment out of varying it. A lot of my peers, back in the seventies wanted to get to a point where they were making five guitars a week and have a factory. And they’re making wonderful instruments. These are the Bourgeoisie, and Dan Taylor started in a garage, Bill Collings had a glorified garage in Texas. And Paul Reed Smith, I went to his shop in Maryland. He had already made guitars for people like Santana and Eric Clapton and he was working in a room that amounted to the size of a two-car garage. And they went the direction of production. I have a shop that’s on my property that takes me about thirty seconds to walk to from my house. I have one guy who has worked with me since 2000. He’s my best worker, my only worker! We make about twenty instruments a year between the two of us. Maybe thirty now with ukuleles. But I’m not interested in making 120 guitars a year.

GC: Where are you headed next? Do you have any projects underway or planned for the future?

SG: One thing that has always taken a backseat to guitar making has been songwriting. I’ve been a musician before I was a guitar maker. In the 70s I wrote a few songs. I’m a writer. But then the business got really crazy. I’ve had a lot of success. I’m very lucky in that a lot of the top players in the world have come to me for guitars. But at the same time, I love music and writing. I’ve had to put that on the back burner until more recently. Just in the past eight years, I’ve released three CDs, two are out with original material and there’s another coming out in about January or February. I’ve been a finalist in the Hawaiian Grammys. I’ve won nationwide contests for my songwriting. That’s where I’m headed. If my hands tell me in ten years that it’s time to hand up the chisels and scrapers, then songwriting will always be there.

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Bob Benedetto: Entrepeneur…Innovator…Luthier!

By Jim Kath

As a luthier myself, I think I have the insight needed to dig in and ask the questions that mere writers might miss. I know what it’s like trying to make a living in this field, and I know just how difficult guitar making is.

If you disagree that it’s difficult, then you must be making kits as a hobby because if there’s any one place where Murphy’s laws will apply, it’s luthierie and the business of lutherie.

I started working on archtop guitars back in the early eighties, before Benedetto was a household name. Nowadays, it’s hard to find anyone even remotely involved with guitars who hasn’t heard of Bob Benedetto; not only a builder of the finest archtop guitars in the world, but also a heck of a nice guy and a very generous teacher.

Even when I apprenticed forfive years, I felt that my mentor held back some of the best jewels — but not Bob. Five minutes into any of his videos he gives you the keys to the kingdom.

For this article I have had the great pleasure of speaking with Bob personally. Continuing on via email; he was always gracious and giving in his knowledge and his feelings. Instead of asking all the typical stuff that one asks in an interview, I took a decidedly business-slant approach.

Learning guitar making is a craft mixed with art. But selling what you make is a completely separate kettle of fish. “Publish or perish” is what they say in the literary world. But in lutherie it’s “Sell what you make, or call it a hobby.”

Guitar Connoisseur: Some people with whom I’ve spoken think I’m crazy for building archtops, with giants such as yourself, Tom Ribbecke, Ted Megas, etc., already at the helm. What do you think of the archtop market today and what do you think about any budding luthiers who are considering it?

Bob Benedetto: I think today’s demand for archtops is better than ever. But we have to deal with a bad economy, and a lot more competition than ever before. I had an advantage back in 1968 when I started, because there were only a few achtop makers including *Sam Koontz, Jimmy D’Aquisto, Phil Petillo, and Bill Barker.

They all made great guitars and each had their own clientele. I was a newcomer, had a lot to learn and was very fortunate to have Cindy at my side. We were both extremely focused and determined. So, we stuck with it and eventually things fell into place.

I think budding luthiers have one big advantage today because there are books, DVDs and schools where they can learn a lot in a very short period of time. And despite the stiff competition and uncertain economy, they will do fine if they follow a few basic rules; Make a good guitar, be competitive in price, and very important … be dependable.

You have to know when to be the craftsman and as importantly, when to be a businessman. When all is said and done, if the aspiring luthier wants to succeed as a self-employed guitar maker, he must be good in business.

I also think it’s important that aspiring young guitar makers understand that nothing happens overnight. They must work hard and have patience. It took me 1 1/2 years to make my first guitar. My second one was an order and took me a year to make. It was a 19” archtop with European wood for the top, back and sides. The neck was made from my family’s 30 year-old maple kitchen table. I charged my customer $600 … not a lot of money even for back then. But it was a sale and I was the happiest guy in the world. It took 15 years until the struggle was finally over, and I became established. At one point, had a 5-year wait.

