Need a new guitar pick? Does your guitar have cracks―or are you looking for a new electric guitar? Anyone in Reykjavík generally knows where to get expert help when having problems with their guitar. Gunnar Örn Sigurðsson never advertises his services; he’s not even registered in the national phone book. People simply know Iceland’s only guitar maker.
He got his first guitar at the age of 10, spent his youth constantly taking guitars apart. “That's how you did it,” the reserved man in his fifties recalls. “You were a rocker, playing with others, taking things apart.” At the age of 17, he completely gave up guitars and music. “I was immersed in life and started all over again with music only 10 years later.” His band is called Strákarnir hans Sævars (Sævar’s boys), and Gunnar Örn has been playing with them for 20 years, performing six to eight gigs a year. They play blues-rock, a harder and faster version than the black blues.
His workshop on Brautarholt reveals not much of that, no photographs, no posters, just a passionate craftman’s shop. “I'm more of a guitar tech than a musician,” Gunnar states.
He learned the luthier’s craft from Ekkehard Hoffmann on Formentera and in Switzerland, later trained with Eggert Már Marinósson in Iceland, who at that time had specialized in classical guitars.
His first workshop had been in Hrísteigur for more than eight years, a small enchanted kingdom of screws, tools and mountains of guitars, beclouded by the smell of glue and paint. You would hardly meet him alone, there was always someone popping in with a mending matter or just to have a chat and coffee. His four-legged workshop pal Balli accompanied him through all his projects.
Two years ago, Gunnar Örn moved to Brautarholt 22, to a workshop with more space for a workbench and guitars, and Balli finally got his leather sofa. On Brautarholt, Gunnar Örn shares the shop with violin maker Jón Marinósson. Artists know his address and like to drop by for coffee or a jam session when performing in Reykjavík.
By now, his guitar business is doing well. Renowned bands like Of Monsters and Men, Vintage Caravan and musicians like Ómar Guðjónsson or Sigurgeir Sigmundsson play his instruments. He crafted a Flying V for one of Sólstafir’s guitarists, decorated with Viking symbols.
No two handcrafted guitars are alike, each of them reveals its own sound and character after much more than 100 hours of work, and each of them is crafted with input from the customer. He still sometimes falls into a creative trough upon completion of a project, a phase that artists are well aware of. “People have no idea how much work lies in a handcrafted instrument,” he remarks.
A lot of work and only the best, well-seasoned crafting wood, ordered from acknowledged retailers, go into an instrument, but Gunnar also keeps a treasure of decades-old wooden pieces on the shelf, a kind of craftsman’s crown jewels, awaiting their metamorphosis.
You might find a guitar made of aluminum, awaiting completion. On one of the numerous racks there is ‘Thorso,’ Gunnar's own design, which received attention at the Holy Grail Guitar show in Berlin. It’sa guitar made of different types of wood and copper layers, treated with salt and vinegar.
Gunnar used to make up to ten guitars per year, but since the Holy Grail show in Berlin, Orn Custom Guitars has a name, and orders from home and abroad keep accumulating. In May, he plans to attend a guitar show in Sweden, presenting his latest design―an electric guitar including Icelandic lava.
Gunnar started teaching his craftsmanship at the Reykjavík Technical School in 2007, and the 100-hour fall class has been fully booked each year. His best known students are probably blues legend Beggi Morthens and metal band Dimma’s bass player Silli Geirdal, who usually play their handcrafted instruments at concerts.
And it still makes Gunnar happy when people give him a call, just to let him know how pleased they are with their instruments. “Guitars have to be played,” he says with a smile.