Steve Kauffman (left) and Steve Klein (right) met at a Guild of American Luthiers convention in Boston in 1979. Kauffman moved to Oregon four years ago and took over Klein’s acoustic division. Klein still designs the guitars, and Kauffman builds them.
Klein & Kauffman Guitars | Sonoma, California and rural Oregon
Steve Klein built his first guitar in 1967. Early in his building career, Klein encountered design maverick Michael Kasha. “I met him through my grandfather, Joel Hildebrand, who was a well-known chemist at Berkeley,” he says. “I was invited to a party at my grandfather’s house and I met him while I was building my first acoustic guitar.”
In 2017, Klein & Kauffman finished their limited-edition run of seven 50th Anniversary Fibonacci model 7-strings.
“Michael Kasha was a physical chemist,” says Steve Kauffman, Klein’s business partner and fellow builder. “He understood a lot about physics and he was also an amateur guitarist. One day, he poked a mirror inside a guitar and he was shocked at what he saw. He wrote a lengthy paper—a very highbrow scientific paper with a lot of math describing how the guitar works—and the rights to that intellectual information was bought by Gibson. The bridge is the primary thing that drives the Kasha system, which focuses on the interrelationship between the bridge and the tone bracing on the top, as well as the concept of separating structural elements from tone-modulating elements.”
“You can see it in the asymmetrical bridge design, which is an impedance-matching system,” Klein adds. “That’s all stuff I got from him.”
Both Klein and Kauffman are self-taught luthiers, although Klein did do a brief, quasi-apprenticeship with classical builder Richard Schneider. (Schneider was known for his radical designs and 30-year collaboration with Kasha.) “I never had a formal apprenticeship with anybody,” Klein says. “Which is good and bad. It’s good in that I never got stuck in any of the silly traditions that people are tied into that don’t necessarily make a better guitar. They make a very specific guitar, but better is a relative term.”
Steve Klein works on the intricate inlays for the 50th Anniversary Fibonacci model, which is a collaborative design by him and partner Steve Kau man.
Klein and Kauffman met at a Guild of American Luthiers convention in Boston in the late ’70s, though at that point, Kauffman was already an established builder as well. “I made about 20 or 30 instruments before I met Steve Klein,” Kauffman says. “My big goal going in was to meet or exceed the quality of a Martin guitar. That turned out to be not as high a bar as I first thought. I wondered where to go from there and then I met Steve Klein. I realized that I had found someone who understood the physics of the instrument and understood how the components of the guitar interacted, which in those days, no one really understood. There was a lot of trade secrecy around brace carving and tap tuning and all of those mysterious mystical methods of getting guitars to sound good. He took a bit of a scientific approach, analyzed the components of the guitar, and set out to optimize all the different pieces.”
They’ve been collaborating since 1991. “Steve is a very creative, divergent guy, and he has a lot of other projects going,” Kauffman adds. “It seemed like a natural fit for me to start working with him. I gradually moved from constructing parts for his guitars, to doing some of the assembly, and then eventually I just took over building the guitars in my own shop. Four years ago, I moved to Oregon and took the whole Klein acoustic division with me.”
Built for Brooklyn guitarist Scott Stenten in 2001, this Klein & Kauffman DoubleGuitar has 17 strings.
Now all of Klein’s acoustic guitars are made by Kauffman in his shop in Cottage Grove, Oregon. Klein still designs the guitars and does inlays, but Klein’s primary focus these days is an ergonomic Telecaster—called the sTele—and Kauffman builds the acoustics. “He has taken it a step further in terms of refinement,” Klein says about Kauffman’s modifications to his designs. “He now builds a better Klein guitar than I ever did, without me really being involved at this point.”
Their building philosophy is system-centric, not wood-centric, or as Klein puts it, “If the system is right, any wood can be used. The different woods just produce a different color to the tone.” Kauffman adds that their initial bond was their interest in alternative tonewoods. “There really isn’t anything inherently magical about mahogany and rosewood and maple,” he says. “They just happen to be beautiful and available, but there are lots of other woods today that have both of those qualities, too, and make wonderful tonewoods.”
However, for fretboards, Kauffman still thinks ebony reigns supreme. “Ebony is far and away the best material there is,” he says. “Fully black ebony is becoming scarce and more expensive, but I also appreciate the character of the lighter streaks that come in the so-called ‘lesser quality’ ebony that we’re seeing today. I think people will accept it in the marketplace in time, and if they don’t like it, we can just dye it jet black. Easy enough to do.”
In the last few years, Klein Guitars officially changed its name to Klein & Kauffman Guitars, though don’t expect to see that on the headstock. “Stradivarius never inlaid his name in mother-of-pearl on the headstock,” Klein says. “So, no, I’ve never inlaid anything on the headstock.”