Music Corner

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Music Corner
PG’s German correspondent guides us through the storied town of
Markneukirchen in the heart of Germany’s “Music Corner,”
where centuries-old instrument-making traditions live on.
BY DIRK WACKER
G
erman lutherie has a 400-year history—
and more connections to the U.S.
than you might think. The best way
to dive into this legacy is to visit Germany’s
“Music Corner” region. The three small main
cities of Markneukirchen (aka “the music town”),
Erlbach, and Klingenthal are known collectively
as “Musicon Valley.” This musical hub lies in a
southern region of Saxony known as the Vogtland,
nestled in the mountains at the Czech border, near
Bavaria and Thuringia. It’s a quiet, rural area, its
stunning landscape dominated by lush forests and
wide-open meadows full of cows.
For 40 years the region was part of the German
Democratic Republic—the former East Germany.
Decades of GDR policies have left their mark on
downtown Markneukirchen, yet there are remnants
of the town’s former glory as one of Germany’s
richest cities. Breathtaking mansions display the
sophisticated charm of the past. There’s classic
German architecture on every corner, and a town
center with its mandatory beautiful church and
placid cobbled streets. Nearly every building
displays a sign indicating that musical instruments
are built within. If you’re a guitar nut or history
nut (or both!), it’s hard not to fall for this area’s
seductive charms.
My wife and I drove down to Markneukirchen
for a two-week hiking holiday, which quickly
morphed into a hike through the history of
Germany’s musical instrument industry. Here’s
what we found along the way.
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PREMIER GUITAR MARCH 2014 45
The Golden Age
Farmers first settled the Markneukirchen
area in the 11th century. In the 17th
century, Protestants fleeing religious
persecution in neighbouring Bavaria settled
here as well. These refugees included 12
violinmakers from the Graslica area. In
1677 they established a violinmakers’ guild,
which still survives as the world’s oldest.
Markneukirchen developed quickly, and
by its golden age (1850-1880), 80 percent
of the world’s musical instruments were
made in the region. The area was home
to more than a thousand luthiers during
the GDR era, and today approximately
130 companies make instruments and
accessories here, including all orchestral
instruments other than pianos.
When a group of violinmakers begins
making instruments, it’s only natural
for other companies to build on that
economy, settling down nearby to make
strings, bows, chin rests, and the like.
These companies required resources such
as sheep gut for strings and lumber mills to
cut wood. Eventually an entire marketing/
export business emerged to handle the
enormous output of instruments. By 1893
a U.S. consular office was established here
to handle overseas exports.
Significantly, the separation between
building instruments and trading them
started early, resulting in a highly effective
economic structure. Trading agencies
bought instruments in large quantities
directly from builders and shipped them
worldwide. Of course, traders made a
lot of money—much more than the
builders. Most of the superb mansions
in Markneukirchen were built by trading
agency owners. A prime example is the
superb Villa Merz, a mansion near the
Framus Museum that now houses a
lutherie school, part of the University of
Applied Science Zwickau. The mansion
was built for Curt Merz, owner of a very
successful trading agency.
Instrument makers usually worked
independently in small workshops,
LUTHIERS OF INTEREST
Richard Jacob (Weissgerber)
Richard Jacob (1877-1960) is one of Markneukirchen’s brightest stars. After
learning to build zithers, he started making guitars in 1899, qualifying as a
master luthier in 1905. In 1921 he officially trademarked the Weissgerber name
and built approximately 3,700 guitars under this label, the last ones reportedly
in the year of his death. His son Martin Jacob took over the workshop and built
guitars under the Weissgerber label, many with parts his father had created but
never finished. Martin Jacob’s death in 1991 marked the end of the Weissgerber
era. Weissgerber guitars were often experimental, using uncommon woods,
double tops, and radical bracing patterns. Richard Jacobs’ widow left the original
workshop to the University of Leipzig when she died in 1989. For more info,
check out Weissgerber by Christof Hanusch, which explores the luthier's history
(christofhanusch.com).
www.richardjacob-weissgerber.de (German language only)
Wenzel Rossmeisl (Roger Guitars)
Wenzel Rossmeisl, Roger Rossmeisl’s father, opened a Markneukirchen workshop
in 1948 as a branch supporting the company’s Berlin headquarters. The shop
produced everything in Markneukirchen, down to individual parts. Wenzel
Rossmeisl employed five luthiers. One, master luthier Dieter Hense, is alive and
well at 84, though he doesn’t build guitars anymore. I had the pleasure to speaking
with him about Roger Guitars, and his memory is stunning.
