Supping from the Holy Grail

by Massimo D'Angelo

In November 1989, East Berlin marched through the Brandenburg Gate, legitimately re-joining its sinful other half in the west. During the silver wedding anniversary of this coming together, we find ourselves in the spectacular Hotel Estrel, the temple that is to play host to the Holy Grail Guitar Show, the first meeting organized by the European Guitar Builders (EGB).  

More than a hundred craftsmen of the six-stringed slab of wood, each one in his own way a rock 'n' roll pimp, have gathered here to show off their works of art, their creations, their risqué offerings that go far beyond the shapes and technologies manufactured by those run-of the-mill brands we all know like the backs of our hands. From the moment we walk through the door, we can feel that this is more than your normal, every-day event. The atmosphere here is a happy one; there is a lot of curiosity not only from those that have come to have a look round, but also from the participating artists themselves. During the inauguration dinner the night before, the Swiss luthier Daniel Meier, father of a six-stringed delicacy which actually has twelve and has been christened 'Galileo', said as much: "I hope to surprise with my latest creation, but above all I hope to learn a lot – gathered here are the best luthiers in the world, but we can all still learn from one another."

To learn… during the two days that this ceremony lasts, it is difficult to put into words the sheer array of talent on show: the number of models, shapes and materials, colours and techniques employed in the construction of instruments that never fail to surprise. You don’t need to be a guitar lover to understand that we are in the presence of real artists, adventurers and explorers. Creativity is in the air, and if that wasn’t enough, the organisation has set up an intense agenda of talks, round tables and demonstration concerts as well as various sound-proofed rooms where we can have our evil ways with the precious offerings that take our fancy in our search for the perfect rock partner.  

We manage to rob a few minutes of Michael Spalt's time, a talented Austrian luthier and high priest of the Holy Grail…. Or rather, president of the EGB. With a 25-year career in the USA under his belt, he receives us sat among his creations with a hot cappuccino in his hands. His Italian is as exquisite as his friendly manner.

GUITARS EXCHANGE: How did EGB come about and what are its aims?

MICHAEL SPALT:  It is an association of luthiers. Specifically, the idea came from my experiences in the United States, where there is a very strong luthiers community. Here in Europe another reason was the national boundaries – I didn't know what the French were up to, for example, and vice versa. We wanted to find a way to communicate in Europe. We have more than a hundred luthiers registered in the association. At the very beginning, it was founded as a kind of trade union: EGB was an instrument to establish a legal basis to stipulate collective contracts and things like that. Very quickly we realised that we had to organise an event, a show, but kept apart from the organization itself, because the association also carries out very important functions for the luthier community that have nothing to do with the show. They are two completely different things. The EGB works as an information network for political issues, for example, regarding questions connected to wood and its conservation or importation… All legislation on this matter changes a lot, it's quite fascinating. Now, the European Union is looking into the creation of a kind of passport for musical instruments, in which the origins of the woods used are defined. We, as luthiers, need these inputs… but the problem is that the customs officers don't know anything about it; for musicians that travel a lot it's a problem. The passport would identify the instrument and put an end to these problems. However, it seems that the authorities want them to be renewed every three years, which is stupid… they’re only out to make some money out of it.  

G.E.: There is a wall between the guitarist community and the world of luthiers, or at least there seems to be…
M.S.: This is an important point. I had a shop in Los Angeles where I did repairs. There were many guitars hung on the walls, both 'conventional' (Les Paul, Stratocaster, etc.) as well as 'originals' made by luthiers. The effect that the big makes have on the clients is something that I call 'tunnel vision' – suddenly, they would have eyes for nothing else. The big names spend millions on advertising; they even pay musicians to only play their guitars. Look, among my clients I had a very famous musician. One day, after a concert, I asked him why he never went on stage with my guitar. He told me that all his records had been recorded using the guitar I had made for him and that it was his favourite because of the sound and the feelings that he got from it. But that if he went on stage with that guitar, the people in the audience would look at the guitar more than the guitarist. I made a couple of hybrid guitars, wood and aluminium. Nobody played them. But one day I made bass guitars using the same technique, which produce a lovely sound and sustain. One of our slogans was, 'If you play this bass, all eyes will be on you'. And sure enough, one day a famous bassist came to the shop and asked me to change the slogan: "It’s getting the singer's back up, and the guitarist's, too… they don't want the audience to be looking at me!’ he said. What a strange world ours is…    

G.E.: How did the idea of The Holy Grail Show come about?

M.S.: There were 20 luthiers when we started out in 2013. A trade magazine suggested it became the organizer and sponsor of The Holy Grail Guitar Show. Our answer couldn't have been clearer: 'No'. They told us that without its support, it would be like we didn't exist… We can't pay for the advertising in those magazines, but that's what the readers do when they come and buy from us…. Readers that are fed up with the same things from the same makes. Yes, the media and the luthiers need each other, because the old models don’t serve a purpose any more, but we need each other reciprocally. You see, the Frankfurt Festival (Musikmesse) isn't what it used to be. This one is different. We decide whom we want to invite. It's like a guitar – it's not the shape, but rather how it has been made, the difference between an industrial model and a handcrafted one, made by a human hand. Here we have the people and the guitars made by them – the communication between those that make them and those that play them is very important… Here, we're on an altogether different plane. We're not talking about walking into a shop, playing a little and then buying a guitar. Here, there's something more, a whole way of life. If you buy a luthier-made guitar, it's a different relationship, - both culturally, socially and financially. A far cry from buying from a major American brand that on top of that manufactures their guitars in Indonesia or who-knows-where…    

G.E.: Industrial or handmade. Two different cultures. Is it just a question of business?
M.S.: The main conflict between the artisanal and industrial worlds is that no luthier gets rich from what he or she does. But there was a time when these instruments were created, those that made them, such as Leo Fender or Ted McCarty, did so with a passion for what they did. What changed at the end of the '60s and the start of the '70s was the business model. Suddenly, the idea wasn't to build the perfect product, but rather to increase profits. And those fabulous cars made in the '50s and '60s? How could they change so much? How did they manage to dupe the clients into such a radical change? There then came years in which everything was made badly… Today, you can still see cars from the '50s and '60s in the streets. Or today's models. You don't see any that were manufactured between: they were so badly made, they didn't work… and they were so ugly! The same thing happened with guitars. It's the schizophrenia that we are living today… the world is falling apart. You can now see where one starts and the other stops!  

We begin to see here at The Holy Grail Guitar Show that the simple definition 'guitar' doesn't quite do it. It is right here where one world stops and the other starts, as Michael himself said - in these rooms brimming with art and the risqué, where creativity takes on such diverse forms, where the seven notes have an infinite way of expressing themselves among the array of wood and metal, the straight lines and the sexy curves. The EGB show goes far beyond its physical boundaries and can only be outdone in the years to come. But before that happens, you have to order a six-string from one of these artists. Or maybe twelve. Let's break down this wall between the guitarist and the luthier – who better than the luthier to understand your desires, dream up the perfect guitar, hear your own music, taste your own taste, allow you to sup from the holy grail and bond with your newfound partner on the altar of rock?

PD. Our special thanks to Tania Spalt (EGB Membership Coordination) and Alice Léonard-Pons (EGB, Press Coordination) for your cordiality and friendship.


For more pictures, check out our tweets from the Show!