Craftsman’s passion and skill create world-class guitars

Story by Cody Mello-Klein
Video by Gwendolyn Schanker ·

KATO SCHOLARI, Greece – Tucked away in the hills and valleys of Kato Scholari, a village south of Thessaloniki, is a small house where color and sound collide. Walk inside, through the narrow, bookshelf-lined hallways and hear the warm, deep tones of an acoustic guitar plucking out “Thallasaki,” a traditional Greek song.

Welcome to the home of master guitar maker Giannis Paleodimopoulos. With more than 25 years of experience building traditional Greek string instruments like the santouri and bouzouki as well as classical guitars, Paleodimopoulos, 70, has secured his place as one of the top classical guitar makers in Europe.

But for Paleodimopoulos, his business, which he runs with the help of his wife, Ekaterini Diamantidis, 55, is about more than just craftsmanship. It’s about soul.

“I’m not religious, but something metaphysical happened [when making a guitar],” Paleodimopoulos said in an interview at his home and workshop in Kato Scholari. “Every artist gives something from his soul to his creation.”

In an industry full of mass-produced guitars that almost never benefit from the touch of a human hand, Paleodimopoulos remains committed to hand-carved design.

By combining traditional methods and experimentation, Paleodimopoulos builds instruments that are wholly unique. His double bottom classical guitars are curvaceous beauties, built from Spanish cedar and Brazilian rosewood that Paleodimopoulos himself tests by knocking on the wood. The end result is an instrument that has volume, resonance and a warm, colorful sound.

Kiriakos Simeonidis, a Greek classical guitar player, demonstrates his guitar, named Scarlett, built by Paleodimopoulos.
Photo by Sydne Mass

“It has the dark sound of cedar and warmth of spruce,” said Kiriakos Simeonidis, a classical guitar player-turned-clothing designer who has known Paleodimopoulos since he was 19 years old and still plays Paleodimopoulos’ guitars.

That kind of commitment to music and craft has been a constant part of Paleodimopoulos’ life, even if his path to the trade was winding. Born in the central Greek town of Karpenisi in 1947, the now seasoned craftsman built his first guitar when he was 14 years old.

“In my village, after the war and out in the country, we lived a primitive life,” Paleodimopoulos recalled. “I wanted to make a guitar to play with plywood. I didn’t know what I was doing.”

Unfortunately Paleodimopoulos’ early years weren’t part of the idyllic rustic life one might imagine. From 1967 to 1974, the Junta, a right-wing military dictatorship, ruled Greece, using torture and other tactics to maintain control. Under this regime, Paleodimopoulos and many other rural youth had very few employment opportunities.

With no chance of finding a job, Paleodimopoulos wrote a letter to a friend of his in Stockholm, asking if he would come and live in Sweden where he could also study at the local university.

Before long, in 1970, Paleodimopoulos was on a train headed for Stockholm with $300 in his pocket and the intent to study economics at the University of Stockholm. This turned out to be an important step in Paleodimopoulos’ development as a guitar maker.

“I got a lot of good knowledge, which helped me much later, not to make good guitars but to organize guitar-making,” Paleodimopoulos said.

His background in economics and the cultural perspective he got from travelling proved invaluable later in his career, as working with international dealers and importing materials from across the globe became necessary parts of his business. However, more importantly, his time in Sweden made him realize how vital music was to his identity.

It didn’t take long for Paleodimopoulos to start making instruments while he was abroad. His craft followed him. During his time in Sweden, Paleodimopoulos started to make traditional Greek string instruments, like the santouri, a harp-like device with an echoing, steely sound. Making and playing the santouri was like opening a window through space and time; it took him back home.

Giannis Paleodimopoulos shaves wood from the back of a guitar-in-progress in his workshop at his home in Kato Scholari.
Photo by Sydne Mass

“Because it was dark in Sweden…I would close everything – the windows, everything – turn off the lights. I’d play the santouri and I was travelling back to the islands,” laughed Paleodimopoulos, his eyes alight with the memory.

Paleodimopoulos’ time in Sweden reminded him that music was more than just a series of notes. Music was Greece. It was his home, tradition and family.

By the time Paleodimopoulos moved back to Greece in 1983, he had committed himself fully to creating traditional Greek instruments. He settled in Thessaloniki, where he set up his first workshop. His reputation as a craftsman grew until clients were coming and asking him to build instruments that he had never made before.

One day in 1985 classical guitarist Panos Boutopouloswalked into Paleodimopoulos’ workshop and asked him to build a guitar. Paleodimopoulos told the man that he had never built one before, but the man was persistent.

“He said, ‘I will give you one guitar to see what’s inside and you can make a copy of this,’” Paleodimopoulos said. “The first one I kept, the second I sold, the third I sold and I started to sell slowly for a very low price.”

Decorative pieces sit in Paleodimopoulos’ shop.
Photo by Sydne Mass

In 1985, Paleodimopoulos sold that first guitar for around $400 – around $915 today –  and he’s been building only classical guitars since. By the time he was on his 12th guitar, Paleodimopoulos was winning awards at international guitar festivals throughout Europe. He sells only seven instruments a year, but now they go for around $5,300, with the most expensive model going for more than $16,000. His most recent sale, a special model of guitar he named Scarlett after Scarlett Johansson, was to Simeonidis.

