April 07, 2004 News & Opinion » Featured story

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From start to twang 

Bernie Lehmann and the art of the custom guitar

Each day in a dusty workshop on the second floor of a warehouse on Elton Street, art is born --- functional art. Art that lives and breathes each time it is brought on stage, or set in a lap, or held closely and simply strummed. It's a marriage of woods. The notes it renders speak from and to the heart of the player. It is a Bernie Lehmann guitar.

          Lehmann handcrafts roughly 15 custom guitars each year. He offers two Gypsy-style guitars, three classical guitars, three archtop guitars, and one regular flattop guitar. Though all are made to be played, your first impression is of fine furniture. They are all lush, six-string beauties standing proudly throughout his shop. You can almost hear them in the relative quiet. It's hard to take your eyes off of them.

          In his workshop, the sun streaks through the saw-dusted air, and Lehmann gently taps a thin piece of maple. The wood is still rough and obviously incomplete, its edges are jagged. But it is already guitar-shaped, and there is a hint of its innate beauty and potential. This is what he's listening for. To the untrained ear, the wood just gives off a thumping sound. But to Lehmann's ears, it's a mysterious and beautiful glimmer: the first sound from the womb.

          Lehmann, 54, talks about his history and passion in soft, measured tones. His demeanor is pleasant and kind. His clothes are well worn, standard-issue plaid and denim sprinkled with sawdust. Just behind his glasses, soft creases surround his eyes. It's as if he's been smiling for years.

          "I picked up the guitar when I was a sophomore in high school," he says. "I played with folk groups and really realized that I was not of the musician class. I had more enthusiasm than talent. But I still loved the music. And guitars were a combination of the art and the music."

          While studying in an art-based design program at SyracuseUniversity, Lehmann tried to create instruments that hadn't ever been made before. These experiments turned out a keyboard guitar and a purple, metal-flake electric dulcimer.

          "It was an experimental design program," he explains. "It was to create art pieces more than functional musical instruments. They were half art pieces, half concoctions. Most of them worked."

          It was during this period that Lehmann watched his teacher build a guitar for his son, and the idea of building guitars first dawned on him.

          After graduating in 1971, Lehmann found himself making dulcimers in his barn before he moved to Boston to study with master luthier Owen Shaw. He studied and worked with Shaw for seven years before returning in 1977 to Rochester, where he set up shop at 34 Elton Street. He's been there ever since.

          "About half of my business is still local," Lehmann says. "Most players who come to me are talented amateurs and they have several guitars already and they are looking for something special, different from what they already own."

Look and listen: It's clear. Lehmann is a truly gifted artisan. But it is the way he involves the player in the instrument's creation that makes his guitars special and unique.

          "I like to make each instrument different," he says. "It's an artistic expression for me. Every single instrument I've made has been different in some way. Each instrument is a new challenge. I don't like repetition." These differences include choices of woods, neck size, finish, and decorative flourishes, all based on Lehmann's vision and the player's desires.

          "It's important to me to talk to the customer a lot in the beginning," he says. "To find out what their expectations are in terms of the practical aspect, what they're trying to get out of the instrument. But I also try and find aesthetically what's pleasing to them. I like to hear them play so I can set the instrument up."

          Lehmann has a 17-inch archtop in the works for jazz master Steve Greene, who has played two Gibson L-7s (a 1942 and a 1948) almost exclusively for the past 15 years.

          "Steve is really a master of tone," Lehmann says. "So getting an instrument that was broadly expressive was important. Additionally, the neck is very important to Steve."

          "It's gotta be one of those baseball bat necks, like you found in the '40s," Greene says. "That keeps the hand open."

          Lehmann and Greene have brainstormed back and forth with this project. Ultimately, Greene acquiesced to the master, who he says is "painting a portrait of Steve with a guitar."

          "I actually called him up a few days ago and said 'Bernie, you know me. Just build me an ax.'"

          After Lehmann selectswoodsand irons out custom features, he begins by cutting out the face of the guitar and then "thicknessing" it down to about 3/32 of an inch. He then braces the top and back and bends the sides with molds and a steam press. The necks are made from scratch --- no pre-fabs. Then, "It's just a matter of assembly," Lehmann says.

          Finally, he sprays six to eight coats of lacquer, sanding and buffing them down to a rich patina. He works on two to three instruments at once, each one taking about a month from start to twang. The cost for one of these Lehmann lovelies runs from $3,500 to $10,000.

Lehmann is somewhat of a rare bird. There are other luthiers around, but few at Lehmann's level. He guesses there are two other guitar makers in the US making Selmer-type Gypsy jazz guitars and perhaps just four more internationally. Archtop and especially flattop makers are more common. But it's hard to imagine a better guitar than Lehmann's.

          Though Lehmann's guitars mirror classic designs, he's not content to simply re-create.

          "It's important to me to advance the art of luthiery," he says. "Not by doing copies of what's been done already but by experimentation." Lehmann's innovations include advancement in bracing, developing an almost endless array of neck joints, and a player sound port --- an additional sound hole on the guitar's side facing the player --- a feature some players swear by, like Philadelphia's award-winning finger-style guitarist Rolly Brown.

          "I don't care who you are, whether you play professionally every night or whatever," he says. "You still spend most of your time playing with you as the only person listening."

          "He consistently, of all the makers I've dealt with over time, has come up with the best tone and playability that I've run across in a lot of instruments," says acoustic multi-instrumentalist Dennis Monroe. Monroe owns four Lehmann instruments, including a German Baroque guitar Lehmann built in 1980. "He's cracked the code on putting together a good sounding and playing instrument," he says.

          Brown played his Lehmann guitar (the Selmer Eclipse model) "for about a minute and knew it was the right guitar."

          Lehmann's guitars are loved and used in a way he may not always approve of: electrified.

"It's a practical necessity," he concedes. "But I don't like it. Often I think electronics are used when they don't need to be. A good acoustic guitar projects."Lehmann prefers to hear his guitars in small acoustic settings.

          And he won't build solid bodies.

          "They're boring to me," he says. "It's the acoustics that have kept me interested all these years."

          And apparently for years to come.

          "I have no intention of stopping," he says. "I'll do it till I drop, I imagine."

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