A shot from the floor of the Holy Grail Guitar Show in Berlin. Photo by Heiko Hoepfinger.

As a participant in various guitar and bass shows over the last two decades, both as an exhibitor and visitor, I can say the Holy Grail Guitar Show in Berlin is among the best organized ... by far. Intended for the guitar nerd, it’s calmer, more accessible, and arguably the most focused and interesting expo on the European side of the Atlantic. Aiming to be the perfect experience for the discerning 6-string enthusiast, this new guitar event kicked off its first edition in Berlin, Germany, in November 2014.

Over the course of a year, there are only a few opportunities for us string lovers to learn about new developments and get the latest scoop on instrument design. Typically these are the two NAMM shows and the Frankfurt Musikmesse. These sprawling expos have it all, from parts to effects and amps, as well as huge exhibits from the biggest instrument and audio companies.

But a group of European luthiers who focus on handmade, exclusive instruments didn’t find the atmosphere of traditional musical instrument expos to be ideal, so they came together to present themselves in a different way. They began by forming the EGB—the European Guitar Builders association—as the organizing entity, and then carefully built the event around the instruments and the luthiers’ personalities.

In Europe, we would call the basic concept partially “socialistic,” knowing full well that this term is used differently in other parts of the world. For the EGB, what it means is: One equally sized table for each luthier, no big booths or advertising, and no amps within the main exhibition halls. This makes for a quieter place to display the instruments, and it allows potential customers to have direct contact with builders.

Lay of the Land
The show took place in Berlin’s Estrel Hotel, Germany’s biggest hotel and convention center. The Estrel offers two exhibition halls and several smaller rooms for lectures and demo concerts, as well as two separate rooms with sound cabins for playing electric and acoustic guitars and basses.

A group of European luthiers who focus on handmade, exclusive instruments didn’t find the atmosphere of traditional musical instrument expos to be ideal, so they came together to present themselves in a different way.

An astonishing number of exhibitors from all over the world came to this first round of the event. Among the 115 companies were some well-known names, along with many that were new to even an insider like myself. I met luthiers from Scandinavia and Eastern European countries, but also from the U.S., Canada, and Japan.

The festivities kicked off with a pre-event symposium and meeting for all the exhibitors a day before the show went public. Canada-based William “Grit” Laskin gave some insight into his life in lutherie and the art of his uniquely detailed inlay technique. Afterwards, the head organizers explained how the now-defunct Montreal Guitar Show inspired them, and how this show is now the only international one of its type focusing on both the builders and buyers of exclusive, handmade instruments. At this point, nobody knew what the turnout would be, which created a mix of tension, pride, and excitement that could be felt everywhere—especially among those who’d put so much sweat into making the Holy Grail Guitar Show a reality.

But the next day’s opening made it clear why this show represents an important milestone in the relationship between builders and their customers. The halls, lectures, and sound cabins were filled with a bustling crowd, and the vibe—consisting of relaxed, one-on-one meetings and exchanges among small groups of guitar enthusiasts—was remarkably different from the large, more industrial shows.

Of course, there were a lot of spectacular woods and finishes to ogle, but also an eclectic mix of concepts: In addition to the traditional master builds, you’d see headless, fanned-fret acoustics, extended-range guitars, resonators, and guitars with carbon—even leather—tops.

Music demos and lectures accompanied the two-day show. While the 20- to 30-minute demos featured instruments from a specific exhibitor, the lectures offered insights into the philosophy of building and the future of the handmade guitar business. There were a total of eight lectures on such topics as the inspirational influence of research, the thermal treatment of wood, and the use of non-tropical woods. The 25 demos all featured instruments from participating luthiers.

Alas, it’s impossible to cover everything that was exhibited, but the following descriptions and photos will give you a sense of the amazing instruments on display at the show. And you’ll find more amazing photos and information about other exhibitors on the Holy Grail website.