This article was published in the 2005 Blue Book of Acoustic Guitars.
You can also download this article as it appeared in the book with photographs here:
Download the companion article by Michael Keller here.
Download a PDF version of the article here.
Your Dream Guitar – by Henry Lowenstein
For every guitar player, the ultimate fantasy is to have a guitar that meets his/her every desire and requirement as a player. This is something very different than the fantasy of a collector, who may be chasing some rare and beautiful guitar that has already been built. While the fantasy guitar of the player and the collector may sometimes coincide, a person looking for an ultimate guitar as a player most often has an entirely different set of criteria (playability vs. rarity, for example) and requires an entirely different process to achieve his goal. While I suppose it is sometimes the case that a collector will have a guitar made as an investment ( the late Scott Chinery comes to mind), I suspect that it is far more likely that a player is having a guitar made because nothing on the market fits his playing needs exactly. As guitar enthusiasts, we are extremely fortunate to be living in what can only be described as the Golden Age of luthiers, with literally hundreds of skilled artisans in the United States and Canada waiting to make a guitar to our exact specifications. This article will discuss the player’s process of selecting an ultimate guitar, having it built by the right luthier for the job, and how the guitar’s worth can be maximized during the process and evaluated at the end of the process. It will be demonstrated by detailing my own experience in this endeavor.
To help in understanding the process I went through, it is necessary to tell the reader a little bit about my background. I’ve been a guitar player for 35 years. I started off as a player, and as I learned more about the instrument, became a collector of sorts. I play everything from classical to rock. I performed professionally in my high school and college years, performed in University Jazz Bands and Orchestras, but played my last real public performance at my wedding. I have more than the average experience with guitars because my grandparents owned a guitar store, I began working in a guitar store (unrelated to theirs) when I was 14, and actually owned my own guitar store for a number of years as a side business to my legal practice. I was also the founder of an organization called the American Guitar Player’s Association, which some of you might remember or may have even been members of. I have roughly one guitar for every year I have been a player, and they range in price from several hundred dollars to tens of thousands of dollars. While I have had some unusual experience with guitars, the advice I am going to give below is equally attainable by anyone with interest (compulsion), time, and a sympathetic spouse. The only other thing that sets the stage for my viewpoint in this article is that in my late thirties I contracted a rare form of reactive arthritis that, among other things, damaged the joints in my hands, wrists, fingers, and shoulders, and made playing many of my guitars painful and sometimes impossible. This was the impetus for my quest for my ultimate guitar, which necessarily included features that would make playing easier, while satisfying my lust for all the things I had admired in guitars over my lifetime.
My first step was deciding whether I really needed to have a guitar made when there are so many extraordinary and diverse production guitars available new, and so many older models available from vintage dealers. Having a guitar built seemed impossibly difficult. I was worried about spending money on a guitar that I had not played, finding the right luthier, choosing materials, and was also worried that after I had spent a lot of money, I would not readily be able to sell the guitar the way I knew I could with a name brand like Martin or Gibson. What I didn’t know at the time was that the journey in figuring all these things out would actually be one of the most fun and rewarding things I had ever undertaken in my life. The journey would exponentially enhance my knowledge and enjoyment of the instrument I loved so much, would introduce me to people who shared my interests in music and the art of the guitar, and create a deep and lasting friendship with the luthier I ultimately chose. When I think back on everything I did, it ended up being a ten year journey, and all the things that worried me at first simply became legs of that journey. Sort of like a treasure hunt, I suppose.
You are probably saying to yourself “Ten years!? I don’t want to even wait ten weeks for a guitar!” Well, fortunately, if you are interested enough in guitars to own this Blue Book and are even reading this article, you have probably already started the process years ago and didn’t even know it—which brings me to answering our first big question about whether I needed to have a guitar made. You see, to have a guitar built for you, you have to know what you do and don’t like. That means playing and sometimes buying guitars. Every time you have picked up a guitar and thought “Wow, that neck feels really good, but I wish it was just a little narrower,” or “I love the inlay on this but I wish it had a slotted headstock.” or “this guitar would be perfect if it just came in Koa.” you’ve started your journey. What you have to do now, and what I did, was get scientific about it.
