Gibson... Yamaha... Budagov?

Artist has gone from playing to making guitars.

bugadov guitars 311 (photo credit: David Brinn)
bugadov guitars 311
(photo credit: David Brinn)
Imagine an aspiring 14-year-old guitarist in the US or Europe making a trip to the local music store to pick out his first instrument. The display wall is jammed with shiny, colorful electric guitars of every make, size and type. Strolling wide-eyed past the legendary Fender Stratocasters and the Gibson Les Pauls, steeped in rock-and-roll history, he finally sets his eyes on the prize – a Budagov.
It may not slip off the tongue as smoothly as Ibanez or Yamaha, but illustrious rock guitarist-turned-guitar maker Shmulik Budagov is taking giant baby steps to realizing that scenario with his extensive line of affordable, high-quality “Designed in Israel” guitars.
Over the past five years, working out of a flagship retail store in South Tel Aviv that doubles as a technical lab, and a nearby factory, the 55-year-old Budagov has quietly but effectively positioned his electric and acoustic guitars against the big boys. In the process, thousands of guitarists around the country – beginners and veterans, amateurs and professionals – have started the process of making Budagov a musical household name – at least in their homes.
But it could soon spread everywhere, Budagov explains sitting in the second-floor office above the bustling store. Interspersed among some of his favorite guitars hanging on the office wall are framed vintage posters of fabled bands of which Budagov has been part – including Sheshet and Brosh –  along with covers of some of the nearly 1,000 albums that he’s played on or produced for the likes of artists ranging from Arik Einstein to Hayehudim.
“All the years I was playing, I was never interested in flashy name-brand guitars. A lot of the guitars on the wall here don’t have famous brand names, it’s all nonsense,” says Budagov, waving his arm around the room.
“All my life, I searched for the perfect guitar sound, a good guitar that cradles in my arm comfortably. I had a beautiful, riveting journey with playing music – but at around age 50, I flicked the switch and began realizing my dream of building my own guitars.”
Downstairs, the tones of various guitars, drum rim shots and even a harmonica compete with ringing phones and on-site consultations between customers and Budagov’s staff, consisting mostly of professional musicians. Occasionally, his wife and business partner Hani pops in from her office for a brief question or comment. It’s all music to Budagov’s ears, who’s been immersed in tune and melody since birth.
“My father, who’s now 87, played an instrument called the tar. We came from Azerbaijan – and a small Jewish community that speaks Aramaic, which was our mother tongue at home,” recalls Budagov. “There was always music in our house.”
A TRUE child of the ’60s, Budagov’s music fixation didn’t really become severe until he began hearing the psychedelic sounds emerging from the Woodstock generation. While The Beatles may have been considered revolutionary compared to the Gevatron, it was nothing compared to the other-worldly, feedback-drenched sounds of Jimi Hendrix.
“Woodstock turned my world upside down. You have to put into context that there wasn’t much communication with the outside world then from Israel, very little TV and of course no Internet. We only knew what was on the international hit parade on Israel Radio. And at that time, you were finding Hendrix with “Hey Joe” and Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin. That was the mainstream music,” Budagov says with a laugh.
“I was around 10, and I would record the weekly countdown, and listen to it over and over and just fell in love with guitar sounds. It drove me crazy. When I was 11, I went to work for my father for two months at his factory which made leather gloves, so I could make enough money to buy my first guitar. It’s funny, but it was a cheap classical guitar that today a kid could afford by working for one day as a waiter. But I worked for two months and bought it for 400 lirot.”
Eventually graduating to an electric guitar, Budagov spent most of his waking hours practicing, at the expense of everything else. “I played 10, 12 hours a day, stopped eating meals and cutting my hair. I wanted to look like Hendrix. It became like a religion for me,” he says.
The upshot of such devotion was that by 16, Budagov had become a very good guitarist, so good that at that tender age he was asked to join the seminal early Israeli rock band The Churchills, who were then managed by future Power Ranger media mogul Haim Saban.
“Saban discovered me. He was the manager for The Churchills and he was looking for a guitarist. So at age 16 and a half, I was playing with The Churchills and backing Arik Einstein in the studio. That lasted until the army. It was like a dream,” recalls Budagov.
By the time he joined the IDF band as his service, Budagov was already a star. Besides enabling him to be exposed to different types of music, he also met his future wife, who was a singer in the Armored Corps troupe.
