Steve Salvi is a younger luthier who takes a more rock’n’roll
approach, playing weekly in the house band at Adelaide’s most
bohemian venue, the Grace Emily Hotel. Salvi, who custom builds
stringed instruments – no matter how unusual – makes very different
guitars to Redgate and de Gruchy but agrees that being a luthier is
something of a ‘black art’. He also uses the word ‘organic’ to describe
the end product.
“People like to have something that feels organic and grows,” he says.
“The more you play the bespoke guitars we make, the more they have a
life of their own. As you age, the instrument ages with you and there’s
something indefinable with that relationship.”
Salvi is a passionate flag-bearer for the cause of individually
handcrafted instruments, a sector of the music industry that has
grown exponentially in Australia as the major brands, such as Gibson
and Fender, have outsourced their manufacturing with the rise of
Now 42, Salvi has done a long apprenticeship since playing his first
live gigs as a teenager and building his first guitar at the age of 18. In
his twenties, he worked in London’s guitar hub, Denmark Street, and
repaired guitars owned by the likes of Eric Clapton, while playing as
the house guitarist at the blues mecca, the 12 Bar Club, a few doors
down from the shop.
Coming back to Adelaide, he resumed his career as a guitar repairer
in a major dealership but quit to become a luthier, working at Jim
Redgate and Bryan de Gruchy’s workshops for free and watching how
it was done. Along the way, Salvi managed to persuade the Churchill
Foundation to send him to America to study and spend time with some
of the country’s best guitar makers.
“I did discussion groups where you sit and talk with some really high-end
guitar makers for eight hours a day,” he said.
“It was excellent, and I came back inspired because what is happening
with guitar making in that country is amazing. When I got home, I
realised that I didn’t want to do anything else; this was my calling.”
A lucky break came when a friend bought a boarded-up shop and
offered it to him to rent. Salvi hung out his shingle in the inner-Adelaide
suburb of Thebarton about five years ago and he hasn’t looked back.
Guitar repairs and set-ups might be his bread and butter, but the
making of individual instruments remains his passion and there is
now a waiting list for his output. An instrument ordered today probably
won’t be delivered for 18 months, but that does not deter a growing
number of clients who are happy to wait for an original bespoke
instrument handcrafted specifically for them.
“People want something that is special and unique, and which gives
them a voice,” says Salvi. “If you are playing a guitar and you don’t like
the tone, it’s like talking with a voice that you don’t like.
“It’s nice to have something that is unique. It’s not big-headed or
arrogant, it’s just human nature to have something nice that is yours.”
While he specialises in steel-stringed acoustic guitars, Salvi also makes
unusual one-offs. He produced a radical eight-stringed hybrid ‘guitarbass’
for solo artist Heather Frahn; an innovative ukulele for folk band
Brillig, which caused a stir on the band’s recent European tour; and is
creating an even more radical ‘harp-guitar’ for a client.
He also has a reputation for building pedal and lap steel guitars
popular with country-music musicians. In his workshop is a guitar
being made especially for a “big guy, who’ll strum really hard” and
another for a girl who picks the strings with her fingers.
“Everything I do is totally bespoke; I don’t work to any model,” says
Salvi. “But I think one of the reasons why people like my guitars is that
because I am a dedicated guitarist and I perform all the time, I can pull
out a guitar that works.”
Finishing an instrument, he says, is satisfying but also nerve-racking.
“Any feeling of success you have is tempered by apprehension of it not
being good enough,” he says. “But what I do enjoy is when people come
back for the set-up a year later to get the instrument adjusted. Then
when I sit down and play it I think, ‘yes it’s worked, it’s blossomed’.”
The strong demand for bespoke guitars today is in contrast to when
Bryan de Gruchy built his first guitar, back in 1976. In many ways the
pioneer for local handcrafted guitar making, de Gruchy says his early
years were a hard slog. Now aged 70, he says he has built around 550
guitars and, semi-retired, would make only a dozen instruments a year.
De Gruchy guitars are played by popular artists Kasey Chambers and
“When I first started building guitars you couldn’t give away an
Australian-made instrument,” says de Gruchy.
“There was a scarcity of builders around and one of my objectives
was to have Australian-made instruments that were so good that people
would buy them out of preference.”
The basis for any good guitar, says de Gruchy, is the wood. If you don’t
have that, there’s no point in trying for quality. As a result, his shed is
stacked with a huge amount of imported timber: Indian and Brazilian
rosewood, mahogany and spruce. The only quality Australian wood for
instrument making, he says, is blackwood; and while that is a quality
wood, it is very hard to work with.
“I’ve been a bit of a wood freak all my life,” says de Gruchy. “I love
tapping different pieces of wood and getting different sounds out of it.”
The satisfaction in making the instrument, he says, is to see top artists
play them in concert. One of the “biggest buzzes” of his career was to
buy a Tommy Emmanuel CD and hear his instrument being played.
For Redgate, seeing and hearing his instruments being played by
excellent musicians is also the pay-off. But Redgate confesses that he
is not as interested in the guitars he has already made “as the one I am
about to build”.
“I love to finish one guitar and get it off and then start working on the
next one,” he says. “If it’s a great instrument I either want to re-create
it or build an even better one, because once you build something that
is better than anything you have done before then that becomes the
benchmark, and you have to go for something even better again.”
Redgate is unusual in that while he builds traditional classical guitars
he experiments with modern technology to improve them. The Nomex
compound he uses, a derivative of Kevlar, is used in the aerospace
industry, for lightweight motorcycle fairings and in cars and yachts.
“Probably what I am best known for is taking some of these newer
materials and producing a sound which is very much like a traditional
guitar with more volume,” he says. “I’ve built some double-topped
guitars with Nomex, which essentially creates a sandwich effect with
two thin pieces and the Nomex in the middle, and this has been very
successful in delivering both a loud and a warm sound.”
His most radical instrument was a guitar with a ‘wave of distortion’
running through it, a feature designed to add strength without adding
weight. The guitar has a slight but crucial curve which runs from the
neck to the bridge, making it quite unlike a conventional instrument.
“It was just an initial prototype, but Slava Grigoryan saw it and really
loved it and that is his main guitar now,” says Redgate.
“Classical instruments are usually quite conservative and players don’t
take too easily to radical changes in design. So it was interesting and
gratifying that this was probably the most radical guitar I’ve built, and it
has ended up with a virtuoso like Slava Grigoryan.”