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

Besides Jim Olson, is the sharing of knowledge and techniques common amongst you and your peers?

Keller bodies

Keller bodies

Absolutely. Right from the very start, all of the builders I met were extremely open and willing to share anything they knew. Everyone was very generous with their knowledge. It’s very much that way now too, 30 years later.

I was very fortunate in that the city I lived in, Portland Oregon, had many acoustic instrument builders. I got to visit many shops, and it seemed then as now that everyone was very happy to share anything they knew.

Then there is also the influence of the Guild of American Luthiers. Their cornerstone model has been a totally free and open sharing of knowledge and techniques. They have built a wonderful organization around that principle. No one knows everything so everyone has something to learn.

Over the last 30 years of my career, I can think of hundreds and hundreds of phone calls back and forth between many of the builders I have met, almost always questions on building techniques. There is nothing I know or do in my guitar building that I would not openly share with another maker.

Everyone benefits from an open and kindhearted sharing of what they have learned. Historically for instrument makers, this is a very new situation. For many centuries this was not the way it worked. Knowledge was guarded very carefully. It’s very nice to see a complete reversal of that situation. Everyone benefits.

Your cedar tops are legendary. Looking at a recent custom build of yours, I was impressed with the tightness of the grain and the greater than normal medullary rays. I’ve even heard a story that you influenced Jim Olson’s use of cedar. Can you tell me your thoughts on cedar, and why it has become a trademark of Keller Guitars?

In 1976, when I was starting to build under Jeff Elliott’s guidance, I had met quite a few instrument builders, and everyone was sawing their own lumber from tree sections on giant band saws. It was just normal. If you made instruments in the northwest, billets from trees were available everywhere. Under Jeff’s guidance I started learning how to select top billets of spruce. Everybody I knew was using German spruce or Sitka spruce.

Ports and more ports!

Ports and more ports!

Tim Olsen from Tacoma had a wood re-saw business for guitar makers. For very little money he would saw your billets into guitar tops. I started to learn all about the musical quality of wood, often called tap tones, which is woods ability to ring like a bell when tapped with the knuckle. Wood that rings the easiest and loudest is the most desirable for tops.

Nobody I knew of was using cedar for steel string guitars. Though I had seen it on classical guitars, it was not considered a good choice for steel strings. In 1977, while on a camping trip with my wife into the Olympic rain Forest of Washington State, in a park, we were sitting at our table when a huge truck with thousands of pounds of firewood dumped its load. For $3.00 you could burn as much as you wanted at your campsite.

I went over and looked at the huge pile and realized all of the wood was old growth cedar. Really old, old trees! All of the billets, — thousands of them –were master grade guitar top wood. I picked out 15 or 20 huge fine-grained billets of the nicest cedar I had ever seen.

Later on this same trip I stopped at a cedar shake mill, and after talking to the mills manager, he showed me some piles of cedar guitar sized billets he had been saving out of the millions that were processed for shingles.

Lying on the ground nearby was a 50 to 75 foot long section of a cedar tree. It was about 6 or 7 feet thick, and over 1000 years old.! They had sawn a 3 foot thick slice off of the end which was lying on the ground, and with a splitting tool and a hammer the manager split me a very large chunk from the outside where the bark was attached. He laughed and charged me $3.00 for the piece!!

That was my first stash of cedar. I had Tim Olson re-saw most of it into guitar tops. He told me some of it was the best he had ever seen. So right from the start I had really nice, stiff, tight-grained old growth cedar.
I was really amazed with it as a tone wood. Some of the pieces would ring like tuning forks when tapped, with a clear and sustained tap tone. I was really impressed with the wood’s musical quality. I was the only steel string guitar maker in the country I knew of who was using cedar for 6 string steel string guitars.

Richard Schneider, the famous classical guitar maker, told me it was crazy to use cedar for steel strings. But it just made sense, the stuff I had was very stiff, fine grained and had a profound, brilliant tap tone . What’s not to like about that? So I started using it with great results. The guitars sounded fantastic!

Keller Guitars

Keller Guitars

A few years later I moved to Rochester, Minnesota. I heard of some builders in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, the first was Charley Hoffman. So I decided to go visit Charley. He mentioned another builder to meet named Jim Olson. Shortly after I met Charlie, I met Jim at the renaissance festival I mentioned earlier. Jim and I eventually became good friends and saw each other fairly often, mostly at his shop. Jim, being the kindhearted soul that he is, wouldn’t take any money from me for the use of his equipment. So the next time I was in his shop, I gave him two or three very nice cedar guitar tops. It was his first cedar.

If I remember right, he used one of the sets on a guitar for Phil Keaggy. He liked the sound of it and asked me for a few more. I had several hundred seasoned cedar tops on the shelf at that time.

I love the sound you can get from a good cedar top. I have made hundreds of cedar topped steel string guitars and had very good results and happy clients. Today, in 2011, cedar is considered absolutely mainstream as a guitar wood for steel string guitars, and with very good reason! It makes fantastic sounding guitars!

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1 Comment

  • Dave Bricker says:

    I own two of Michael Keller’s guitars. (Actually, a disproportionate number of his customers own two or more.) Michael Keller is certainly not the only fine luthier out there, but he practices an absolutely phenomenal degree of attention to detail when it comes to every aspect of an instrument’s construction; from wood selection to final finish. Though not as famous or popular a maker as others who have had the good fortune to have celebrity players endorse their work or who have invested in glossy promotional campaigns, Michael Keller quietly and humbly creates world-class instruments that rival the best efforts of the most well-known builders. Through the process of planning and building my two guitars, Michael also became a good friend; producing not only exemplary musical instruments but special, personal keepsakes I treasure.

    I must mention I threw a real curve ball at Mike with my Bauhaus design; a guitar I wanted for acoustic jazz based somewhat on Selmer designs with a hint of archtop and a hint of vintage dreadnought. It had to be loud and punchy and bright, but also have its own sound and personality. Michael agonized over the engineering and design of this guitar for months before he began building, built a new half-mold, selected ‘once in a forest’ woods and finally produced an instrument that has punch and clarity a Selmer or archtop can only dream of. In a more traditional setting, it has the warmth of a great flattop and sends the banjo players running away in fear.

    I could go on, but you get the idea. If you’re looking for an instrument that represents the pinnacle of the luthier’s art, go no farther than Michael Keller and then prepare to be astonished and delighted.

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