One of the ways to do that is to read. There are lots of great books that give you the basics of guitar construction and mechanics. We are also fortunate to have lots of web sites to go to. I’ve listed a number of resources within this article. Once you have educated yourself a little, and I’ll go into more detail about that later, you have to play guitars in music stores, the guitars of friends, or even your own guitars, but a little differently than you have played them before. Take a soft tape measure with you—one that can’t possibly scratch the guitar. If you like the way a neck feels, measure the scale length, the width of the neck at the nut, and at the 12th fret. Get an idea of how thick the neck is, how thick and wide the body is at the upper bout, the waist, and lower bout. If the upper frets seem unusually easy or difficult to access, look carefully at how the neck joins the body and where, and notice all the details that make it that way. And if you find something really close to what you want, buy it if you can. This will give you an opportunity to live with the features you like, and see how they might be refined before you go all out with your “soul mate” guitar of the future.
This is a good point to mention something really important to the process. As far as your list of desires, you have to be cognizant of something your mother probably told you growing up. You can’t have everything. By this I mean that the guitar is such a diverse instrument, taking on so many forms and styles, that invariably you cannot fit every element of every style of guitar into one guitar. Doing so will likely compromise the elements you most want, and neither you nor your luthier is going to be happy in the end. This does not, however, mean that there isn’t an ultimate guitar out there for you. It just means that there may be more than one ultimate guitar and you have to pick the one you want the most right now. There are some obvious issues: For example, you can’t have both a twelve string and a six string instrument if you are only willing to have one neck. The more difficult issues, however, arise from questions like “Can the same guitar be both a steel string and a nylon string?” or “Can I have all the electronics I want without destroying the appearance or acoustic function of the instrument?” The answer to both these questions, for instance, is yes, but you need to know the extent of the compromises. I am going to take you through my process of choosing my guitar, which, except for my physical needs, should give you a good idea of what is involved.
I had played hundreds of guitars but the pickings (pun intended) in my town were pretty slim. I had a few “big box stores”,and was lucky enough to have a little high end boutique, but there are hundreds of luthiers out there and thousands of guitar variations—and I couldn’t tell how something played from a web page. The only solution I found was to travel. Now, that sounds like an expensive proposition and it can be if you are not clever. I was lucky to some extent because in past years, I had owned a music shop so I went to the annual NAMM shows and got to play a huge selection of production instruments. But custom built guitars are not necessarily at NAMMS, which caters to large markets, and I needed to get to play some rare and unusual instruments
The way I see it, almost everyone takes a vacation every year or so. Sometimes even two vacations if you can get some good airfares. So I decided to kill two birds with one stone and plan my vacations around places I knew would allow me to play the maximum number of world class guitars, while giving my wife (and kids sometimes) something to do while I was in Nirvana. My first expedition was to see Stan Jay at Mandolin Brothers in Staten Island. This involved a trip to New York City, which was no hard sell for my wife at all. Stan has just about the best high end collection of “wood and steel confections” of anyone on the planet—and he lets you play them all to your heart’s content. Warning, you may not be able to constrain yourself, end up buying a guitar that fits your whole list, and your quest ends. Or maybe you just get one of those midway point guitars, but a place like Mandolin Brothers, which offers literally millions of dollars of guitars by small and large luthiers and production guitars, also has the advantage of a staff that can really educate you—and educate me they did. There are a couple of other great shops like Mandolin Brothers, like Gruhn’s Guitars in Nashville (a really fun place to vacation) which can be found on the internet. I took a slight detour from a business trip one year and went to the Dallas Guitar Show, one of the major guitar shows in the country. That gave me a chance to talk to a whole host of guitar experts, and further refine what I was looking for. One important tip; If you are really interested in a guitar, ask the shop if you can buy a set of fresh strings for it in the make and gauge you play—or better yet, bring your own. The single most important element of a guitar is its strings, and over and over again I see people making decisions on multi-thousand dollar guitars based on strings that have been played to death for months, and are not even the brand or gauge they will be using. This is insanity, and any shop worth its salt will let you pay for a set if you are serious about buying.
