Danche guitars, open since 2007 at 906 Madison St., is a combination traditional guitar shop in the front and workshop in the back. Even during the recent recession, proprietor Danche Ivanovic, (DAN–che Ee-VON-o-vich) and Zdenka, his wife of 35 years, are all smiles in their cluttered-yet-homey shop, complete with 13-year-old Labrador, littered with ashtrays and Turkish coffee cups.
“I’m an American now, after 14 years,” says Ivanovic smiling.
They came to Illinois during the 1990s wars in the former Yugoslavia. Danche’s a Serb and Zdenka’s Croatian and they get along famously. As a “luthier,” Danche worked all over Europe, including Munich and Austria, building and repairing thousands of string instruments.
“It’s a one-man shop, seven days a week,” says Zdenka.
The front half of Ivanovic’s shop is a traditional guitar store, displaying models of the usual guitar suspects, Fender, Gibson, Gretsch. There’s a 1964 Les Paul Junior near the front. Danche also hangs two lines of acoustic axes he distributes: Takamine guitars made in Sakashita, Japan, and Seagull brand guitars from Canada.
But then there are the guitars he makes himself. These are his old-world masterpieces — the Danche arch-top jazz guitar has graceful f-holes and inlaid mother-of-pearl headstocks, rarely seen this far north of Nashville. An inlaid rainbow abalone border elegantly frames the guitar’s curves. Their ebony fretboards can be made to order with jumbo frets. Electric models feature Joe Barden pickups from Manassas, Va. He also crafts acoustic guitars with gracious European inlaid patterns of lacy flowers bordering the soundholes. Then there are solid- and hollow-body flat-top electrics.
These instruments — destined to become family heirlooms for their lucky owners — take three months to complete. They’re not cheap: Danche sells them for between $10,000 and $15,000. “I can’t compete on price with the big music stores [like Sam Ash and Guitar Center] but I compete on quality.”
His ideal customer? “I’m looking for some crazy, rich guy!” laughs Ivanovic, who sells three to four a year.
“He’s definitely a craftsman who’s passionate about his work,” says Oak Park oral surgeon and blues musician Rick Simcox, who drops by the shop to talk guitars and music every so often. He’s got his eye on that Les Paul Junior in the corner. “He’s definitely old school. He reminds me of my neighbor [growing up] in Detroit from Lithuania who used to make violins in his garage. I’d watch him cut the wood and plane it. You don’t see that anymore.”
The back of the shop is filled with wood-working tools: table saws, lathes, sanders and buffers. A high shelf in the corner holds a stack of lumber — not much to look at — from which the guitar masterpieces emerge.
These are Danche’s raw materials: Imported Brasilian and Argentinean rosewood, spruce from Spain and Germany, maple from Bosnia and African ebony for the fretboards. Danche even buys local hardwoods from Sycamore, Ill. “All of this wood is more than 30 years old,” he says.
He offers a six-week class building a solid-body electric guitar from scratch. He crafts eight guitars at a time, sold to customers from California to Alabama — usually via word-of-mouth, although appearing on WTTW’s Chicago Tonight certainly helped to spread the word.
He is a musician as well and a big fan of American roots music — blues and rock ‘n’ roll. “Danche came to one of my shows with the Tone Questers at the Sushi House,” says Simcox. “He said to me, ‘I hate you and I’m going to have to kill you because I want your band,” he recalls, laughing. Danche loves Fitzgerald’s in Berwyn, where he himself has performed.
Marketing his high-end the instruments is always a challenge, says his wife, when the craftsman himself is busy building them in the shop. Danche wants to find the right working musician to sponsor, “someone up-and-coming, someone Bill Fitzgerald [owner of Fitzgerald’s] would know.” Big guitar companies snap up as many sponsorships of working musicians as they can, he says, “Fender or Gibson will give a musician three or four guitars a year. I can’t do that.” He dreams of handing an instrument to Paul McCartney someday backstage.
But his best marketing tool may be in the family: His older son, Goran, is a renowned local classical guitarist who also plays jazzed-up Yugoslavian folk music, which he calls “Baltic Fusion,” with the group Eastern Blok. He’s played the Dame Myra Hess concerts at the Chicago Cultural Center, appeared on Chicago Tonight and taught at Carnegie-Mellon, Princeton and Yale universities among others. Younger son Mihailo graduated from OPRF and studies music marketing at Columbia College.
“[Goran] is the best representative of what he’s got,” says Simcox.
Slowly, word-of-mouth is sending more customers Danche’s way. “[That shop] is a little jewel there,” says Simcox. “If you’re an artist and you come from [an Eastern European immigrant] background, the thing that drives you is the passion. [The business] will take off when people find out who he is.”