Geza Burghardt, Canada
The following interview with Geza Burghardt, first appeared in American Lutherie magazine #61 Spring/2000 which is published by the Guild of American Luthiers. Guitars International wishes to thank Cyndy Burton and the Editors of American Lutherie for allowing us to reprint its contents in a slightly abridged form. (Reproduction of this article in any form - in whole or in part - without the expressed written consent of the Guild of American Luthiers is prohibited).

I met Geza and his wife and business partner, Tini at the 1998 GAL Convention in Tacoma. I'd been hearing about him for several years and was really looking forward to our chat. Three hours whizzed by as Geza told his remarkable story, a true immigrant success story. He and Tini and their young daughter Eszter (now an accomplished visual artist) arrived in Vancouver, B.C. in 1988 with little more than the shirts on their backs. They spoke very little English. Twelve years later they have a thriving lutherie business, a beautiful shop, and a comfortable life. What follows is Geza's story in his own words.

I was fourteen years old when I became an apprentice in a special woodworking school in Hungary for three years to become a pattern maker. This is an extremely complicated job requiring great precision. We were taught to do everything by hand. We were not allowed to use any power machines, not even a grinder to grind the chisels. After you were done with a job it was sent to a special room for checking. There was no tolerance. Nothing; I mean not even a tenth of a millimeter. They'd send it back and you'd have to fix it and your salary went down.

I learned to use both shellac and lacquer in the pattern making shop and I had made little things like cigar boxes with roll tops using just wood, no nails. I French polished everything. It was really fascinating how to make this beautiful finish by hand.

This school was very good for me, because I learned how to work precisely. On the other hand, it was very dry; you cannot express yourself. So I moved on. I always loved the water. I became a professional boat builder. I made kayaks and canoes. Our shop made two-, four-, and eight- person shells for Olympic-class racing and one-person skiffs. We also made kayaks and canoes based on Eskimo boats. We did those more for fun and for our own use. I made a good living. It was on a canoe trip that I met Tini, some twenty-three years ago.

I started playing electric guitar in a rock band in the early '60s. At that time the only guitars we could buy in Hungary were made in Russia or a nearby Communist country like Czechoslovakia. Russian guitars came with seven strings and the machine heads were so bad, especially on the bass side where the extra machine was. They made noises like hell when you tuned. The guitar was rough, cheaply made, but the sound was not too bad. I eventually made electric guitars for all the band members, and the band's bass player did all the wiring for the electrics in the kitchen. He got very thin wire from somewhere and magnets from old radios, tubes, everything. Sometimes when we played on the stage you could hear the radio station. (laughter) But nobody cared; everybody was dancing; they liked us.

We would sit in front of the radio and listen to a channel we weren't allowed to listen to, because it came from a Western country. That was the Luxembourg station. We were isolated completely, like in a prison.

But the Beatles got through?

Oh yeah. Slowly we started to grow our hair longer. When we were traveling on the streetcar to our gigs, someone would grab your hair and say, "You ugly bastard. Shame on you." So people were really criticizing us but we were rebels. We just tried to pee against the wind; you know that expression?

Yes. (laughter)

The band broke up when we were called to the army. There was no choice; that was your duty. You were drafted for three years. I was called, but released immediately, so I was in the army only one day. However, I had to pay a penalty. For four years they took eight percent of my salary each month. But I was happy not to be in the army. After that I played in another band, the Internationalists, but eventually I got sick of the electric sound. I wanted to play acoustic guitar.

In the early '70s I bought a used, small German-made, black, French-polished steel string for very cheap. I restored it. The music I really liked was coming from America: folk music. We admired America very much as a place where people can live in freedom - the music was an expression of that. Since we have been living here in North America for ten years, we know what we believed is not always true, but you still have lots of freedom, and if you want to do something you can do it; you don't have to belong to a political party to do it. But in Hungary at that time, you really had to belong to the Communist party. You got the salary every month, and it never changed. You don't make a big income for your salary, but you got it safely. For sure they would never kick you out from your work place. If you wanted to change, you were penalized. You'd have to start over. So we had visions; we had dreams. We felt like we needed a change. We dreamed about cowboys, Indians, explorers. And at the same time the folk music attracted us. I started to learn fingerpicking by watching guys performing at clubs.

