Monday, May 13, 2013

Blueberry Guitars

Asian and Pacific Rim guitars are common place in these days. Squier, Epiphone, Yamaha, Washburn, Gretch and even Martin have developed relationships with Asian factories that turn out some of the lower cost instruments.

It may surprise you that many of these guitars are built of high quality tone woods, by superbly skilled craftsmen. 

The way I see it, as world trade becomes more robust, and the quality of guitars built internationally improves, the phrase “made in the USA”, will longer carries the weight it once did.

A few weeks ago I heard a radio story about Blueberry Guitars.  I was vaguely aware of these instruments. I had seen them online, but I knew nothing virtually about this company.

The Blueberry saga began when Montreal native, Danny Fonfeder was on a business trip to Hong Kong

Fonfeder is the president of Buffalo-Eastcantra Inc., a school-supply company founded by his father and a partner in 1960. His company's customers include giants like Wal-Mart, Zellers, Jean Coutu and Costco. 

This business has a 70,000-square-foot warehouse in St. Laurent, but the Buffalo-Eastcantra factories are located in Asia. And this is where Fonfeder spends around 3 1/2 months of the year.

It was in 2005 when he decided to take a week off from his business in Hong Kong and make a side trip to Bali. He forgot to pack his Martin guitar, leaving it at his hotel. While in Bali he searched shops for a guitar. All of the instruments he found were cheap and unplayable. 

He noticed a myriad of furniture shops that were selling beautiful and intricately hand-carved wooden furnitureand statuary

So Fonfeder bought a cheap guitar and took it to one of the shops and asked to carver if he could make the most beautiful hand carved guitar ever, decorating the body, neck, back and head.

The carver that Fonfeder met in that shop was Mr. Wayan Tuges.

In 1988 Wayan had attended an International Woodcarving Symposium held in Finland.  Tuges was taught the art of carving by his father and grandfather. Balinese wood carving is a slow process, but at this symposium Tuges had just one week to finish a project that would be displayed.

He chose to create a wooden statue of a Balinese witch. The judges and public were very impressed with his work. Mr. Tuges decided to leave the statue behind, due to its weight. However, he made headlines all over Europe and became well known in the wood craft arts industry.

So it was fortuitous that Danny Fonfeder happened by his shop. When Fonfeder returned to pick up his guitar, he was impressed with its design, but its sound was terrible. The instrument was made entirely of teak wood, which is not conducive as a tone wood.

But all was not lost, because Fonfeder, at this time had he one of those eureka moments, that come along once in a blue moon. 

The thought occurred to him, "What if some Balinese wood carvers could receive professional training to become luthiers and make profession quality, great sounding guitars decorated with intricately carving work?  These guitars would be not only be beautiful, but desirable instruments."

Fonfeder’s plan was to hire a Canadian luthier to go to Bali and train wood carvers in the art of luthery. Unfortunately he was unable to find a Canadian willing to take up the task. 

He then inquired with a member of the American Guild ofLuthiers, Vermont native Greg Morris. Morris has been instructing students in the art of guitar building for more than 30 years. Morris agreed to take the job.

Greg Morris spent the next two years training local Bali citizens to build a guitar that not only looked great, but sounded great too.  

The first attempt was made using the typical tone woods,  such as spruce, rosewood and mahogany,  that were imported from North America,. However since the climate in Bali is much more humid than the climate in America and Europe.  When these instruments were built and shipped to their destination, the guitars would develop cracks.  

Morris decided the solution to this problem was two fold. First kilns were set up at the Bali facility. The wood was dried in them for at least six months. The second plan was to use local woods, such as acacia. These solutions alleviated the issues.

Watch the video below and you will see that some of the employees of Blueberry guitars work creating the guitars, while others carve those incredible designs and perform the complicated inlay work that makes these instruments works of art. It is fascinating.

From all reviews that I have read, Blueberry Guitars have an excellent sound and are great players. One reviewer compared their sound to Larrivee and Fox guitars

Some of these creations are uniquely built with a split top, using rosewood for the top covering the bottom three strings and spruce for the portion of the top that covers the tops strings, thus giving the bass strings a mellower sound while the top strings produce a brighter sound.

Blueberry also offers triple wood tops.

Incidentally, Danny Fonfeder named the company after his daughter, whose name is Blueberry.

These guitars are priced similar to what you would pay for a mid-range Martin and probably less than a new Gibson instrument. Most sell for $2500 to $3000 USD, but a very ornate instrument may cost considerably more.

Blueberry Guitars are all handcrafted. Some of them have a 5 month delivery.

From what I gather, most of the guitars are sold directly from the manufacturer through their eBay store. There are but a few authorized dealers.

They also hold an auction and a contest on their webpage.

Blueberry makes not just acoustic guitars, but solidbody hand carved electric models as well.

Blueberry guitars are perhaps the most incredibly beautiful and unique guitars that I have ever profiled. They would certainly make for an eye-catching instrument during a performance.


Josh said...

