A Decision, Leading to More Decisions

After meeting with Bob Kidd and checking out his Ken Miller guitar, there was no doubt left in my mind that having a guitar custom made was the path I was going to take. The following day I sent an email to Ken to ask how to get the ball rolling. I explained in very general terms that what I’m looking for tonally and in terms of playability is largely what Bob has in his guitar. Also, I made sure to say that I don’t know much at all about the process, the materials, or the techniques of guitar buiding, and therefore I would probably have many more questions for him than answers.

Later that same night, Ken responded and put my mind at ease. He gave me a general understanding of how this will work logistically, described a document which was to follow on which I would determine 16 main design points for the guitar, and even included a rudimentary explanation of different tonewoods and thier properties.

The Design Elements document was waiting for me in my email the following morning. I answered everything as well as I could, and asked questions about a number of concerns. There was a fair amount of back-and-forth over the next few days. Not knowing any more than I do about guitar making, I needed help and clarification about several aspects, and Ken’s explanations were always extremely clear. After several days of planning in this manner, we finalized a plan. I mailed a deposit on the 26th, securing my place on Ken’s list.

Sometime in or near April of next year, my new guitar is going to arrive. It will be a standard 14-fret dreadnaught with an Adirondack spruce top. Back and sides will be made of quilted mahogany cut from “The Tree,” a famous Honduran mahogany with a storied past which I have described in “A Few Words About ‘The Tree’,” linked in the column to the right. Bindings will be of Brazilian rosewood, trimmed with purflings of natural curly maple and a blue-green accent around the top. The rosette will be abalone shell. The neck will be 1 11/16ths inches wide at the nut, with a 25.4 inch scale length and stainless steel frets. Tuning machines will be chrome Gotoh 510 Deltas, with a 21:1 gear ratio, highly recommended by those who’ve used them. One last interesting feature: an “armrest” beveled into upper edge of the guitar’s lower bout. 

At this point, I’m undecided what, if anything, I might want any inlaid on the headstock or on the fingerboard. Ken’s wife, Virginia, does gorgeous inlay work, but so far I haven’t been able to come up with anything specific that I want. I’m still thinking on it.


New Friends

Several weeks ago I contacted Ken Miller, a luthier in Tallahassee, FL. I’d grown increasingly interested in looking into having a guitar built, rather than buying one “off-the-rack,” and Ken seems to be getting quite a bit of good buzz on some of the online forums I’ve been following. I decided to contact Ken and try to find out if there were any of his guitars in my general area that I might be able check out.

Ken responded saying that someone within driving distance owned one of his guitars, and that he would give this person my contact information if he were willing to meet with me. Before long, I got an email from Bob Kidd, owner of Ken Miller guitar #118. Bob had been traveling, so it had taken him several days to contact me. Then it took several more for us to make a plan. But finally we agreed to meet at Mandolin Brothers on Saturday the 16th.

We met in front of the store, and walked to Bob’s car for a look at #118. We found a shady spot to sit down, and opened up the case. Right away I could see this was a completely new ballgame. Everything about it was beautiful: back and sides of quilted maple, unbelievable bear claw adirondack top, rosewood bindings, shell rosette. And not only was it gorgeous to look at. When Bob strummed a chord on that thing, it was astonishing to me. Even outdoors, the volume and tone were simply amazing. Every note crystal clear, balanced, ringing…. This guitar instantly eclipsed everything that had come before in my search.

We each took turns playing the guitar, and Bob pointed out all it’s details. He told me what a great experience he’d had working with Ken, and going through the building process in general. The more we played and talked, the more convinced I became that this is truly the way for me to go.

After a good half hour, maybe 45 minutes, we put #118 away and Bob led the way to Duffy’s. I’d never been there, but Bob assured me this was the place where many a musical decision has been made. “Guys come out of Mandolin Brothers thinking they can’t afford whatever guitar they just fell in love with, and after a round or two in Duffy’s they come out thinking ‘I’m gonna do it,’ ” Bob told me.

We lunched on a couple cheeseburgers and got to know each other a bit. Then we made our way back to the store and tried a few of their wares for the next couple hours. I played my first two or three McPhersons. Nice guitars every one, but so completely different from instrument to instrument. We each played several older Martins, swapped around a couple Santa Cruz models, and of course the Collings D3 I’d had my eye on. I still think that’s a great guitar, but by this point in the day I was completely over the line and into my first build, at least in my head.