Then it just happened: I want to make guitars for a living. I had no background. I was a professional boat builder. I was in charge of a beautiful boat workshop with nine or ten workers. We were all friends; they had been my apprentices, then they went in the army, then came back and worked for me. The boat business was good, I was well known and sold my designs and molds to other companies, too. (If you go to Hungary in the summertime, you can see hundreds and hundreds of canoes, many of them my design.) But I was more and more interested in guitar making.

I met with some guitar players and they encouraged me to build classical guitars. I didn't know how to learn the first steps of the classical-guitar making process, but somehow I did it. I became more and more interested and one of the players introduced me to a very good guitar maker, Lajos (Louis, in English) Schneberger. He was in charge of a small piano factory, but made guitars at home in his kitchen. He told me that a long time ago very good guitars were made in Hungary, even archtop and classical guitars. But they couldn't compete with the other cheaper guitars from Czechoslovakia. Under Communism everybody was looking for quantity, not quality. He got sick of that and went into the piano business. They were building very beautiful pianos and finishing by hand.

Uncle Louis (I called him) was widowed and he kept his chisels and other tools in the kitchen cabinets right next to the dishes and knives, forks, and spoons. It was unbelievable; but for us it was normal. It was not even once that it hit your mind that it was strange for this old master to work this way, with the glue pot next to the goulash pot on the stove. When I met him he said, "Let me see your first guitar." It was not the first, but the first classical guitar I was not too embarrassed to show him. He looked at it and immediately said, ``You should do this. I will give you all my encouraging words to keep you going, because I feel you have that feeling inside, that sensitivity."

It was great. I still feel so much obliged to him. If he kicks me out from his kitchen (laughter), probably I am not here talking to you. I started to build more and more with his encouragement. Another person also encouraged me and Tini very much. He is my great friend Peter Temesvari and also his wife, Katalin. They are violin makers. Peter was a really famous rock-and-roll drummer before becoming a luthier. He's now the head of Hungary's violin association.

In 1981 I decided to become an independent luthier and get my masters degree. Without the degree I could only work for others, not open my own business. Other luthiers, my friends, encouraged me. They said, "Don't underestimate your capacity. Go for it." So I applied and took the necessary tests for the degree, even though I did not learn lutherie at school. I was awarded the degree and was soon able to get the business permit to open my own shop.

For the first year we were not starving, but we had nothing extra. At the end of that year, I was finishing a classical guitar just before Christmas. We had no money for a Christmas tree or presents. I was working very hard to finish the guitar, 'cause the guy is coming with his professor from a different city. If he likes it, he buys it. If not, no business. Then the electricity goes off. So we got all the candles, all the oil lamps, and I'll never forget that evening - finishing the guitar under those conditions. Next morning, Christmas eve morning, at 10 AM, a whole bunch of guitar players arrive with the potential customer. A few minutes later: he loves the guitar, puts the money down. I say to Tini, ``Let's get out of here quickly while the shops are still open so we can buy some presents." We had a beautiful Christmas.

Starting with the second year of my independent lutherie life, the business began to rise nicely. By the third year we are doing really well, getting well known, have good orders, everything. That's the year we decide to leave Hungary secretly. Even though our business is doing well, we do not sympathize with the Communists. It feels like prison there.