Those are incredible looking guitars! I've seen people do some interesting wood-burnings on their Big Baby Taylor, but nothing this intricate.

Thanks for the introduction to the Blueberry Guitar. I'll definitely keep my eye out for it.

Bridget Brock said...

How fascinating! I have never seen any like it…
Bridget@ Guitar Strings

Matt @ Best Acoustic Guitar Strings said...

The intricate detail on some of those guitars is absolutely phenomenal. Having built custom guitars myself, I know that it takes a whole lot of dedication to accomplish that.

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Anonymous said...

Seriously? If I want a wall hanger or display instrument, I would spend a lot less. I'm sure the "guitar builders in Bali" (based on their wages) are not benefiting from the cost of each guitar.
The comment that "made in the USA" may not mean as much is baloney. What they should be saying is that "by having these made by extremely low paid workers we can make a much larger profit".
Guitars each have an individual voice, and you can easily get a nice Martin or Gibson for 1/2 (or less) of the cost of a Blueberry.
Of course, a USA made Martin or Gibson would only sound great, not look great displayed on a carved wood stand.
I will buy American for quality at fair cost for fair sustainable wages for the people who worked on what I purchased in the USA.

steve steverton said...

Blueberry guitars suck...I'm a mandolin player and have a beautiful Weber mandolin that is hand made here in the USA...its craftsmanship is second to none...I also have a Breedlove custom mandolin also handmade here in the USA...I actually picked up a blueberry instrument to play it...the actual instrument had intonation looked beautiful but played not so well...I can take a turd and dress it up...put gold chains on it...spray it with expensive cologn...pretty it up and present it with great style and passion but at the end of the day it's still just a turd...a crappy piece of shit if I may say...beware of overly ornate instruments...too much attention is given to the looks and not the all important practicality of pristine other words the instrument played like was a pretty piece of shit though...made in the USA is the way I go...

brasled said...

I purchased a used blueberry last year. The brand is not well known, except to a small crowd, and I was able to buy it for $900. It is one of their simple models, just stylish grooves. I have not played every known guitar in existence, nor have I played every known Breedlove in existence. I can say that it is better than any model Breedlove I've played in the stores. It compares with a martin D-28. and would have cost less if I purchased it new and definitely was less used. I play a friends Taylor 916 from time to time, and while the sweetness, tone, and clarity of that instrument is the winner, it can't beat the sustain, and wide style variance of the blueberry groove -- it adapts to differenct music styles better. I've used it to play in a classical guitar trio, and it worked quite well for that -- which means the intonation can not be s$%t as mentioned in a previous post. I'm sure there are poor examples of blueberry guitars out there. I know for sure there are poor examples of martin, breedlove, and gibson guitars out there -- I've played them. I've never come across a bad taylor, but there is still time. While I am not a fan of the ornately carved models, and see that as spending good money for prettiness and nothing more, I know for certain that they have taken the time on all the important things, like playability and intonation, on at least one guitar, and I suspect that is true of many of them, as I've found enough recordings to indicate that is so.
I've had quite a few friends play the blueberry, and the reponse has always been, "well, that one's a keeper" and I've been amazed at how different the instrument sounds with each person that plays it. It is very responsive to touch and finger control. I would love to have an equivalent Martin, but that has always been beyond my price -- $900 is the most I've been able to spend on a guitar, and I had to take the best I could get for the price. I am not going to deride Gibson because I picked up a poorly set-up new j45 in a store one time. As for sound, well, that is a subjective thing.
On a side note,If you look at the time to get a blueberry, it takes 5 months to make and ship one. I'm sure the carving takes up some of that time, but the rest is spent on issues of sound. It is custom made. On the other hand, the martin D-28, Gibson J-45's, etc., are mass produced, put through a set of checks, and then shipped out to your store. The Taylor 916 is mass produced as well, shipped out to lots of stores, waiting somewere in storage for someone to purchase. You want a custom Martin, it is going to cost you far more than an equivalent blueberry. You are paying for the name. I purchase everything based on quality of build, not on area of manufacture, name brand, etc. If it is not quality, I send it back. The blueberry groove I have is a quality instrument. Is it the best instrument ever -- no way,but I didn't spend over $5000 on it.

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Dewsterdude said...

I was able to pick up a used Celtic model electric a few months ago used. I have found The playability of the guitar is on par with other guitars I have owned (suhr, Anderson, carvin, Gibson, etc,...). The carving is absolutely beautiful and fun to look at. The sound of the guitar has a slightly darker tone to it, but I find that easier to deal with than a guitar that is too harsh. I Ended up trying a few pickups in it and ended up pairing it with a set of bare knuckle mule pickups. The guy who had it before me had it setup to do metal which is not my thing. It plays easy and has a great versatile,sound. I did talk to the owner after I purchased It. Even though I bought it used he was very helpful, suppotive, and answered my questions. It is one of the coolest guitars I own, plays easy with low action, and it sounds great... Overall I am pleased with my purchase.

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