TEL AVIV – He’s played with the greatest of Israeli musicians – including Matti Caspi, Yehudit Ravitz, Rami Kleinstein and the late Arik Einstein – and has produced or played on 1,000 albums.
So, when Shmulik Budagov decided before his 50th birthday to quit performing and design the perfect guitar, he knew exactly what he wanted.
“I was always digging into the sound of the guitar – how it is sustained, what makes it good,” recalled Budagov, who turns 60 in July.
“I wanted to create guitars with all the features I love as a player,” but without the inflated prices of such famous brands as Gibson, Martin and Fender.
From his first designs for classical acoustic guitars, Budagov has expanded his eponymous line to include bass, electric, acoustic and classical guitars (including a line he created with the legendary David Broza), drums and accessories for guitars and drums.
He and his ex-wife, Hani, who is his business partner, also work with the Israeli Ministry of Education on a program called AB Kids, which provides musical instruments for children.
While his guitars aren’t cheap – the acoustics range from $400 to almost $1,600 – they look, sound and feel like guitars three times the price. Even the cheapest models have a nice low action – the distance between the strings and the fingerboard – and feature high-quality strings and tuning heads.
Although his guitars aren’t yet carried in stores outside Israel (they are available online at www.budagovguitars.com), Budagov’s customers include amateur and professional musicians from abroad, including one new fan in Ottawa.
I bought my first Budagov guitar – a beautiful acoustic called Autumn Leaves, because of the handmade leaf inlays on its rosewood fingerboard – at his store in Tel Aviv to keep at my apartment in Jerusalem. I liked it so much that I ordered a second one to join my collection in Ottawa, and wanted to know more about the man behind the instruments.
Budagov’s family came to Israel from Azerbaijan in the former Soviet Union. His late father was an accomplished player of the tar, a long-necked, stringed instrument.
Budagov fell in love with rock music when he was 10. At 11, he worked in his father’s glove factory for two months to afford his first guitar, a cheap classical model.
After switching to an electric guitar, Budagov practised 10 to 12 hours a day, and was discovered by future media mogul and philanthropist Haim Saban, manager of the seminal Israeli rock band The Churchills. Budagov joined the band and backed up Arik Einstein in the studio – all before his 17th birthday.
He did his army service in the IDF band and then went on to play in such bands as Sheshet, with Shem-Tov Levy, and Brosh. He was lead guitarist or producer for most of Israel’s top solo artists until he “flipped the switch” and decided to follow his dream of building his own guitars.
Because the first step to a great guitar is using the right kinds of wood to create a distinctive sound, Budagov visited factories in China, Taiwan and the U.S. to find exactly what he wanted.
The bodies of his acoustic and electric guitars are made in Taiwan, and many of his custom guitars are finished at his factory in Tel Aviv. His classical guitars are made in Barcelona.
Budagov keeps his hand in the game and tests new guitars by playing twice a month at the Shablul jazz club in Tel Aviv.
But the former guitar wunderkind has found his true calling with the guitars that bear his name and the label, “Designed in Israel.”