We don't say anything, not even to the family, because if you say a word and if it goes through your door, you don't know how the next people feel and they can call up the police and say that they heard that these people are leaving. They will come and take back the passports and we'll never get them back. I had not the courage to see my friend and teacher Uncle Louis to say good bye, because I knew it would make him very, very sad, knowing we would probably never see each other again. (It was ten years later that we were able to go back to visit, but he had passed away. I had no more chance to talk to him or to show him that beautiful guitar I brought with me to let him see how far I could go.) So we got our passports and in August we left Hungary going two different ways. I went to see Jose Romanillos as a business trip, and Tini and our daughter Eszter went to visit a friend in Paris. We left Hungary on the same train with nothing but one steel string guitar (a memory guitar), two suitcases; that's it. We went to Paris, but were advised to leave France within thirty days or they will send us back. We had to go back to Austria where there is an immigration camp. From inside the camp we applied to come to Canada, but it took four years because the Canadians refused us, so it was difficult. Finally we made it to Vancouver, B.C. in April of 1988.

We had nobody there; we were completely on our own. There was no immigrants' program or anything like that, and we didn't speak English. This part (he points to what he's sitting on and laughs) was closer to the floor than a frog's. That means emotionally, physically, financially you couldn't do anything worse.

Three days after, with almost no money, we're walking down the street in the cold rain and we find a music store, Ward Music. Inside I saw a guy who looked sympathetic to me. I went to his desk and said with my little English, "Hello. I'm Hungarian; my name is Geza; I'm looking for a job."

He said, "Eh?" It turns out he is French Canadian and he couldn't be clear what I am saying. He goes to get his boss and a few minutes later he comes back and says the boss is interested in talking to me but not now. About a week later they called me for an interview. I took my guitar with me to see the boss, the owner of the store, the manager, and the boss' nephew, who is now the president of the store. Not long, maybe twenty minutes I stay there. The old man, the boss, he stick his hand in the soundhole of my guitar. I was wondering, "What the hell is he doing?" He was checking, he told me later, if I did well sanding the wood inside. He was pleased, because he said, "We will make a decision and let you know."

It took three weeks and I gave up. I looked at all the other music stores, but nobody wanted to hire me or even see me. This store was the only hope. Three weeks later I was working in a fiberglass boat shop, nailing and screwing in mahogany frames. I thought, "I would rather be somewhere in Siberia or closer to my home. This is like torture. It's not what I learned; it's terrible; it's killing me." And then the phone rings, "Congratulations, you got the job. You decide when you want to start.' That was Sunday. So I said, ``Monday."

I worked there for six years. When I started, you couldn't believe the mess in the workshop/repair area. It was full with crap Ä broken instruments from the ceiling hanging down, trumpet parts, cockroaches, and so on: a place that you really don't want to enter. It had been a restaurant kitchen at one time. Day by day I got sick and tired and depressed and I found a little room in the back of the workshop full with old saxophone cases. They had used that room for spraying the brass instruments after the brass guys (we called them brass-holes) (laughter) worked on them. The other repair-shop guys were completely against giving that room to me, 'cause they can see that I'm moving independently. They don't like the idea that the new guy is making good progress. But my boss, the owner of the store, (he's in his eighties now and he still likes me very much) supported me in creating a little string shop in that room. It was only about two and one-half by three meters, but there were two windows so I could see the street and people.

I made a beautiful little workshop there, doing my job, talking on the telephone. Using the telephone was very difficult, especially when I got a client with a British accent. He says "I've got a 'kise' or a 'bough'. I have no idea what he's talking about, and no one would help me. They laughed at me, but somehow, day by day I learned a bit more English. I had to. I knew if I broke down, if I give up, I will never be a luthier again. I was always complaining and Tini said, "You wanted to come to Canada, so don't complain. It's going to be all right." And she was perfectly right.

So I just shut up. I was more interested to do the things to prove that I was capable of the job because I was the brand new guy. I wanted to keep the job. So I proved over and over again that I am a master luthier. A Japanese Suzuki violin doesn't make me too excited, but they wouldn't hire me just to work on guitars. They said I must work on violins, violas, cellos, basses Ä all the stringed and fretted instruments. It took me about a year to get comfortable there.

