From the workshop

The art of guitar making

The art of guitar making - From the workshop

It is perhaps the calm and seclusion of Scharans which promote the necessary patience and precision to make world-famous guitars. This is where, in the experienced hands of Claudio Pagelli, plucked string instruments, perfect down to the very last detail, are created. It is from this small village near Thusis that they start their journey into the big wide world.

He taps the soundboard and listens to the sound of the wood, files a small piece of wood into the exact shape for the sound hole, checks the curvature of the instrument with his expert eye. When Claudio Pagelli is working, he uses all his senses: "I rely on my ears, my hands and my eyes." The guitars are made by hand, with trained intuition, from start to finish. "I have allowed myself to make a template for a guitar that is particularly popular. But apart from that, my guitars are unique and hand-made. I have to feel how the wood develops in my hands – something machines can’t do."

The right wood for the right sound
Making guitars has been part of Claudio Pagelli’s life for some time now. He set up his own business at the tender age of 19: after learning to be a piano maker – there was no such thing as an apprenticeship to be a guitar maker back then, and still isn’t – he worked for a guitar maker until he opened his own workshop. This workshop has been in Scharans for the last eight years; its large windows looking over meadows and trees right to the Heinzenberg and Piz Beverin. Pagelli’s love of the guitar is not as calm and idyllic as you might think, but started out with loud noise: "When I was young in the 1970s, there was the hippie movement or the bourgeoisie. Naturally I was fascinated by the hippies – I loved the electric guitars that seemed to smash walls down and cause chaos with their loud noise. I was ten when I started to play the guitar and I built my first guitar when I was 13 from chipboard." But today it is more the quieter tones that fuel the passion for his work: it is the precise craftsmanship and wood as a living material that still fascinate Claudio Pagelli even 36 years. "When I listen to music or meet people, I see different types of wood in front of me. My mission as a guitar maker is to combine the sounds my customers want to hear with the right wood." And wood – as even someone who is not an expert knows – can vary considerably. He likes working with fiddleback maple, a local wood that is absolutely perfect for jazz guitars. "For the soundboard, I use mountain spruce felled at the right phase of the moon: this tree grows slowly and thus has fine annual rings which makes the wood particularly stable in spite of being lightweight." To fulfil all customer desires, there are also woods from all over the world in Pagelli’s workshop. Without having to look very hard, he pulls out the most beautiful pieces from the rack and presents the most extraordinary grains – Claudio Pagelli knows his woods inside out. "Wood is an addiction! I basically buy everything I like," he says laughing and examines a piece of wood to find the most beautiful grain for the guitar.

Name-dropping? No thank you!
The result of this passion and craftsmanship are acoustic and electric guitars but also bass guitars and – the icing on the cake – exclusive jazz guitars which travel to major stages all over Switzerland, but also in Italy, Russia and the US. Got any famous names for us? Claudio Pagelli doesn’t particularly want to be drawn on that: "There are quite a few famous faces to be seen on our website, but I am really not a fan of name-dropping. Naturally I feel a sense of pride if our guitars are sold to famous buyers, but we don’t celebrate it publicly. Famous names attract the wrong people – would-be musicians with crazy ideas but who actually have no idea of what music is all about." He much prefers people like the music teacher who had saved up a long time for a guitar from Pagelli and with whom he could then have a personal discussion. Most buyers are just normal people, from professional musicians to housewives. Having said that, these people have to save up considerably before they can afford one of Pagelli’s guitars: a jazz guitar – incidentally called an archtop in the trade – costs 20,000 Swiss francs and more. But when you take into account that Pagelli has to work around 250 hours to make one, this price is very quickly put into perspective.

«If you take every detail into account, the result is exceptional!»
Claudio Pagelli

Dedication and passion
With this dedication, it is not really surprising that virtually every instrument has a special significance for Claudio Pagelli. Most guitars are specially commissioned, designed by his wife Claudia, crafted by Claudio Pagelli, in their inimitable style: "We like straightforward, aesthetic design that takes a very definite subordinate role to the sound and the functionality." The hallmarks of Pagelli guitars are the specially shaped sound holes, that are called the F holes, which Claudio Pagelli works on for well over two days. On average, four archtops leave the workshop in Scharans every year. "When I make a guitar, I breathe life into the instrument. And that takes time. I cannot work any faster if I don’t want to make mistakes. I just have to tack a few hours onto my work process." He is particularly fond of his own projects that sometimes stem from a crazy idea – like the guitars featuring Swarovski stones. When he sells these personal gems, it is sometimes difficult for the 55-year-old to let go: "When I see that a guitar hasn’t gone to the right person, I regret selling it. But that very rarely happens. Although I did actually buy back a guitar once for this very reason," the guitar maker says. A Pagelli guitar is a high-end product that requires appropriate treatment and that you cannot just leave out in the sun or the snow: "We are talking about living material here that can warp if it isn’t looked after properly. That is something our customers have to understand." And is there a name he would like to see on his list of customers? Claudio Pagelli looks out of the large window and thinks for a while. "I would have loved to have made a guitar for Chris Whitley, he was such a magnificent player, but of course unfortunately no longer with us. Or for George Benson – but not the Benson of today, only the one from the 1970s!"