Ordering a Custom Archtop Guitar
Ordering a custom, hand-built guitar can be a daunting task. There are so many choices to make and often times the customer is, quite frankly, the least-qualified to make them. After owning and playing numerous archtop guitars over the past twenty years and never being completely satisfied, I decided to try my hand at designing one myself.
I've learned something from each and every archtop guitar I've owned or played. My skills (and tastes) have also changed over the years. The music I listened to and played in my twenties varied greatly from what I hear and play now (in my mid-forties) but my goal was to, somehow, design a guitar that would inspire and enable me today as well as ten or twenty years from now. My first choice to make was body size and shape. I've played 18" archtops and learned that, as much as the sound can be wonderful, my right arm goes a bit numb hanging over that large body for any extended time. The body of the Gibson ES-175 I owned was a lot more comfortable so the first question for Luthier Dan Koentopp of Koentopp Guitars in Chicago was to inquire about the acoustic possibilities of a 16" archtop. Dan advised the sound might be a bit lacking in the lower spectrum but that midrange and volume could still be quite nice. I definitely wanted a cutaway, but not the sharp (Florentine) cutaway of the ES-175. I'd seen rounded (Venetian) cutaways on 16" guitars before so I knew they could be done with aesthetically pleasing results. Choosing the body depth was also a very important decision. I had played Byrdlands and ES-335s and was wondering how thin I could go and still have an acoustic instrument. Dan Koentopp felt that 2.5" deep (at the side) was as thin a body as I should dare go.
My next major decision was the scale and size/shape of the neck. I've owned Gypsy-jazz guitars with scales over 26 1/2" long and some chord shapes were actually painful to make on that instrument. At the same time, Dan Effland's Byrdland, with it's 23 1/2" scale, really made my fingers bump into each other up near the 12th fret. The ES-175 scale of 24.75", just a tad shorter than the 25" scale I have played on some other guitars was considered, but I have weak hands (after years of mountain biking as well as using a mouse in my profession as a graphic designer) so I thought I'd push the envelope just a bit and take a chance with a custom scale of 24.25" in hopes that maybe someday I could even use some of the voicings famously favored by Johnny Smith, one of my favorite guitarists. I stayed comfortably conservative with Dan Koentopp's preferred nut width at 1 3/4" but made sure that the string spacing past the neck would line the strings over the pole pieces of my prized gold DeArmond Rhythm Chief 1100 which I wanted to use to play this guitar amplified at shows. I've always appreciated the aesthetics of an extended fingerboard. Steve Grimes builds a beautiful one on his Jazz Laureate that I've always liked, and I enjoyed having two octaves on the high E string of a D-hole gypsy guitar I played for a short while so I asked for a 24 fret fingerboard extension on my guitar.
At that point it became time to make some cosmetic choices. Despite the gorgeous standard appointments on all of Dan Koentopp's archtop guitars I wanted something unique, but subtle. Sure, Elvis Costello might enjoy his name in large script down the neck of his customized Fender Jazzmaster, but I'm no Elvis Costello. I always liked the 12th fret fleur-de-lis inlay on Bob Benedetto's guitars so I started thinking about what I might have Dan adorn the 12th fret of mine. The guitar would be finished in golden blonde with a custom designed ebony finger-rest, cello-style tailpiece, and compensated bridge. The headstock would be a standard Koentopp shape but I challenged Dan to do something different with the truss rod cover (Hey, why not? I knew he'd have some fun with it!) and I requested the back of the headstock simply be a continuation of the blonde wood finish, thinking it would look good with the gold Schaller M-6 tuners I chose.
I see a lot of handmade jewelry at art fairs in the summer and the artist Jane E. Roberti has cut great silhouettes out of metal for necklaces so I sent a link for her page on Etsy to Dan to see if he saw anything that inspired him. He liked what he saw and we sent some designs back and forth via email until we had collaborated to design what would be inlaid in the neck of my new guitar.
Much time, thought, and communication went into the design of my guitar but what I found to be the hardest task was the waiting. I received regular email progress updates (often times with photos) as the sides were bent, the back and front were carved, the purfling and bracing was installed, the neck wood was joined, carved and shaped, the f-holes were cut, the top and back were attached, the fingerboard attached, the inlay work was done and the frets were installed, and then the finishing was begun.
The last time I met with Dan was when he asked me to come over to feel the neck. He had taken measurements from a Martin I really enjoyed playing and wanted me to make sure he had shaped it to my liking. All looked (and felt) perfect so I gave him the green light to attach the neck and finish her. I waited patiently as he sealed the wood and began that careful process of french polishing (numerous coats of shellac is applied, dried, and hand polished). When the day finally arrived, I brewed some coffee, bought some pastries, and invited a few friends to join in on the unveiling.
When the vintage Harptone case was opened there was an audible hush in the room. I picked it up and immediately loved the balance and weight of my new guitar. It felt exactly as I imagined it would. I strummed a bit, played a chord-melody of Misty, "chunk chunked" a bit, and proceeded to break in the new strings. It had a unique sound that was met with approval from the room. I handed it to Frank Portolese so that I could hear the instrument from another perspective. After getting the feel for the shorter scale Frank began digging in as only he can, pushing the instrument further and further and, happy with the results, started asking Dan some questions about the building of this unique guitar. Andy Pratt and I then played a duet we'd been working on. Dan had built my dream guitar; A guitar fine-tuned to my needs and desires, customized to my tastes yet still, distinctly, a Koentopp.
- Thomas Cray