Now just a sleepy town in Germany, over the last 200 years, Markneukirchen has been home to countless luthiers ranging from brilliant to brutish, and has exported millions of instruments all over the world.
The city’s most-accomplished makers were Christian Frederick Martin and Ernst Heinrich Roth, and while Martin’s instruments are ubiquitous, it’s a well-hidden fact that the master violin maker Roth also built guitars – a lot of them.
Following in the footsteps of his father, Johann Georg, Martin was a member of the Cabinetmakers Guild in Neukirchen, but had aspirations to further the craft of guitar-making. Johann sent C.F. to Vienna to study with luthier Georg Stauffer, and while sociopolitical events at the time may have kept Martin’s name from being completely documented, a circa 1832 note from instrument wholesaler Christian Schuster (and included in Greig Hutton’s 2022 book Hutton’s Guide to Martin Guitars: 1833-1969), notes, “Christian Frederich Martin who ‘for a number of years has been foreman in the factory of the noted violin and guitar maker, Johann Georg Stauffer of Vienna’, had produced guitars, ‘which in point of quality and appearance left nothing to be desired and which marked him as a distinguished crafts-man.”
The Martin company today says that claim is reinforced by C.F.’s early labels, which state he was “a pupil of the Celebrated Stauffer.” The lack of firm documentation by Stauffer could indicate that C.F. only built cases, but either way, he returned to Neukirchen in 1825 (it wasn’t called Markneukirchen until 1858) and was promptly sued by the Violin Guild for trying to make guitars in the city. He continued the fight until 1833, when his father – the last living member of his immediate family – died. He then decided to leave the court battles behind and set sail for America, where he mastered the construction of Stauffer-styled guitars.
Meanwhile, guitar makers in the four southern German states known as Vogtland continued to be influenced by schools in Italy, Thuringia, France, and later, the United States, with the most-significant and lasting impulses coming from Vienna.
“From this mixture, an independent style developed from around 1840,” said Christof Hanusch, author of Weissgerber: Guitars by Richard Jacob. “After 1900, further development of this mixed local Markneukirchen style took place, strongly influenced by growing demand.”
Reflecting the international influences at work, elements of this decorative style included diverse bridge and headstock shapes in various styles – French, Spanish, Viennese, and Southern German. Other traits include ladder bracing, slim body shapes, and Spanish models (after Torres) from about 1925. These details show how Roth was reacting to wandervogel – an early-20th-century movement in which German youth embraced nature – by manufacturing small, decorative guitars meant to be carried on hikes.
“There were more and more cheap guitars – a consequence of mass-produced goods from workshops and factories – and relatively few high-quality instruments,” added Hanusch. “And while even the simple, cheap guitars are skilled in craftsmanship and often very well-built, prefabricated parts and decorative inlays were used all over the place. The general local style was also influenced by the imitation of the personal style of local masters like Richard Jacob, who labeled his guitars ‘Weissgerber.’”
Roth, who learned the craft of violin making from his father, Gustav Robert Roth, was 25 when he went into business building violins in 1902 with his cousin, Gustav August Ficker. According to a ’20s ad for instrument retailer Sherman, Clay and Co., Roth “carefully studied hundreds of the old masterpieces and used them as models,” and it makes sense he looked to Markneukirchen builders when he added guitars and mandolins to his roster. One characteristic he frequently copied from Richard Jacob’s father, Karl August (also a guitar maker), was capricious details like a distinctive, swooping fretboard-end shape and elaborate marquetry.
“The export of guitars from Markneukirchen and of components and decorative inlays available through catalogs after 1890 led to the imitation of such design elements in other countries,” said Hanusch. “Thus, the same mother-of-pearl inlays can be found in Italian or even Spanish guitars. Markneukirchen star-shaped rosettes, for example, were copied in Argentina at least until the middle of the 20th century, and became an epitome of the guitar of Argentine tango.”
Markneukirchen luthiers commonly made instruments that didn’t carry their name.
“They often used labels with the names of non-existent makers,” Hanusch noted. “Vogtland guitars usually do not have a signature or were given regional, national, or international dealer’s marks, usually with a label. This also applies to workshops that produce instruments, but also buy instruments to re-sell under their brand.”
Roth opened his shop in 1902 and primarily made violins for the upper-class market in America. Much less-known was his ERoma line of guitars and mandolins made for the greater European market until the end of World War II.
In the ’40s, as American big-band music was sweeping the world and many builders (most notably Martin) were limiting production of fancy instruments, Roth (along with Framus, Höhner, and others) went the other direction by making fancy archtop guitars (“Schlaggitarren”). He hired a slew of workers to keep up with demand.
“Before World War II, we had, in the Roth factory, 50 people – 30 for guitars and 20 for violins. At the end of the war, five people,” recalled his grandson, Ernst Roth, in a 1983 interview for Frets magazine.
That all came to a crashing halt when the Soviets occupied what was then called East Germany.
“In 1952, the company was expropriated by the Communists and we came to Bubenreuth,” Roth added. The Soviets took the Roth’s building (and tools) and formed the Musima company to continue making guitars in this style. Though the family today continues to make violins, production of guitars ceased when they moved to West Germany.
Though finding an ERoma in the United States is difficult these days, they are readily found in original markets like Italy and Czechoslovakia. Solidly constructed with a mids-focused tone, they hold up well and are perfectly fit for a walk through the woods or a strum by a lake.
Special thanks to Walter Carter. Clifford Hall is a journalist and bluegrass/folk musician. A fan of vintage Martins, he has a 1929 0-21, an Adirondack-top ’53 D-18, and other instruments that have helped him learn the history of American music. He’s also a violin teacher at the Owen J. Roberts School District in Pottstown, Pennsylvania.
This article originally appeared in VG’s April 2023 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.