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Guitar workshop hits all the right notes

Update: August, 25/2013 - 22:44

Sound operation:A skilled worker makes the soundboard, the most difficult part of a guitar to construct.

by Thanh Hai and An Vu

The arrival of a late afternoon is accompanied by the gentle strumming of a guitar, emanating softly from a family workshop in Ho Chi Minh City.

The quick, lively melody reminds us of days gone past and causes us to wonder about the people working in the workshop. Luckily for us, this is the place we are looking for: Ba Don's guitar workshop in Doan Van Bo Street

No sooner do we arrive at this place, one of the oldest of its kind, than we are warmly invited to see inside. Here, everybody is at work on guitars-in-progress. Some are busy sawing the bout, others cutting the cover and others still piercing the body. The sound of chisel and hammer creates a particular chorus, occasionally interrupted by the solo of a string tuner.

In the corner of the workshop sits Hong Phuc Dat, 22, carefully adding the final touches to each instrument. Although young, his professional skills are incredible and watching him skillfully chain each part of the guitar together is quite amazing.

"I come from the southern province of Ben Tre and was introduced to this studio by an acquaintance of mine. For almost three years, I have loved making guitars and growing in confidence.

In another corner, Cha Van Binh, a wounded veteran, carefully checks every tiny detail of a guitar. Despite the intricate nature of the work and the scorching heat of the day, his fingers dance effortlessly on the strings, lively and radiant like a true artist.

"I am working on this guitar stave by order of a customer living on the outskirts of Ha Noi. He seems to be a guitar know-it-all so I have to be very careful with this instrument," Binh says with a smile.

"Both my older brother and I make guitars for hire. He works for another workshop in District 4. I have worked here for ten years, mostly chiselling and grafting the top soundboard. My monthly salary is not much but I can afford to raise my family. It is also my destiny, as the more I make guitars, the more I fall for them and wish to make them better," he laughs.

Stringing it together: Workers at Ba Don workshop in the process of making a guitar. — VNS File Photos

When he first joined, Binh was only responsible for simple tasks like tuning up the strings and painting the guitar. Now he is comfortable with the whole process, from doing the mould, making the soundbox and tuning the strings.

The family of craftsman Ba Don have been making guitars for nearly a century. Nguyen Van Trang, the leader of the workshop and third generation of the family, has been a guitar maker since the age of 12. At present, seven of Don's children are following their father's footsteps.

"There are more than 20 workers at my shop. We also have many different types of wood to produce a guitar. Each type is used for different parts. Most importantly, fine and rosewood are selected to make the soundbox and neck of the instrument.

To make a guitar takes lots of labour. We must graft the sides, the front and back, fix the neck, glue the saddle, before finally polishing it. After that, the instrument must be polished again with a layer of lacquer paint. Each part will be tied up separately and then put under the sun till the glue is dry," Trang explains in detail.

He adds that the most difficult part of the process is making the soundbox, since the price and quality of a guitar depend on it. As a result, the soundbox technician must be the best worker of all.

"The price depends on the wood. Normally each guitar costs VND300,000 to VND2,000,000 (US$15-200). During the manufacturing process only the neck-making and colouring require a machine. Everything else must be done by hand. Trang's workshop produces 200 units a month for customers of all ages. Students from the city's Academy of Music take up the highest amount. However, Trang can count the number of his peers able to make traditional guitars like his on just about one hand.

"In times of difficulty, many have abandoned their workshops and looked for a new job. It is such a shame and I hope someone can do more to protect the business," he said. "We need to join together and defend it as strongly as we can." — VNS

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