Since his mid-1970s discharge, it’s been a musical blur for Budagov – in bands like Sheshet with Shem-Tov Levy, the mythical band Brosh which was a staple on the popular TV show Zehu Zeh for over a decade, and as a distinctive, in-demand lead guitarist or producer for everyone from Gidi Gov to Yehudit Ravitz, Rami Kleinstein and Shlomo Artzi.
But more than five years ago, Budagov began rethinking his career and where he wanted to be as he entered his 50s, and he arrived at the conclusion that he needed a change.
“Even though there was a younger generation of musicians who wanted me to play or produce, I didn’t want to keep working in the music industry as a guitarist or producer – a professional for hire. I didn’t have the desire any longer at age 50 to be the rocker on the stage,” he says.
BUT HE did have another desire – to start building his own line of guitars, and who better to be behind a project like that than someone who had spent the previous 40 years attached to a guitar? “Let’s just say I had some knowledge of the subject,” says Budagov. As soon as he made the decision to move from making music to making guitars, Budagov began to learn all he could about guitar building, and he traveled to the US and to Taiwan to visit guitar factories.
“The first thing and most important thing in building a guitar is the wood. The drier and longer it’s stood, the better the wood is for a guitar,” says Budagov.
“When people ask me what the difference is between guitars that cost NIS 1,500 and those that cost NIS 5,000, I explain to them that it’s like wine. Wine costs NIS 30, or it can cost NIS 200. They both have grapes. But the time it’s stood and the quality of the grapes is what’s important. Same thing with a guitar.”
The first line of Budagov guitars which appeared more than three years ago was a classical acoustic guitar, but he soon branched out into electric guitars for all tastes and pocketbooks.
“It’s my taste – I brought elements to my guitars of what I like as a player,” says Budagov, trying to explain the difference between his guitars and others.
“It’s hard to pinpoint, but for example, I introduced an improvement, I think, in the style of the Strat, which is the most popular guitar in the world. I never really liked the harsh, metallic aggressive sound – so I went to the factory and checked out different pickups, and requested variations which changed the low end of the sound – little things like that which a non-guitar player wouldn’t even realize,” he says. “Other little things that I would do myself to my guitars over the years, I had the opportunity finally to do it with a whole line of guitars.”
Today, with the flagship shop in Tel Aviv, another in Ra’anana, and smaller branches in two music schools in Modi’in and Tel Aviv, Budagov’s tinkering has produced thousands of satisfied customers, including some high-profile guitarists. Benua Nehaissy, ax man for popular rockers Synergia, has been using a Budagov classic acoustic guitar ever since the band backed Rami Kleinstein on an acoustic tour last year.
“I was looking for a good acoustic guitar and a friend said, ‘You have to go hear a Budagov,’” recalls Nehaissy, 29. “I went to the store and played some of the guitars, and I really liked his high-end acoustic. It has a really warm and big sound, exactly what I was looking for.”
He worked out a sponsorship deal with Budagov and used the guitar on the tour and continues to play it at Synergia shows and recording sessions.
ANOTHER MORE well-known musician, David Broza, was so smitten with Budagov’s guitars that he’s gone into business with him. Long-time friends, the pair have designed seven top-of-the line Broza signature classical guitars with the names Galil, Megiddo, Yarkon, Carmel, Negev, Yarden and Masada.
“For a long time, he’s been coming to the store, looking around, buying guitars for his nephew or another relative. One day, he came and looked at the more top of the line guitars I was making, and he said, ‘Let’s do something together,’” recalls Budagov, adding that he’s been eager to produce a signature line of guitars ever since meeting Eric Clapton in 1989 after his performance in Jerusalem’s Sultan’s Pool and seeing the Fender signature Clapton model up close.
“We got some tips from a friend of David’s, a famous guitar maker in Spain, and we went to the factory that produces my premium guitars and worked on the models. David would ask for variations – ‘I want the neck this way’ – and he adapted things for his own feel. I took care of the rest. It’s all high end, the very best parts and design.”
Broza has already played three guitars of the line at concerts, and Budagov is manufacturing 600 guitars that are going to be sold throughout Europe. It was Broza’s idea to give them historical Israeli names, but Budagov, in his own stroke of patriotism, has insisted that all the guitars he manufactures bear the label “Designed in Israel” on them.
“I connected more recently with Seymour Duncan, the No. 1 manufacturer in the world of guitar pickups. His pickups are like adding a Mercedes motor to the engine of another car. We had an amazing collaboration, and together have built a high-end-line electric guitar with special wood and his custom built pickups,” says Budagov, as if he’s describing a newborn baby.
