Modern Builder Vault: Zeal Guitars
While growing up in Kaiserslautern, Germany, at age 13, the idea occurred to Bastian Kanbach that making guitars for a living must be one of the greatest professions ever. But as a high school student destined to attend university, the idea of becoming a luthier also seemed irrational and unimaginable to him since, at the time, he thought there was no money in making guitars and that being a luthier was a job for passionate idealists. However, as graduation approached, his interest in guitars and music grew, and he started acquiring books, wood, and tools to build his first electric guitar in his parent’s basement. It was then he realized that even if there wasn’t a lot of money in making guitars, he was an idealist and this was his passion.
In 2003, Kanbach moved to Klingenthal where he spent three years in instrumentmaking school and as an apprentice before going to work for respected builder Siggi Braun. Kanbach built more than 100 custom guitars in two years under the guidance of Braun then returned to his hometown where he started to build on his own. Shortly thereafter, he met another passionate guitarist and gifted craftsman, Oliver Reich, who became his business partner in launching Zeal Guitars.
Working under the credo, “every instrument has to be the best we’ve ever built,” the young luthiers operate their two-man shop with a passion to create original ideas by incorporating unconventional thinking and a “why not?” attitude. “The electric guitar is still a young instrument and has so much potential to be evolved and designed,” says Kanbach. “I get the feeling sometimes that our imagination of how an electric guitar should look somehow got stuck in the ’50s. Don’t get me wrong— those are beautiful instruments, and we’re not reinventing the guitar—but we are always looking for new ways to design our instruments and turn them into small works of art.”
One such way Kanbach and Reich push the boundaries of guitar design is with their unique finishes. For example, they were inspired by an interior design where walls and furniture were treated to look like solid concrete, and they wondered if it could be done on a guitar. After some trial and error, they discovered a silicate compound that they apply with a pallet knife, giving them the result they were aiming for—a very robust surface that bonds well with wood, looks like concrete, and delivers “killer” sound. Not stopping there, Kanbach and Reich also like to work with different metal coatings for their instruments, from steel to gold brass to iron. “We experiment a lot,” says Kanbach. “The possibilities are almost infinite.”
But pushing boundaries in guitar design doesn’t come without challenges. “It is not easy as a total newcomer to get into this market with rather unconventional guitar designs, even if they’re of outstanding quality,” says Kanbach. “It takes a lot of time, effort, and patience to establish a brand with new body shapes and crazy surfaces.” Translating the communication with a customer into an instrument also takes great dedication, since they often build guitars for customers they don’t meet personally. “Building a good guitar is one thing, but building a guitar that’s perfectly tailored to the musician is always a challenge,” shares Kanbach. As evidenced by the care with which the two luthiers approach their craft, it’s an adventure they happily take on.
Pricing and Availability
Currently, instruments can only be ordered direct from Zeal, though they plan to enlist a few dealers worldwide for their spec models. Kanbach and Reich always have some of their spec models available at their workshop, but most all of their instruments are made to order or are completely custom. The wait time for an instrument is 10-12 weeks, and they are currently building 20-30 guitars annually. While Kanbach and Reich want Zeal to remain a small company, their plan is to eventually take on another employee or two in order to build 100 instruments a year. Pricing ranges from $2,300 for a junior-style spec model to more than $5,000 for certain custom instruments, with most of their guitars falling between $3,500 and $4,000.
Featuring the aforementioned silicate finish, which gives it the look of concrete, the Concrete II is certain to turn heads. Utilizing maple for the body and neck, Kanbach and Reich chose nicely figured Makassar ebony for the fretboard. Hardware appointments include the Schaller Hannes bridge, Schaller M6 tuners, and Schaller strap locks. For electronics, the Concrete II is loaded up with a Häussel Tozz B in the bridge and Häussel BigMags in the neck and middle positions.
Though it gives a nod to classic guitar design, the polished gold-brass coating on the Cupido is anything but ordinary. With maple topping the mahogany body, a cocobolo fretboard tops the mahogany neck, which has stripes of walnut and maple. The Cupido is equipped with Schaller M6 tuners, a Schaller GTM Tune-o-matic-style bridge, and Schaller strap locks. And resting in the chrome frames are the Häussel VIN N A2 and VIN B A2 pickups.
The understated Hydra is sure to please guitarists who also have an appreciation for minimalist design. The Hydra’s Honduras mahogany body is topped with maple and finished in eggshell white, while the bubinga neck is capped with an ebony fretboard. Ebony is also utilized for the frame surrounding the Hydra’s RVH Big Humbucker pickup. For hardware, the Hydra is equipped with Schaller M6 tuners, six ABM single bridges, and Schaller strap locks.
The Nameless Beauty
The Nameless Beauty is a gorgeous example of quality woods and details coming together into a classically designed instrument. With highly figured, AAAAA-grade quilted maple gracing both the top and back of the mahogany body, Kanbach and Reich went with Santos rosewood for the neck and flamed katalox for the fretboard. Outfitted with a package of Schaller hardware including a GTM Tune-o-matic-style bridge and M6 locking tuners, the Nameless Beauty is equipped with a pair of Häussel Classic pickups set in rosewood frames.
The Mercury’s liquid-metallic finish is achieved by combining very fine steel powder with a special lacquer that’s applied to the base coat with a spray gun. The surface then goes through several sanding steps before it’s polished to a high gloss. Outfitted with a Floyd Rose trem and a Schaller hardware package, the Mercury is equipped with a Häussel Tozz B in the bridge and a Häussel VIN+ N in the neck.
A product of their custom shop, the Killerbass shows Zeal’s acumen for building basses as well. The “rusty” oxidized-iron finish of the Killerbass suggests a road-worn axe that’s seen a few storms, but it’s just another example of the experimental finish work from Kanbach and Reich. Boasting a swamp-ash body, and a maple neck and fretboard, this Killerbass is equipped with an ETS Tuning Fork bridge system and Gotoh tuners. Opting for a P/J-style configuration for its output, this Killerbass Dioramic Signature is loaded up with a Delano JVMC 4 FE/M2 in the bridge and a Delano PVMC 4 FE/M2 in the neck.