James Olson, Larry Robinson, Kevin Ryan, and Michael Keller

You have a long standing relationship with Jim Olson. Can you tell me about your friendship and how your work has influenced one another?

I met Jim shortly after moving to Minnesota in 1980. We were both looking for ways to get our guitar shops up and running, and both of us ended up having booths at a renaissance festival. You had to be in a renaissance period costume, and I must say, both our costumes were awful.

A table full of tone!

A table full of tone!

Shortly after that I visited him at the shop he had. He was renting space in the back of a harpsichord makers shop. We got along quite well and developed a warm friendship. Later he moved to a much larger space in the bottom of a church, and set up a very large guitar building shop. He had a giant band saw and a shaper table, which at the time I did not.

Occasionally I asked him if I could use his band saw, to saw guitar woods, and I ended up driving up to the shop in St. Paul two or three times a year to re-saw wood. He was always very generous, and would never charge me for using the saw. So occasionally I would take small gifts to give him — the first being some cedar guitar tops.

Jim occasionally asked me to go to various concerts with him as his guest. I got to see Phil Keaggy and go backstage and meet him with Jim. I also got to go and see David Wilcox and Leo Kottke and also go backstage and meet both of them. Knowing I was a big Leo Kottke fan, he asked Leo, (who he was doing guitar setup work for), to meet me at the shop and Leo agreed. That was really cool.

Jim also had a giant wide belt sander, which he occasionally let me use to sand guitar tops and backs. We became very good friends. Jim had a strong business sense that I was slow to develop, and he tried to convey some of it to me. He also helped me get a few contacts for selling my guitars.

It was always great to go visit Jim and see what he was working on. I got to see a lot of his guitars being built, and to hear a lot of them when they were done. Many times we would discuss various guitar-building topics like bracing and finishing. Jim and I had very different approaches to building guitars. Through the builders I met, I’d developed a very “custom oriented one-of-a-kind guitar” building mentality.

Jim, on the other hand, had a more production oriented style. He had built prototypes and developed a specific guitar model and tooled up to build it in batches of 15 or 20 instruments. I on the other hand, was making one guitar at a time and constantly experimenting and changing everything, which makes for very slow building on my part. I was also building other instruments, mandolins, dulcimers, electric guitars, mando-cellos, and banjos, whereas Jim was just building acoustic guitars.
Both approaches can end up building excellent instruments, but my approach was very time consuming and labor intensive. I would occasionally take some of my guitars up to show him and he would say something like “This is a really nice guitar Michael. How long did this one take to build?”

It wasn’t long before I started to realize I could be more productive and build instruments faster by incorporating some of Jim’s building techniques. At this point I stopped building anything but acoustic 6 and 12 string guitars.

Musical Art!

Musical Art!

I got a giant band saw, a shaper table, a fret slotting machine, and a few other tools, and set up a different style of shop. Jim allowed me to come up and photograph all of his custom shaper table jigs and fixtures, demonstrating many of them for me. It was a major turnaround in the speed of my own building.

At that point that I stabilized my guitar design and tooled up to build guitars much faster than I had been. It was kind of an overwhelming change at first, but I very shortly started to see my guitars built much faster and more consistently — which if you’re trying to make a living at building guitars, is critically important. Also, at Jim’s urging, I bought a computer and had a website set up.

As to the other part of your question, how our work has influenced one another — I don’t really see my work having any real influence on Jim — whereas Jim has had a tremendous influence on me. I think that’s fair to say.

I have always been a hand tool oriented builder, I love fine hand tools and always have. Jim was more oriented towards finding faster power machine ways to do it. He is a brilliant machinist, and has designed and built the most amazing tooling for building guitars. It’s really overwhelming to go and see his shop now. He has a giant print document CNC machine and tons of really cool state of the art guitar building jigs — all of which he designed and built himself.

Shortly after he got his CNC machine up and running he invited me out to see it in operation. I was stunned! Really I was! I would really love to have one but not in this lifetime. At the end of the day I asked Jim to take a picture of me on the floor bowing to the CNC machine. That photograph is on my website. Jim is one of the kindest, most generous, and humble people I’ve ever met in my life and I’m very proud to call him a friend.

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