By the end of the year I had made that little shop and the company was very impressed. They could see that this is how it's supposed to be. I think I changed not only my lutherie life, but the whole shop's - the attitude - and they really liked it and appreciated it. The first Christmas, our first in North America, I got a $50 bonus check like everyone in the workshop. And I got a beautiful book: the newly published Romanillos book. The owner knew that I know Jose very well, that he is a great influence in my life. I asked how much I have to pay for this. He said, "Don't worry; it's a gift." Plus I received another envelope (sealed); it said "Confidential" but I did not know what that word means. The other workers got very suspicious and they forced me to open it. I was like a greenhorn and did it. There was a very nice thank-you letter from the company, how pleased they were to have me, and then a check for $250! I couldn't believe. That was a fortune for us. It really made a good Christmas.

Another great Christmas! It sounds like they really appreciated you.

The company saw that I was doing good work. I am very grateful that the boss, Sydney Fratkin, gave me the chance to learn and be independent. He was very good to me, and I have nothing but respect for this man. His family had immigrated from Czarist Russia around 1900. So you can see why he had some sympathy for my position when I arrived at his store.

After about a year or so, Michael Dunn invited me to be a guest lecturer part time at his guitar making class at Douglass College at New Westminster (suburb of Vancouver). I was able to do that and still work at Ward Music. I found I really enjoyed teaching.

We were truly immigrants building up a life. I left the store after six and one-half years. Things were great there. I was making a very good salary and had paid holidays and other benefits. It was not an easy decision to make. I never built any instruments at the store. (The first guitars I made in Canada were made at home in the kitchen.) I was longing to be independent and build guitars.

I began working at home in a little bedroom workshop. But we soon learned that some people are not happy when you are making some noises like fretting a guitar. The lady down below thinks I am pounding her head. People in our apartment building complained. About this time some friends of mine who are boat builders (and I have taught them guitar making) introduced me to the Granville Island management. Granville Island is a man-made island right under the Granville bridge, the main bridge that goes over to the heart of downtown Vancouver. It was originally built for repairing ships and fishing boats. But the city started to change - a big impetus was the 1986 Expo. Gradually they starting kicking out the original tenants and making a more attractive place for artists' studios, workshops, pottery making, jewelry, woodworking, and boat builders (not to mention tourists). They didn't have a luthier yet. The manager, god of the island, was very simpatico, but told me I'd have to apply for the space. I did; and finally they phoned. "Please come down and pick up your key.' It was a big, empty space, about 20' by 30'. The fellow who worked there had made cedar chests for fifteen years. And then I got scared, "What am I doing here?" (laughter) For a few days I struggled, then I got the idea, and it's almost the same as I designed it. I took the plan down to the office and said, "This is what I want to build." The manager said, "I wish you luck. If you can make it, I will be very pleased."

So we start to build, but only weekends because I have to keep working to make money. Brian Genn, one of my boat-builder and guitar-maker friends helps me frame and put up wood paneling. We build a beautiful shop. Tini helps me put things together in the right place. She was trained as an interior designer. We opened the business July 1st, Canada Day, in 1996, and also celebrated our becoming Canadian citizens, which happened just a couple weeks before. Tini became my business partner, bookkeeper, all-around worker including cleaner; she's a fantastic cleaner with the vacuum or inside an old instrument. A famous violin restorer from New York wandered into our shop last summer. His first question was, "Where is your shop? Where are you working? How come it's so clean?"

The first thing people can feel in my shop is that it is clean and organized. All my shops have been like that. I just have to work and live that way. You live there basically. If you are a luthier and building beautiful instruments, you're not supposed to work in a mess up to your knees where you can never find anything. I study the customer's face when he or she comes through the door. I want them to feel comfortable and trust me. So my first aim is to build up a good atmosphere; I'm always friendly. After they leave, then I may have something to say. But I never let them know if I'm upset. That's not a good thing in business. Just control your behavior and enjoy to work there truly. Lately we worked there fourteen or fifteen hours a day, we were so busy.

Tini: Not anymore!

Geza: I made a promise yesterday that I never will work that many hours again. I will never push myself that hard.

Tini: He's said that many times.