“When agents from Europe came to me, and they said how much they liked the guitars and wanted to expand their sales in Europe, I said, ‘Great.’ But I said, ‘You know it says “Designed in Israel” on it,’ thinking they would want me to remove it. And they said, ‘No. You don’t understand that when we’re talking about politics and the Palestinians, it’s one thing, but this is business. In business, the word Israel is magic – whether in the security field or in hi-tech, you’re talking about quality.’ So all the guitars that are being exported to Europe have ‘Designed in Israel’ on them,” he says, adding that the first 600 guitars were recently shipped out.
WITH A multitude of guitars to choose from, why would a consumer choose a
Budagov over a recognizable, well-tested model? According to Budagov, it all comes down to price and, ultimately, the big names mean high cost.
“My main advantage today is that the same factory which is producing my guitars, according to my specs and tastes, is also producing the most popular guitars in the world – at twice or three times the price because the consumer is paying for the brand,” says Budagov.
“Someone told me once, the guitar needs to buy the guitarist. And it’s true. It’s all about how it feels and how it sounds. Many times, you end up paying for the brand, instead of for the quality.”
Synergia’s Nehaissy agrees that it doesn’t have to be a Fender to sound like gold.
“Look, I have some Fender and Gibson guitars too. But I think you can’t always go by the name. You need to have an open mind and check things out for yourself. It’s possible to find a good product at a low price. You don’t need the name brand,” he says.
And for that 14-year-old beginner searching for his first guitar, the Budagov advantage is in not reducing the quality just because it’s a starter model.
“I make the beginner guitars as comfortable as the more professional ones. A lot of people denigrate ‘first’ guitars because they’re usually so poorly made, with terrible actions [the space between the strings and frets that a player needs to push down on]. A kid can’t press down hard enough, his fingers hurt and he gives up,” says Budagov.
“A beginner doesn’t need a name-brand guitar, he needs a good one. You can put any name on it – McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, and the price skyrockets. It’s a shame to spend that money. The same factory that makes the professional, high-end guitars for me – I said to them, I want the same line exactly, with regard to its feel and touch and action and its setup, because I didn’t want to lessen the quality. Make the strings close to frets. Let the kid know he’s playing a real guitar.”
The question is, with so much else vying for their attention, do kids still want to play the guitar> While statistics on guitar sales in Israel were not available, high schools are full of bands, old-fashioned battles of the bands are commonplace and, according to Budagov, they’re receiving an appreciation of the music – and guitar heroes – of the ’60s and ’70s.
“Today, every second kid is buying a guitar. Music has penetrated today’s youth in an extraordinary manner. It’s amazing. It’s difficult for me to believe that kids will stop playing rock – they’ve discovered the foundations of rock and they’re trying to make it their own,” says Budagov, conceding that the outside interests of the electronic age do dampen the passion in youngsters that he felt as a teen.
“My 17-year-old son plays guitar, but he does it for the girls. My 15-year-old plays drums, but he does it for the music. The guitarist sits in the house with his guitar, five remotes, one for the TV, Play Station, ICQ here and the guitar. How can he be a serious guitarist? He’s on Facebook all the time. For my generation, it was either soccer or guitar, and I chose guitar. And that’s it,” he says.
While Budagov is on the other side of the musical lineup today,manufacturing and marketing guitars instead of playing them, he says hefeels a similar sense of satisfaction. And, he’s no longer in conflictbetween making music for love and for money, which he said plagued himduring his musical career.
“I’m one of the less tolerant musicians. If I was around someone whowasn’t as professional as me, it killed me,” says Budagov. “I was‘problematic’ – even with Brosh, which I was with for 10 years. If itwasn’t good, I would make trouble for everyone. If the singing wasforced or fake, it would drive me crazy. Or if the drum groove wasn’tthere, I couldn’t continue playing.
“But I played with a lot of the great Israeli musicians – Matti Caspi,Yoni Rechter, Shem-Tov Levy – so there were great moments and there wassome balance between making a living and making art. And I’ll continueto play, but not in a structured manner.”
Budagov still gets called to do recording sessions, but he’s veryselective and usually will agree to run in and do a distinctive soloand leave, as opposed to staying for a whole album.
“Life is better for me today. I get to play for the sake of the musicand not just to make money. I think that’s the dream of every musician.Today if I go down to a club to play, I joke, ‘How much do I have topay to play tonight?’ I’m willing to pay because I love it. I’m onlyinterested in good music.”
If you don’t believe him, just strap on a Budagov Stratocaster and see how the fit is.