“Wenzel Rossmeisl was not often in the shop,” recalls Hense. “He was usually
on the road to bring the guitars to the Berlin headquarters, or trying to source and
trade needed materials for the shop. I never saw him build a single guitar or part in
all those years—this was all up to us. Some of us worked in the shop, while others
worked from their homes, making the famous German carve tops or other parts.”
In 1951, Wenzel Rossmeisl was arrested at the Leipzig Trade Fair and jailed four
years for offenses against the foreign exchange law. His property was seized—all
parts, pre-finished bodies, necks, tools, etc.—along with the possessions of two other
dispossessed companies. These assets were appropriated for the Musima company,
which opened one year later. Because the seized parts were used for early Musima
models, you can find complete Roger guitars, minus the brand’s logo. Collectors refer
to these instruments as “stolen Rogers.”
http://schlaggitarren.de/archtop/roger-guitars (English version)
http://jazzgitarren.k-server.org/roger.html (English version)
Christian Friedrich (“Frederick”) Martin (“Martin Guitars”)
C.F. Martin (1796-1873) is Markneukirchen’s most famous luthier. He was born in
Markneukirchen on January, 31, 1796, and was building guitars by age 15, just like
his father, Johann Georg Martin. At age 24 he went to Vienna to work for Johann
Georg Stauffer, one of the most respected luthiers of the day. Talented young C.F
worked his way up to a position as Stauffer’s foreman. His married a Viennese girl
and left Stauffer to work for his father-in-law, who was also building instruments.
After a son was born in 1825, the family returned to Markneukirchen, where C.F.
opened his own workshop—until emigrating to the U.S. in 1833 at age 37. He settled
in New York City—and the rest, as they say, is history!
After extensive research, Heidrun Eichler and historian Dr. Enrico Weller located the Markneukirchen site where C.F. Martin was born on
January 31st, 1796. It was a difficult search, because most of Markneukirchen burned down in a disastrous 1840 fire, and many records
were lost. The original house perished in 1840, and a modern house occupies its site near the town center. Markneukirchen plans to
erect a plaque here, honoring the town’s most famous native son.
46 PREMIER GUITAR MARCH 2014
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often in their homes. Farmers
would build instruments during
the long, hard winters, when there
was no work to do in the fields.
Trading agencies would market these
instruments under their own labels,
with the actual builders remaining
anonymous. Most of the instruments
were exported to the United States,
India, Brazil, Japan, and Australia.
Example: the Andreas Morelli violins
common in the Unites States. G.A.
Pfretzschner, an important trading
house founded in 1834, bought
instruments from throughout the
music-corner area and shipped them
to his trading partner in the States.
The U.S. partner thought an Italian
name would boost sales, so they
came up with the fantasy Morelli
name. This was standard business
practice, and instruments of all kinds
are still made this way in Markneukirchen.
Today you can see the original interior of the
Pretzschner trading agency in Markneukirchen’s
Musical Instrument Museum. In its heyday,
Markneukirchen numbered 21 millionaires
among its 12,000 inhabitants, and hundreds of
people worked in the instrument industry.
But an 1890 economic crisis, two World
Wars, the Great Depression, and the autarchy
politics of the Third Reich caused a drastic
decline in sales and employment. After WWII
the music corner was dominated by communism
and its ideals of abolishing personal property.
Mass production played an important role as
Markneukirchen businesses were reorganized
into collectives. Small- and medium-sized
If they ran out of rosewood or
ebony, builders used locally
sourced pear wood, staining
it dark and using it for bridges
and fretboards. It proved
to be a fine substitute with
rosewood-like qualities.
companies were merged into craftsmen´s
cooperatives and nationally owned companies.
Thankfully, the state didn’t completely
neglect the musical instrument industry—the
East German regime appreciated the quality
and value of these instruments. A governmentrun trading agency imposed annual production
rates that instrument makers were required
to meet. Compromising situations occurred
when materials grew scarce and workers had to
improvise. This knack for making something
out of nothing is now known as “the Art of the
East.” Wood substitution is one example: If they
ran out of rosewood or ebony, builders used
locally sourced pear wood, staining it dark and
using it for bridges and fretboards. It proved to
be a fine substitute with rosewood-like qualities.
