Guitar Luthiers – Creators Of Luxury
There are probably fewer more subjective nouns in the world than the word ‘luxury’. Most dictionaries manage three distinct definitions, two of which are fairly similar;
“A state of great comfort or elegance, especially when involving great expense.”
“An inessential, desirable item which is expensive or difficult to obtain.”
Synonyms of both these terms are fairly similar, including the words opulence, luxuriousness, sumptuousness, richness, costliness, indulgence, extravagance, self-indulgence, treat, and extra. In short, a pleasure or toy available only to the incredibly wealthy.
Then there’s the third one, which I personally prefer;
“A pleasure obtained only rarely.”
This could be alternatively be described as a joy, delight, bliss, blessing, benefit, advantage or boon. This feels more obtainable by the rest of us mere mortals, whether through luck or circumstance, and for which we’d undoubtedly feel incredibly grateful.
All of the above descriptions could easily be applied to any instruments built by the people and companies we’re about to look at in this article. Yes, you can buy guitars from any manufacturer ranging from high end Gibsons and Fenders down to sub $100 beginner axes from various Chinese companies. But for true luxury, for the most outstanding examples of the guitar builders art, one must generally go bespoke rather than off-the peg, and this means commissioning a luthier. Let’s look at five of the best working today...
The USA was the birthplace of the modern steel-strung acoustic guitar, and it’s in Oakland, California that you’ll find the workshop of Hungarian-born Ervin Somogyi – widely regarded as the Godfather of modern lutherie.
Largely self-taught through studying existing high-quality instruments and the seminal 1970 text Classical Guitar Construction by Irving Sloane, his original construction of Spanish guitars began as a hobby. Moving onto steel-string instrument construction was partially due to his finding both the builders and players “more easy-going than the classical people”, and resulted in an ongoing relationship with virtuoso solo artists on the Windham Hill record label.
Somogyi has few peers when it comes to his skill at instrument design, construction and particularly voicing, with an understanding of tone woods that truly beggars belief. Prices start at $40,000 for a new guitar, and that could be considered a bargain once you’ve heard the sound it makes…
Paul Reed Smith
An obvious choice for this list you might think, and with very good reason. And yes, we already mentioned the sublime solid-bodied electric creations of guitar-maker Paul Reed Smith in our recent “Another brief guide to popular guitar models” article. But as far as creators of high-end rock guitars go, there are few better examples than the man who permanently tempted Carlos Santana away from his beloved Gibson Les Pauls.
The original PRS Custom design hasn’t really changed much since it’s 1985 debut, containing all the best features you’d expect to find on all ‘traditional’ high end electric guitars (Les Pauls, Stratocasters etc) enhanced with hand-made, bespoke hardware, all packaged within a subtly understated body hand-carved from impossibly gorgeous woods. But the popularity of PRS instruments has necessitated a number of increases in the size of the company workshop, still staffed with uncompromising high-end luthiers, all under the watchful eye of Smith himself (when he’s not out gigging with the Paul Reed Smith Band of course. And take a wild guess what guitar he uses on stage...)
The family of guitars you could variously refer to as Spanish/Classical/Flamenco is probably more ubiquitous in terms of individual builders than any other musical instrument produced today. And despite many native workshops such as Ramirez with histories going back beyond 1900, the development and construction of these instruments has happened well beyond the borders of Spain for many years.
One notable contemporary builder is Masaki Sakurai, first prize winner of the 1988 Paris International Guitar Luthiers Competition, and nephew of Japan’s greatest ever luthier Masaru Kohno (who passed away in 1998). Sakurai’s instruments contain various features from a number of the classical guitar construction schools , along with many of his personal twists (neck curving to better suit the human hand being just one) and a few of his late uncles influences. Examples of his work can be found on stage at conservatoires and prestigious classical concert venues throughout the world.
The benchmark for what constitutes a good jazz archtop guitar was unquestionably set by the late, great John D’Angelico between the 1930’s to 1959. His apprentice Jimmy D’Aquisto continued this tradition right through to the early 1990s. And although you’re unlikely to ever own one of their sublime New York City creations (which have changed hands for well over a million dollars in recent years), they can be viewed at few museums and galleries around the world.
The work of these two geniuses fortunately inspired various subsequent builders to strive for the highest standards in archtop guitar construction – arguably the hardest electric/acoustic guitar variety to craft properly. One of the most well-regarded builders in this area since 1968 has been Robert Benedetto, whose instruments have been used by jazz virtuosos such as Martin Taylor and Kenny Burrell. Benedetto’s mastery also goes beyond guitars – his violins were endorsed by no less a legend than Stéphane Grappelli. Which brings us neatly to our final luthier...
John Le Voi
Django Reinhardt brought the Selmer Maccaferri to massive international acclaim through his work with Stéphane Grappelli in the Paris-based Quintette du Hot Club de France, a jazz group well ahead of its time by featuring the guitar in a lead role. And although this French manufacturer stopped producing perhaps the most famously French guitar in the early 1950s, other luthiers (mostly in France) have been hand-building high-quality Maccaferris ever since, most commonly for use by players of French style jazz. Mais naturellement...
One of the most highly regarded contemporary makers of these instruments is British builder John Le Voi (yes, that name sounds incredibly French to us as well), who has been producing traditional grand bouche (“big mouth” or D-hole) and petite bouche (“small mouth” or O-hole) Maccaferris, along with his unique and very beautiful Cats Eye model instruments, from his Lincolnshire workshop since 1970. Players of Le Voi guitars include jazz virtuoso Marek Napiórkowski, Manic Street Preachers frontman James Bradfield, and more French jazz musicians than we’ve got room to list here.
Wrapping it up
Looking back at our earlier comments about luxury, I’ve decided that the term “inessential” doesn’t apply to any of the guitars discussed in this article, for the simple reason that I want them all! But despite the fact that I’ve personally tried both a Paul Reed Smith AND a Le Voi, I have to conclude that, in my case, it is indeed a “pleasure obtained very rarely”.
On that note, I’m going to sign off before my tears of frustration cause this laptop to short-circuit. So until next time......peace out!