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GC: With so many archtop notches in your belt, do you ever get bored with them and wish to build flattops or mandolins or concentrate more on violins or something else?

BB: No, I still have no interest in making anything but archtops.

Of course now I’m semi-retired and have a staff of six very talented luthiers, so I don’t personally do as much as I used to. But it’s still fun getting up in the morning and looking forward to being around wood and guitars.

GC: Contrasting the process for archtop building and violin building, what parts of the process do you enjoy the most and the least for each?

BB: To be honest, I have always enjoyed the entire process … from selecting the wood right up to final set-up, and everything in between … even sanding! I never preferred one step over another.

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GC: I haven’t built a violin myself but would like to.  I’ve read several books on the topic, and compared to making archtops they seem to be a breeze (it always looks easier when someone else is doing it).  What do you find to be extra challenging with the violin that you don’t face with guitars?

BB: Ha … you’re right! Although the violin community would rather not hear this, there is no doubt violin making is a lot easier than guitar making.

The only exception is the varnish … that’s the challenge. Believe it or not, it’s much easier learning how to do a perfect high gloss lacquer finish than it is to reproduce the “old world” varnish of the old European violin makers.

It’s not that the quality of the old violin varnish is better. It’s the way it looks … a warm transparent glow that was in fact the varnish of the day. It was the same varnish used on cabinets and church pews. And it isn’t likely the old violinmakers viewed their varnish as having magical properties as we do today. Anyway, that’s another story.

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GC: Are you a believer in the saying “If you build it they will come”?  Or do you try to cater to what’s going on in the music business at the time.  I know that seems an odd question for someone who builds such wonderfully traditional instruments, but it’s a dilemma we face in order to sell guitars.

BB: From the very beginning I not only felt, “if you build it they will come” … but more specifically, “if you build it right, price it right, and do good business…then they will come”.

As far as catering to what’s going on in the music business; the journey will always be easier if you make instruments that sell. In my case, I was fortunate that my preference was a traditional archtop guitar.

And since my targeted audience was always the traditional archtop jazz guitarist, it was the perfect fit. Both the player and I shared the same passion for a traditional instrument.

I was comfortable working within accepted and proven boundaries, and never felt the need to redesign the instrument to make it “better”. My challenges were learning to refine a design that was already tried and true.

Of course I met some resistance when I introduced the solid ebony tailpiece attached to the guitar with cello gut. But within a few years it became accepted by most players. Nowadays most makers and players agree it’s a great idea. I have always felt, “Would you put a metal tailpiece on a violin or cello? Only on a student grade instrument”.

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GC: I have seen some experiments with archtops, and have done some myself, where they are made into a hybrid.  An example would be an archtop with a flattop back or a steamed and bent top versus a carved top.  You seem to be a man that’s constantly thinking (my wife calls it obsession). What have you tried, and why or why would you not recommend these modifications/innovations?

BB: Well, if you are making guitars for your own personal pleasure, you have freedom to experiment any way you like with no consequences.

But if you hope to sell what you make (unless it’s a custom order), there is no doubt you will have an advantage if you make guitars that appeal to the masses. That means adhering to traditional, tried and true structural, aesthetic and acoustical designs.  Sales were always a priority with me.

When I was about 12 years old and carving miniature guitars, my mind was made-up that I would be an archtop guitar maker. And I knew very early on that I had to learn how to conduct good business if I were to succeed. That meant making a good guitar, pricing it right and delivering on schedule … no excuses.

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GC: What are your thoughts on what’s happening with the **Lacey Act and Gibson’s recent problems with the government?

BB: Well, if we discuss politics in depth, my blood pressure may go up. So, we’ll keep it simple. I believe during good times or bad (as so many people are experiencing today) our American elected officials should be doing everything in their power to help Americans and American businesses. There was no reason our federal government had to raid Gibson as they did.

The amended Lacey Act is a nightmare. It’s a mess created by politicians who are allowed to make big mistakes and are not held accountable for the “unintended consequences” that they create.

