Uhm Hong-sik, Master Classical Guitar Luthier
We had the privilege of meeting with Uhm Hong-sik, the third-generation classical guitar maker who has inherited the tradition from his grandfather and father. We wanted to find out why so many guitarists, both home and abroad, pick up ‘Uhm Guitar.’
When Andrés Segovia Torres had his first professional performance at El Ateneo in Madrid at age 20, few in the music industry or audience thought the guitar would be particularly suitable for classical music. The instrument had been considered fit for salon music and it was difficult to pair the guitar with other instruments in an ensemble. The volume of the sound it created was relatively small that the guitar was confined to small venues and chamber music. To address that issue, Segovia worked with guitar makers to reshape the instrument and to use higher-quality wood and nylon strings. It eventually led to the birth of the classical guitar that we know today.
In 1935, when Segovia performed ‘Chaconne,’ a violin masterpiece by Bach, in a solo guitar recital in Paris, people finally started embracing the guitar as a classical instrument, not just a street instrument.

Making of guitars

Know-How Accumulated over 3 Generations
Three years prior to that in Korea, In 1932, Uhm Sang-ok built his first guitar, after studying a guitar he’d borrowed from a neighbor. After Korea’s liberation from the Japanese colonial rule and then the Korean War, Uhm opened his own shop, called ‘Diamond String Instrument Shop,’ and started building guitars in earnest. He picked up wood from used-furniture shops or disassembled guitars left behind by American soldiers and built entirely new instruments. The trade was handed down to his son, Uhm Tae-heung, and that’s when the family’s business got the moniker ‘Uhm Guitar.’ As a classical guitar luthier and player, Tae-heung turned Uhm Guitar into Korean’s finest classical guitar shop.
And today, Uhm Hong-sik is carrying the torch as the third-generation guitar maker.
He once worked as a cell phone technology developer, with stops in Japan and Sweden. An engineer at heart, Uhm somehow channeled his artistic side to start building musical instruments. While the sound that an instrument produces may be all sentimental, the manufacturing process is entirely industrial. You have to identify problems and come up with solutions. It’s not all that different to what he used to do in his previous career.

Inside the workroom

Q. What are you up to these days?
A. For a while, I felt like I’d hit a wall, in terms of making guitars and producing the whole, proper sound. Hoping to discover my own unique sound, I cut down on extracurricular activities and began spending more time on researching and manufacturing. And with the COVID-19 outbreak, this stretch has gone on longer than I’d planned.

Q. What do you mean by the wall?
A. Classical guitar makers constantly worry about the volume of the sound. Because classical guitars aren’t hooked up to amps, they’re played with a mic next to them. And the sound depends on the stage setting and the speaker. Players stress over these things. I’ve been complimented on pretty sound of my guitars, I always try to come up with ways to enrich the volume and diversify the sound.

Q. If a player is handed a quality instrument, then shouldn’t the rest be up to the player?
A. The instrument must be able to produce different emotions played by great guitarists. It can’t be giving out cheerful sound when the guitarist is playing something sad. It’s like asking Michael Schumacher (legendary F1 driver) to drive a compact car around a circuit.

Uhm played two different guitars. He built both of them, but they were made with different materials, using different processes. One took longer to make than the other, and was twice as expensive. Playing the same string yielded different types of reverberation and resonance, and different degrees of density.

Q. Now that I’ve listened to them, I can tell the difference.
A. Exactly. And it took me four years to discover this sound.
From Engineer to Guitar Luthier
Q. Why did you end up being a guitar maker? You used to be an engineer for mobile phone makers in Japan and then in Sweden.
A. My father was proud of the fact that I was doing something related to computer. He insisted that I try something else before getting into guitar making. Once I had built experience, my father had grown old and I decided it was my time to start making guitars.

Q. Your grandfather was the first to make classical guitars in Korea.
A. He sure was. But at the time, he was disassembling foreign-made guitars and used those parts to produce his own instrument. During my father’s generation, people were completing guitars on their own. I learned techniques from my father but don’t borrow from him entirely. I’ve been trying to establish my own style. I try to follow a modern approach that players today prefer.

Q. Can you sense the shift?
A Classical music has changed significantly since the turn of the century. Players have been moving away from formal playing and have been trying new things. Because instruments tend to be expensive, people usually play them for a long time once they buy them. But younger players make all sorts of demands about their instruments. Things are becoming trendier.


Tools for making guitars

Q. How has your experience in the corporate world, in particular IT sector, helped you with making classical guitars?
A. I always felt that your intuition or feel alone can’t get the job done, and that you have to understand the whole structure and functions of each and every part. At companies I used to work at, I was in charge of analyzing problems and coming up with solutions. I had to figure out why certain problems emerged and had to solve them. And when making instruments, solving problems after developing a proper understanding and an analytical approach came natural to me. I would compare multiple instruments at a time and make adjustments as necessary.
Traveling on Guitars
Q. You must have had a close look at guitar-making processes in other countries. How do they compare with yours?
A. My father knows someone who makes guitars in Germany. They once stuck to a traditional process in the past, but when I visited a few years ago, I saw that it has all given way to a contemporary system. It was the same with the design. After seeing that, my father came home and turned our previous process upside down. He altered the entire system. He had always seen the need for a change but never had enough confidence. And he was finally convinced after seeing a friend do it.

Q. From which countries do you mostly take cues on classical guitar making? How are their processes different from one another?
A. Germany, Canada and the U.S. offer different training programs. Countries all have different ways of cutting wood or pasting pieces, but other than that, there aren’t major differences. But they do have long traditions and know-how built from experience. That makes the whole process so much easier. They seem to have a different set of know-how for each price range.

Guitars produce different sounds, depending on the types of wood used.

Q. Do you rely on advice or help from any particular guitarist when building your instrument?
A. Bae Jang-heum has been that person in Korea. He once played a guitar that I made as an experiment, and he said he found it innovative and he loved the sound of it. He encouraged me to stick with that particular design. Late classical guitarist Seo Jung-sil also offered me so much advice on building my own, distinctive sound.

Q. Your guitar must be a gift not just for professional players, but for anyone who loves guitars. How can people order your products? Are they custom built?
A. Because I make guitars with an understanding of players and their music, I don’t have to do any custom-making. I make a wide spectrum of guitars, and I can help customers pick out the right instrument in the right price range that can produce the sound they want. I go through the same process with most players, and they are usually happy with their guitars.

Q. How much do your guitars cost?
A. They start in the 1 million won range, and there are limited-edition guitars over 10 million won. People mostly pick guitars around 3 million won. More so than price, it’s important to pick one that can produce the sound that suits you.

Q. Do you feel any pressure of being the third-generation guitar luthier of your family?
A. My grandfather was all about rebuilding old guitars to perfection. My father wanted to make greatest guitars. I do think about completing their dreams.

Q. What are your plans for the future?
A. Once the pandemic eases further, I will head over to Europe. I’ve made some quality guitars, but I haven’t had the opportunity to promote them. Players overseas have no prejudice about instruments. If they like something, they will come calling, and they couldn’t care less about brands or reputation. I want to build relationships with such players. And I also want to build an academy to teach guitar making.

Inquiry Uhm Guitar 
October 2021 Editor:Jung Jaewook
Photographer:Kim Zun

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  • October 2021
  • Editor: Jung Jaewook
  • Photographer: Kim Zun
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