From the November/December 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY GREG OLWELL
“I’ve always been ‘the OM guy,’” says Eric Schoenberg, from his shop in the tiny enclave of Tiburon, California, just north of San Francisco. Rather than claiming this title as his own, the soft-spoken guitar dealer, performer, and author uses it as an acknowledgment of how many see him after he spent decades advocating for the revival of Martin’s first truly modern instrument, the 14-fret OM. This guitar style is now so common that it’s difficult to imagine that it had nearly faded into obscurity. And the classic shape, with its shallow body, long and slim neck, and relatively wide nut (1.75 inches), might have remained a niche offering but for the efforts of Schoenberg, who had discovered the appeal of these guitars during his influential career as a fingerstyle guitarist.
As Schoenberg grew cautious about performing on his valuable vintage instruments and also developed an interest in cutaways, he started working with guitar makers to reintroduce the OM model, both with and without the cutaway. A partnership with luthier Dana Bourgeois and C.F. Martin & Co. led the legacy builder to make its first custom-brand guitar in decades under the Schoenberg name. Schoenberg would go on to work with a line of talented luthiers—including Bourgeois, TJ Thompson, Julian Borges, Bruce Sexauer, and others—to continue his personal brand of guitars.
I spent an afternoon talking with Schoenberg in the cozy confines of his shop. As customers and business partner James Hipps moved about the space, Schoenberg spoke about his career playing and building guitars, the current guitar market, and his enduring passion for the instrument. Regardless of the topic, the talk always returned to tone, which Schoenberg often demonstrated by picking up a guitar and making a point with sound, not words.
At 73, Schoenberg is resisting the urge to retire. “The reason I don’t want to retire is that it keeps getting better—not in the money sense—in the fun sense. I just learn new things every day.”
How did you get into vintage guitars?
I started as a player back in the ’60s. I was one of those Baby Boomers into guitar, and there were so many of us it was a blast. I started off more as an old-timey and folky guitarist into the Kingston Trio, the Weavers, and the New Lost City Ramblers—the first album I bought was their first record. Every one of their records had a fingerpicking thing by Mike Seeger or Tom Paley, and we’d all learn it by listening to the records. We even copied the mistakes [laughs].
The current instruments at the time just didn’t do it and the old instruments back then weren’t that old! My first opportunity for a good guitar, I was offered a 1930s D-18 for $75 or a D-21 from ’56 for $125. I said, “Oh, rosewood is better, right? I’ll do the D-21.” That ’30s D-18 would be a really killer guitar right now, I’m sure. In those days, it was too easy to find the old ones. They weren’t that expensive.
But for me it’s always been a search for instruments that can do what you need as a player, not as a collector. I’ve been bitten by the need to get something as a collector a few times and it didn’t tend to work out so well.
Were you always a fingerstyle specialist?
I was a folkie from the word go, then I got into country, then I did my Beatles book [Fingerpicking Beatles, Hal Leonard]. The fingerpicking thing, with the alternating bass, is the definition of ragtime: four quarter notes to the measure in the bass and a syncopated melody. A major influence was one of Merle Travis’ big records, Walkin’ the Strings.
I took lessons from David Bennett Cohen, who’s now known as the guitar and piano guy from Country Joe and the Fish. We’d meet up at 48th Street [New York City’s famed Music Row] on weekends and we’d go to some studios that were up on the third floor, above Noah Wolfe’s shop. David was a great teacher. We all played by ear; there were no transcriptions to work from back then. It was the folk process at work.
I was extremely shy when I was young, and I didn’t get the experience of playing with other people. I missed that a lot, but I did have a few examples of playing with other people, such as that first record with my cousin [The New Ragtime Guitar with David Laibman, 1971]. I learned more about playing guitar from him during that time than from anyone else.
[Grabbing a guitar, Schoenberg begins to demonstrate by fingerpicking a rag.] You want to fill in the chord by putting the seventh in the bass, instead of the root. That was a big discovery for me in those days. And part of it was the triad and having a third underneath the root for an ending. It resolves each time in a very distinctive way.
What inspired you to build your line of guitars?
It started off with needing to find the older guitars with the wider necks for fingerpicking—the OMs. The wider neck was almost lost when I started—almost nobody was making them, except in a few very small cases, and guitars were still being made with narrow necks like they were during the swing era in the ’40s. I had these old guitars for fingerpicking and they were getting to be very valuable . . . and I developed a desire for a cutaway.
Dana Bourgeois was doing repairs on my old guitars. I got to know him after he hired me to open for Doc Watson up in Maine. He tried to get me to play his guitars, but I had my old OMs. So he enticed with me some beautiful wood and the idea of designing the guitar to my specs, including the cutaway. We came to an agreement on the cutaway and getting the right dimensions for the string spacing at the bridge, 12th fret, and nut.
