By Jim Kath
“For better or for worse; for richer and for poorer; in sickness and in health…” These are phrases you usually hear in any marriage ceremony, but not something you’d expect a couple of guitar builders to live by. Well, that isn’t the case with luthiers Thomas Orgler and Nikolaus “Klaus” Eiken of Thomas Guitars in Bolzano, Italy. Closer than most brothers, these two master craftsmen embody what it means to be business partners and friends. The two met while studying Luthierie in Mittenwald, Germany where they discovered much common ground on guitar design, music, goals, culture, and life in general.
Back in the old, old days from the Pre-Renaissance to the Baroque period, and even into the early 1800s when Martin Guitars was just getting started, luthiers kept their techniques and skills an absolute secret. To let someone else know how you crafted master instruments were to essentially give away your livelihood. Fortunately, that’s no longer the case. But still, if I can use myself as a barometer, working with another luthier who may have vastly different ideas of how things should be done is not an enjoyable experience, even if they are employees or apprentices. But at least in those two cases you can pull rank and dictate how things should be done. A partnership is different; there needs to be compromised. And as anyone who has ever tried to have any kind of relationship with another human can tell you, compromise is much more easily said than done.
As an apprentice, I couldn’t wait to get out on my own and do things the way I wanted to do them without fear of reprimand or criticism. To partner with someone else was unthinkable; not that I believed I did it the best way possible, but after having been in many rock and blues bands, I knew that to get two or more people to agree on anything even as simple as a list of songs to play was darn near impossible. Well, just like there are good and not-so-good marriages, so it goes with business and creative partnerships. Thomas Guitars not only have managed to make their work but, more importantly, to excel.
I had the wonderful privilege of spending an afternoon with Thomas and Klaus. I think this dynamic duo can serve as an inspiration for us all.
GC: How long has each of you been making guitars?
Thomas: My story began working as a carpenter up to 2006. I’ve always loved working with wood, and that, combined with my passion for playing the guitar and great attention to detail, created the basis for me becoming a luthier. So I decided to try my first guitar maker’s course in Milan back in 2005 when I built a detailed copy of a classical guitar in the style of Ramirez – Santos Hernandez‘ 1912 model.
In 2006, my dreams came true when I was accepted at Luthier School in Mittenwald, Germany. There, I took a course for makers of plucked instruments and focused on building classical and acoustic guitars. In 2009, I graduated and got my diploma…what a feeling!
Klaus: I started to play guitar when I was about 12, and my teacher showed me how to take care of the Instrument; like how to change strings, how to adjust the truss rod and the trem springs, etc. My father was an electrical engineer so when I had problems with electronics I simply asked him to show me how to fix it. Accordingly, I never went to a luthier but did everything by myself – till one day I broke my guitar in two pieces and needed professional help.
Years later when I finished school and social service I decided to study wood technology and industrial engineering in Rosenheim. In the third year I took a course called historical and physical development of musical instruments, and that really fascinated me, and at the end made me quit the university and start the Luthier School in Mittenwald where I built the first instrument from scratch, a classical guitar – that’s seven years and many Instruments ago.
GC: Where were each of you born, and how did you wind up in Italy? Do you have families (married, children)?
Thomas: I was born and raised in Bolzano, where our workshop is and where I spend most of my life. This is where I find all the things that make me happy: mountains, good food, and beautiful women. South Tyrol has all of these and more to offer, not least because it has a perfect mix of two cultures (German and Italian) and lots of simply stunning scenery. At the moment I have a beautiful girlfriend… no family yet, though.
Klaus: I was born in 1980 in Munich. After the Luthier School, I wanted to learn more, and I visited some luthiers to ask for a job. And one of them was Roberto Fontanot in Verona. He is a very open and likable person who showed me a lot of “secrets” and different ways to resolve problems, how to run a shop and how to combine the passion and the business part to make a living from that. Since that day I stayed in Italy. Not married and no kids yet.
GC: What made you decide to team up?
Thomas: Partying wasn’t the only thing we were good at together. We share a common outlook on our profession and a never-ending passion for building guitars.
Klaus: We simply had the same ideas of how a good instrument should look like and how it should be produced. We had lots of discussions before we decided to do it. We agreed in so many things that to team up seemed to be the right way – and I think we’ve come further than each of us would have alone.
GC: Other than the two of you, do you have any other employees or helpers in your shop?
Thomas: No, it’s just the two of us. There are many guys that come and ask for a job but at the moment we prefer to work in two.
GC: Your product line is so diverse. Does one of you handle certain models and the other handles the rest of them? For example, does one of you make the solid-bodies and the other the acoustic models?
