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

You do double duty, in that you are also an accomplished inlay artist as well as a builder. Some builders eschew inlay, feeling that it replaces good tone wood with “not so good” sounding shell, etc. How much inlay is too much inlay?

I have always loved the look of shell inlays on guitars. Long before I started building, I owned a Martin D41. It had abalone trim around most of the edges and sound hole. I thought it was just the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I could take it out of its case and just look at it. Really, I think abalone and mother of pearl shell is one of the most beautiful materials you can put on a guitar.

From my first, early guitars I started cutting my own inlays. Inlays are very much like taste in food. It’s a personal thing. I have no problem with people who don’t like it. If someone wants a guitar with no inlay I will gladly build one, and never mention inlays, ever.

Early on in my guitar building career I got to meet some of the best inlay artist in the world. I met William Laskin, Chuck Erickson, and Larry Robinson through attending guitar festivals. Talk about incredible inlay work!

Those three guys are some of the best in the world. Also from attending dozens and dozens of guitar shows, I got to see many amateurs work. All of it really inspired me to become more proficient at it. While I consider myself a much better guitar maker then inlay artist, after hundreds and hundreds of inlays over 30 years, I can do fairly well.

I have heard the argument that shell replaces tone wood, and can possibly hurt the sound of the guitar. I personally think that’s a bunch of nonsense. Really I do. I can think about least 15 things that will certainly harm the sound of the guitar long before a few fingerboard and headstock inlays.

Over bracing. Too much finish. Too heavy of bracing. Too thick top and back. That’s where you harm the sound of the guitar. Not a beautiful fingerboard inlay. I just wish I had more time to do inlays. It’s a very slow process. Takes a lot of patients. But it looks so fine.

I am building a very fine guitar for inlay artist Craig Lavin. When it is done, before it is lacquered, I will send it to him to do a monster inlay on. I love it! Craig’s work is quite remarkable and getting better all the time. Stuff like this gets me very excited. I’m sorry, but it really does. I think inlays are just beautiful. I can’t wait to see what Craig does on the guitar I have built for him!

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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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