The spacing was based on old Martins from before the turn of the century, before the swing era and cowboy chords, when people played fingerstyle. These guitars had a wide spacing, with 2-3/8 inches at the bridge and 1-3/4 at the nut. The spacing at the 12th fret is also just as important, because with these wide necks, people were setting the strings too far in from the neck’s edge and that makes playing uncomfortable. These were things that the guys at Martin knew back in the late ’20s and early ’30s, but the knowledge about how far in from the edge of the neck to put the strings had gotten lost.
How did you start collaborating with different makers to build Schoenberg guitars?
Dana Bourgeois was my partner, and we went to Martin first. As we were basing my guitars on Martins, it made sense to go to them. At that point, again having lost track of the old things they did, they were making heavy guitars. The guitar must be made much lighter if you’re going to play fingerstyle, with the top thickness being the most important thing and then the top bracing.
Because we were building lighter guitars, Martin didn’t want to do the warranty work, as it was lower than their specs. It took a lot of convincing, but we still have guitars from the 1890s with light builds that work well.
After Dana left, I partnered with TJ Thompson, who had gotten an education as an apprentice with Dana. He had been fixing all my old guitars and really got to know the old stuff. I was at my guitar shop in in West Concord, Massachusetts, and we’d FexEx completed braced tops to Martin to arrive on the day the tops needed to be put on. I was also working at the Music Emporium, which I started around 1975 with my partners. And we had a small shop in Littleton, Massachusetts—four people making guitars—but once I moved out here it didn’t work, so we closed the shop down.
How did you end up in California?
My wife was offered a job running a library, and it was a chance to move away from the Massachusetts winters. It was a tough decision because I didn’t know what I would do; I didn’t really have a job or a career out here. I wasn’t too into the idea of getting back into per-forming, and it’s nice to have the shop so I can talk about guitars.
I opened this place around 1997 and it took a lot of time to get it going. Still, it was amazing how things came into place, like a friend who had an architect friend who designed the interior and he knew a guy who could build it. It was Bruce Sexauer, who wasn’t a full-time guitar builder at the time. Then the realtor told me about a guitar collector who had just passed away, leaving behind 25 guitars that needed to be sold, so we had instant stock.
How has the market changed in the last few years?
There have been trends and fads, and for a while it was for expensive, handmade guitars. People would buy them, keep them for a while, sell them, and buy another. For whatever reason, that’s changed, and now vintage guitars have become more prominent.
People have valued aspects of the old guitars for the wrong reasons. Like, they have learned that [Gibson] Loar L-5s are not necessarily better than guitars that came later but didn’t have that label. The public learns very slowly, but when it does learn it affects the market.
Certainly, smaller guitars have gotten to be much more popular. It used to be that people had to have dreadnoughts, but people are now much more aware that you can’t always play those things comfortably and they are gradually learning that a small guitar can sound just as good or better.
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Why do people come to you for guitars?
I think people come to us because of the sound and feel of the guitars we sell—it’s how well the instrument works for the players. We’re selective about what we sell, because we can’t sell it if we don’t like it, and we’re not going to lie. The one area we’re not so great in is selling collector guitars. A lot of dealers are focused on guitars that are all-original. I appreciate that perspective, but I feel that it’s way overblown.
I taught for many years, and that experience of dealing with people can be like helping them buy a guitar. People can come in or call and get full understanding of what is involved in the sound and condition of each instrument.
People ask how the business is and I say it’s great in every single way possible, except for one. It’s because the market is a little bit crazy.
I think the current political situation has hurt the market. People are not relaxed, and they do not want to spend money on great guitars. More often they want to sell the guitars they bought to collect now that they have decided which guitars they want to keep. So, we get some great stuff.
What advice do you have for people who are shopping for a guitar?
Size is a big problem for many people. Buying a guitar is a bit like buying a bicycle: The fit can almost be more important than anything else, and it’s why bike shops spend a lot of time trying to fit you properly. I like the idea that we can give people guitars to play so they can feel a guitar’s neck shape or body size to find out what’s comfortable for them.
It’s important to hear someone play or to talk to them about what they play. Just yesterday, someone was in here and said, “I just don’t like mahogany guitars.” I grabbed one off the wall, put it in his hands, and now he likes mahogany guitars. There are so many factors that go into the way a guitar sounds, so it’s much more complicated than judging a guitar by its woods. It’s a complex combination of things and if someone is limiting their view, I will challenge them directly.
Like how some players seem to buy guitars with certain kind of woods?
Some people will say they want Brazilian rosewood and Adirondack spruce, and that’s not always a great combination right off the bat. Brazilian is powerful and bright and so is Adirondack, but European spruce is kind of a yin-yang with Brazilian—because it often has a warmth and sweetness.
But it all can vary because wood is so different. I used to believe that I needed tight-grained spruce tops, but one day when I got to go through a pile of rejected tops at Martin, I found a nice tight-grained top and it was really stiff. Then I found one that looked just as good but it was like a piece of lasagna. After that, I picked up a wide-grained top and it was stiff. People see stuff and they make up conclusions without the experience to back it up. You have to be able to change your mind based on the evidence. My conclusion from that experience was that I couldn’t judge a top by how it looks. Period.
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.