Seattle luthier Steve Andersen is currently working on his invention of a double-top archtop, which features a top built from two layers of spruce with a layer of Nomex—a lightweight, high-tech material—sandwiched in between.
Andersen Stringed Instruments | Seattle, Washington
Steve Andersen grew up in Phoenix, Arizona, and as a high-school student built his first guitar at what would eventually become the Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery. A few years later, he worked at the Franklin Guitar Company in Sandpoint, Idaho, and built OM-style flattops. But it wasn’t until moving to Washington state in 1986 that he discovered his passion: building archtops.
“I moved to Seattle and started doing repair work,” Andersen says. “I met some players with really great archtop guitars—top of the heap, D’Angelico, D’Aquisto, Stromberg, Gibson—and there was nobody to work on them. I got really interested in that. A D’Aquisto would come across my doorstep—particularly his later stuff from the ’80s—and it was just so far out. You could see five of them and you could see how he was moving the bar. Every time he made a new guitar it was something new and different. I thought, ‘This really interests me. Why try to reproduce an instrument that was made 100 years ago—at the time I was making Gibson F-5-type mandolins—when I can build something where being unique and original is encouraged?’”
Andersen’s Electric Archie model resulted from a collaboration with Bill Frisell, who wanted a guitar he could travel and record with. The single pickup is a Lollar Imperial humbucker.
Andersen is serious about innovation. For example, he’s developed a double-top archtop, which features a top built from two layers of spruce with a layer of Nomex—a lightweight, high-tech material—sandwiched in between. “It derived from the classical guitar makers,” he says. “I thought, ‘Why hasn’t somebody tried this on an archtop?’ I played around for a couple of years, did a bunch of tests, showed it around, and got feedback on it. I made two, but I’ve put it on the back burner.”
This version of Steve Andersen’s Electric Archie has two Lollar Imperial pickups.
It’s on the back burner because his main focus is making a lighter, as in less heavy, archtop and—consistent with his innovative ethos—he does that using non-traditional materials. “To me it just makes sense,” he says. “If you want to make something really light, there is more than one way to do it. D’Angelico was from the old school of Freddie Green-type playing: You have to pound the guitar to be loud enough to fill up a room and be heard over the horns and other instruments. But D’Aquisto was making a guitar that people were playing as a solo instrument. It was much more responsive, which was a really cool thing, that you could make a guitar that has a lot more nuance to it.”
A headstock from one of Andersen’s custom one-off designs.
Andersen builds about 10 guitars a year, which is a good number for him, although he thinks the market is saturated, especially since the financial crisis a decade ago. “Things were pretty crazy up until about 2007 or 2008,” he says. “The financial crisis hit and I don’t feel it has picked up to where it was before. But I think that’s good. It was too frenetic for many years there. I would rather have 10 orders that I feel really good about and where the customer really wants the guitar. I don’t want to obligate myself to 25 guitars, and who knows if these guys are going to be around when the guitar is done?”
But don’t ask Andersen about Seattle’s local lutherie scene. Like many builders, he’s private, focused, and low key, which for the slow-paced world of lutherie, is an asset. “I’m not a particularly social person,” he says. “There are a number of hobby builders in this area. They get together and have meetings, but I don’t hang out with them. This is my job. I don’t want to leave my job and then go have a potluck and talk about guitar making. I have been thinking about guitar making all day.”