Classical Guitar Luthier Interview: Tobias Braun (Austria)

Interview with classical guitar luthiers: Tobias Braun (Austria)

I’m delighted to have Tobias Braun from Vienna, Austria.

Q1. Could you please tell us a little about your luthiery and its history?

Guitar making started as my hobby (at that time I studied German literature and journalism) when I was in my very early Twenties. For one and a half years I followed books and tried to make guitars in the self-taught-way.

In 1984 I could attend the very first guitar making class by José L. Romanillos in Zürich. These three weeks formed the acoustical and aesthetical basis of my guitars.

More courses with José followed (1988 in Aalst; 1989 and 1992 in Córdoba) and in 1993 I became his assistant during the next class in Córdoba. For me that was like the mastercraftsman's examination.

Together with a friend I translated José Romanillos' famous book on Antonio de Torres into German.

In 1998 I moved from my old house and workshop in Perchtoldsdorf to the new one in the remote village of Gaaden (a few kilometers southwest of Vienna).

Very early in my career I started buying wonderful spruce trees and now I am very lucky to have a lot of old tops in stock.

Together with friends and colleagues I organized for a period of nine years an internationally attended congress for instrument makers. Why do I mention this? Because I am totally convinced that in our profession it is absolutely necessary to be linked with other makers and to exchange experience and knowledge.

Q2. Please describe your idea of a good sounding guitar, and what you do to achieve it?

Of course I am mainly influenced by José's way and acoustic aims to build a guitar. One of the very important things of an instruments is that - when it is played pianissimo - it still produces a clean, singing and clear note -and not a dull, "dead" sound.

Transparency is important to me as well. When they play Bach, one should distinguish the voices very easily.

Another thing is a warm, deep and resonant bass. I want a lot of colours and a wide range of dynamics in my guitars.

Loudness? I like projection more.

How do I achieve these things? I don't force the wood when I put the guitar together...

I have learned a lot when I was asked to copy the 1924 Santos Hernández (ex-Louise Walker) and the 1926 Francisco Simplicio (ex-Eduardo Fabini) for their later owners. Both instruments gave me a deep insight and helped me to understand the Spanish sound.

Q3. Please tell us about your idea of improving playability, and what you do to achieve it?

Playability is a very complex topic. First of all it is necessary to see and understand the guitarist's way of playing and his wishes. One of my ways to make an instrument easier to play with are higher frets.

That sounds contradictorily - but it really helps.

Q4. Please tell us your opinion about the traditional finishing method (French polish) and new methods (lacquer, catalysed finishing, etc).

I have never tried another technique than French polish. So I am the wrong person to tell you about pros and cons of artificial lacquers.

Q5. Please tell us your opinion regarding shorter-scale guitars such as 640, 628 and 615mm in terms of playability, design, sound quality and volume. Is there an increasing need to cater to smaller-handed or female players?

Until now I have never made shorter scales than 640mm. For some players - whose hands are much smaller - it can be helpful. In particular my Japanese and Chinese customers order shorter scale models for that reason.

BUT: Reducing the scale length is not the first choice to increase playability. I don't want to lose the tonal advantages (of the basses in particular and the choice of string tensions) of a "longer" (i.e. 650mm) scale. According to my experience there are other factors (width and thickness of the neck - to name but a few) that will meet the demands of a player with smaller hands.

At the moment I don't see an increased demand in shorter scale classical guitars (with the exception of replicas of historical Viennese, French etc. guitars of the early 19th century).

Q6. Many readers say they end up being very confused after trying many guitars. Could you give us some advice on how to examine the guitars' sound quality and playability at a shop or luthier, from the guitar-maker's point of view?

I understand your question very well and can confirm it to a certain extent. In my experience there are two reasons for it.

  1. Often players don't have an precise idea of what they are looking for (I am sorry to say that).
  2. Many haven't played a wide range of guitars.

To say it in a positive way: When a player has a clear vision of the sound he/she is looking for, they will have less problems in finding "his"/"her" guitar.

The very first question I ask players who come to my workshop is: "What sound are you looking for?". Believe it or not - many have to think of a detailed and profound answer!

My advice is:
Be aware of your own playing technique and demands. Be aware of the wide range of different guitar sounds. Try to gain experience by playing as many old and new guitars as possible. Listen to good recordings. Listen to one guitar played by two or more players.

Q7. Do you offer any 'after-sales' service to customers - particularly customers who are nervous about making a substantial investment?

Of course I do. All my customers are invited (after a couple of weeks) to bring their/my new guitars for a "playability-check". Many players need some time to get to know their new instrument and then I will adjust nut and saddle to their requirements.

The other thing is an unlimited guarantee on woods and craftsmanship for the first owner of the guitar.

That keeps things quite relaxed.

Q8. How does the increasing rarity of some woods, rosewood for example, impact on your methods, and the quality of the end product?

I am in the lucky position to have enough wood - especially spruce - in stock for more than a lifetime. Somehow I never bought a lot of Brazilian Rosewood in the past but there are a lot of fine and old Indian Rosewood sets in my workshop.

I like Indian RW very much for its technical and acoustic properties.

One of my favourite woods as an alternative to Brazilian RW is Satinwood. It is very hard, dense, heavy and I like its look very much.

Heat-treated maple and spruce are excellent woods to work with (see photos).

Q9. How do you see the future of this beautiful tradition in the 21st century?

Your question has several aspects.

Today there are so many guitar makers throughout the world that I find myself asking: "How can they make a living?". The level of craftsmanship is - generally speaking - high. One can find everything in the internet or on Youtube. 30 years ago it was totally different...

For a young maker it is very difficult to find his place, his "niche", that makes him distinguishable from others.

The other facet are the players. I have the impression that quite a number is - as you wrote before - are confused by the huge number of traditions, styles, models and materials.

When one visits a dealer with a good selection of guitars, he can choose between Torres-/Santos-/Ramírez-/Hauser- or Bouchet-style guitar or instruments with lattice/carbon/Nomex-tops. Just to name but a few.

It is hard to predict what sort of guitar will "survive".

I don't know what the future of the guitar will look like - but I hope they still will play instruments with solid tops! ;-)