While the shops were great, the advice was better. Stan told me that if I really wanted to check out many of the nation’s best luthiers, all in one place, I should go to the Healdsburg Guitar show, which is now held in the little town of Santa Rosa close to Healdsburg California (forty miles north of San Francisco in the heart of the Sonoma wine country) every other year. Booked into a romantic bed and breakfast in Healdsburg, my wife was really starting to get into this whole guitar quest thing and was even asking if there were any good guitar shops in Paris. (My kids had already benefited from the Guitar Gallery’s proximity to Disney!) If there is a heaven, it looks just like the Healdsburg guitar show. About 120 of the nation’s best luthiers (more next year) get together to talk, play and show the best of what they have to offer to the public. Luthiers have to compete to get into the show, and are accepted based on the quality of their work and other criteria including the promise shown by younger luthiers. As a result, every year you have the grand masters as well as fresh faces at the show. This is not only a great chance to meet the luthiers themselves and learn some real serious academic guitar-building theory, but the show provides “quiet rooms” galore so that you can actually play and compare these extraordinary instruments. You will also have a chance to meet people who own many of these guitars and pick their brains, which goes a long way to giving you a sense of security about who you are choosing to build for you. I heard nothing but superlatives and praise from top flight collectors about the luthier I eventually chose. Of course, the best guitar makers attract the best players, so all through the day specific luthiers’ guitars are being demonstrated in a small concert hall, and at night there are concerts that absolutely blow you away, using many of the instruments you have seen during the day.
Now, in my rapture and euphoria over Healdsburg, which has me drooling on my keyboard even now, I would like to pause for a minute and tell you that by this point I was pretty well educated about guitars. I had read a stack of books including George Gruhn’s multiple books on the guitar, Grit Laskin’s extraordinary book “A Guitar Maker’s Canvas” on guitar construction and artistry, several Martin histories, the Blue Book of Guitar Values which contained a lot of information about the guitars I was playing, Tom Wheeler’s American Guitars, Tony Bacon’s Ultimate Guitar Book, Ralph Denver’s Guitar Handbook, Stringletter Publishing’s must read “Custom Guitars, A Complete Guide to Contemporary Handcrafted Guitars” (which contained many of the Healdsburg participants, including the person I would ultimately choose), Irving Sloane’s ground breaking treatise on guitar construction and repair, as well as Hoadley’s extraordinary “Understanding Wood” and Walker’s Encyclopedia of Wood, just to name a few of the more important works. On top of that, I had read every issue of Acoustic Guitar Magazine since 1993 , and spent considerable time on their website (their online archives have a great search engine and a wealth of knowledge), as well as the luthier’s main hang-out web page, The13thfret.com, which had links to most of the world’s premier luthiers all in one place. I had also learned a lot from the Taylor Guitar monthly newsletters, which discussed many issues of guitar mechanics and is available online as well. Upon arriving at Healdsburg I had bought some of the past Healdsburg catalogues, for the purpose of seeing who had been there consistently. I had also emailed , phoned or spoken to, in person, everybody from C.F. Martin, Bob Taylor, and Rick Turner, to other groundbreaking thinkers like Grit Laskin, the folks at Parker Guitars and Collings Guitars, JLD Research, and the electronics wizards at L.R. Baggs, Shadow, and Fishman. In addition, I now owned a number of guitars which all had elements of things I liked, including wood quality, neck size, body size, and sound quality—just not all in the same guitar.
So, as I walked around the tables at Healdsburg, many of the luthiers were familiar to me and I had a real good idea of what I wanted to ask about and play. I had determined that I needed somebody who could build me a parlor size guitar that was thinner than usual, so my shoulder would not be strained while playing. I wanted a short scale neck—shorter than any high quality production guitar since the turn of the century—so that my hands could stretch frets with ease and the tension on the strings was greatly reduced (this also had the advantage of adding tone to a small-bodied guitar), but I wanted a cutaway which was not available in any turn of the century guitar. I wanted to use my own spectacular Brazilian Rosewood but I needed someone who knew enough about wood to choose the best of my stash and supply top quality Adirondack spruce, mahogany and ebony to match it. I wanted a very lightly built guitar to get the maximum volume out of the guitar, a slim neck—again for my hands, and a complicated compound radius fingerboard to take the stress off my wrists and fingers. I wanted a specific radius Florentine cutaway, special sized frets, and a sound port cut into the upper bout. (I had been convinced by Grit Laskin’s book that a sound port was the way to go, had experimented with the concept a little on my own, and confirmed my desire by playing a Boaz guitar with a sound port on the first day of Healdsburg.) I had already bought the electronics I wanted from L.R. Baggs, and had bought Gotoh Deluxe tuning machines with pearl knobs. I wanted a Martin 00 body shape with a deep waist and a lightly braced top that would pull the maximum tone and volume out of extra light strings (looked down upon by most luthiers), with action so low you could breathe on the strings and play a note. However, I also wanted that small bodied guitar, with those extra light strings, to have full tone and lots of volume. I was convinced, from what I had read (and my two-inch depth Cordoba Gypsy King), that all of these things could be accomplished by a master luthier, without compromise. Oh yes, I wanted 45 style pearl inlay with triple binding everywhere (including around a custom wood mosaic rosette), and full and elaborate inlays on the neck, headstock, and back of the headstock, which I wanted faced with ebony. The reason for this is that by this point, my hands were deteriorating faster than medications could stop them, and I wanted to make sure that if the day came when I could no longer play the guitar very much, I could at least enjoy looking at it as a piece of art. A little morbid, I admit. You can imagine the looks I got as I went from table to table with my list of requirements.