Once Paleodimopoulos realized the freedom that guitar making afforded him as a craftsman, he reached out to George Tsialas, an old friend and acclaimed guitarist and designer. Tsialas helped Paleodimopoulos perfect many of the techniques he uses today. The two of them deliberated over 15 headstock designs before settling on one. Paleodimopoulos hasn’t wavered from that design.

“The sound is a little darker. It’s very loud, but very textured,” said Simeonidis, who first met Paleodimopoulos at the Volos International Guitar Festival in Greece. And Simeonidis isn’t the only musician who favors the textured darkness of Paleodimopoulos’ guitars. Guitarists and composers all over the world have purchased the guitar maker’s’ creations.

Gerard Abiton, Miltos Chadjikalfas, and Srdjan Bulat classical guitarists from France, Greece and Croatia respectively, play and purchase his instruments. And one of Paleodimopoulos’ most treasured customers is none other than the award-winning Australian classical guitarist John Williams.

Paleodimopoulos also has international distributors who value his craftsmanship and sound in an industry that has become stagnant. Richard Sayage, Paleodimopoulos’ New York distributor at Savage Classical Guitar Ltd., has been working with the Greek guitar maker for over three years. Savage has sold five of Paleodimopoulos’ guitars to customers in America who can afford the hefty price tag.  

“His guitars are double backed and sided, giving them extraordinary airflow, making them more powerful in voice than most any other builder in the world,” said Sayage. He respects the care that goes into each instrument because, at the end of the day, it means better sound for the musician. More importantly, his customers feel the personality of the guitar maker in the instrument, which helps what could otherwise be just a hunk of wood take on a life of its own.

“His guitars are very powerful, raw in their essence, musical, lyrical and expressive,” Sayage said.

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Paleodimopoulos shows a wooden lattice he built for better sound quality. Photo by Sydne Mass

But even before he designs or starts building his instruments, Paleodimopoulos is paying close attention to every detail. The materials he buys, like wood and carbon fiber, are all specific to his tastes, tested for quality. The wood – Spanish cedar for the neck and body and Brazilian rosewood for the bridge – is most important and needs to be older than five years for the best sound and suitability for construction.

“He can’t buy the wood online. He has to go in person and [physically] hit it to make sure it’s right,” said Diamantidis, who works full-time as a social worker and only helps with parts of the construction process.

But Paleodimopoulos’ real job – and passion – starts with the construction process. This is where Paleodimopoulos is able to separate himself from other guitar makers.

Paleodimopoulos uses the lattice technique, a method that involves placing a wooden netting inside the top of the guitar in order to increase volume, durability and tone, that many classical guitar makers utilize. However, his double bottom body, which involves two layers of wood placed inside one another, is an experiment in sound manipulation. It gives his guitars a full, warm sound that mixes well with the darkness of the cedar.

The process, while mostly solitary, is also very much a family affair. His wife, Diamantidis, hand makes the rosette, a stylized, circular stencil that surrounds the hole in a classical guitar and acts as a maker’s signature. Even when Paleodimopoulos is done with the instrument, he makes sure to test it with the musician to make sure the sound is perfect. For Paleodimpoulos’ clients it’s the only real way to understand the quality of the guitar.

“When I get the call from Giannis and he’s finished, I get anticipation,” said Chadjikalfas, a Greek classical guitarist who played Paleodimopoulos’ guitars on his 2016 album “Leyenda.” “The outside of the guitar, you can tell if it looks good, but with the sound you have to wait and play.”

This ritual is as much a social gathering as it is a test. Family and design, work and play – they’re all part of Paleodimopoulos’ world. It may seem like a frivolous or pointless part of the process, but it’s the essence of the 70-year-old guitar maker’s philosophy on design – and life. It’s what makes his instruments sound as colorful as they do.

Paleodimopoulos has made his home and workshop into a physical representation of that idea. Instruments line the walls of the entrance room, mingling with childhood pictures of his two daughters, neither of whom plays guitar. “World’s Best Dad” gold medals sit on shelves alongside awards won from international guitar-making festivals and exhibitions like Cremona Mondamusica in Cremona, Italy.

Sitting in his living room, looking out over his vineyard, Paleodimopoulos picks up one of the many guitars resting on his couch. Surrounded by his wife and friends, both of whom are customers, he looks at it as he would an old friend.

He starts to strum an old Greek folk tune. The chords glide in the air, fill the room with warmth but also longing. It’s what Paleodinopoulos calls “sound colors.” As he plays, he stares out the window with a wistful smile, as if he’s travelling somewhere far away. He’s home.

“I don’t have the problem of why I’m here in this world,” Paleodimopoulos said. “But I try all day to discover myself [through my art]… We try to make the aesthetic of the guitar better, so both the constructive level and the human level grow up together.”

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4 thoughts on “Craftsman’s passion and skill create world-class guitars

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