Michael Burger has been a goldsmith for more than 30 years. But making jewelry, he says, “doesn’t excite me as much as it used to.” Six years ago, his wife gave him luthier lessons as a birthday gift, and almost immediately after he finished them, he remembers, “I wanted to push my career toward musical instruments and away from hanging trinkets on the privileged.”
Right now he has several of his creations in a gallery and more ideas waiting to be built. “Any career path I travel to feed myself will include working with my hands. It’s really all I’m good at,” he says.
Burger, whose father was an engineer and had a machine shop that Burger tinkered in as a youngster, worked at Jewels That Dance in downtown Asheville for several years as one of the two goldsmiths. He did all of the castings, CAD design work, and ran the 3D printer.
The store, though, closed in January, and Burger is “at a turning point right now,” he says. “I need to get the musical-instrument game going if I’m going to do that, or I have to figure out a way to support myself doing jewelry and not working for someone else.”
Guitars can take months to finish, he says, depending on the complexity of the build. As a full-time goldsmith, he would sneak in an hour or so of luthier work before his day job, and then continue in the evenings and weekends. “I enjoy the design aspect,” says Burger, who will soon add a computer-aided design system to his workshop to help quicken the process.
“My favorite part of the build is the carve. When you have your pieces glued together and you’re carving an instrument out of it.”
As part of his luthier studies, Burger had to complete an instrument build, and the resulting jazz archtop guitar is for sale at From Here & Far Gallery in Biltmore Village. He has several other guitars there and more at his home.
Not surprisingly, he’s a local musician, too, playing in the Sonny Govan Band. (The group doesn’t play shows often, but has released an album.)
Since becoming a luthier, Burger has also built a bass and acoustic guitar and travel guitars, and is working on a ukulele. His passion, though — unusual in the local luthier scene — is electric guitars.
“I’ve done more electric guitars, to be quite honest, because they are easier,” he says. “There’s not as much you have to know to do an electric guitar.”
His electrics are an interesting mix of beauty and function. They’re made of indigenous and exotic woods including padauk, maple, walnut, zebra wood, wenge, sapele, polar, cedar, cypress, and ebony. (The jazz archtop guitar is European spruce.)
“I love shopping for materials, and I draw a lot of inspiration from the materials themselves,” he says.
The question becomes: Is it more important for the instrument to look beautiful, or to make a beautiful sound? Burger knows there’s a balance.
“I’ve leaned in both directions. I’ve made things that are more utilitarian and I’ve done some pieces that I stuck with it and put more detail into it,” he says. “I’d prefer to make them more of an art piece — a piece that will be more valuable.”
Michael Burger, Asheville. Burger’s guitars are sold at From Here & Far Gallery (3 Swan St., Biltmore Village, fromhereandfar.com). For more information about the artist, check out Burger’s Instagram page (@Burgerguitarworx).