Finished instruments were given to the state
agency in return for fixed wages, and then
exported for hard currency, even to so-called
“class enemy countries” like the United States
and former West Germany. The profits bolstered
East Germany’s ramshackle national budget.
Naturally, only the best instruments were chosen
for export, leaving only lower quality instruments
within the country. (Still, many excellently
crafted instruments of that era found their way
48 PREMIER GUITAR MARCH 2014
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Photo courtesy of Karl-Heinz Neudel
back to the eastern part of Germany, and
some guitars have become quite collectible.)
At its peak, the Musima factory had as many
as 1,200 employees who produced up to 360
guitars per day, as well as recorders, violins,
zithers, and other instruments. Interestingly,
many employees continued to work from their
homes or small workshops, even though they
were exclusively affiliated with nationally owned
companies.
After the Wall
When the GDR was abolished in 1990,
large companies were denationalized. Some,
like Musima, did not survive. Some workers
grabbed the bull by the horns, went into
business for themselves, and continue to work
as successful luthiers. Karl-Heinz Neudel is
one such builder. Neudel is usually overbooked
with repair and modification work for vintage
German archtop guitars, and he also builds
guitars under his own label.
Mass instrument production no longer
exists in Markneukirchen—today the Far East
dominates that field. But historic companies
still handcraft fine instruments—the Gropp
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family, for example, which are
world-renowned for their fine
acoustic guitars.
The Guitars
Despite all the guitars that have
been made in Markneukirchen,
it’s not a town full of music shops
or vintage stores—most guitars
are purchased directly from the
builders. Most current guitars are
high-quality acoustic instruments,
both classical and steel-string, such
as those from Armin and Mario
Gropp (www.gropp-gitarren.de), a
typical father-and-son workshop in
Breitenfeld. They build classic guitars
and historical instruments of utmost
craftsmanship in the spirit of Richard
Jacob and his Weissgerber guitars.
In recent years the industrially
made Musima and Sinfonia
PREMIER GUITAR MARCH 2014 49
Right: The
Musical
Instrument
Museum in
Markneukirchen,
Germany, houses
more than 3,000
instruments,
including
many eccentric
stringed
instruments built
in the region
centuries ago.
Far Right: The
beautiful Musical
Instrument
Museum in
Markneurkirchen
is housed in this
1784 building.
Bottom: Tours
are available
of Warwick's
cutting-edge
facility based in
Markneukirchen.
POINTS OF INTEREST
Musical Instrument Museum Markneukirchen
Founded in 1883, the museum is now housed in a gorgeous 1784 building called
Paulus Schlössel. Its collection boasts more than 3,100 musical instruments from
all over the world. Curator Heidrun Eichler’s role an authority on Markneukirchen
instruments is reflected in the collection she’s assembled. It includes the world’s
largest tuba and accordion, as well as an historic trading station in its original
state. Guitar and bass highlights include a 300-year-old double bass and early
guitars from Stauffer, Antonio Torres, Richard Jacob (Weissgerber), Martin, and
many gorgeous and eccentric Markneukirchen guitars.
www.museum-markneukirchen.de (English version available.)
Warwick factory and custom shop
Hans-Peter Wilfer was just 24 in 1982 when he founded Warwick in former
Western Germany. In 1994, after German reunification, he relocated the company’s
headquarters to Markneukirchen. The futuristic Warwick quarters are located in
town’s industrial zone, just a stone’s throw from the former Musima building. Its
lobby features a large showroom of Warwick and Framus guitars and basses. The
facility relies on solar and wind power and is 100 percent carbon-neutral. The Big
Kahunas of the factory tour are the custom shop wood supply, the ultra-modern,
fully automatic fretting machine, and of course, the paint department.
I met Wilfer in his office to chat about his family’s history and connections to
Markneukirchen. Wilfer has fond childhood memories of the Framus factory and
was in his early 20s when it closed, but he happily started his own bass company
thereafter. Wilfer chose Markneukirchen as his place of business because of its
affordable living and industrial zone, but he also has family ties to the area. “My
father was born and raised right across the Czech border in Schönbach [presentday Luby],” Wilfer shares. “I live directly in Markneukirchen with my family and I
really like to live here. My kids were born here and they’re real Markneukirchen
natives—it’s a good and joyful place to live and work.”
www.warwick.de (English version available.)