My criteria eliminated two thirds of the luthiers at Healdsburg off the bat. Here are some of the reasons: Some otherwise excellent luthiers don’t feel they can make money if they veer too far off the molds and jigs they have set up in their shops, and I can understand that. They have perfected a certain style and form, and once they move away from that, it either becomes too time consuming for them or they are not confident with the outcome, or both. Some luthiers specialize in archtops or classical guitars, so while they could probably make anything, and do it well, I had no frame of reference for what they might make, and they didn’t either. You really don’t want to pull a luthier too far out of their element on your life’s dream guitar. One luthier said he would use my wood, but would still upcharge me three thousand dollars because it was Brazilian and, after all, he had to make his money somewhere. I thought that was outrageous and eliminated him off the bat. Some luthiers were clearly not very experienced. They had only been making guitars full time for five years or so. While their work was beautiful and some of their prices very appealing, I needed somebody who knew it all and could do it all for a project this complicated. Some luthiers there did gorgeous work, but were “hobby” luthiers. That is, they made a few guitars here or there while working other full-time jobs.
This brings me to an important issue and concern for everyone going through this process—that is, the value of your instrument if you ever want to sell it. If Martin is like common currency, a guitar by a hobby luthier, no matter how good, is basically a guitar you had better plan to keep. You may know the value of the instrument, but it is going to be hard to convince anybody else to pay three thousand dollars or more for an instrument from somebody who is not only unknown, but who by virtue of their limited production, will never be known. This is particularly true if you are going to spend closer to ten thousand dollars.
On the other hand, I was determined to not spend money for “hype.” There are some luthiers who are quite good, but have become so expensive that nobody could possibly be as good as their prices. I am reminded of a famous passage from John T. Maloy’s early book, “Dress for Success,” where he stated: “If you are paying more than twelve dollars for a silk tie, you are paying for something other than the quality of the silk.” This holds especially true in the luthier world. A basic flat top guitar with the best craftsmanship in the world can be obtained for $5,000.00. If a similar guitar is selling for $25,000, you are paying for something other than the craftsmanship. Good Brazilian Rosewood can be bought for between five hundred and eight hundred dollars a set. Outrageous Brazilian can still be bought for around $1,200. If a luthier is putting an upcharge of five thousand dollars for a Brazilian option, you are paying for something other than the wood. Likewise, some luthiers’ guitars have tripled in price simply because a guitar hero plays their instrument. I don’t blame the luthiers at all. They should get what the market bears, and more power to them. The hype factor may well also hold long term investment value. Look at D’Angelicos or D’Aquistos. But as a player first and collector second, I wasn’t interested in paying for anything other than pure craftsmanship, especially since my research and many conversations had revealed that some guitar heroes play the instruments they play because they are acquired for free. One more thing. Just because your guitar hero gets a certain sound out of an instrument, doesn’t mean you will. For one thing, their hands and bodies may be a totally different in size and in my case, strength. They may have a totally different strum or grip, or may even not care about a physical feature of the guitar which would drive you up a wall.
