Well first I’d like to thank all of you who have checked us out, it’s amazing what the ‘Net has allowed in terms of making like-minded friends from around the world. One day recently I got a friend request from today’s subject, who was already friends with many folks I knew in the guitar world. We got to chatting and I checked out his guitars, which are very impressive for the amount of time they’ve happened in, he has a great eye and knows how to learn from the best. It turns out we have a great deal in common, and he is in general a friendly and enthusiastic person. He’s already turned me on to a number of very interesting guitar and bass builders in Europe that don’t get much press here in the US.
So, knowing how hard it is for the ‘little guy” to get noticed in the business, I thought we’d ask him a few questions about his life and work. With any luck this can be an ongoing series, I know Mark has more people lined up already!
KK: First, what is your name and age, and where are you from?
US: My name is Uwe Schmidt, I’m 52, and I live Krofdorf-Gleiberg, a small village in Central Germany.
KK: Ah! then we’re just about the same age, I was also born in 1959. I know you don’t do guitars full-time, what is your ‘day job’?
US: I’m an Ad Agency Creative Director, I do concept work, write copy, and also do the artwork.
KK: Mark and I both do similar work, it’s funny how often they overlap. So, how did you get interested in guitars?
US: I started playing when I was fourteen, like most people, with a horrible, no-name Asian guitar whose only good feature was a low price. My second guitar was an Ibanez ‘Silver Series’ Strat-type, that I still play, now on its second set of frets.
KK: How many guitars do you have, and which builders are your main inspirations?
US: I usually have about a dozen guitars around, but when I feel a need for a change, I tend to give them away. Right now I have: The Ibanez Strat, a G&L Legacy Strat, a Hondo Chiquita, 3 Lazer headless guitars by Mark Erlewine, Hondo and Samick, an Epiphone Firebird, and an Albatross 335 copy, which is cheap but plays well. And of course the guitars I made for myself.
My favorite builders would probably be Claudio Pagelli, Ulrich Teuffel, and Linda Manzer, but I am inspired by anyone who goes against the mainstream! If you go to my website, www.thelema-instruments.de, you’ll see what I mean!
KK: So when did you decide to try building instruments personally?
US: When I saw the Teuffel Tesla, I really wanted one, but couldn’t afford it, so I thought, “Why not try to make one for myself?” I have a good friend who is a Luthier, and he helped me with the woodwork. He did a lot of the more difficult work on that guitar. After that, I started to study books I could find, and eventually began making them by myself about two years ago.
KK: Do you have any funny ‘mistake’ stories you care to share?
US: For me, mistakes are not funny! The hardest part (and this is not funny at all) is the neck. When I began, I just made necks for a while, to really get a feel for it.
KK: Fair enough, but I must say your guitars don’t look ‘amateurish’. Did you have any previous woodworking experience?
US: Funny thing, I had none at all when I started making my first guitar… until then I wouldn’t have believed I had the talent to chop down a tree!
KK: So the Headless Tesla-type came first, what order did the rest come in?
US: Next came the SeaLife, then the Junior, the Junior AOR, the Jazzy, Rocket Slide, Soulmaster, AntBass, and the Svana.
KK: If you could go back and change anything, what would it be?
US: I wish I’d started sooner!
KK: Which one do you think is the most ‘You’?
US: I’d have to say the SeaLife, from the sketch to the crafting of the body, that’s purely my work. I must have done 100 drawings of the body, and 50 for the headstock. It’s pretty clearly based on the Undersea World, fishy shapes, fins, etc. It makes people smile when they see it. After I finished it I met Claudio Pagelli and he remarked that it reminded him of some of his work, which was very flattering! Next would be the Junior AOR, it’s somewhat similar, but more of a Rocker and less a ‘Boutique’ guitar.
KK: How do they usually begin?
US: I’m always sketching designs in a book, sometimes someone will mention a type they like that I haven’t done before and it will spark a new idea… the Rocket Slide was like that, a friend said he liked the sound of slide guitar, and I started drawing, and within a couple of weeks I was building it! So really, they just come from my head and hands. I get the drawings as close as possible to what I was after, which can mean a lot of drawings, and then try to copy it in wood.
MT: What’s your prime motive when you start sketching, do you want something ultimately beautiful; modern, ergonomic, chic, cool, unique, or simply improving on what’s come before?
US: I just keep drawing, I’ve got thousands of sketches, and occasionally you come up with something that is breath-taking.., a new shape that makes one say, I’d play that, it looks like me. Something outside the norm, a personal statement. It’s a rare thing, to find a beautiful design that inspires people… then I have to make it real!
KK: So do you build just for yourself, or have you sold some to others?
US: Well when I began, I never thought I’d get in this deep, it’s starting to get serious! Most of these builds have been given to friends who can appreciate them and give me the kind of good feedback I need. Naturally if anyone out there would like me to build them a guitar, bass or lap steel, please, feel free to contact me!
MT: What are your favorite pickups? I see you use P-90’s on a lot of your designs.
US: I really like P-90’s, they are so underrated. They’re the perfect cross between a single and a double-coil… and they’re easy to build in!
MT: What sort of amp do have for testing your guitars?
US: I have a Crate Vintage Club, with 40 watts and a 4×10 cabinet. I like to play them clean… for me a good clean tone is very important.
MT: Are there any musicians you’d love to hear playing your guitars?
US: I don’t know, anybody who likes them should play them!
KK: I know you’re building a shop in your house, how’s that coming along?
US: I’ve been working at home for two years on a bench about half a meter square, and it was driving me crazy, so I finally decided to remodel the attic into a proper shop. Some friends are helping, and I hope to finish in two months or so.
KK: Can you tell me what ‘Thelema’ means? I’m pretty good with languages but don’t know that word.
US: It’s Greek for “This I will Do“, or something close to that. I like it because it describes how I felt when I first set out to make guitars. I decided to do it, and willed myself to follow through. I’d like to point out that I don’t consider myself a ‘Professional’ just yet, but with each new build and commission I get closer and learn so much. I’m happy to have come so far in just two years!
KK: So what’s next for you, any hints of what’s to come?
US: First, I need to make another Svana, but semi-acoustic, with a mahogany body and neck, a maple top, with two pickups, plus a Piezo with a pre-amp as well. Then comes another SeaLife, but much lighter than the first… it’s a big design, so weight becomes an issue. This one will also have a new Schaller ‘Hannes’ bridge, a gift from the head of Schaller himself. I would love to do a fanned-fret guitar soon, I played one recently and it has gone straight to my head! Then I have plans to build what I call a ‘Neckless-Headless‘ guitar… but you’ll have to use your imagination until that one gets done!
KK: That sounds very interesting indeed. We will be watching, and wish you the best of luck in the meantime. Thanks for taking the time to do this. Perhaps this article will get you some much-deserved attention. To find out more and see more pictures of guitars made by Uwe, just head on over to his website.
One final note from Uwe: “Some of your readers will notice that the SoulMaster and Svana are homages to two of the best builders out there; Saul Koll and Pete Malinoski. They’re not direct copies, but ‘Inspired By’ them.”