The GDR Era
But an 1890 economic crisis, two World Wars, the Great Depression, and the autarchy politics of the Third Reich caused a drastic decline in sales and employment. After WWII the music corner was dominated by communism and its ideals of abolishing personal property. Mass production played an important role as Markneukirchen businesses were reorganized into collectives. Small- and medium-sized companies were merged into craftsmen´s cooperatives and nationally owned companies.
Thankfully, the state didn’t completely neglect the musical instrument industry—the East German regime appreciated the quality and value of these instruments. A government-run trading agency imposed annual production rates that instrument makers were required to meet. Compromising situations occurred when materials grew scarce and workers had to improvise. This knack for making something out of nothing is now known as “the Art of the East.” Wood substitution is one example: If they ran out of rosewood or ebony, builders used locally sourced pear wood, staining it dark and using it for bridges and fretboards. It proved to be a fine substitute with rosewood-like qualities.
Finished instruments were given to the state agency in return for fixed wages, and then exported for hard currency, even to so-called “class enemy countries” like the United States and former West Germany. The profits bolstered East Germany’s ramshackle national budget. Naturally, only the best instruments were chosen for export, leaving only lower quality instruments within the country. (Still, many excellently crafted instruments of that era found their way back to the eastern part of Germany, and some guitars have become quite collectible.)
At its peak, the Musima factory had as many as 1,200 employees who produced up to 360 guitars per day, as well as recorders, violins, zithers, and other instruments. Interestingly, many employees continued to work from their homes or small workshops, even though they were exclusively affiliated with nationally owned companies.
After the Wall
When the GDR was abolished in 1990, large companies were denationalized. Some, like Musima, did not survive. Some workers grabbed the bull by the horns, went into business for themselves, and continue to work as successful luthiers. Karl-Heinz Neudel is one such builder. Neudel is usually overbooked with repair and modification work for vintage German archtop guitars, and he also builds guitars under his own label.
Mass instrument production no longer exists in Markneukirchen—today the Far East dominates that field. But historic companies still handcraft fine instruments—the Gropp family, for example, who are world-renowned for their fine acoustic guitars.
Left: An old advertisement for Musima guitars. Right: A few examples of Musima acoustic models. Photos courtesy of Karl-Heinz Neudel
Despite all the guitars that have been made in Markneukirchen, it’s not a town full of music shops or vintage stores—most guitars are purchased directly from the builders. Most current guitars are high-quality acoustic instruments, both classical and steel-string, such as those from Armin and Mario Gropp (www.gropp-gitarren.de), a typical father-and-son workshop in Breitenfeld. They build classical guitars and historical instruments of utmost craftsmanship in the spirit of Richard Jacob and his Weissgerber guitars.
In recent years the industrially made Musima and Sinfonia instruments of the GDR era have become collectible because of their history and charm. Not all of these are great instruments—many are from budget and student lines—but some are fantastic-sounding, great-looking guitars. (GDR-era Sinfonias and Musimas are among my best-sounding guitars.)
Sinfonia Acoustic Guitars
Sinfonia instruments were built from 1961 through 1984. Instruments from 1961 to 1972 sport “PGH Sinfonia” labels, while post-1972 instruments have “VEB Sinfonia Markneukirchen” labels. In 1984 Sinfonia became a part of Musima.
Sinfonia instruments were usually made by anonymous builders in their homes. While some models look simple, with unremarkable decoration, they often use tone woods that were unusual for their time. (I would never part with my 1962 Sinfonia classical, with its cherry back, sides, and neck, spruce top, and rosewood fretboard, all finished in spirit lacquer.)