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Artisans build acoustic guitars, client base

Fine instruments in great demand

Dozens of acoustic guitars line the walls of The Music Emporium in Lexington. Almost all have that classic guitar look, the instantly recognizable pear shape made from woods in various shades of light and dark brown. A guitar in vibrant teal punctuates the lineup.

But the two guitars that Charles Fox is holding are unique: They're handcrafted, two of a half-dozen he has made of this particular model, costing about $15,000 each.

Fox is a well-known luthier, working from his workshop in Portland, Ore. He came to the Lexington store on a recent Monday evening to present his latest model, the Ergo, and discuss the craftsmanship that makes it unique.

He pointed out the model's elevated fretboard, its slightly rotated neck, and the domed top that creates a broader field of sound than the standard flat tops.

Such features are lost on many amateur musicians and some professional musicians, too. But the 30 musicians and guitar makers who gathered at the store that night appreciated the qualities of Fox's latest creation.

''The register seems very even; it plays beautifully," Mike Mele of Lynn offered after playing the guitar.

''It speaks so fast it can be disorienting," Raymond Gonzalez of Marblehead said.

The northwest area has a healthy, though not huge, community of individuals interested in high-end guitars. In fact, the region is home to at least two well-respected luthiers as well as The Music Emporium, which promotes these boutique instruments. This community appears to be growing, too, mirroring an increasing interest in custom-made guitars nationwide.

''A lot of people in the industry are saying this is really harkening back to the good old days, when actual artisans were crafting these things," said Joe Caruso, co-owner and manager of The Music Emporium.

Caruso said he's seeing adults who had put aside their interest in guitars while they pursued careers and took care of young families. Now, with more time and money available, they're returning to music. And they're looking for top-of-the-line guitars that will challenge them and accrue value as well.

At the same time, people in the industry say there is an expanding number of luthiers who build high-end and custom guitars for amateur as well as professional guitarists. The price for these guitars can exceed $25,000, compared with $500 to $2,000 for a mid-range instrument.

TJ Thompson is one such builder. Operating out of his West Concord workshop, he builds acoustic steel-string guitars and restores vintage Martins from the 1920s, '30s, and '40s. His clients include the Rolling Stones, Paul Simon, Eric Clapton, and Sting.

Thompson makes about five guitars a year, spending between 200 and 400 hours to create each one out of costly materials such as Brazilian rosewood for the backs and sides and abalone shell for inlays. He designs each to the specific needs of the owner, and is particular about whom he takes on as clients. He turns down more requests than he accepts.

''The flame that fuels my interest and inspiration is the relationship with the client," said Thomson, who does not sell to music stores. ''I have to hear them play. That becomes my guiding light for how to make the instrument. That's what helps me decide what woods to choose and how to combine them."

That type of personalization comes at a cost: Thompson's guitars sell for between $17,000 and $25,000 each. He also has worked on guitars costing much more, such as the $200,000 1937 Martin D-45 he is currently restoring.

Thompson's connection to guitars goes back four decades. ''I remember when I was about 6, a friend of my father's came to visit and he pulled out this huge, red archtop electric guitar. He played through our stereo and I was riveted. I never forgot that moment," said the 47-year-old Ohio native.

Despite such early impressions, Thompson pursued a career in early-childhood development. While he said he loved working with kids, ''it wasn't satisfying my needs to create with my hands. So I would come home at night and make jewelry, and I would make alterations on my guitar."

In 1983 he decided to pursue the craft, and through a mutual friend became an apprentice to Maine-based guitar-maker Dana Bourgeois. Elderly Instruments, a Michigan shop and leading dealer of Martin guitars, hired him in 1986 to run a five-person workshop. He stayed there until 1993, when he moved to Massachusetts and opened his own business.

''I was swamped with work right away and it never stopped," Thompson said.

Julius Borges, 51, also came into the business following work in another career.

Borges started playing guitar when he was 12 and attended Berklee College of Music. He played in bands in the Boston area, but got bored with the ''starving artist thing." So drawing on an interest in woodworking inherited from his grandfather, Borges went to work for a furniture-making company and later worked as a union woodworker.

But a 1993 on-the-job back injury forced Borges to find a new career. Combining his musical talents and his woodworking skills, he started Borges Guitars LLC.

Now working and living in Littleton, Borges sells handcrafted guitars to music stores and directly to musicians. He has made anywhere from 10 to 30 guitars a year, and models his pieces, which start at about $5,500, after 1930s-era Martin guitars. His skill has earned him many admirers.

''Everywhere I go, every different sound person comments on how beautiful his guitar sounds," said Buddy Miller, a Grammy-nominated recording artist based in Nashville.

Miller owns around 40 guitars, 15 of which he plays, picking different guitars for different performance and sound requirements. But he takes his Borges OM with him all the time. He also likes his wife's Borges guitar.

''I've been taking hers out when she's not looking," he said. ''It's the most beautiful-looking-and-sounding guitar. It just makes you want to play. An amazing guitar just makes you play better."

Miller can't articulate the qualities that make his Borges guitar so desirable. ''You just know when something feels and sounds right," he said. ''It just feels like it's the right instrument for me. It feels like an old guitar that has soul."

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