I had met one luthier who had said yes to every one of my requests, and had not balked at getting volume out of a parlor sized guitar. He had been making guitars for a living for 27 years, had been accepted at all the Healdsburg festivals since its inception, had published articles about guitar construction, and whose name kept coming up from other luthiers each time they turned my difficult project away. That luthier was Michael Keller. As it happens, his was one of the first tables I went to. His guitars were flawless, light, and loud. His necks were paper thin, with fast, low action, and he even had a baby, short scale model in his standard line. On top of this, when he played one of his guitars for me, he played exactly the songs I would have played. And when I played his guitar, he remarked that he played that same arrangement as well. This may seem like a small thing, but it was a real bonus. In Michael I had found a person who intrinsically knew my style, knew the music I was going to be playing, understood my physical needs, and was completely open to building a guitar, with my wood (at no upcharge), from scratch. No preset molds, scales, sizes or requirements. He had apprenticed with two of the top luthiers in the world (Richard Schneider and Jeff Elliot) had trained a lot with Jim Olson, and everyone at the show knew him and respected him—and he them. In conversations I also found out that top high end guitar shops, like Dave’s Guitars, used him regularly for difficult and intricate restoration work—another hallmark of a great luthier. Best of all, except for a few books, a miserable web site (which he has since remedied with guitarist and master web builder Dave Bricker of Spot Graphics), and past Healdsburg catalogues, I had never heard of him! No Hype! I had found a luthier’s luthier, and a well-kept, if unintentional secret in the collector world, ensuring, at least for the time being that I was going to be paying for pure craftsmanship. As it turns out, I was about to have built the most amazing guitar I had ever played, seen or heard.
Having selected Michael Keller as my dream guitar luthier, the fun was only beginning. Contrary to common belief that the wait for a custom made guitar is agonizing, the nine-month process with Michael was almost (I did say almost) more fun than getting the guitar itself. Although we had agreed on a basic price and I had an idea of what he charged for options, I was still a long way away from knowing everything I was going to do with this guitar. Over the next nine months, we would discuss everything from how to arrange my wood for the best pattern, to the shape of inlay pieces. I started off by giving Michael a deposit, and writing him a long email about the type of features I wanted. I also included questions I had, and this is where it gets a little tricky. I wanted very specific things, but I also wanted to be careful to not urge Michael do something he was uncomfortable with, or something that went counter to what he suspected was good acoustic mechanics. Mostly, I didn’t want to change basic features around so much that it was no longer a “Keller” guitar. This would be throwing away all the reasons I had picked him in the first place, and would also have an impact on any future value of the guitar as an instrument bearing his reputation. To Michael’s credit, however, he really let himself be a conduit to a lot of creative thought, and knew just when to reign it in.
The Dream Guitar
Here are some of the issues I came across and how they were handled.
Scale Length. I wanted it as short as possible to accommodate my hands, but I didn’t want it so short that tone and volume were compromised. I was originally thinking of going as short as 22 inches. At 22, Michael wasn’t sure I would be getting everything I wanted from the sound, particularly since I was making the guitar narrower than he had ever made a guitar before. If I had just done the narrow guitar and not the super short scale, or just done the super short scale and made the guitar a little wider, it would have been ok. However, with both there was a question. We compromised at 24, a length he had used before, and kept the narrow depth. It worked out great, but on my next guitar, I am going to do the opposite—shorter scale, slightly wider body.
Neck and Frets. The two best necks I had in my collection were from a Martin low profile 0000-38 and a Parker Fly. The Parker had a synthetic compound radius fingerboard that lacked elements of the Martin’s slick ebony, but added a dimension to it. Most notably Parker had stainless steel frets. Stainless steel frets never wear out, never tarnish, and help preserve the life of strings by retarding the oxidation that occurs between the nickel silver compound of normal frets and the alloys in the strings. While on the market, stainless frets require the use of tools that nobody seems to have and also posed a risk of damage to the delicate inlays on my guitar. On top of that, Michael (and most luthiers) never worked with them, so this was a feature that would have to wait for another guitar in another time.
Headstock: I had originally wanted a slotted headstock, but had concluded from my study that the mass of a guitar’s neck contributed to its volume. With Michael’s wonderfully thin neck, and the unusually small and shallow body I had demanded, I was afraid to take any more mass from the neck. Instead of taking mass away, we ended up putting additional weight to the headstock with an ebony lamination and inlay on the back. I think it paid off.
Wood Choice: I sent Michael a lot of Brazilian rosewood to tap and look at. I had gotten the wood from an artist early in my quest. The artist, a superb sculptor named Frank Verrilli, had a great carving on display in an art gallery. It was carved from a luthier’s board he had bought twenty years earlier. I mentioned to him that I loved his work, but was thinking of buying it and having it sliced up for a guitar. He was a guitar player too, as it turns out, and we made a deal that if I bought the art and agreed not to carve it up, he would give me for free the two boards that he had bought with it and had not yet carved. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse. I had the wood cut by Rick Turner out in California, and then sent it to Michael The wood I thought was the worst of the lot, turned out to be the wood Michael flipped out over. He said it was the best Brazilian he had seen in his career as a luthier. I went with his experience totally on this, and boy was that the right decision. Michael had some prime Adirondack from his own wood, and used billets from the same tree for the braces. He hand chopped the braces so that they would split along the grain, giving me stronger and thinner braces. With this combination of wood, we were off and running.
