The Holy Grail Guitar Show: A Celebration of Boutique Builders

Now in its third year, the Holy Grail Guitar Show in Berlin is a celebration of the lesser-known luthiers. Developed by the European Guitar Builders Association (EGB), Holy Grail highlights bespoke guitar builders from around the world, placing new models alongside their maker and giving the luthier a voice via the exhibition floor, demos, concerts, lectures, seminars and more.

Held at the massive Estrel Berlin hotel, the show brings together a constellation of boutique builders who otherwise might be lost among the giant exhibits and mind-numbing decibel levels of NAMM or even Musikmesse.

And when we say boutique, we mean boutique. Many of these builders only produce several dozen instruments per year. That makes the HGGS something of a migratory event, like witnessing a once-a-year gathering of rare birds in the wild. The beauty on display is no less incredible.

This year’s Holy Grail Guitar Show is October 8-9th in Berlin.

We sat down with the show’s team to chat craftsmanship, creativity and the future of the luthier.

How does the Holy Grail Guitar Show differ from other guitar shows and music events?

We like to think that we’ve broken the mold in terms of what guitar shows are about. The most significant thing is that HGGS is a show organized by luthiers themselves. Builders showcase their own work, free from the influence of the big instrument companies.

This, together with the international nature of the show and the amazing quality and craftsmanship on display, make it a truly unique event on the global guitar scene. The invitational format allows us to curate each edition and make it a fresh and new event each year, introducing new faces along with established builders.

The European Guitar Builders Association is the driving force behind the Holy Grail Guitar Show. How does the mission of the EGB play into this event?

The EGB is all about creating a community of luthiers. Traditionally, luthiers have been relatively isolated professionally, especially in Europe. They often consider themselves to be primarily in competition with their peers.

What we have done is to create a forum, a space, where luthiers can communicate and learn from each other, learn to appreciate each other, and discover their common interests. By offering that space only to small builders we have helped to create a level playing field.

By creating the HGGS, we have started to realize the amazing things that can happen when we work together. One of the things that visitors and exhibitors always comment on is the atmosphere. There’s just this incredible vibe and buzz of excitement that is a really tangible part of the event.

Guitar building ranges from partscasters and relic gurus to fully custom, bespoke luthiers. How do you decide who exhibits at the show?

There’s always a discussion around our relation to what you could call the classic shapes of modern guitar making, and we try to be as inclusive as possible in this respect. One of our main criterion, though, is that prospective exhibitors should be doing original work: pushing the envelope of what is possible while producing top-quality, hand-built instruments. The invitation curating committee is obviously looking for quality, craftsmanship, artistry and seriousness, but they're always open to new talent.

Every show so far we have had far more applications than places available. So to make sure everyone gets a fair chance, we have introduced a rotational principle: if you have exhibited twice in a row, your chances to be invited for a third time might decrease in order to allow someone else to get a spot. It doesn’t matter who you are. It’s a way of promoting new talent, keeping the event open and fresh, and making an egalitarian statement about who we are and what we want the show to be like.

The dawn of the Internet has drastically changed everything from news and socializing to hailing a cab and ordering food. How has technology affected the luthier community, for better and/or worse?

Although we are traditionalists in many respects, we see modern technology as being overwhelmingly positive for the luthier community. Today it is very easy for a luthier to show his or her work to the world. Anyone can get a website or post pictures of their instruments to Facebook. Those are great tools for all of us, especially for anyone living in a more remote part of the world where you maybe don’t have a constant stream of visitors looking into your shop window.

Here at the EGB, we also see it as part of our job to help luthiers leverage the power of the Internet - both individually and collectively - to help raise awareness about luthier-built instruments.

Along those same lines, technology like 3D printing and virtual reality have changed the manufacturing process, from concept to completion. Do you see many luthiers using these new technologies?

It's important to stay open to new technologies and the advantages they can bring to guitar making. There are a lot of specific areas of the craft where new technologies are starting to make an impact. Many of us use CNC machines routinely, for instance.

But I think the key concept in your question is the manufacturing process. We are not about the manufacturing process. We are more about the artisanal process. We produce hand-crafted, individual, unique instruments that in many cases have been tailored to the needs of an individual guitarist.

The thing about a guitar is that ultimately it is something you touch and hold and establish a physical and emotional connection with. Much of the magic in a great guitar is something that arises from the skill and experience a luthier can bring to it. There's no machine that can voice a guitar top. It's an art as much as a science.

Last year we invited Yale Professor Katherine Dudley to speak at the Holy Grail Guitar Show and our own EGB Symposium. She’s the author of a great book called Guitar Makers: The Endurance of Artisanal Values in North America. She talked to us about the difference between what a guitar factory does, and what a guitar maker does.

Her main observation was that for us, as luthiers, these instruments are not neutral objects coming off of a production line, but instead are heavily invested with emotion. They’re like our family, our children, our babies. And you’ve got all these guys in the audience nodding and wiping away tears. She hit it right on the head.

Technology is fine as long as you’re using it, and it’s not using you. As long as it’s part of your art, and you’re not just part of its process.

The Holy Grail show is clearly a great place to explore new designs and test some out for yourself. What else can people expect at this year’s event?

One of the things we are focusing on this year is what we are calling The Local Wood Challenge. Exhibitors are asked to come up with an instrument for the show that is sourced exclusively from locally grown woods. It’s a totally voluntary thing, not a competition, just a way of getting people to come up with new ideas about how to make a great guitar.

With tropical woods becoming more difficult and environmentally problematic to obtain, there is also a serious background to the challenge. We want to look at ways to make sure that our craft, and our business model, is built on an environmentally sustainable footing.

Apart from that, there will be an incredibly wide range of instruments on display, a host of familiar faces and a lot of new ones too. We’re going to have test cabins, demo concerts, public lectures, lots of personal contact with luthiers, a chillout area with live music. It's a totally different vibe than big music industry gatherings.

The EGB and the Holy Grail Guitar Show offer a glimpse into the future of the guitar. What are some features you’ve seen over the years that you could see making their way into the more mainstream guitar market?

You'll notice that builders are increasingly prepared to take bold steps in terms of guitar design, both in terms of body shapes and concepts. What is it that makes a guitar a guitar? Obviously, things like fanned frets and additional strings are already starting to become more common, both in the custom guitar and mainstream markets.

We see it less in terms of specific features and more as an idea that is starting to spread to the mainstream of guitar players: there is much more about making an instrument truly your own than just taking something that comes off of a production line. For many people, that might start with making changes to the setup to fit your own playing style. For others, it might be changes to the pickups, the trem bar, the action - whatever.

Once you take that approach to its logical conclusion and start talking to a luthier about what it is that you want and need from an instrument, you are in the territory of creating an instrument that is custom-built to your own requirements. So we are more about spreading the ideas of choice and growth as a player into the mainstream.

What’s the craziest thing you’ve seen at the Holy Grail Guitar Show?

I guess that has to be the Pikasso Guitar by the great Linda Manzer. Four necks. Two sound holes. 42 strings. It’s just a crazy work of genius and has to be seen – and heard – to be believed.


Explore some of the Holy Grail exhibitor’s shops on Reverb:

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