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Frankfurt Musikmesse presents: Vlahopol Guitars (Mike Vlahopol)

By: Ramon

The Romanian Mike Vlahopol is far from just a one-trick-pony. Besides guitar builder and professional musician he is also the owner of a production company. And in his own country Rumania he has worked with some seriously impressive names. His guitars caught the eye during Frankfurt Musikmesse due to his sexy marketing strategy, partly supported by the statement that his guitars are better than… you fill in the blanks. Reason enough anyway to want to find out more about this sympathetic guitar builder and what drives him.

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Welcome to Lords of Metal. Could you please introduce yourself?
Hello, I am Mike Vlahopol, also known as Sharky. I am 45 years old and I am a full time musician (guitar player) since 1985 – 1987 until present days. I also play bass and a decent level of piano and some drums. I am the owner of Star Media Production, which started in 2002 because of the need to have serious players on the Romanian Show-Biz. In all these years I have managed to work with an impressive number of great artists as sound engineer, or as a stage manager due to my technical knowledge of sound, PA systems, stages and for my English. Because of that I have managed to work with Michael Jackson, The Scorpions, Deep Purple, Uriah Heep, Whitesnake, Steve Vai (three times), Enrique Iglesias, Garden Of Eden, Tiamat, and few others. The nice part of this is that in all this process I have made some incredible new friends among all the artist I worked with, we keep in touch and I have even played with some.

Sounds awesome. What inspired you to start building guitars and furthermore, launch a brand of your own, carrying your name?
As a professional musician you need more than 3-4-5 guitars at any given time and I was a “little” too tired to go around to gigs with minimum three or four guitars to have a backup or a different sound. I started to make guitars as a business or as a brand only three years ago, because I wanted to play my own instruments and search my soul for my own sound. To be honest, I started to play guitar in 1985 and we had only two types of instruments:

- Very bad and pretty expensive (about four or five salaries)
- Very expensive and very hard to find…

So… I had to do something about it. I played drums for one year, but they were so expensive my father got me an Russian acoustic 7 string guitar for my birthday, instead of drums and that was the start of it. One year later I already started a high school hard rock band, which was prohibited by the communist law at the time, and I managed to buy a very “stupid” second-handed electric guitar. That guitar was so impossible to play, I had to take it apart, throw away the body, make a new one, and make my own pickups since they were impossible to buy separately. I managed very hard to put 18.000 turns by hand on a pickup and that’s my first “Mission Impossible” in order to have a decent guitar. My first guitar was a combination of Gibson SG in the front and a Gibson Explorer on the back.

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Since then I have made guitars for fun as a hobby because of my Industrial Design high school specialization and the last guitar I had made then was in 1996. So from 1986 until 1996 I have made maybe thirteen – fifteen guitars… And this is how it all started. At first I made guitars because of the need to play decent affordable instruments, than it became a passion and later on an obsession hahaha. Because of my nick name, my first guitars were called Sharky, which later on I realized that is a much better name for a guitar model than a brand and because I am known in Romania, I thought that my family name was a much better approach from a promotion point of view. So, before the launch we had time to change it from Sharky to Vlahopol. After all, most of the big brands in the world are named after their owners and that is the guaranty of the quality of the product, if the brand is serious.

Good point. Where do you mainly sell at the moment, is that also abroad any bit already?
We intend to sell all over the world in the near future and yes we have sold a couple of guitars in Romania, Germany and Ireland, already.

Can you remember your first sold guitar abroad?
Haha, I remember very well. It was in December 2013. My brand was not launched at all. A friend of mine from Ireland came by to check my first prototypes and give me his honest impression as he is the owner of quite few expensive guitars. After he played two or three of my first seven guitars he asked me all of a sudden: “Are you selling any of these guitars?”…I said: “I am not sure if I am ready yet, as I have not finished my website, and I have no Facebook page, and I have no deal with any shops, yet!” “No, I don’t care about all that; would you sell me one of these NOW?”… He interrupted me. And he choose a beautiful guitar with very nice specs and with the serial number 001… It was pretty hard to sell my #001 guitar, but he loved it so much, I knew it was going to a nice owner, plus he is coming a lot in Romania so I can still see it. That was the first sell ever.

