Twenty-eight miles north of Venice, in the Italian province of Treviso, sits the municipality of Susegana, perhaps best known for the Collalto Castle, built in 1110; the Church of the Visitation of the Blessed, from the 13th century; and the Castle of San Salvatore, erected in 1312.
Since 2021, however, there’s been a new kid in town. Sicilian luthier Noemi Schembri, owner of Noemi Guitars, has been building world-class acoustic guitars in a clean, sunny shop that shares a complex with a recording studio, a doctor’s office, and two wine stores. A lifelong interest in guitar woods and construction led her to earn a degree in industries and wood technologies at the University of Padua in 2006. After closely studying instruments at guitar festivals all over Europe, she built her first guitar in a Michele Della Giustina workshop in 2010 before moving to Canada to study with acclaimed luthier Sergei de Jonge.
Schembri returned to Italy in 2011 and opened her own shop. Her instruments, evenly divided among steel-string, nylon-string, and crossover guitars, have earned rave reviews for their beauty, distinctive designs, tone, volume, and versatility.
You began playing guitar at 11. Does being a player influence your work as a builder?
I don’t play much anymore. Building guitars is far more exciting! I wouldn’t say that playing impacts the way I build, because people play in such different ways, but having started on guitar does help me understand what I want, and what players want, from an instrument.
Were there any particular instruments you encountered that inspired you to learn more about guitar building?
Not really. Looking at the guitar we had at home made me want to know how it was made, who built it, and where.
What did you learn while studying for your degree in industries and wood technologies at the University of Padua?
We began by learning to recognize different types of wood—cutting very thin slices, putting them under a microscope, studying their physical characteristics, and understanding how different industries use them. Eventually, we studied various finishes and the technical details of wood-cutting machines. It was a very practical education, and I enjoyed every aspect of it.
What were the most important things you learned during your time with Sergei de Jonge?
First, that we learn a lot from our mistakes, and we never stop learning. Second, to never be afraid of exploring different ways of doing things. Third, to keep in mind as I build a guitar that I—or someone else—might need to repair it one day.
Did you intend to fill a particular niche with Noemi Guitars?
No. What set me on the path to starting Noemi Guitars was my love for wood and woodworking. As soon as I finished my first guitar, I decided that this would be my job for the rest of my life.
Do you feel connected to the larger community of Italian acoustic guitar builders?
When I’m at guitar shows in Canada and the U.S. with other colleagues, or when I contact someone asking for advice for a specific repair job, I feel at home and part of a great community. But not in Italy, unfortunately.
Why not, especially given Italy’s deep lutherie tradition?
I’ve asked myself that question many times, and I think it’s related to the culture. I have very few Italian guitar-maker friends with whom I share information and opinions or give and receive advice about things like repair jobs. It’s totally the opposite feeling of being in the U.S. or Canada, where I feel part of a big, open-minded family.
Is it important for you to stand out and be different from other builders?
More than different, I prefer to be consistent, keep the quality high, and work to increase it. Although small details can make a difference, my goal is not to be different, but for each instrument to be better than the previous one.
How do you find time to build instruments, run a small business, have a life, and do social media?
Next question, please[laughter]. I’m not great with social media, so maybe that’s the secret [more laughter]! Seriously, if I spent more time posting my work on social media, I would probably be better known as a guitar builder/repairer and have less time for my life.
I’ve discovered that it’s important to establish how many hours and how many days a week I want to dedicate to work. The rest of the time and weekends are usually dedicated to personal life, except when I have to get ready for a guitar show.
Spending all afternoon in front of a computer placing orders or looking for wood or tools is still part of the job, even if I haven’t generated wood dust or made any progress in the build/repair process. If you also do repairs, like me, you quickly understand that it takes quite some time away from guitar building. This is why I do repairs only by appointment. I like to organize my work, and sometimes I can’t interrupt what I am working on.
How much time do you spend doing repairs and setups, and what do you learn that helps you with your own instruments?
It’s hard to define how much time I spend, because some periods are busier than others, but I learn a lot from repairs. Working on different kinds of guitars, you see what’s good or bad about them and how different brands work. If I notice something positive—something that helps sound or playability—that I don’t do on my guitars, it makes me think how I might achieve it on my instruments.
What are some specific things you’ve learned from repair jobs and applied to your own instruments?
Here’s an example: The first time I had to re-glue the top bracing on a repair job, I learned that notching them one underneath the other makes it less accessible for repairs, so I changed my way of gluing top braces. Doing repairs has also reinforced how fundamental a good neck setup is and what a huge difference it can make. I pay close attention to every detail so that my instruments are as playable as possible.
Describe how you build a custom instrument.
It’s a fun process that starts with knowing the customer. It’s the hardest part of building a custom instrument and the most fun, too—the hardest because I must understand the dream sound they’re hearing, which is not always easy to describe. Words like warm, clear, crispy, distinct, full, rich, deep, and intimate are adjectives to which each of us attaches a slightly different meaning.
I need to know how the customer plays, what kind of music they play, and if they’re alone or with a band, so I begin an email exchange or a series of phone calls. This is the moment the customer relationship starts, when we build their dream guitar together. I also ask for audio or video samples, played by them or somebody else, to understand the sound they’re looking for. And of course, guitar measurements—body shape, neck shape, neck thickness, nut width, string spacing, and so on—are totally customized by request.
On the My Mission section of your site, you mention thinking of guitars as work tools.
Yes, I imagine people embracing each guitar and practicing on it for hours every day, or liking its sound so much that it makes them want to play all the time. I don’t want them getting bored or tired of the instrument. In fact, I hope they are inspired to write new music that will inspire other people. My process is based on the idea that I build guitars to be working tools.
What do you teach in your guitar-building workshops?
How to build a guitar—their guitar! It’s an intensive hands-on course where each student builds a guitar. First, I explain what to do and how to do it while doing it myself, and then the students replicate it on their own guitars, always under my supervision.
How did the pandemic affect your business?
I was very lucky, because at the beginning of 2021, I moved the workshop to a bigger space and used the period of forced inactivity to do everything that needed to be done.
In light of climate change, the availability of wood, and other factors, what do you think about the future of the acoustic guitar?
I think that we’ll have less of the wood species we know well, but we will learn how to achieve the best from “new” wood species we haven’t used yet, at least not widely.
Have you experimented with new woods?
If by new you mean not commonly used for guitar making, I haven’t yet. But I will!
What advice do you have for a luthier, especially a young woman, who is about to open her own shop?
I’d tell them to focus on what they want to obtain and to strongly believe in themselves, because when you’re just starting out and things don’t flow smoothly, that’s when you need to be strongest.
What’s next for Noemi Guitars?
My path has been full of challenges, as well as new things to explore. I’m always happy to welcome custom requests like the recent archtop and flamenco guitars I’m currently buiding. This is the path I want to follow; it’s the right one for me.
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2023 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.