Klaus: Basically we share everything: ideas, knowledge, etc. We both work on all Instruments. Certainly, with the years, each one has formed his own habits and likes, so some works are mainly done by one, and others by the other one. Some works are done by the first one to get it because we both enjoy doing it. And some works are never done because nobody wants to do it. In a good team, everyone has to play his role. I’m, for example, the more communicative guy. Mostly I answer the emails, talk to the clients and work out what they are looking for. But I discuss every thought with Thomas, also while working. Sometimes I fear to talk him to death. But as much as we agree in many things, we are both different personalities that complement one another to realize the ideas we have.
One of the first things that we decided together is to build classical, acoustic and electric guitars. We make guitars to create a specific type of sound, and that includes all types of guitars. That could be diverse as the music that is played on them, but every music has its right, it’s feeling behind that in some point of your life fits perfectly. No matter if it’s Classic, Metal or Country, if you hear the right music in the right moment, it hits you and helps you understand your own feelings. So why refuse something that is part of you? To make only one Guitar model for the rest of your life is like to play the same song again and again.
GC: About how many guitars do you produce each month?
Thomas: We never really kept count of our monthly production, as the necessary amount of time to build a guitar depends on the type and model. There are models that take longer to build, sometimes even a few months due to our natural construction methods. We also spend a lot of time planning and preparing things for production. For example, we go into the woods to choose our own trees to cut. We have one of the biggest forests in South Tyrol, about half an hour from our workshop: the Latemar Forest. A very beautiful area at 1600m altitude which is perfect for spruce. In this area, you can find many trees that are more than 200 years old, and thanks to the calcareous soil (ed: calcium-rich) have a very hard and strong wood – perfect for musical instruments. But it’s not only to choose, but the most important thing is also to cut the tree at the right time of the year, which is at the end the bigger challenge. The perfect time is at the end of December – but nobody cuts a tree at that time cause we have about two meters of snow. That’s the reason why we have decided to take the time and cut them on our own. Besides production, we also do mending and maintenance works so our yearly production amounts to 35 to 40 guitars approximately.
GC: Do you make the guitars, then sell them or take custom orders and then make them?
Thomas: We have both possibilities. Some of our customers have their own vision of what they want, and usually, want custom-made products from the start. Others have spent years looking for their dream guitar and prefer to let the guitar find them, instead of the other way around. They can try different models in our workshop and choose the one they like best.
Klaus: The electric models are all unique instruments built on request. We do have some models in the shop to try, but we customize every instrument to the player’s needs and ideas. The big advantage of an electric guitar is that you can affect the result much easier than of an acoustic guitar which provides to make them one by one, customized to the player’s needs.
Besides to the electrics we make small series of acoustic Instruments from which maybe 30% are ordered, so we still have some Instruments left for those who want to try first and then decide, and also because from a technical point of view, we prefer building acoustic guitars during the drier winter months. But we do sell them also in the summer, so it’s always better to have some more.
GC: What do you find to be the best part of being a partnership?
Thomas: That would have to be the fighting and jealousy… no, seriously, I think it is mostly the exchange of know-how and experience that drives us. Our business is not always easy, so a good partnership is absolutely essential.
Klaus: To share everything. Beginning with the workshop, machines, and tools which, everybody knows, cost a lot– to ideas, problems, success, and failure. If you work alone you risk to go into a one-way street with a dead end, but many problems could be simply resolved by talking to another person who has a different point of view.
GC: What do you find to be the most challenging part of being a partnership?
Thomas: Living up to and tolerating your perfectionist partner‘s expectations.
Klaus: To find a partner that fits. I think not everybody is made for that, and you should agree on the basic things to grow together. If you spend the whole day together in a workshop you may dislike some of your partner’s characteristics but you must respect them.
GC: What types of instruments would you like to make in the future (different guitar models? Different types of stringed instruments, etc.)
Thomas: We’ve always built a variety of guitar models, but that doesn‘t mean we’ve fulfilled all our goals and dreams. On the contrary, we keep growing and looking for new challenges.
Klaus: The guitar has already been invented many years before we were born. You can change the shape, the materials, and the sound, but it will always be a guitar which finally is only a tool to create music. Our intention to make a guitar starts every time with the sound that it should have. We like further development but we won’t define a new Instrument with a fancy design if it’s not necessary for any good reason besides the artistic values.
GC: What do your customers get from Thomas Guitars that they can’t find with any other luthier shop?
Thomas & Klaus Laughing in agreement
A girl’s dream… two handsome guys who’ll always have a good cup of coffee ready. I think from a customer’s point of view it’s our philosophy, as we see guitars as the tools they are and not only as a piece of art. We make beautiful and perfectly functioning instruments, but still, guitars that want to be played. A musician that can’t stop playing is the best compliment you can get.
To learn more about Thomas Guitars visit: thomas-guitars.it
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