Sound Port. Neither of us had ever built or owned a guitar with a sound port. This is where having a luthier with a good rapport in the luthier community is important. Grit Laskin had written an amazing chapter in his book about the positive effect of sound ports on guitars (I had played Laskin guitars at Mandolin Brothers and was really impressed with any conclusion Laskin would come to.). I had played a Boaz Guitar with a sound port, and while it had completely convinced me to go with a sound port, it was a much larger port, on a very different guitar with radical bracing. Michael called up Grit Laskin and spoke to him about doing the sound port, and gained valuable advice and information concerning size, placement and even construction. During the course of the building of the guitar, Michael called upon lots of resources within the building community. Jim Olson, a good friend and teacher who had actually been one of the luthiers who pointed me to Michael’s table at Healdsburg, gave some advice on making sure my Brazilian did not break during the bending process. Michael called upon or sent me to people he had met over a very long career, for all sorts of materials ranging from endpins and rosettes to mahogany neck blanks and ebony fingerboards. It is not enough to know the materials and how to use them, these days your luthier has to know where to get the top quality materials and make sure that the supplier sends the best of what he has. Size may not matter, but with guitars, experience does.
Inlays: Michael had never put as much pearl into a guitar as I wanted to put, but he was into it. He was going to do the inlay work, but I had my choice of having him cut the pearl patterns, having one of the heavyweights in the industry, like Larry Robinson or Harvey Leech do them and send them to Michael, or a third option of buying the inlays from a third party on the internet. Michael had sent me to Andy DePaule’s website, www.luthiersupply.com. Andy and his partner have a huge selection of inlays that they have cut in Vietnam and shipped to the U.S. They can even do Custom work which is fast and inexpensive. All of the elaborate inlays in my guitar, not counting the binding, cost me about $120.00!! Depaule could have inlaid them in Vietnam too, for not much more, but Michael was doing some very touchy radiusing of my fingerboard, on a shorter scale than anyone in the industry was using, so I did not want to mess with his technique too much on this guitar and ended up having him do the inlay. DePaule’s service, and a few others like his, have revolutionized the way we get inlays and art on our guitars. You can even find inlays on Ebay stores, though they vary in quality dramatically. I ended up using a mix between to the two traditional inlay worlds, and saved thousands of dollars. However, if I were really into the collector’s value of the guitar, a work by a big name inlay artist like Larry Robinson or Harvey Leech would have added value exponentially to the resale.
Bracing: I have owned a number of Breedlove guitars which use a unique bridge to endblock soundpost system called a JLD Bridge System. It is one of the many things that give Breedloves a booming base and balanced tone, and the JLD is available as an add on to virtually any guitar. While I knew the JLD inventor, Jim Oliver, personally and was a big fan of the product, Michael felt uncomfortable using the system for the first time on such an important guitar to me. Years of experience in “tuning” the guitar’s top with shaving and bracing would be changed with the introduction of this device, and indeed, I knew that Breedlove had developed it’s top with the JLD in mind. This was one of those instances where I had to go with Michael’s
Pictures: Oh the joys of digital photography. Michael and I spoke almost every day, but even our enjoyable thousands of minutes and words weren’t a good as opening up my email every few days and seeing the progress in high definition. Apart from the sheer excitement factor, this process helped us head off some potentially disastrous misunderstandings. No matter how much you think about the details or how much you write everything down, you always forget something—whether it is small like where the binding ends and begins or large like where the cutaway ends and begins. Michael’s new website actually has a section where each person having a guitar in progress can log in and view a complete visual and written history of the guitar’s progress. But even simple digital photos at critical junctures can enhance the experience and give both builder and buyer a safety net.
Tips and Tricks
When trying out guitars, develop three or four pieces or parts of pieces that test out the range of the guitar, and always play those same pieces on each guitar you test, preferably in the same order. This seems like a simple concept, yet I have run across a number of people, including myself at first, who waste valuable time and effort by not comparing apples to apples on instruments. Have your routine down, and you will be amazed how quickly the differences in guitars become evident.
