Ton That Anh is one of the longest-serving luthiers on Nguyen Thien Thuat Street in Ho Chi Minh City, known by generations of musicians and guitar buffs in southern Vietnam as the "Guitar Street."
Anh, who co-owns Duy Ngoc Guitars with his siblings, has witnessed several changes over the years, and rues the shallow understanding of the instrument that has resulted from what he calls over-commercialization.
"Many guitars are made with low-quality wood in a rushed and automated process," he said.
Anh, who set out on the guitar-making trade in 1988, said he was perturbed by how the instrument has been made a mass product, devoid of the artisan’s sentiments.
They are not musically okay, he added.
Guitars made of plywood, for instance, cannot sustain the pulling strength of six strings, leading to them being pressed too close to the fret board. No decent musical sound can come out of a guitar like that, he explained.
Duy Ngoc Guitar uses imported wood from Europe and North America for their creations. Pine wood is commonly used for the front part of a guitar’s body.
Hawaiian koa wood is also used to make some custom-made guitars.
When instruments are manufactured in uniformity and in bulk, they are promoted and sold for mass consumption, too, and many music shops in Vietnam are focused on maximizing sales.
"There have been advertisements quoting music instrument entrepreneurs as saying a guitar for a million dong ($43) is appropriate for rookies, but that is not true," Anh said.
"They sell all kinds of instruments in many showrooms and know little about each one of them," he added.
Anh only sells guitars in his store.
While over-commercialization is a major issue, Anh also feels that the downward trend in quality can be related to a lack of recognition of guitar artisans, given that there is no copyright for guitar creations in Vietnam.
It typically takes two months to craft a handmade guitar at Duy Ngoc. Prices range from $200 to around $1,000, which might not be a bit stiff for a common Vietnamese buyer, but a bargain for most foreigners.
A handmade guitar can cost thousands of dollars in the western countries, but while the price is significant lower in Vietnam, the quality is very good, Anh said.
A premium, custom order can take four months of work, making the guitar stand out high-end wood and intricate carvings.
Anh said he feels it is not practical or right to have a fixed categorization of guitar for each skill level, because it is fundamentally an individual experience.
"Judging a guitar’s quality and sound comes down to your feelings about it. You can close your eyes and let your ears and other senses do the job," he said. Then, the ears pick up the timbre, reverberation, vibration, frequency, and so on.
"Handmade guitars cannot be simply described as ‘done by hand’, it also requires those hands to manage machinery expertly," Anh said.
He said technical factors have to be combined with the heart of the artist to make sure that a guitar is a work of art.
"There are stages where an artist’s sentiment is needed for the job to be done," Anh said.
Know the buyer
Duy Ngoc Guitar's showrooms are frequented by Vietnamese customers from Saigon and other places, as well as foreigners from many parts of the world.
An influx of buyers is good for business, but "I’m a picky seller. I can tell if a buyer knows about guitars based on the questions they ask, the way they touch one," Anh said.
He joked that he can judge a customer’s guitar savvy even before one entered his shop.
Anh calls himself a "heathen" in Vietnamese, not in a religious or self-humiliating sense, but someone who sets himself apart from other guitar entrepreneurs.
"I see that many entrepreneurs make what the public like so they will buy from them. But I do the opposite. I make and play the guitars I like, and hope that others like them too."
He is also not worried about similar guitar showrooms springing up on Guitar Street, which already has more than 10 shops on a 500-meter stretch. He sees it as "positive competition."
"There must be competition for growth to take place. But the most important competition is with oneself," Anh said.
The father of two built a guitar career out of his love for music.
He fretted a bit about not having enough time to practice with his guitar because of work and family duties, but he does manage time to compose songs. Music and guitar-making are two inseparable themes in Anh’s life, with one influencing and enhancing the other.
But he did not reach this stage without a lot of struggle.
Studying the making of guitars in Vietnamese 30 years ago was not easy cakewalk. Relevant material in the language was scarce and YouTube lessons were unheard of, so Anh went to an English center and homeschooled himself.
"I learnt English to be able to read related books and watch Youtube videos," he said.
Next to where the artisan sits every day on his little bench, there is an array of English booklets, books about the craft and an Oxford dictionary.
He is friends with some foreign customers and they stay in touch. "They usually visit Vietnam and would come to see me, maybe once or twice a year we would meet. Then I get to practice my English," Anh said.
To the obvious question about inheriting the craft from previous generations, which is true of many Vietnamese families, Anh shook his head.
"Our parents were teachers. They didn’t make guitars. It was us brothers who motivated, encouraged, and supported each another to become guitar makers."
Story by Sen