True Blue: Scharpach 20th Anniversary Blue Vienna

February 24th, 2016

This is a story from the all-new MARCH/APRIL 2016 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this story and more photos, plus features on Billy Gibbons in Cuba, Texas chef and guitarist Dean Fearing, the Gretsch exhibition at Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame, Ash guitarist Tim Wheeler, and our annual Motoring section featuring stories on the latest motorcycles and the vintage guitar and car collections of author Jonathan Kellerman, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking anywhere in this text.

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True Blue: Scharpach 20th Anniversary Blue Vienna
By Richard Bienstock

Austrian-born luthier Theo Scharpach has crafted beautiful, hand-built acoustic guitars for 40 years now, but he is perhaps best known for the instrument—an archtop he called the Vienna—that he built for the Blue Guitar collection in 1997. That project, which coincided with the centennial anniversary of the archtop, was the brainchild of Scott Chinery, a guitar enthusiast whose personal collection at the time numbered more than 1,000 instruments. Inspired by a D’Aquisto Centura Deluxe with a striking blue sunburst finish, Chinery enlisted 22 celebrated luthiers, among them Scharpach, to craft their own unique archtop interpretations, with the stipulation that each would sport the same blue hue as the D’Aquisto. The resulting collection received plenty of attention in the guitar world and beyond, even garnering an exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

Since then, Scharpach and his business partner of more than two decades, builder Menno Bos, have continued to produce incredibly high-end, custom instruments—including a varied line of Vienna archtops—from their shop in the Netherlands. And now, for the first time in almost 20 years, they have built another Blue Vienna. Interestingly, the man who commissioned this new instrument “actually saw the original that I delivered to Scott Chinery,” Scharpach says. “And he said, ‘Well, one day I’m going to order that Blue Vienna.’ But he couldn’t afford it. Then some years ago he came to me and said he wanted to commission one. And because I knew he was very dedicated—he already owned another one of our archtops—I decided to do a new version for him.”

scharpach-blue-front-insetWhile at first glance the new 20th Anniversary Blue Vienna looks very much like its predecessor, there are several key divergences. For starters, the actual blue finish is “completely different,” Scharpach says. “It’s 20 years later; technology has changed, and I have become more experienced with my work. For the Chinery guitar I used the basic blue pigment. On the new one, it’s a blue that was built up through three or four different layers, which creates a much deeper color.”

The development in finish techniques hints at a deeper truth about the new Vienna in general: Although it looks very much like a traditional archtop, it is also an unmistakably contemporary instrument. Scharpach has described his approach to guitar making as being that of “both an old-world style luthier and a progressive modernist,” and this dichotomy is ever present in the Vienna. To the former point, Scharpach’s respect for the archtop tradition is clearly evident in the Vienna’s majestic lines and curves, lithe f-hole carvings, and resonant, classic tonewoods—old-stock German spruce for the top and deeply figured, old-stock cello wood for the back and sides.

But there are also unconventional touches, such as the slotted headstock design—an unusual archtop feature that Scharpach says “helped the original Blue Vienna guitar to stand out.” Less noticeable to the naked eye, but even more central to the new Vienna’s sound and playability, is a unique bracing system (not employed on the original guitar) that the luthier calls H.I.T., or Harmonic Integrated Top bracing. Scharpach doesn’t offer up much about the specifics of the H.I.T. design—“It’s a trade secret,” he says—but he does say that the H.I.T. system, which does away with bars in either parallel or X configurations, enables the guitar’s top and bracing to “work together more as one piece and makes it possible to steer the harmonics of the instrument to a much greater extent.”

This type of attention to detail, both tonal and aesthetic, is evident is every aspect of the new Blue Vienna. The guitar sports an elegantly sculpted and engraved tailpiece as well as machines and sideplate covers, hand-carved from solid pieces of brass in Scharpach’s shop. The tuner knobs are solid silver. Specific to the Blue Vienna, the hardware is then gold-plated and covered with high-quality, and exceedingly rare, Ruthenium. An optional floating humbucking pickup is also a custom Scharpach design (though it is built by the German company Haussel). Other features on the guitar include a maple bridge, ebony fingerboard with custom mother-of-pearl inlay at the 12th fret, and highly figured maple neck.

While the 20th Anniversary Blue Vienna is a custom-made, commissioned piece, Scharpach says he hopes to build several more as a “special, luxury item.” Potential customers, however, would be wise to seek out Scharpach and Bos sooner rather than later; the luthier says that each guitar has a waiting time of “two to three years from order until delivery.” Sometimes, he continues, “it just happens that it’s four years, or even five, because we don’t deliver a guitar that is unfinished or that isn’t beautiful.”

When he speaks of a guitar’s beauty, however, Scharpach is quick to note that he is referring to not only its looks but also its sound. “There seems to be a trend nowadays where design goes over sound,” he says. “The look becomes too important. What is always in the back of my head is, of course, I can do crazy stuff—but where does it bring me? It’s important to experiment and try new things, but that should never become a selling point.

“For us, the starting point with all our guitars is always tradition,” Scharpach continues. “And the 20th Anniversary Blue Vienna might be a modern instrument in many ways, but it is one that has evolved from a beautiful tradition.”

LIST PRICE: Starting at $39,000
Scharpach Master Guitars, scharpach.com

This is a story from the all-new MARCH/APRIL 2016 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this story and more photos, plus features on Billy Gibbons in Cuba, Texas chef and guitarist Dean Fearing, the Gretsch exhibition at Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame, Ash guitarist Tim Wheeler, and our annual Motoring section featuring stories on the latest motorcycles and the vintage guitar and car collections of author Jonathan Kellerman, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking anywhere in this text.

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