Earl Klugh gave me a real gift – he helped me quite a bit 15 to 20 years ago. There were a lot of tough times when he would buy a guitar from me just to keep me going. He told me one day, “I want you to build one of those Del Vecchio guitars,” and I was very negative about it, because I was the artiste building classical guitars, right? The guy with the big flaming ego.
But he kept after me for months about doing it and I couldn’t tell him no. So in August of 1992 I decided to take the whole month and build this Del Vecchio-style guitar. There are pictures of me stringing it up and somehow I felt that my career was over, because I had built this thing that would ruin my respectability amongst the snobs that buy classical guitars. I probably actually even gave a damn about that back then, which was a big mistake.
After I finished it, I was surprised by how many players of all different types wanted to see it. I had three or four people waiting outside my shop for me to string it up that day. And Earl immediately asked me to build more of them. I was so frustrated trying to make a living from something that was traditional, and then I saw all this enthusiasm for something that was non-traditional, and I said to myself, “What am I seeing in this picture here?” All of these people that I’ve known for a long time, that have such conservative tastes in instruments, were actually responding to this thing in a positive way. And that’s when I realized that I don’t have to be like everybody else to be successful. I kind of changed gears, into a different way of thinking about things after that.
And you’ve been doing your own thing since?
You know, it’s always been up and down. I think if you’re established and doing what’s popular, it’s easier in some ways. But if you’re building instruments that have their own aesthetic, then you have to get people to understand what it is, and that takes a little more time – you have to be patient. I built my first Super Ace guitar in 1998, and by the spring of ‘99 Peter White [award-winning jazz artist] was touring on it. In fact, he spent the first few years touring on one of the first three that I ever made – one that I just called a “prototype.” Once he had it and saw what it did, he didn’t want to play anything else.
So, I knew that I had something that really appealed to the people who needed it, because someone like Peter could play anything, but this one seemed to fill the bill the best. I feel like it takes three or four years before the buying public catches up with a reality like that.
Could you explain the modern structural system you developed and use in all of your guitars?
I am very taken with what is going on in Australian luthiery. I really don’t feel like building guitars with tops that are paperthin and with all this graphite and balsa wood in them is for me. They are some of the loudest guitars ever made, but I would never want to place a warranty on one. I started looking at how to take some of that conceptual knowledge in what they do and translate it into my own instruments. What it’s really all about, in my mind, is how to release more of the string’s energy into the soundboard, and part of that is to fully reinforce the structure to eliminate ambient modulus, which may mute or deaden frequencies you need. I started from that concept and built something that was more original to me.
I can tell you this: before I started doing it, it was a lot harder to sell instruments. It just adds a different motor to the sound of a guitar. It evens out things that might be dead or too powerful and it provides solidity in the low-end. I feel like the string energy factor just adds a certain amount of output.
And it’s not like this is the loudest guitar in the world – that’s what they are doing in Australia, trying to build the loudest guitars the world’s ever heard. If you want to push the parameters that far, well, okay – push your strength to weight ratio as far as you can get it. But I think if we can add some power to a traditional sound, a majority of players would be happy to have an instrument that’s responsive and has more of a musical tradition to it than some of these newer designs. Mind you, I’m not putting those guitars down, because I think they’re conceptually brilliant, but I wanted to approach it a different way.
Do you have thoughts about your legacy in the industry?
I started building guitars in the mid ‘70s, and it was right at the downward slope of the guitar making renaissance in this country coming out of the late ‘60s. The reason that I was even aware of it was because I used to go to Colorado in the summertime – I was in Boulder – and there were two guitar makers around that area. There was someone that my sister knew who had a guitar made by Max Krimmel, and they were very nice guitars. There was another builder out there whose name was Monty Novotny, who worked in Longmont, Colorado. And the reason why I bring this stuff up is because after 30 years – do you know who these people are?
I really don’t.
Exactly. If you were to read their resumes – Monty Novotny built guitars for John Denver and a host of other really big name artists in those years. Max Krimmel built guitars for Stephen Stills and Jerry Jeff Walker, among others. It’s kind of like… history is fleeting. Some things seem important at one point of time or another. And after 30 years of doing this I just wonder, have I done enough to leave something behind that people will recognize, that will be memorable? To me, it’s not just about whether you’ve made guitars for somebody that everyone knows. If you look back at the early 20th century, at what we had for instruments, you had the whole Gibson mandolin family thing, which was really created so you could have a new musical aesthetic. In the ‘20s you had an expansion – the L5 and the Lloyd Loar period – which is favored by so many traditional musicians today. In the late ‘20s, you have Martin’s introduction of larger-bodied steel string acoustic guitars and in the early ‘30s they took over with that concept. Everybody remembers these names and these people – they did something that was relevant, like Dobro, National, Martin and Fender. Every period of time we have these milestones, and people remember what they are. I guess I hope some of what I do may someday be viewed as credible in that way.
Do you view this as your art? Your expression?
You know, I do, and I struggle with the whole concept of how do you make more of them, because I’m so rooted in the artistic aspect of it. It’s hard for me to think, “Well, I’m just going to trash this approach because I can do something else more efficiently.” I’m currently trying to get some stuff that I’m doing oriented for CNC parts manufacturing, because [the Super Ace] is a fairly complex guitar to make otherwise.
So you struggle at the crossroads of commerce and artistic expression?
Yeah, I do, because I think I’m a lot more content when I’m just doing something new and winging it. It’s like you do something once and then you’ve got to reproduce it. Sometimes, the reproduction part isn’t as fun as the anything-goes side in the beginning; that feeling of creating something, using your senses and knowledge, that will appeal to somebody.
So looking back, how’s the ride been for you?
You know, I’ve had a lot of opportunities to interact with a lot people that I never thought I’d have known in my life. PBS was having a fundraiser recently and they were replaying the Glen Campbell Good Time Hour from the late ‘60s, early ‘70s, and there was Glen Campbell and John Hartford singing “Gentle on my Mind.” When I was that age, I would never have thought that I would know John Hartford, that he would come over to my house for a party and that we would sit around sharing stories about mutual acquaintances. I never thought I would have known Chet or Earl, or so many remarkable people.
What’s left to do?
Really, I think… how do you really know what’s going to happen? I guess make as much money as I can [laughs]. I figure if I build an extra guitar every other month for the rest of my working life, I can go on selling guitars until I die.