How many models do you currently have as a brand
Oh, let me think a second here. We know have:

- 6 strings guitars – seven or eight different models
- 7 strings guitars – two models
- 5 string basses - 34” inch scale / 35” inch scale
- And we can basically do anything a player wants IF he likes something different

Can you tell us what kinds of stuff you are developing for the near future?
A few days ago I have received a big challenge from a band I used to play with back in 1993. The band migrated from heavy metal to pop music due to various reasons and they are doing a great job as a band. The bass player wants me to build a special bass for him and all I can tell you for now is that a major company form Europe asked him to pay 30.000 euro for that special bass. Since they are my friends and we played together I said I will help for a VERY decent price. I promise I will send some pictures if this project will go on.

…I hold you to that promise, hahaha
So besides different pickup models and preamps and other shape models, hopefully I will work on this project if the “stars will align correctly” (laughs).

Is it important for you to follow trends, if they are useful, such as different pickup configurations, different neck scales, or even multi-scales?
Yes, I believe you have to be flexible. After all your players will buy your instruments, or not. This is why I am fairly disappointed in most but not all the big brands. They have never changed one thing to their models in the last 30 - 40 years or so. Look al 90% of the guitars around:
- Same shapes
- Same pickups
- Same cheap tremolo systems
- Same woods
- Same huge prices for the more decent instruments

I am not using any pickups from any brands you may know. I am going for the sound of my head, soul and mind. We have a very good deal with a very serious factory and we have our OWN sound, which I believe it is amazing to have. – I can give you the name of the Pickup Company IF you want.

band imagePlease do!
I have a VERY nice relationship with a company that now merged with Tesla Pickups – we even know our family members so this is how much we respect each other. It all started four years ago when I was visiting the Musik Messe and I was looking to get some pickups for my guitars. And I realized that all major pickups manufacturers wanted me to buy hundreds of pickups / month in order to get a decent price – which I find crazy, by the way- plus they were very expensive, too. So, I looked for other opportunities. When I first asked the guys at Tesla about custom pickups they said yes but we also have MQO (minimum quantity order) – and after I told him I want something that NOONE has done before he became very curious and he asked what… That was my luck. “Nobody ever did that before and we made pickups for all major pickups companies in the past” he said, “Do you think it will work? He made me some samples, I put it on my first guitars and after I sent him a demo. Next year at the Musik Messe he said to me: “Do you have more ideas like this?”… and he smiled. Since than we are real friends, almost like brothers.

And doesn’t that scare away some customers, who insist on having say Bare Knuckles or Seymour Duncans on them?
If a player insists to have something different it’s his loss, I will do it but not before I show, make him hear or after I have narrowed down all possibilities. I am proposing something different to players – a custom sound. To have limited edition pickups on a unique guitar, custom built or in zero series. Furthermore, the neck scales, yes we are working with different scales as players will ask for it we have so far:

- the classical 25.5” inch scale for 6 strings and
- 26.5” inch for the 7 strings for the guitars and
- 34”inch and 35” for the 5 string bases we built so far.

For the guitars we probably have the most powerful bridge pickup in the” known universe”, so far. So, for metalheads too we are very much covered (laughs).

That is a bold statement, indeed. Great! Currently, what makes you stand out in the field of builders, you think?
I know there are lots of custom builders out there everywhere and I believe it is good for the custom or boutique smaller shops. Competition is good and I believe that we have some advantages that we are offering a custom sound. Most not all, custom builders will put standard pickups on their instruments which is not bad, but is not good either, If a player is looking to get a personal sound the question arises: “Why would someone make a custom guitar, if in the end will sound 100% like his guitar hero?” They can get a signature guitar, there are thousands of those guitars out there. I always encourage all players to look and search for their own sound especially if they are professional players. We currently have ten models of different guitar pickups and four models of bass pickups and we can cover a wide range of blues, funk to aggressive rock sounds. One of my advantages is that we can put at least three or four different sounds in one guitar. This is one of our major targets; to offer more versatility in one guitar.

