Acoustic packs its bags and heads off to Berlin for the annual drool-fest that is the Holy Grail Guitar Show
The Holy Grail Guitar Show is unlike any other guitar-related exhibition or show currently in existence. Now in its third year, the two-day event is organised by the European Guitar Builders (EGB), an alliance formed by professional, independent European luthiers. The EGB is in existence to promote luthier-built instruments, which include acoustic, electric and bass guitars, among the guitar playing public. As such, the concept for their proprietary show is quite different. Yes, of course, it’s a guitar show designed to bring ultra high-end product to a wider audience, but the event is much more than a static show. The EGB seeks to preserve and carry forward the art of guitar-building and has fostered a genuine sense of community among luthiers. One EGB board member told Acoustic: “Holy Grail is not really a commercial show. It’s a community show. It’s put together by luthiers, for the benefit of luthiers and to create a great experience for show visitors without the ulterior motive of making profit.”
“When we started to plan for the first Holy Grail we did not know how it would turn out,” recalls EGB president Michael Spalt. “We had faith that our concept was a good one, drawn from our combined experience of hundreds of all kinds of guitar shows. But being luthiers and not professional event managers, we had no idea if we could actually pull it off.”
As evidence of the EGB’s desire to stick to their principles in promoting only single and small-shop lutherie, they have turned away exhibiting income from the ‘big guns’. There’s no Martin or Taylor here. No Yamaha. No Gibson. Though, it has to be said, the influences of the aforementioned designs can be seen everywhere. Every exhibitor gets the same amount of space (a single table that can display up to four instruments) and the list of those permitted to exhibit is strictly monitored. The organisers have determined what they feel the optimum size of the show should be. The event will therefore not grow in size year on year – although the current venue is capable of accommodating growth. New luthiers wishing to exhibit are placed on a waiting list and the organisers operate a rotation system; switching out existing exhibitors in favour of those waiting. One exhibitor told us that: “Having exhibited at the first three shows, it’ll be my turn to sit out next time and create space for someone who was able to exhibit at this year’s show.” This, as much as anything else, makes the Holy Grail unique. The rotation of exhibitors means that visitors can expect something new at each show.
The Holy Grail attracts exhibitors and visitors from around the world, including many known to regular readers of this magazine. Jason Kostal, Alister Atkin, Andy Manson, Gary Southwell, George Lowden, Andreas Cuntz and Stefan Hahl were among those displaying some of the finest and most forward-thinking instruments available anywhere in the world today.
One special aspect of this year’s show was an invitation to exhibitors to build a guitar from local wood. At a time when commonly used species are now endangered, the concept was to push luthiers to look at what can be accomplished by using locally sourced alternatives. The initiative was the brainchild of the UK’s own Adrian Lucas who serves on the board of the EGB and the six-man show team, whose responsibility it is to actually put the show on. “It’s completely optional – there’s no necessity to take part,” Lucas told us, “but luthiers could interpret the theme of using local woods as they choose. A total of 27 exhibitors took up the challenge. Some of them were long-term users of local woods. For others it was a completely new way of looking at tonewoods and what alternatives they could use. It really gave them permission, or an excuse, to use woods that they traditionally felt weren’t guitar wood. But if you can use a local wood, why would you want to transport a different wood halfway around the world?”
All of the resulting guitars were collected together on the Sunday morning to create a special feature. “It wasn’t just about the luthiers though,” Lucas told us. “It’s an opportunity to show visitors and players to say, ‘Look, this works’. The challenge was presented as a new way of looking at things but, in reality, it’s a return to the renaissance where everything was made from local woods.”
Specific acoustic guitars that caught our eye included an exquisite Lowden, hand-made by Mr Lowden himself specifically for the show, featuring genuine Brazilian rosewood. The guitar had all the required CITES paperwork and was a rare opportunity to see and, for one visitor, the chance to own. We were also taken with Alister Atkin’s take on a pre-war Martin Dreadnought. Flawlessly finished and with a tone to die for, it was rightly popular and always seemed to be in someone’s hands.
While at the show, Acoustic spoke to some exhibitors for their take on the event. Pavel Krajicek of Rozawood Guitars commented: “When compared to any other type of show in Europe, The Holy Grail is completely different – it’s more American in that it’s only for hand-built instruments. People who come to the show know what type of guitars are on display and they are not surprised by the price tags. The visitors come mainly from Germany, as you’d expect, but they also come from all over the world. We have sold product here to people who have visited from America.”
Arizona-based Jason Kostal told us: “The experience here is incredible. This is my 21st guitar show as an exhibitor and this is by far the best show I have ever been at. The show is important for me because it allows me to interact with future clients. For most boutique luthiers, there’s never really going to be any guitars hanging in a guitar store for someone to play – as soon as the guitars are finished they’re shipped to a buyer. The Holy Grail is a great opportunity for people to fly from wherever they are in the world and play some top-notch guitars. I’ve spoken to visitors from as far as Japan, America and Canada who have come specifically for the show. For about 98 per cent of guitar players out there, the factory-made guitars are great. They are not looking for a personal interaction with the luthier or to have a guitar tailored to a specific need. The boutique market stands for those that have played guitar for a while and figured out what they like and don’t like about instruments they’ve played. They can then speak to one person, give them that list and tell them to create ‘their’ guitar for them. It’s about having a personal relationship with the luthier while they build you a guitar – it’s a relationship that lasts not just through the creation of the guitar, but long after that. Often, that’s more important to the client than the instrument itself.”
Famed UK luthier, George Lowden, said, “This is the first time I’ve exhibited here and it’s fantastic to see the art of lutherie so alive and well. As I walk round the show, I see lots of acoustic guitar makers who are trying something different and, to me, that’s really important.”
Having spent two days at the Holy Grail Show, we’re left with the feeling that – and bear with us here – the event can be likened to Formula 1. The continual advancements and technical innovations made by F1, be it in the field of aerodynamics, fuel efficiency, or maximising power output, eventually trickle down to everyday cars, which is why fuel injection systems, disc brakes and adaptive suspension are all so common place today. In a similar way, events like Holy Grail push the boundaries of guitar-making, both in terms of form and construction, and the innovations often find their way into more affordable, mass-produced product. As such, the Holy Grail is not just a keep-your-credit-card-safe drool-fest, it’s a crucial part of the art form we love. The next Holy Grail show will be in the spring of 2018.