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ARTS
The music maker
Musicians swear Oskar Graf has not produced a bad guitar in the 30 years he has been practising his craft, Bruce Deachman writes.

Bruce Deachman
The Ottawa Citizen; CanWest News Service

Thursday, November 20, 2003

Oskar Graf holding one of his handcrafted guitars Oskar Graf will hold a drop-in, guitar-making workshop at the Ottawa Folklore Centre on Saturday, part of the celebrations marking his 30-year career building premium guitars.
CREDIT: Chris Mikula, The Ottawa Citizen

When virtuoso jazz and classical guitarist Roddy Ellias performs, he wears one.

So, too, does finger-style player Don Ross, who argues that his “must be one of the world's seven wonders”.

Cape Breton's Dave MacIsaac also carries one when he's picking his energetic Celtic tunes, while the Tragically Hip's Rob Baker has one around his neck whenever the Kingston band turns to things acoustic.

They're so highly prized -- and praised -- that even the Canadian Museum of Civilization keeps one in its collection.

What these musicians, and hundreds more, share are the careful attentions of Oskar Graf, who this year celebrates 30 years of building hand-crafted acoustic guitars from his home in Clarendon, near Ottawa.

“Oskar is a little bit obsessive in finding the right wood, with the right tone, before he uses it,” says Ottawa's Geoffrey Macdonald, who was living in Sharbot Lake in 1973 when he bought the first guitar, a 12-string, that Graf ever made, paying the then-princely sum of $250. “I don't think he's ever made a bad guitar.”

The German-born Graf, 59, emigrated from Berlin to Toronto in 1968, where he continued his trade as a furniture designer.

“But I didn't come to Canada to live in Toronto,” he recalls, “doing a straight nine-to-five job.” So in 1970, he joined the back-to-the-land movement, and headed to Clarendon.

There, he married his design and building skills with his love of music, and began building instruments, primarily hammered dulcimers and fretless banjos.

Since 1973, however, it's been mostly guitars, each of which takes about 100 hours to build. Because of the detrimental effects of humidity, he only builds them between November and June, consistently producing about a dozen each year. His steel-stringed instruments now sell for about $4,500, while his classical ones fetch about $1,000 more.

“They do everything a guitar should do,” says area resident John Bond, one of some 300 people who own a Graf guitar. “The sound is rich and warm, and every note along the fretboard rings true and clear, equally balanced and strong.”

“They're just a pleasure.”

Marking Graf's 30th anniversary, the Ottawa Folklore Centre last night held a celebratory wine and cheese in his honour, and on Saturday Graf will return to conduct a day-long, drop-in, guitar-making workshop.

As well, a number of his clients, including Roddy Ellias, Gary Elliot, Alan Marsden, Magoo, Alrick Huebener and Rob Uffen, will pay tribute to the luthier in a house concert at A Rose on Colonel By Bed and Breakfast tomorrow night.

Through all the accolades, Graf, who also founded and organizes the annual summertime Blue Skies music festival, remains humble about his talents.

“Well, I don't have to cross the street when I run into someone I made a guitar for,” he says.

“But I love sound. You start with an awareness, and then you learn to be more discerning. And after a while, you develop a tonal picture of what you want to hear.”

That tonal picture has taken him far afield in search of just the right kinds of wood with which to hand-tool his guitars. Much of his cedar, spruce and maple comes from British Columbia, while the rosewood he uses is from Brazil. He recently returned from the Italian Alps, where he pored through hundreds of spruce sets before choosing the 25 he'd return home with.

He's rightfully proud of his work, and the letters and e-mails he receives from overwhelmingly satisfied customers are testament to his craftsmanship.

“The richness of tone over the entire range and over all harmonics is incredible!” wrote one, while another claimed that “it makes music just by strumming on it, before you even play a song.”

What makes his guitars so special?

According to Graf, it's simply a matter of care.

“In the world of violins or classical guitars it's an accepted thing that you build something totally by hand,” he says. “You pay attention to each part of the material and shape it to what I would call its maximum potential ... Then the result will be a better-sounding instrument.”

But the world of steel-stringed guitars, he contends, has largely been one of mass production, even in the early days of Martins and Gibsons. “So if I approach a steel-stringed guitar like I'm building a classical, where I look at the top, the bracing and every other bit, and shape it to its best size, I think I'm ending up with a more responsive instrument.”

And it's not just professional musicians who enjoy Graf guitars. Many of his sales are to people who simply appreciate a good guitar and enjoy playing around the house. “When they get a good instrument,” Graf explains, “their playing improves, because they also enjoy playing it more. And with a good instrument, you hear stuff differently, so whatever you've been working on, on your cheapo guitar, comes a lot more easily.”

As for Graf, the pride he derives from his profession doesn't stop at the finished product. There's no such thing as the ultimate guitar, he says, which, like a mythical fountain of youth, only serves to drive him closer to that unattainable goal.

As well, the finished guitar is really only an early juncture in the story. Every guitar he's made follows a different path after it leaves his shop, some to professional stages, others to kitchen parties, and perhaps a few relegated to dusty closets or pawnshops. “That part I find fascinating,” he admits, “how people respond to my guitars, what they get out of it.”

“The idea that I'm building something that people can create music on is a great part of the satisfaction I get.”

For more information on tomorrow's concert or Saturday's workshop, contact the Ottawa Folklore Centre at 730-2887.

© The Ottawa Citizen 2003