Do you have any interesting musicians endorsing you at the moment and what should be the term for that, rather than someone desperately wanting a free guitar and who is willing to wear a shirt with your name and do twenty gigs a year?
Very interesting question Ramon, thank you for asking. I could tell you some very nice stories including the one about my first Endorsement as a musician.

Yes, give us the short version, but please do tell!
About endorsements… Very nice things happen if you are at the right time, at the right moment. Six years ago I went to my first VicFirth private party at the Musik Messe and met lots of cool musicians there including Victor Firth (God rest his soul) and also met Marco, the artist manager of VicFirth. We had a cool wild party. Marco said to me: if you ever need anything call me directly on my cell. After a month or so I called to say hello and after we talked a little Marco told me: “How can I help you?” “I don’t need anything”, I replied, “just called to say hello, see how are you doin’!” “Oh thanks, that’s nice of you. No one from the fair did that to me before, besides I can’t help you anymore as I am not working for VicFirth no more”, he said with a sad voice for not being able to help.” “Well as I said I don’t need anything besides I am not a drummer… I am a guitar player”, I laughed… “Oh, wow! What strings do you use?” he asked. “Well, I use D’Addario for fifteen years straight – I love these strings but they are hard to find in my country.” “Well man, I have good news for you buddy, I now work for D’Addario and I think you need to come work with us. We need someone like you to represent us and tomorrow you will get an e-mail from me”. The next day I got an e-mail with a decent endorsement contract and with big header on the e-mail saying: “Welcome to the family of D’Addario”. Since then I am with the family, and it’s been a great journey so far, especially that I am one of the first guys on the planet to test new products before they go to the stores. I was one of the first guys in Europe that tested the NYXL strings. So never endorse a product if you don’t love it, or it will hit you back hard…

To answer your first question: no, at this very moment we don’t have any endorsement since we just officially launched our brand at the Frankfurt Musik Messe 2016 – this is our ICE BREAKING. But we had some very interesting players visiting and playing my instruments and yes we are in the process to sign three amazingly good players in my opinion. In the meantime I endorse my own guitars so to speak since I am present on many TV and radio shows and I collaborate with a number of important acts in Romania and I also play in Cyprus, USA, Greece and Germany. Some basic decent terms would be:

- To have a professional web page.
- Have some social media pages – Facebook, Instagram. Twitter.
- More than 20 gigs a year – to quote you.
- Be a professional musician - not with a day job and a Saturday gig.
- Play with my instruments and love them.
- Love my instruments and promote them.
- Time to promote the brand at least once a month.
- Maybe take it to TV and radio if possible.
- Participate to any event in case there is any organized by us or by any other third party where the brand will be present.

And there is some advice for all players out there. If you don’t love an instrument, DO NOT endorse it. I am currently endorsing: D’Addario, Planet Waves, Evans and Pro-Mark. Just like Carlsberg beer – I am probably the only guitar player in the world endorsed by two drum companies. This is how much I love them and how much they love me (laughs). And it wasn’t easy to get there. So, I know what I am saying.

band imageYou claim on your website “Vlahopol Guitars are better than sex”. Do you really have such a disappointing love life, or are you really that amazing as a builder?
Ha, ha Ramon. You are boxing me into the corner with a punch under the belt, my friend. Well, no and yes I suppose. I know it will sound weird, but because of guitars my love life is amazing, I am confident my guitars are just great and there is a story that goes with it. First of all, it is a playing on words, second you know that sex sells everywhere in the world and third there is a story that goes with my statement which is very true for any serious musician. When you start to play guitar as a teenager you start dreaming of big concerts, stadiums, big concert halls, parties, girls, groupies, you know, all that… dreams that will make you or break you… But you wake up in the morning with wet sheets in the bed and the dream is over. At this point there are two types of players:

- the ones that will quit and get a day job and
- the ones that will stop playing football, stop going out with friends, stop seeing their girlfriends, they forget about sex life for a while and everything else to start practicing hours and hours every day and night, and for years you have none or very few friends, no girlfriend since she is jealous of your guitars and time spent with studying.

