How many guitars did you end up building for him?

I wound up making him four guitars over that 10-year period. I’d make him one and he’d play it a year or two, and then I’d entice him with something else, maybe a little more trim or abalone, and he’d say, “Yeah—I’d like to have one of those!” So I’d make him another one, and then I’d trade him. Now I’ve got two guitars that Chet Atkins used to own and play, and I’ve got lots of pictures of him playing them, so they’re kind of my retirement. Probably my kids will sell them at my funeral.

That must have been a huge boost for your business.

Chet Atkins with his second Sand guitar circa 1993. Photo by Dave Wolfram
Chet Atkins was the biggest boost to my career—it was unbelievable. You know, when somebody’s interested in your guitars, they’re not going to order one over the phone if they’ve never played one. But when you have Chet Atkins playing your guitar, people call you from all over the world and they want one. I was kind of taken aback, bit. I’d say, “Where do you live? Maybe there’s somebody in your area that has one that you could play and see if you like it.” They’d say, “No, if Chet plays it, that’s what I want.” So I had people ordering my guitars having never seen or played one. It really helps sales when a customer is so confident that they order an instrument sight unseen.

In the ’90s I made 300 NSE guitars, maybe a few more. I’m 61 now, so that was a good decade for me. I was buried with orders because of Chet. But I’m sure glad it was an instrument that I loved, because I wouldn’t want to have made 300 banjos during that time.

You made a 7-string guitar for Lenny Breau back in 1983, and that was kind of unheard of.

Lenny Breau with his Sand 7-string guitar at Kirk Sand’s NAMM show booth in 1983.
It was. In 1982 or ’83, a 7-string player and good friend of mine named George Van Eps lived out here. He had his seventh string as a low bass note, so I was familiar with that concept. Lenny wanted the seventh string on top where the melody is, so the first string was a high A—like the first string, fifth fret. When you put that high A on top and you add that string into your melodies and chords, it’s a whole new thing—but it’s a lot harder to play the high A on top. When Lenny died, we were designing a double-neck guitar that had a 7-string neck and a 10-string neck. It also had some droning harmonic strings you wouldn’t play, but that would just vibrate along with everything else. I still have the template. That was pretty interesting, but we never finished it.

What were some of the challenges of designing the 7-string?

Well, in order to get the seventh string tuned up to a high A, we had to really experiment with the scale length, because there isn’t a string available that could tune up to the high A without breaking. So I shortened the scale length quite a bit. I experimented using a capo on the guitar and restringing it, moving the capo around and changing the gauge of the string to find just that certain scale length and string gauge that made the first string feel like it was the same tension as the other treble strings. The guitar had a 22 ¾"-scale length, which is very short. And the string was an .008, which is not all that thin, really. I think Lenny even used a .009 at times. The high A actually worked quite well.

What were some of the other distinguishing characteristics of that 7-string?

It was a classical guitar shape, and I incorporated a really deep cutaway. And Lenny wanted it heavy. It was solid mahogany. That thing weighed a ton. He wanted it to sustain—that was a big part of his sound. He’d do those harmonics and they’d just keep ringing like a bell, so he really liked the fact that the guitar was heavy and had the sustain it did.

What sorts of electronics did it have?

Seymour Duncan made custom pickups for it. There were no 7-string pickups at that time. The string spacing was the same as a classical guitar, and the pickups had to be fabricated so the pole pieces were directly under each string. Lenny also wanted those roller knobs that are turned sideways, like on a Fender Jazzmaster. Actually, I used Jazzmaster controls. Lenny would reach down to that volume control and move it back and forth to get a tremolo sound.