Tobias builds guitars for the musical elite of the world
Once called tone-deaf by his music teacher, now, he makes a living through his natural connection to sound. This is a story about dispelling doubt. About leading with passion and preserving a craft tradition. About the love for music and following one’s dreams. This is the story about guitar builder Tobias Berg and the joy that his creations spread across the world.
For Tobias Berg, music is an art form. And not just any art form, but the one he holds above all others and relates to the most. He believes that music, like all art, demands presence of mind to fully feel and engage with. Listening is a verb, an active choice giving music a far bigger purpose than serving as background scenery for dinner parties or energizing the weekly cleanout.
– Music is deep emotions in concentrated form. Frank Zappa and his characteristic way of playing the guitar saved me through my teenage years. I continued to grow with musicians such as Ralph Towner, Stefano Grondona, Bill Frisell, Keith Jarrett, Tom Waits and Mark Knopfler, who in my ears are absolute masters at creating emotional galaxies through their palette of timbres says Tobias Berg.
Tobias actually built his first guitar classical guitar back in 1995, in parallel with an administrative role at Folkuniversitet in Helsingborg. It only took a couple of weeks, and Tobias realized that building guitars could become his way of surrounding himself with and devoting himself to music.
– It was my calling, and I decided to become as good as I possibly could at building guitars. I started with an evening class in carpentry, continued with a summer course in acoustic guitar building, and in -96 I moved to Canada to take another course. The studies continued at Newark & Sherwood College in England, where I also received my journeyman’s certificate, says Tobias.
Tobias then worked as a guitar builder for six years at Lakewood Guitars in Germany, before obtaining his master’s certificate in 2004 after a three-day examination in Mittenwald. With the master’s certificate in hand, he ventured out on his own, and for the last 20 years, he has been building guitars with his name as both a brand and a seal of quality. Then as now, he wants to build beautiful instruments that inspire people to play.
– Children have a tendency to completely immerse themselves in play and lose track of time and place. Adults have that ability too, but we need to get better at embracing the moments that make us go: just five more minutes! My goal is to build instruments that make people want to keep playing, and that lead them into that playful dimension of pure joy. If I do that, then I’ve succeeded.
Building guitars is a time-honored craft, increasingly challenged by contemporary praises of efficiency and mass production. For Tobias, building guitars is a balancing act, carefully weighing between traditional manufacturing methods and modern technology. He wants to preserve and pass on the tradition, joy of creativity, and craftsmanship pride that comes with it.
– I have tremendous respect for old masters and their level of craftsmanship. After all, I also have machines that make certain steps easier and more efficient. For instance, I use a CNC-milled template to place the frets on the fretboard. But most things are done traditionally by hand, it’s crucial to keep the human factor that gives each guitar its unique character. It’s all in the details, says Tobias.
The craftsmanship philosophy goes well with the Japanese life philosophy of wabi-sabi, advocating the embrace of reduction and imperfection. Tobias adds that of course, he wants to build the best guitars possible and that he strives for perfection with each piece; he’s simply humble about man’s ability to achieve it.
Japanese aesthetics have always been a source of inspiration for Tobias, and it’s been more than 20 years since his first trip to the country. But despite influences, Tobias guitars have distinctive expressions and characteristics.
– The main profile is actually inspired by Japanese pagodas. Other than that, aesthetically my guitars are distinguished by the rosette and, of course, the label inside. Regarding the sound, I want the guitar to be neutral but multifaceted, in a way that gives musicians access to a palette of endless nuances, says Tobias.
Tobias has refined his craftmanship in three different countries and by learning the basics from three different teachers. This gave him the opportunity to study different styles of guitar building, but also to explore what he enjoys most:
– I build according to the Spanish tradition. This means that the neck is glued to the top, then the sides, and finally, the back closes the box. I work with solid tops, hide glue, and finish with shellac. I like the old school, says Tobias.
He describes his creative process as dynamic. Tobias has no drawing board; he builds guitars piece by piece, step by step. In his workshop, he’s assembled a good foundation to succeed, with a Sjöbergs workbench at the center of attention.
– The workbench is so heavy and stable that it almost grounds you as a person. And I actually can’t imagine a workshop without a workbench; it’s on the same level as building guitars without hand tools. I recently upgraded to an Elite 1500 with a clamping platform, which I now realize I should have done 20 years ago. But better late than never,” concludes Tobias.
Today, Tobias Berg is also an ambassador for Sjöbergs, and he sees a bright future ahead. Soon he will be celebrating the manufacturing of his 150th guitar, marking yet another milestone on the road along the musical career path he has chosen to walk. A path that could have been very different had he listened to and trusted the proclaiming teacher. Fortunately for everyone, Tobias instead chose to follow his heart and go his own way.