So, for all this time your guitar becomes better than sex since you renounce at your girlfriend and sex in order to play / study guitar. But if you become better at your instrument, all the work will eventually pay off: you will get to be a good guitar player, have a cool band, have good / big gigs, have lots of friends and a big fan base and last but not least, a very nice girlfriend or many girls if that is your dream. This is how it was at least for me. I know that works for all big players as a matter of fact. It all comes with an incredible amount of work and passion for what you do and lot of sacrifices.

You also work with sexy models, holding your gear (no dirty thoughts on that one), which is always cool, but on the other hand, doesn’t that take away any focus on the fact you are indeed a hard-working craftsman, aiming for the best possible result?
Dirty or not dirty it’s a thought you had – so my concept got you, too. Yes there might me some misunderstanding or misinterpretation here to be honest but a smart player will never look at that. I sincerely believe that a smart player will first get curious and do its best to try to play the instrument in order to get an idea than he will know if it is the right instrument for him in terms of sound and esthetics. The rest is just marketing and an eye catcher, if I can say so. I honestly want my instruments to talk for them as I am very confident about what I do.

Who are these models on your site by the way?
They are a total number of twelve girls I am working with and they are not all models. These two girls are good friends of mine one is a professional photo-model the other is just a friend that offer to help with my first photo session. As you can see we have incredibly nice girls in Romania and I thought it would be a bummer not to take advantage of that.

Point taken. We spotted you at the Frankfurt Musik Messe this year and there was quite a crowd during your demonstration. What made you decide to go there?
First of all thank you for spotting me, and second I want to use the opportunity to say thank you for considering me worthy of your magazine and to know you as a person. We had presentations of our products every 20 minutes or every time we had time in between meetings or between gigs as we played few times on the Beck’s stage in front of 11.0 Hall with my international project Mike Vlahopol & The Crossroads. We had lots of people stopping by and I know it will sound like I am bragging about it but we had a very decent booth with a small stage and good sound both on music tracks and on the guitars so people are attracted but such things, like I said. I just played the guitars and I let them instruments present themselves and do most of the work as I believe I have good instruments. It is also very true that I like to put on a show when I play on stage so people are attracted a lot, to see the guitars played backwards, over the guitar neck, between the legs or maybe behind the neck.

Had you ever been there before?
I have been to the Musik Messe every single year since 2010 as an artist with my D’Addario family and had some presentations over the years. 2016 was the first year for me as an exhibitor and not as an artist.

What do you think of the new customer-aimed setup of Messe?
This is something new for me as an exhibitor but I have seen most if not all the changes over the last few years. I know for a fact it is not easy to change things of this magnitude like the Musik Messe. I believe the Musik Messe is trying to target more of the professionals to come to this important fair. I believe it is vital to have more professional on both sides:

- One side would be more serious companies to present their products.
- More professional musicians to come visit the exhibitors.

I know they are working on this and I totally believe that the Musik Messe has an incredible team and they are working to improve things every year. The management team of the Musik Messe is actually trying to help both visitors with a bigger variety of products but also to help smaller guys such as myself. Visitors should be happy, I believe. I have been a visitor for many years and always wanted to see more guitars from other newer brands. There is nothing wrong with bigger brands, but we all know who those are and we can always find those big boys if needed. The advantage is that smaller brands now really have a change to be seen which is good for them and good for the players to have a bigger variety to choose form and see new things.

Is that the main importance, getting potential clients a guitar of yours in their hands to let them experience it themselves?
I believe it is the most important thing ever. Take the guitar out there so everybody can see it, play it, hear it, feel it, smell it. After all that is a matter of taste, trust, confidence and why not friendship, this is what I am trying to build. In fact I made lots of new friends during this Musik Messe 2016. It is vital that players will get to play my instruments; once they do they will hear something, a difference.

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