Maker of world-class guitars calls St. Augustine home | People
ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. -- That old-timey music is Country Music Hall of Fame duo The Louvin Brothers. And it's coming from inside the home of the very man who built Louvin's guitar.
This is Paul Berger, member of an elite fraternity of luthiers, or guitar builders, who build world-class acoustic guitars.
And he does it all from the front half of his tiny, nondescript St. Augustine home.
Shannon Ogden: "Tell me some of the guitars that came across your workshop."
Berger: "So many of them. New Christie Minstrels, Beach Boys, Charlie Pride, Merle Haggard."
He left out Johnny Cash, Paul McCartney, Waylon Jennings, Hank Junior, Roy Clark, Porter Wagner, Ricky Nelson, Peter, Paul and Mary, even Elvis.
"I just love music and love the people in it. I mean, I love doing it. It's not stressful. It's a natural thing to me, you know," Berger said.
Fifty years ago, Berger, then a cabinet-maker, landed a coveted job at guitar maker C.F. Martin and Company in his native Nazareth, Penn. Martin guitars are now and were then arguably the best acoustic guitars in the world.
It turns out Berger was very good at fixing and building guitars.
In 1972, poor health forced him to leave Martin for Florida, where he found a climate good for his lungs and for building and selling his own high-end guitars, which he has done ever since.
Ogden: "I'm sure you have after you have either built or worked on a guitar, heard that guitar in performance or on record."
Berger: "Oh yeah."
Ogden: And what's that feeling like"
Berger: "Oh, I love it. I love it."
So not only is he a master builder, he uses master builder-level materials. Now, this might not mean anything to you. This is Brazilian Rosewood. It's might as well be unicorn horns for as difficult as it is to get.
If unicorn horns made the most beautiful-sounding guitars in the world. This stuff is more or less illegal to buy or sell because of different UN treaties. But, this is the holy grail right here."
Berger's wood FYI was obtained legally before the ban.
"See how it resonates? Voice of the braces," Berger said.
In his 50th year as a luthier, he still puts in at least 40 hours a week in his living room workshop, building 10 to 12 Berger guitars a year for rock luminaries like the guys in Aerosmith and the Eagles and serious amateurs on the First Coast and beyond.
Berger: "Rob Lowe. Actor Rob Lowe. I repaired his."
Ogden: "I didn't know he played."
Berger: "Oh yeah."
Legendary bluegrass/folk artist Peter Rowan is a longtime Berger guitar player. In December, Rowan headlined a benefit concert in St. Augustine to raise money for Berger's medical bills.
Right before the show, Rowan picked up his latest Berger guitar - the beauty there on stage with him.
"At Paul's ... kind of looked with his eyes and said, 'that's it.' I opened the case (strums) what?! Every note I play, it plays back a few I didn't know were there," Rowan said.
Berger is 77 now and has trained his son to take over for him... some day.
But standing in the way of now and some day is a certain red-headed stranger.
Ogden: "Is there any person, any player you've always wanted to build a guitar for that so far you haven't?
Berger: "Yeah. Willie Nelson. Willie Nelson. He ... he ... I'm gonna work on it."
Either way, Berger's legacy is secured and his contributions to music immeasurable.
There is a very good chance that somewhere in your own music collection is the sound of Paul Berger's work done from the living room workshop of his tiny, nondescript St. Augustine home.
"I have a partner in Paul and in the instruments he made. Thank you, Paul," Rowan said.
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