Tell me about the José Feliciano guitars.
He was my first celebrity guitar player. I met him back in the late ’70s at a party, and we started talking guitars. He said, “You know, Kirk, I want a nylon-string that’s got the body size of a dreadnought.” So I made him a guitar with a dreadnought-size body. It was a little more curvy, more like a jumbo, but with nylon strings, and he absolutely flipped out over it. He could get that huge bass. Other players who have played that guitar didn’t particularly care for how bass heavy it was, because the treble strings can suffer if you make the body too deep, but José didn’t have any trouble getting the melody to come out. He’s a really good, strong player.
What about the cutaway models he used to play?
The first three or four guitars I made him were that jumbo shape, but once he played one of my guitars that had my cutaway design, he began playing that model. The upper bout starts to come in toward the neck, kind of like a Telecaster, and then it swoops straight down into the cutaway. So the neck heel is not under the 12th fret where it normally is on a guitar—it’s much further down. It’s got really good access to the upper frets and it’s smooth to the touch, because there’s no heel back there. I wanted to get 14 frets free and clear of the body, 15 on the cutaway side, and there are two ways you can do that. You can just move the neck out two frets, and that’s what everybody does. They just scoot the neck out two frets so the body joins at the 14th fret, like a Martin D-28. But when you do that the bridge has to follow, it has to come up that same distance in order for the guitar to play in tune. So the bridge is no longer in the belly of the guitar, it’s closer to the soundhole, like a steelstring. But classical guitars are braced, built, and designed to have the bridge down in the belly of the guitar to make it sound good. Instead of moving the neck out and moving the bridge up closer to the soundhole, I left the neck where it was, left the bridge where it was—in the belly—and changed the upper body so the sides swoop down and join the neck at the 14th fret.
How does that 14-fret access change feel and playability?
When a classical player plays a guitar where the neck has been moved out, it feels funny because they’re used to having that 12th fret right under their nose. And extending the neck also throws off the guitar’s balance. So [my cutaway design] seemed pretty logical to me, and I’ve been doing it ever since. I’ve noticed that a couple of other makers are starting to do that, which I think is wonderful— the more the better. In fact, I’m surprised more cutaway guitars aren’t like that. I’m very proud of that design. Of course, I’ve never trademarked anything. It’s just a really good design and players seem to really like it.
Recently, you’ve started building carvedtop electric guitars.
I’ve always loved the carved top—it’s fascinating to me. I like the way it looks, and I’ve always wanted to build one, but I was too busy with NSE guitars. So a couple of years ago I thought I could carve a top and just put it on the same body my NSE has—the mahogany model, which is the hollowed out guitar like Chet played. And it works great. Carving the top is a lot of fun. It adds a third dimension to making a guitar top. If you’ve been making flattops all your life, to start off with an inch-thick piece of wood and end up with a violin-shaped top, that’s a lot harder than slapping some braces on a flat piece of wood. I’m not going to make too many of them, maybe six a year. I just made one for Paul Yandell, a singlepickup carved top electric (CTE).
How do CTEs differ from your other designs?
They have the same cutaway, and they have the neck pitched back like an archtop. They look just like a jazz guitar from the top, but they’re only 14 ¾” inches wide. Though they have the same body I use on the mahogany model NSE, I put the back panels in a different place to access the electronics.
Is there a standard pickup?
No. Paul Yandell had an old Ray Butts pickup he wanted on his guitar, and another guy that I just made one for wanted Seymour Duncan ’59s. I use Gibsons, Duncans, Fralins—anything you want.
So, what’s left for you to build now?
I love working with guys on their guitars, doing little things. Guitarists usually only have concepts or guidelines, they don’t have too many specific design ideas, so they let you mold them. Like the guitar I just finished for Paul has a special pickup on it, and the fretboard is designed so the bass strings are higher off the soundboard to prevent his thumpick from tapping the top. The pickup is a Prismatone II made by Sam Kennedy, and it’s a remake of an old pickup Chet Atkins and Jerry Reed used on their nylon-string guitars. It has huge bass and crystal-clear treble, and it’s Paul’s favorite nylonstring pickup. That guitar also has a special 24.9"-scale length that’s very short for a nylonstring and makes it really easy to play because the frets are closer together.
So I just enjoy building other people’s fantasy guitars. Email and digital photos have made things so much faster, too. A guitarist can think of a design, and then I’ll lay it out on my workbench and take a picture of it to send to them. Two seconds later, they’re looking at it. It’s fantastic. Technology has sped up the design process tremendously. I take pictures as I’m building the guitars and send them to the guys who ordered them. They love it. At the end of the day, I’ll send pictures to each of the customers, and they’ll put together a little scrapbook.
It’s kind of like getting an ultrasound image of your baby.
In fact, it takes about nine months to deliver a guitar. Depending on the model, my backlog is nine months to a year-and-a-half. Anyway, I hope to be just a little old man building 10 guitars a year, selling them for $50,000 apiece, living in my little house in Laguna Beach. I’ve got a cool little private workshop, about 800 square feet. I’ve got all my machines here. I can spray lacquer here. I’ve got a big flatscreen TV on the wall. It’s like that fantasy I had as a little kid, when I was so into artists and composers and I thought, “What a life! They just sit around and write music or paint—they don’t have to go to work everyday like my dad.” And now I’m doing exactly what I fantasized about. I’m not sure what I’m going to do when I grow up. they were so insistent on ordering