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GC: In the distant future when exotic woods may be hard to come by, what materials do you think will take the place of wood?  Do you think carbon fiber has a shot?  Are we all using wood because it’s tradition or is there a viable substitute?

BB: I think for the most part, most of us follow tradition and would like to continue using wood; but there has always been accepted alternatives. I remember when Ovation first introduced their “plastic” body in the mid-1960s.

That was a monumental departure from tradition, and there was … and still is a place for it.  As environmentalists and politicians continue to make life difficult for us, we may find ourselves searching for more alternative materials. I think we can all appreciate the value in forward thinking in considering wood substitutes, but for me wood is still best. By the way, I have never known a more environmentally sensitive group of people than guitar makers.

GC: What are your experiences with waterbourne finishes?  Do you think there are viable alternatives to nitrocellulose?

BB: Oh yes. I think waterborne finishes are a good alternative, especially for the small one-man shop…working at home.

This past year I experimented with Stewart MacDonald’s “Clear Gloss Waterbase Brushing Varnish”.The application, buffing and polishing techniques are very different from conventional nitrocellulose lacquer, but the end result is a high gloss finish that looks like lacquer, and is as good as anything I’ve seen.

My test piece has been on the shelf for about eight months and there is no sign of shrinkage any more than McFadden or Mohawk lacquer. I don’t know what it will look like a few years from now, but so far I can’t see a difference, and wouldn’t hesitate to  use it.

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GC: Being any type of successful craftsman requires two diverse sets of skills: being superb at your craft and being a strong businessperson.  Rarely can one exist without the other and achieve success, regardless of the product.  You are a man who has tackled both areas and are at the top of your game.  Building world-class instruments is hard enough. But to have such a successful business in light of the big box stores and imports is quite impressive.

I’m sure you have good people around to help but ultimately it’s your name on the headstock.  How do you manage such a herculean feat?

BB: I was very fortunate from  the beginning to have Cindy working around the clock doing all  that  she enjoyed doing…correspondence, marketing and paying
all the bills  on time. And she is a people person, and has always been very instrumental in sales.

I never had to worry about anything except making guitars … she did the rest. For the past 5 years with the shop in Savannah, my business partner Howard Paul, not only is a world-class jazz guitarist, he also does everything administrative.

So, between Cindy and him, I still am allowed to keep my focus on just making guitars. And nowadays I also train and oversee my employees.

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GC: There have been many luthiers who have had to leave the business due to the health impact of dust and lacquer.  How is it that you have lasted this long without major health problems?

BB: Good genes, a lot of luck and a glass of Miner wine every evening.

GC: What’s next for Bob Benedetto?

BB: I don’t expect much to change. Cindy and I are enjoying our semi-retirement roles these days. We still enjoy everything related to making archtop guitars. We just slowed-down a bit, and spend a good deal of our time swimming and barbecuing in Florida.

In closing I’d simply like to thank Bob for his time and thoughtful consideration of my questions. For you readers, if you’d like to know more about the man and his work, check out his guitar making videos, books and other interviews. It’s time well spent.

* To do some name dropping, I actually met Sam Koontz when I was 11 years old. It was in his shop in Linden, NJ. He was a big man. When I did

my apprenticeship in NJ in the late seventies I had the great fortune of playing and working on several Koontz guitars. They are breathtaking. I still don’t

understand why he wasn’t more well-known.

** (For those not familiar with the Lacey Act, GET familiar with it. One of the biggest sticking points, and a very vague, gray area, is what constitutes lumber and what constitutes a finished product, and that’s where Gibson ran into some problems. To export Indian Rosewood lumber is illegal, but finished fingerboards are allowed. So,it’s apparent that it’s not an ecological issue at all, but more of a political issue.)

Here’s a description from the USDA’s website:

The Lacey Act combats trafficking in “illegal” wild life, fish, and plants. The 2008 Farm Bill (the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008), effective May 22, 2008, amended the Lacey Act by expanding its protection to a broader range of plants and plant products. The Lacey Act now, among other things, makes it unlawful, beginning December 15, 2008, to import certain plants and plant products without an import declaration.

So if you have a stockpile of Brazilian Rosewood or Honduran Mahogany that you’ve been saving since the eighties, you better have provenance or you’ve got yourself one expensive pile of firewood.

www.benedettoguitars.com

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