Traditional-style classical and archtops from South Africa
While the attention of the sports world is on South Africa because of the
World Cup soccer tournament, Murray Kuun Design & Lutherie recently
caught our eye. The one-man shop based in Johannesburg, South Africa, is
run by woodworker and furniture designer-turned-luthier Murray Kuun. After
20 years of designing and creating less musical wood creations like beds,
kitchen countertops, and entertainment centers, Kuun decided to add luthier
to his woodworking résumé.
For about nine years, Kuun constructed violins ranging from the 18th century classical instrument to the hand-carved, jacaranda-based X-bow, which resembled a futuristic a crossbow more than a violin. Three years ago he moved into the world of archtops and acoustics. In a short amount of time, Kuun has developed several models, including the Norma Jean Family guitars dedicated to his favorite American actress, Norma Jeane Mortenson—aka Marilyn Monroe. His guitars maintain a more traditional look and feel compared to some of his violins. “I consider myself an artist and designer rather than a technician,” says Kuun. “Most of the changes I’ve made are aesthetic … I generally use traditional bracing and building techniques until recently with my Moon and Stars Classical.”
The classical Sonata is a guitar that embraces the tonewoods found in Kuun’s homeland of Africa. It features an African mahogany neck with an Indian rosewood fingerboard. The soundhole inlays are made from African rosewood and wild olive. The back and sides are made with African rosewood. The only part of the guitar lacking African woods is the top, which is made of European spruce.
Norma Jean Archtop
The Norma Jean Archtop is all hand-carved with a red cedar top and birdseye maple back and sides. It’s loaded with a chrome Kent Armstrong Slimbucker Neck Jazz pickup. The pickguard is koa and attached to it is a discrete volume control only sticking out a few millimeters. Like standard archtops, the Indian rosewood bridge’s height can be adjusted, as can its intonation. “In terms of traditional American archtop builders, I really admire the guitars of Ken Parker and Bob Benedetto,” says Kunn.
Moon and Stars Classical
On the Moon and Stars Classical, Kuun flexes some of his design talents on its innovative bracing and laminated linings that create a “very stiff, but responsively powerful top that gives the guitar a crystal clear clarity and sustain.” He implemented a fanned lattice-style bracing derived from cathedral architecture that’s “designed to relieve the string tension the neck is put under and negate any problems it could inflict on the soundbox … it just helps create a spectacular sounding guitar with its own vocabulary.”
In addition to the structural changes, Kuun aesthetically jazzed this model up by giving it a unique moon-shaped soundhole that is lined with genuine tanzanite stones for the appearance of stars. The tonewoods include a western red cedar top and Indian mahogany back, sides, bridge and binding. It has a Honduras cedar neck paired with an ebony fretboard.
Norma Jean Classical
The Norma Jean Classical features a German spruce top with curly maple back and sides. The neck is made from a blonde mahogany and is matched with an Indian rosewood fretboard. The guitar’s aesthetic is minimalist, but it does have soundhole inlays made of wild olive.
Pricing and Availability
Murray Kuun’s guitars start at around $3500, but vary depending on the particular model and its specifications because each instrument is individually priced and made. Also, the wait time on a Murray Kuun guitar varies between three months and a year, depending on the backlog of orders and the availability of materials.