50 PREMIER GUITAR MARCH 2014
Framus Instrument Museum
Markneukirchen
Opened in 2007, the Framus museum
is located near the lutherie school in
a building called Villa Brehmer that
was completely reconstructed after
standing empty for a decade. Rainfall
and vacancy damaged the building, but
Hans-Peter Wilfer, founder and owner
of the Warwick company, bought it and
established the museum. Wilfer is the
son of Fred Wilfer, founder and owner
of the Framus, which produced guitars
from 1946 through the company’s
1970s bankruptcy. (Some models were
reissued in 1995 under the Warwick
umbrella.) Framus was Europe’s biggest
guitar company in the 1960s. The
museum displays over 200 instruments
from the Framus era, including guitars,
basses, banjos, lap steels, pedal
steels, amps, and accessories. Museum
director Andreas Egelkraut is a walking
encyclopaedia for all things Framus.
www.framus-vintage.de
(English version available.)
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instruments of the GDR era have become
collectible because of their history
and charm. Not all of these are great
instruments—many are from often budget
and student lines—but some are fantasticsounding, great-looking guitars. (GDRera Sinfonias and Musimas are among my
best-sounding guitars.)
Sinfonia Acoustic Guitars
Sinfonia instruments were built from 1961
through 1984. Instruments from 1961
to 1972 sport “PGH Sinfonia” labels,
while post-1972 instruments have “VEB
Sinfonia Markneukirchen” labels. In 1984
Sinfonia became a part of Musima.
Sinfonia instruments were usually
made by anonymous builders in their
homes. While some models look simple,
with unremarkable decoration, they
often use tone woods that were unusual
for their time. (I would never part with
my 1962 Sinfonia classical, with its
cherry back, sides, and neck, spruce top,
and rosewood fretboard, all finished in
spirit lacquer.)
At its peak, the Musima
factory had as many as
1,200 employees who
produced up to 360
guitars per day.
Musima Guitars
Musima’s most admired guitars are their
archtops, which have a great reputation
among players. Musima began building
them in the mid 1950s, using original
Roger parts out of Wenzel Rossmeisl’s
workshop. (Rossmeisl’s property was
seized after the GDR government jailed
him for supposed trading crimes.) From
there, they developed their own models:
Record, Spezial, Solist, Primus, and the
export models Ambassador and Atlas.
Musima also made cheap archtops, though
you can identify higher-quality models by
their “German carve” solid tops, a typical
Roger feature to which Rossmeisl held a
patent. (A German carve top is flat near
the edges where it meets sides, but slopes
upward closer to its center.) These guitars
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The old Musima buildings still exist, but they aren’t a pretty sight. After the factory
closed in the early ’90s, the city of Markneukirchen bought the ruins with the intention
of demolishing them, but sold them to the Harmona company, who wanted to move their
accordion production from Klingenthal to Markneukirchen. They haven’t decided whether
to restore the old buildings or tear them down to build a new factory, so the Musima
buildings lie silent. You can only view them from the outside, but here are exclusive
interior photographs of the abandoned factory.
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were available with and without pickups
(sometimes discretely embedded in the
end of the fretboard), and in both fully
hollow and semi-acoustic models. Wellknown Musima builders include Armin
Weller and Karl-Heinz Neudel, who
made most of the high-end and custom
instruments during the GDR era.
A real insider’s tip is the Musima
Nashville steel-string line, designed and
built by Neudel. Some custom shop
models were built by a single master
luthier who used only the best available
woods and added fancy embellishments.
Musima also built a Strat-style guitar
called Lead Star. Nicknamed “the Strat of
the East,” it was a fairly faithful Fender
copy, but with GDR-produced parts such
as a brass inertia block. These are soughtafter instruments because of their quality
and retro look. Other Musima electric
models include the Elektrina, Elgita,
Elektra, Etherna, Deluxe, plus some
radical metal guitar designs and several
bass guitar models.
There were many other gifted
luthiers during this era. For more info,
visit the Musical Instrument Museum
Markneukirchen’s online forum at http://
www.museum-markneukirchen.de/
forum/. (It’s in German, but English
postings are common and welcome.)
Markneukirchen is a special place
with a quaint and charming atmosphere.
Guitar fans might squeeze a visit into their
European holiday plans, right between the
Black Forest and Oktoberfest. If you have
the opportunity to visit the music corner,
don't miss these must-see attractions!
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