Italy artisan crafts guitars for musicians in need

Barge (Italy) (AFP) - Offer Roberto Ceretti a fortune for one of his coveted hand-made guitars and he'll likely turn you down: the Italian craftsman may be in demand among collectors, but only plies his trade for top musicians in need.

Tucked away in the hills of north-west Italy, Ceretti's workshop is hung with half-finished models, the walls lined with stacks of cedar, mahogany and apple wood, and a large drawing board is littered with classical guitar designs.

"I made my first guitar when I was 12-years old, out of cardboard. It didn't work of course, but the passion stuck," said Ceretti, 50, who began his business in earnest 15 years ago after transforming his run-down holiday home in the Piedmont woods into an atelier.

Now he makes between five and six guitars a year, selling them for a song to help musicians hit hard by the economic crisis and cuts in culture budgets.

The father of three fells trees himself during the winter -- the best season because the wood is less likely to split -- hauling them back to the remote workshop in his truck before chopping them down to size in the clearing, his dog at his side.

He also rescues trees such as redwoods or firs destined for the chop in gardens around the region. He selects the best grain aesthetic from those to carve out the back, front and neck of his guitars, and uses all natural materials -- such as boiled cow femurs -- to make parts like the bridge and nut.

In crafting his instruments, Ceretti takes inspiration from master makers like Antonio Torres Jurado, the 19th-century Spanish luthier (stringed instrument maker) renowned for designing the first modern classical guitar -- Ceretti likes his instrument bodies rounded rather than flat.

Modern artisanal guitars, sought for their rich tonal qualities, can sell for up to 25,000 euros ($28,500), but Ceretti is not in business for the money.

- 'Not prostitutes' -

"Guitars aren't prostitutes to put in the window. They're instruments to be kept for a lifetime, to be played and lovingly cared for," Ceretti said.

"I only have musicians as clients. I don't make guitars for collectors or people who just want something fashionable to put on their wall," he added.

White-bearded and decked out in a lumberjack shirt and workman's boots, Ceretti sees himself as more of a carpenter than an artist.

Breaks are spent walking alongside a nearby river, waiting patiently for the right moment to collect fresh materials -- a timetable he says is often dictated by the waxing and waning of the moon, which affects the presence of woodworm.

From the moment the wood is ready, it takes him about a month to craft the instrument, which he sometimes rounds off with inlay on the rosette or fingerboard.

It is a painstaking, time-consuming vocation he says his children are unlikely to want to inherit, but one Ceretti says he finds "incredibly rewarding".

"If you're a musician living in Italy today, you are not making any money. So I don't charge for many of my guitars -- I exchange things for them," Ceretti said, adding that in the past he's been paid in machines or tools he needs, and even a cement mixer.

His family lives in the house adjoining the workshop, and Ceretti saves money by using spring water rather than tap, and wood stoves for both central heating and cooking.

But even out here in the wilderness, his philosophy is based on sharing.

"With the best musicians that's always been the way I've worked. If they can afford to pay, I might charge between 2,000 euros ($2,270) and 7,000 euros ($7,950) for a guitar, but it doesn't happen often," he said.

"With the economic crisis as it is, I help out real musicians in need."