“I was born in Budapest in l944 and am American by naturalization. My family and I arrived in this country when I was fifteen. Besides Hungary and the U.S. I have lived in Austria, England, Cuba, Mexico, Peru and Spain.
As a child I was a puttering, craftsy, nerdy kind of kid who played with clay and wood and made model airplanes. Moving around as much as we did, and being uprooted so often, I learned to be the source of my own stimulation and entertainment. I made my first guitar out of a cigar box when I was a Cub Scout, at about age eleven: it collapsed at first stringing. This was my start as a guitarmaker.
Having lived in many places I’ve managed to go to lots of different schools; I eventually graduated from U.C. Berkeley in 1966 with a degree in English. Upon graduation I entered the Peace Corps, which sent me to Peru for two years. Then, after returning from South America I attended graduate school in Wisconsin, worked in a mental hospital in Illinois, studied guitar in Spain, and for a time made my living as a flamenco guitarist in the Midwest and in California. About ten years ago I went back to graduate school to study clinical psychology. I’ve also branched out from lutherie to become an artistic wood carver.
My becoming a professional luthier wasn’t planned; in fact, lutherie didn’t exist as an occupation in this country when I started, so there wouldn’t have been anything to make plans around. I became a guitarmaker in 1971 when I made a guitar as a hobby project: a friend of mine had made a guitar using Irving Sloane’s seminal book, and I decided I wanted to make one for myself too. A lot of things start like that, I think.
I am unusual in lutherie in that I make both steel string and Spanish (nylon strung) guitars. Being a flamenco guitar player, I started out making flamenco guitars: I quickly found that the flamenco network is too broke to support a guitarmaker. Then I tried my hand at making classic guitars, which are very similar to flamencos. However, since I didn’t really know what I was doing in those early days I found the classic guitar crowd impossible to please. After a few years of this, when I’d finished with the steepest part of the learning curve and gotten past my worst mistakes, I became interested in making steel string guitars. Because I’d learned from my earlier failures, my steel string guitars were surprisingly good. And they had individuality. I became somewhat of a pioneer in this, as steel string guitarmaking in this country had previously been almost exclusively the province of factory production and the model of what a guitar should be was exactly a Martin or a Gibson.
I am at this point, after 40 years of instrument making, one of the leading American authorities on the principles of acoustic guitar construction. I’ve also been called a luthier’s luthier. These assessments are based on my extensive experience in making both Spanish and steel string guitars, and also on my years of teaching. I’ve taught classes in guitarmaking and repair both privately and in schools, lectured and given workshops and hands-on demonstrations at many national conventions and lutherie symposia, participated in more than a hundred lutherie and craft shows and exhibitions, and written and published dozens of articles on different aspects of lutherie over many years. I have taught and influenced many of the younger generation of American luthiers.
I attribute my professional success in large part to my having a degree in English, strange as that may sound. But the fact is that my English classes and teachers trained me in how to think critically. That is, I learned to look at something which someone had created and examine it closely, identify which of its elements worked and which ones didn’t, to think analytically about the connections of its parts, and to compare it to other work. The skill of being able to analyze serious written work has translated usefully to my being able to understand, and being able to make, better soundboxes. It also saved me from a professional life of basically making copies of guitars that were originally designed to be mass market products – an approach which was pretty much the only one available thirty years ago, and which is still widely in use today. Second, and not less important, my English teachers taught me to write well, a skill I’ve used in every article and essay I’ve written.
As far as my personal life goes, I have a college-age daughter who is following in my footsteps by majoring in English. I live in Berkeley, California, where I periodically track wood shavings through the house which I share with a rabbit, five fish tanks, a friendly female human, and too many cats to count.
I find that there are four rules for professional success which, coincidentally, are the same as the four rules for domestic success, no matter where you are or what you do. First, try to find the humour and the good in everything you do. Second, be prepared to work hard at it, at least some of the time. Third, never reveal everything you know.
Somogyi Tree Masterpiece
Ervin’s Choice Top, Premium Quilted Tree Mahogany Back, Sides, Neck, One of a Kind Rosette, Headstock Inlay, Tree Wood Inlay on Fretboard
Simply put, the most exquisite flat top one could ever dream of.
Symphontree Music has custom guitar slots available with Ervin Somogyi for both 2018 and 2019.
Ervin Somogyi works out of his shop in Oakland, California, USA.
Ervin Somogyi joined Symphontree Music in the summer of 2017.