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

Another guitar on your website, simply called Henry’s # 3 Keller, is simply stunning. From the tailpiece, to the cantilevered neck, the unusual sound hole, etc., it seems like a total Michael Keller original! Please tell me about its design and sound.

Ah, yes…. the Moon Goddess Archtop — really a beautiful instrument! Henry Lowenstein had just received a tri-port 6 string flat top from me that he had commissioned. That is, it had two side sound ports and a traditional sound hole. It was a very remarkable sounding guitar — loud, and balanced with a very well separated spectrum of notes. But now he was an interested in getting an archtop from me with an Adirondak spruce top and flame maple back and sides. The master grade Adirondak spruce top gave the guitar a very clear brilliant tone.

Henry had just purchased a very fine traditional styled Collings archtop, and he expressed interest in getting a more modern Keller archtop with double side sound ports for his collection. So a commission was placed, and the woods were pulled from stock, and glued up.

The top and back wood were remarkable in every sense. Having such fine quality wood made building the guitar very demanding. The flame maple in the guitar is as nice as anything I have ever seen on any instrument. The offset oval sound hole was inspired by a guitar made by John Monteleone. So that’s not at all original on my part. I am really fond of the way it looks though.

The body shape is my own. I didn’t copy anybody, but had some definite ideas on how I wanted the body shape to look. Henry made several requests, such as the neck wood be as figured as possible. He also wanted a cutaway body shape, but left all of the other details up to me.

During the build of the archtop, Henry asked me if I would mind if an inlay artist named Craig Lavin could do some work on the guitar. I had met Craig at the very first Newport Guitar Festival and saw an exhibit of his work.

Craig is a master inlay artist who just keeps getting better, so I said I didn’t care as long as it was done very well. Craig and I talked, and he mentioned he and Henry had some beautiful ideas for the Iinlays. So, when the guitar neck was completely done and ready to glue to the body, I mailed the neck to Craig and he worked his magic on it.

The head stock has the Moon Goddess holding a crescent moon, dumping stars down the neck; it’s very incredible looking. The neck came back from Craig and I glued it all together and lacquer finished the guitar. It turned out sounding quite well, and Henry and I were very happy with it.

Later, we had come up with the idea to put an additional Sun Goddess on the ebony tailpiece holding a crescent moon catching the stars. Man is that cool! We also added an ebony pick guard, inlaid with the sun and the moon.

The guitar sounds incredible, and totally looks cool with Craig’s fine inlays. I really would like to hear it again after it has been played a couple years. Anyone who wants to see it, it’s on my website under recently completed work. The gallery is named Henrys number 3 Keller. I’m very proud of that instrument, and Henry it is very fond of it.

Keller Guitars

Keller Guitars

Let’s talk about the sense of hearing for a moment. As a musician develops so does his sense of pitch, his ability to identify intervals, and his ability to recognize chord types, etc. Assuming there is an analog between a musicians auditory growth, and that of a builder, how does a luthier’s hearing evolve over time? And how does your own hearing inform your voicing of an individual instrument?

That’s a very interesting question that involves a lot of different preconceptions. The vast majority of people think that hearing is simply hearing, that the people passing them on the street hear just like them. It’s much more complex than that. People do not all hear the same. So how various guitar makers learn how to use their hearing depends a lot on many different factors.

If one wishes to build world-class guitars, it is critically important to listen, deeply listen, to the finished instruments and to develop a sense of what they really sound like. That often involves a brutal type of honesty. I do believe that “auditory growth” is a possibility for both musicians and luthiers in the sense that it can be developed.

Right from the start, Jeff Elliott taught me to tap on the guitar from start to finish, constantly listening to the subtle changes going on as I worked to get an auditory sense of what was going on. I don’t measure the stiffness of my tops or braces or whatever. My approach is very intuitive, that’s how I learned how to approach the process.

After bracing, voicing and carving, and gluing a top to the sides, I will often go back and re-carve the braces based on the tap of the top. You can hear the difference. You can hear changes. Describing what it is I’m looking for is not easy.

I know that my hearing is more focused now after 30 years on certain aspects of the sound I get when I tap on the guitars as I build them. Just as a musician becomes familiar with, and learns from the materials used, so can a guitar maker become familiar and learn from tapping on the box as he works.

People just don’t hear the same. They don’t. So talking about the sound of guitars can be very difficult. Someone says to me they prefer the sound of a dry guitar. What the heck is a dry sounding guitar? I don’t know.

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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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