THE DREAM GUITARS BLOG

MICHAEL KELLER — THE DG INTERVIEW

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

Please tell me about your early clients. Who first embraced your designs and helped put you on the path you are on today. How did you generate your early sales?

Long before I sold a guitar, many people helped put me on the path I am on. In 1976, I was very fortunate to have met world-class guitar maker Jeffrey Elliott, who was willing to help me get started. Jeff generously gave a lot of his time to help me get some materials for building my first guitar. Jeff’s abilities as a builder are some of the highest in the world. He is also a very warm and generous human being.

There was also Robert Ehlers, who had a custom guitar shop in Portland, and allowed me to visit. He was very encouraging. Then there was Robert Lundberg, probably the finest builder I’ve ever met. He offered to let me visit his shop and offered much encouragement and also offered to let me bring him some of my first instruments for a critique.

Through Jeff Elliott I was introduced to Richard Schneider, he also offered much encouragement and exposed me to the early radical Kasha guitar bracing designs.

Family portrait

Family portrait

There were many other builders I met in the Pacific Northwest area who were friendly and generous with their knowledge and time. I met Ervin Somogyi, Robert Steinegger, Eric Myers, and more builders whose names I cannot remember right now. This was all in the first year and 1/2 of my career. So long before I was in a position to sell a guitar, I had a remarkable opportunity to meet a large group of world-class builders. It set the bar really high right from the start.

My very first guitar customers were family members, which is common for a starting builder. I started looking for opportunities to exhibit my work through guitar shows and festivals. There were some shows around the Pacific Northwest and I exhibited in any I could find.

One of the first major opportunities was when the Winfield Bluegrass Festival purchased one of my guitars to give away in a fingerstyle contest. I also had an exhibit of my guitars at that show. That started helping me connect with potential customers.

After moving to Minnesota in 1980, I started doing small regional art and craft festivals. Not the best venues for sales, but they helped get my name out. Through the renaissance festival I mentioned, I met players and aficionados. Also through that show, someone from the national endowment for the arts contacted me and hired me to do a few lectures at regional universities. That also helped to get my name out.

For many years I went back to the Pacific Northwest to exhibit at the Guild of American Luthiers exhibitions. Though those shows are not oriented toward sales, they still help get your name out into the guitar world.

Through Jim Olson’s recommendation, a custom guitar store owner in Washington State contacted me and started purchasing my guitars to sell in his shop. He liked my work and got me some of my early commissions for custom guitars.

About that time I heard of a new guitar show, the Healdsburg Guitar Festival. I applied and was accepted at the first show in 1996. That was a major turning point in my career. I started selling guitars at the show, meeting many guitar players, and getting some good publicity. I went back for the next Healdsburg show and ended up selling all my guitars the first day. That helped give me some credibility.

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

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

I continued exhibiting at all of the Healdsburg shows and found a huge pool of clients. That show has been generating most of my sales for the last 10 years. That’s how I ended up where I am now.

Your work seems to have captured the eye of Henry Lowenstein, (founder of the Newport Guitar Show), to the point where he featured your guitar in the show’s advertising literature, and on the billboards dotting the highway to the show? That’s a very big honor considering the wealth of talent that attends each year. Your thoughts?

I first met Henry at Healdsburg in 2003. He and his lovely wife Marcy had come to the show to find a builder to construct a very unusual and remarkable guitar. Henry is a true acoustic guitar enthusiast with a deep love of the instrument. He has owned several acoustic guitar stores and handled many world class acoustic guitars. He was impressed with the quality of my instruments and commissioned me to build what he called, “the Dream guitar”.

It was a very different an unusual guitar that he had in mind. I told him I could build it and would not let him down. We became very good friends during the course of building that guitar — talking on the phone constantly about everything guitar. I ended up flying down to Miami, Florida with the guitar to deliver it in person. That was a lot of fun.

He loved the guitar, and ordered a second one that was slightly different in styling and shape with double side sound ports. That one turned out very well too. Henry told me once, “if a hurricane was coming and I could only take one guitar with me as I fled with my family, it would be that one”. Wow!

Shortly after that he ordered a third guitar from me, a beautiful very modern arch top with double side sound ports. That would also turn out to be one of his favorites. That is the guitar that is on the billboards, the Moon Goddess Archtop.

Guitars in progress

Guitars in progress

I am very honored that Henry used by guitars for both of the show’s advertising. The first guitar I built him, the dream, was used extensively in all advertising for the first 2009 show, and was on the cover of the program. That made me very happy. Then shortly before Henry staged the second show, he called to tell me that the archtop was going to be on billboards for the show.

I about fell out of my chair. You know you’ve hit the big time when you’re driving down the freeway, and you look up and see a guitar that you made — 15 feet tall, on a billboard advertising the show!

Henry is a very remarkable person with numerous business interests, an incredible family and excellent taste in guitars! He never ceases to amaze me with his energy and ability. I’m very proud to call him my friend.

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