Strings are half the game. Buy the ones you like in bulk so you always have a few sets with you to put onto “contenders” you find. I don’t know many shops who will say no to a new set of light gauge strings on a guitar. Also get an all-in-one tool like the planet waves string winder-cutter, a tuning fork, and a quality capo like a shub(not that very many shops will let you change strings yourself but some might) and learn to change strings professionally. A diagram of how to do it right is on the John Pearse strings website, as well as the Acoustic Guitar Magazine website. I have seen guitars go from complete and utter duds to amazing instruments with a change strings, especially in big box stores where the strings are never changed.
If you want to check out scale lengths, Michael Keller taught me a really cool trick. Capo the guitar on the first, second, or third fret. Measure the distance between the saddle of the guitar and the fret where you have capoed. This gives you the scale length you are testing. Now tune the guitar, with the capo in place, to standard pitch. Voila, you feel and hear almost exactly how that guitar will play and sound with a shorter scale.
You can play with the concept of how a sound port might change your guitar’s sound if you have one of those large, Fishman pre-amps in the side of guitar you have access to. They actually pop out rather easily, as I found when I pulled one out of my Cordoba Gypsy King model to see how a sound port would sound in a small-bodied guitar. It makes an astounding difference, even with a port just a few inches in diameter.
A word about payment. Most luthiers have a schedule of deposits as they reach certain critical waypoints of the construction. I am not sure what Michael’s were, because I had decided to periodically send him money without his asking. The reason for this is that I was having so much fun, I did not want the delivery to be bittersweet by getting the guitar and handing over a big check at the same time. By sending regular chunks of money all through the process, when the final delivery was made, I only owed a few hundred dollars. What a day that was! Michael had gotten on a plane, bought a seat for my guitar, and delivered it by hand. He spent three days with me running around my home town of Miami, including a dinner with my extended family. By this point, my family already knew him, having seen the weekly pictures, joined in on my conversations with him, and even participating in making choices about the elements of the guitar as decisions came up. The building of my guitar, from start to finish, was a family event, which I think explains why 80% of Michael’s customers buy at least one more guitar from him. One other thing worth mentioning about delivery. When I first played the guitar, it had come off a plane from Minnesota and had not acclimated to almost 90% tropical humidity. As a result, it was a little jangley. This didn’t worry me, because I had had this experience with guitars before. Within a few hours it was playing perfectly, and it was playing and sounding even better within a day. Don’t judge or adjust your new guitar right out of the case. Climate and transportation can make an enormous difference.
I succeeded completely in building my perfect guitar, with dimensions and action accommodating all my physical needs. Apart from its obvious beauty and craftsmanship, accomplished musicians who play it make faces like somebody is dropping chocolate truffles in their mouths. It’s depth and range of sound is that good. It is loud, and can sustain a note for thirty seconds. With the L.R. Baggs Dual Source sound system installed, I can play it in stereo (the microphone through a California Blonde amp and the piezo through a Fender Twin) or through a processor just like an electric. It satisfies all my needs, though as one might guess, Michael is making me a second guitar in a more traditional, turn of the century parlor (I couldn’t let the extra wood go to waste). The best part is that rather than being the end of my journey, receiving this guitar was just the beginning. I enjoy the guitar every day, whether I can play it or not. My memories of the guitar’s construction adds to the enjoyment, and I feel a much richer connection with the guitar playing and building community as a result of the experience.
It’s value? In another time, a custom guitar like this might have been difficult to sell. The internet, and Ebay in particular, has revolutionized the buying and selling of guitars, just in the time since I started my quest. It is now possible to put a guitar up for sale, and instantly have it be seen by virtually every major collector in a matter of weeks. Already, small luthiers are finding ready markets on Ebay and other web sites accessed through Google searches, and it appears certain that this trend will continue for fine instruments as internet shopping becomes safer and digital photography becomes even more commonplace. The comparative value (and indeed, the insured value) of a guitar like this would be around $20,000, primarily because of the high degree of time-consuming ornamentation and the rarity and quality of the materials. By supplying many of my own materials and choosing a master luthier who is about to reach the peek of his career, I saved a lot of money on the construction. In addition, I have very little doubt that Michael Keller will become one of the top fifty or so guitar builders from this golden age, whose work will be valued in years to come. In my own opinion, his workmanship is clearly in the top five or ten, and certainly second to none. However, in that a guitar of a collector’s grade is still a musical instrument at its heart, the real value is found in the sheer joy of playing a tailor made instrument of this magnificent quality.