In the 16th century in Cremona, Italy, the Amati family established itself as the premier maker of violins. The family patriarch, Andrea Amati, passed his tradition for crafting violins to his sons Antonio and Geronimo, and Geronimo passed along his knowledge and skill to his son, Nicolo, the most talented in the family. Nicolo’s models were small but capable of producing great, rich sound. But it was the Nicolo protégé, his pupil, who truly brought violin making to the level of masterpiece. Antonio Stradivari studied in the Amati workshop before going on to establish his own studio, improving on the Amati design, playing with arches, tinkering with thicknesses of the wood, developing the specific varnish, and allowing the scroll to add flourish to the instrument which became much more than functional—it was a piece of art.
Stradivari set the tone for the violin and for all stringed instruments to follow. He was the master luthier, the one who set the pattern, the maker of the mold. And here in our region there are those who have the same passion as Stradivari, to be an expert luthier, one who makes or repairs stringed instruments. In Kalamazoo, Michigan, Orville Gibson founded his own studio in 1894 making mandolins and guitars, establishing one of the most well-known guitar companies in the world and giving substance, creativity, and skill to thousands of master musicians in a variety of genres. Still today, luthiers are at work right here at home, working in the designs of the masters and crafting instruments all their own.
Six years ago, Tony Klassen started his own studio, New Era Guitars, in Furnessville, Indiana. As a graduate of the American Academy of Art, building guitars was a dream that he put on the back burner as he pursued a career in print design and furniture making. “I grew up in Crown Point and started playing guitar in college, and it was always a dream of mine to build guitars. But in my print career I was working with paint, pens, wax, tape and X-Acto knives, because I really hated the computer at first. But then when computers took off, I was able to use them and work from home, so I became self-employed in design in 1993. When the World Trade Center towers came down in 2001, my phone stopped ringing. I already had a woodshop here at my home and so I decided I would change jobs and try to make furniture, but you can’t ship a dresser to Japan and people here like to buy at IKEA, so I figured, why not do something you love?” Klassen says.
He took his skills from his design days, and his know-how from his furniture work, and he began making guitars in the tradition of his masters. “The Larson Brothers had a two-man shop in Chicago from 1900 to 1944. Their guitar designs were very innovative, way ahead of their time. When they died, they had no one to take over, and I thought, 'Man, why isn’t anyone building like these guys?’ There are a million people who make guitars, but I make them in the Larson Brothers tradition,” he says. One of his guitars sits on top of a tall table in his shop, laminated rosewood strips in the top inside for bracing, for strength. “Nobody was doing this bracing. The Larsons had a patent on it in 1904,” he says, showing the inside geometrical pattern of expertly cut wood.
Klassen lays in pieces of abalone and mother-of-pearl in the rosette by hand. He gently bends thin slices of wood with just enough tension to hold but not break, fastens jigs, sets the molds, sprays the lacquer in a sunburst pattern. He says it takes six weeks to complete a guitar, which he makes from maple, rosewood, mahogany and Adirondack spruce.
Today Klassen has a two-and-a-half-year waiting list for his guitars and he produces eighteen to twenty guitars a year that cost anywhere from $3,000 to $9,000. He admits he works seven days a week in his studio, sometimes just for two hours at a time, sometimes all day. “Some of my customers are repeat customers and have become good friends. I make guitars for Stefan Grossman, a country-blues artist; Country Joe McDonald of Woodstock fame; and I was hired by the Buddy Holly Foundation to make guitars for Peter Frampton, Pete Townshend, Nokie Edwards of the Ventures, and Peter Asher of Peter and Gordon,” Klassen says.
“I just love it. I don’t have an IRA. I’ll make guitars until I fall over. It’s art with function. Music is so important and for me, this is more rewarding than playing the guitar. The best thing is stringing it up for the first time."
Fellow local luthier Richard Biggs also studied at the American Academy of Art in Chicago before opening his own violin studio in downtown Porter, Indiana. Born and raised in Gary, Indiana, Biggs came to know about violins through his school, which was located on a floor in a building just below a violin shop. “I got to know several makers and ended up doing an apprenticeship with several makers there. I studied bow making, and even though I worked as an art director and illustrator for many years, I still made violins and repairs as a vocation. So I decided to retire from art directing in the mid ’80s and devoted myself to it full time,” Biggs says.
He calls on his days learning from master Franz Kinberg, one of the most famous violin makers in the U.S. Biggs worked in Kinberg’s shop for five years. Biggs has done work for many shops, but when the building at 106 Lincoln Street in downtown Porter became available, Biggs seized the opportunity to purchase the structure built in 1893 as the perfect new home for his own studio.
These days, Biggs doesn’t make violins much. Instead he focuses on making bows. Ten years ago he was invited to attend the Oberlin Bow Makers Workshop to study with the world’s most famous bow makers and he became a master bow maker. He was also appointed a master luthier in Chicago. “It’s infinitely harder to make a bow than a violin. There are only two hundred bow makers in the world and I’m really fortunate to be included in that group, but that group is small because it’s so hard. It requires so many more disciplines to make a bow than to make a violin. A lot of science and a lot of art is involved along with knowledge of wood and precious metals. Just the slightest slip and you go from making an excellent bow to a mediocre bow. You’re working with a thousandth of an inch. With bow making you’re changing the wood with heat and it was to stay that way. You’re telling the wood, ‘I need you to do this for me, can we cooperate together?’ It’s a great challenge, and that’s why I love it so much,” Biggs says.
But Biggs may be facing an even bigger challenge as the materials for his bows become scarce, and as a result, the next generation of bow makers may not be able to carry on this part of the luthier tradition. “The Brazilian government has stopped exporting the only wood that is used to make the bow, pernambuco. It’s not because of destruction of the trees, but politics. A piece of wood that used to cost $20 now costs $600 and there is a 20 percent failure rate when making a bow. But this is the only kind of wood to use, because of the strength and weight ratio. Everything in a bow vibrates so it has a musical signature. Nothing else works. We’ve been using it since 1775. And it will get worse. If pernambuco gets on the endangered species list, you won’t be able to travel with your bow. I’m part of a conservation organization and ten years ago we planted 15,000 pernambuco trees in Brazil that are ready for harvesting, but we can’t have them. We can’t export them. There’s no future for bow makers now,” he says.
Still, Biggs loves what he does. “I go very deeply into everything I do. I look at every facet of it. You owe it to the instruments to get all the knowledge you can before you touch it. Do no harm. That’s why our customers come here. They want their instrument improved. It’s an interesting life. I love this life. I’ll never retire. I’ll die at the bench, just like Stradivari,” he says.