Geza: We are fanatics, maniacs. You can't stop. You're doing something you can't stop doing it until you feel at least reasonably good. But I think somehow we have to take care of ourselves or we go too far. She says, "You will not have enough time to enjoy what you did because you are always working." That's true. I think I will stop easily from this time on. I made a promise here in Tacoma.

There's more to life than work, even if you love your work.

Tini: You need to enjoy your work, but you need to relax.

Geza: I think I will 'cause as I'm getting older, I'm fifty-four now, I am more and more fussy about what I am doing. It would be very unrealistic to believe that we can be perfect. We are looking for perfection, a great value for us.

I am not a monotonous luthier. I don't do anything routinely; I hate that. That's why I never make the same guitar twice. Nothing except the headstock is the same. I have several models, but each guitar looks different because I make each rosette individually. I don't repeat myself; that's the beauty of lutherie and the challenge, that you always have something fresh to put into it, you always have something to change. As you get more experienced you learn what you really like to do. The years go by then you get frustrated - how long will you live? How long you have no shaking hands? How long your eyesight is good? When do I have to stop? What am I going to do then? I have all these kinds of concerns. It really bothers me, but on the other hand, I really love lutherie; I never would go back. I would like to build kayaks again just for fun, but not for a living. Lutherie truly fits my personality. I wish I could be twenty years younger with the same knowledge.

(laughter) Don't we all!

I might be able to change the whole world. But in lutherie, I try to be just as traditional as possible. I have been trained to work by hand, so I have few power tools. I have a little table saw and a very small grinder/buffing machine for violin backs and small things, a small drill press, and a belt sander, which I plan to get rid of because it makes so much dirt. I plane my tops by hand, carve the neck, inlay bindings, purflings, and rosette, all by hand. The router is fast and very accurate; maybe someday I'll try it. I've never sprayed a finish; I French polish. I use oil varnish on guitars just for filler. If it's good for violins, cellos, and basses why not for guitars? I learned a long time ago the different aesthetic standards for violins and guitars. You would never sell a guitar if you finished it the way you would a violin and vice versa. When I'm doing guitar finish, I'm a guitar maker; when I'm finishing the violin, I know how to behave.

I have lots of plans for the future. I basically build classical guitars in the Spanish tradition. Jose Romanillos is a great influence. I met him in 1983 at the International Hungarian Guitar Festival. He was invited as a big maestro and I was invited to represent Hungary as the best guitar maker. I was fully paid and delegated; I was treated like royalty; I had nothing to do but just learn and make contact. Jose liked my guitars very much and he was wondering about my finish. So when we got one day off from the Festival, we went back to Budapest where I lived and worked. We spent a beautiful day in our home with Jose and his wife Marian and he enjoyed French polishing there. After the Festival he came for a longer visit and we had many good shop talks and he told me good things I'd never learned before. What Jose told me was like hearing Chinese. It was a modern standard I hadn't been exposed to before. And instantly when he left I started to build better guitars. Nothing weird, basically in the Torres style, flamenco as well. I also continued to build steel string guitars, both fingerpicking style or flat picking, and do restorations and repairs.

What woods do you prefer?

I have European spruce which originally belonged to Edgar Monch. When he left Toronto to go back to Europe, Jean Larriv'e bought that wood and kept it for the future. I bought the whole pile from him. I'm learning to work with red cedar. I have some fine old Sitka, which I prefer to use on steel strings. I like Engelmann spruce, too, but I think you can get that old Spanish sound only from European spruce.

I have some beautiful old European maple and rojo maple from B.C. I like Ind. and Braz. I like Braz. simply because of the gorgeous look, but I don't believe you are making better guitars simply because you are using Braz. back and sides. The top is the most important thing. I also don't think a bigger body results in a bigger sound. Some people believe if the guitar is bigger and deeper the sound is bigger. It's just not right.

I believe the best wood for necks and back bracing and back linings is Spanish cedar. It's very stable, very easy to work with; it's just wonderful. And I love that wood even more because I built boats with it. Hungary had a good relationship during Communism with Cuba. Castro sold giant cedar logs to Hungary. It was milled into 5MM by 6MM planks. I was one of the last boat builders in the good old days who could put the planks on the boat - solid cedar planks, bend it above the fire.

You build the boat frame upside down, just like a guitar. We had four or five meter long planks, perfectly cut, straight grain, and then we made a scarf joint, because the boat was eight meters long; then we thinned the wood to 2.8MM. We bent the whole plank above a long charcoal fire, which was burning a half-round metal container - like a rain gutter. The apprentices held the plank over the fire and I applied hot water to the other side with a sponge (I have to run the length of it) and it starts to bend by itself very beautifully. I watch by eye and when it's the right amount it is quickly put on the frame. And the smell. Can you believe? Everything in the shop has that spicy smell.

One of your rosettes reminds me of a photo of a Torres.

For some of my rosettes I've been inspired by Torres, for example the tulip and checker pattern. I make the checker pattern with side grain. It's beautiful. I change the border lines so it's not exactly a copy of Torres, but similar. Tulips are very popular in our country. You can see tulip motifs everywhere. It's like that in Spain, too, I guess. I use mother-of-pearl or mammoth ivory.

I've been using the V joint since 1983 when Jose said, "you should not have any problem to do a V joint." He described quickly how he does it. Just by words. I never bothered him; I never wanted to ask him particular questions because I thought that's too personal probably. He's older than I am and in European culture we never bother the elders. He just gave me the idea and I figured out what is the angle, possible length and width, and what to do. I do it on all my guitars. I truly enjoy it. I can make a V joint in less than one hour, totally by hand. I've never needed to replace one, yet - touch the wood (he knocks on the chair). I forced my apprentices to learn it too. There's no waste. Every piece of the lumber you can utilize. It's a beautiful joint; it really shows your ability, your skill.

I use a Spanish heel. I cut the slots for the sides wide, and reinforce them with two mahogany wedges. Lately I designed a jig. You put the neck in like a guillotine. You can't make a mistake, so you don't need to measure anything. The jig is set up with the neck clamped in place. The heel sticks out through the bottom and the jig is the right angle for the curvature of the upper bout. I make two simple cuts from both sides then add a mahogany spacer on each side and make the second two cuts. The first two cuts must be perfect since they show on the outside of the guitar.

Tini, would you like to add anything about your work?

Tini: I'm an all-purpose helper.

Geza: She can hardly wait to bring down my breakfast! (laughter) She helps in everything.

Tini: Go somewhere to get something; whatever needs doing.

Geza: I am depending on her and she is depending on me. When we take off the top, the plate from a cello, bass, or violin, then we talk; we make a plan. I leave the instructions for her and she perfectly cleans the inside. She has a tremendous lot of patience. I have no more clamps around - Tini holds it like a clamp. (laughter) When she's not there I feel lost. We never thought we would do business that way, that we would stay the whole day together; go home; do the same things. You are just like breathing together.

Update, February 2000:

Back in Tacoma you made a promise not to work so hard. Did you keep it?

It was a lie. I think I can not change myself. It's not for the money or for the reputation. To the last breath this is what I love to do. It's in your bone. You want to improve your skill, too. It's the wood, chisel - you have to do it. You have the picture, the vision; you have to do it.

Now that I've seen your shop, I understand how you can spend so much time there and be comfortable. I think it's the most beautiful, organized, clean, and comfortable work space I've ever been in. And the hand tools ... . Do you teach there as well?

Thank you, Cyndy. We have two apprentices right now, a lady from Montreal who's learning violin and guitar making and a fellow, a very good guitar player, from Calgary. He's learning both classical and steel string guitar making. I usually reserve teaching time for them on weekends and evenings. We really don't have the space for another person during our regular working hours.

I want to make the students excited by watching me and seeing how to do it. It's a little like food when you're hungry. First you smell it, then see it, then try it - taste it! Then you want to do it again.
Geza Burghardt