Around 3:00 or so, we decided it was time to head our separate ways. Bob told me he and a friend get together pretty regularly to pick, and that next time it was his turn to host he’d let me know and invite me over. I’m very much looking forward to that.

Old Friends

Sometime in the mid-nineties I met a fellow by the name of John Reilly. We lived in Pennsylvania at the time, and my wife worked in a handcrafted jewelry store where John and his soon-to-be-wife Cindy came to have their wedding rings made. At some point Suzy discovered that John was a guitar player and a bluegrass fan. Over time we got to know John and Cindy better, and John and I became picking buddies.

For a while we just got together whenever we both had a free hour here or there, but eventually we formalized things a bit and worked up something of a repertoire. Before we knew it we had ourselves a handful of gigs. Photos and business cards, even. We billed ourselves as “The Ordinary Humans.” It didn’t last long, and I suspect we probably spent more on gasoline driving back and forth across town to practice at each other’s houses than we ever made at all our gigs combined. But it was great fun and we enjoyed every minute of it.

As often happens, though, other things cropped up to take our attention away from playing, we both moved, and over the years we mostly fell out of touch.

Then a few weeks ago John sent me an email. Interestingly enough, though we’d had almost no contact at all for several years, our paths had continued to parallel. Each of us let our playing time slip away to nearly nothing, and then both of us realized we needed to change that. I started up my lessons, as documented here, and John bought an older Guild F50 to get himself going.

Long story short, we made a plan to get together. He drove up to Maplewood, we visited awhile, and off we went to Lark Street Music to check out some guitars. Not a whole lot of new items had come in since I had last been there, but I was content to revisit some of the instruments I had played before, and it was a real blast to stumble our way through some of the old tunes we used to play together.

Another fellow there joined in with us on St. Anne’s Reel, and before we all left he invited us to the Bluegrass and Old Time Music Association of NJ’s jams every third Sunday down in Little Silver. I imagine John and I will make our way down there sometime.

Back to School

Went for my third guitar lesson this past Tuesday evening. My schedule got a little off-track when I went on vacation, so it had been a full four weeks since my last lesson. Despite the fact that I still feel a little overwhelmed, John tells me I’m doing well.

I’m still trying to make it a point to get in a minimum of one hour of practice time every day. I can’t say that always happens, but I haven’t missed by much. I feel sure this regularity is as important to my improvement as is the material I’m covering. There’s no telling how many years have passed since I last made it a point to play guitar every single day, not to mention structured practice

I’ve gotten to a point where I’m “off the paper” with the chord solo I was working on for All of Me. I’m certainly not what you’d call fluid with it, and there are at least three definite problem areas. But given that it’s a whole new ballgame for me in comparison to the styles I’ve played in the past, I suppose it’s coming along as well as can be expected. As I mentioned in an earlier post here, we also started work in William Leavitt’s method book. This has been the worst and the best for me up to this point. I’m finding it exceedingly difficult to read even the simplest of the beginning exercises. But then, of course, when I finally do have a breakthrough it’s just that much more rewarding. One night late last week while working from this book, I was concentrating so intently, almost hynotically, that I literally jumped, as if I had dozed and jerked awake. If I hadn’t caught myself when I did, I believe I may have been only a minute or two away from drooling into my guitar.

So anyway, back to Tuesday’s lesson. We went over everything I’ve covered so far, playing together on All of Me and on the duet pieces in the method book. As I say, I haven’t exactly mastered all of it, but I’m headed satisfactorily enough in the right direction for John to press onward. We went over the next few pages in the method book, which brings sharps, flats, and/or accidentals into the picture. We (or I) played through some of the new exercises, and others we only discussed.

Then I pulled out the songbook I had bought. He paged through it more or less randomly, checking out this tune and that. He stopped at Giant Steps, which I didn’t know by name, and said I should be able to play through the lead sheet based just on what we had covered up to this point in my lessons. He played the chords, and lo and behold, I did indeed play the melody. Well enough that I even recognized the tune.

Finally he zeroed in on Oh, Lady Be Good, which he says is a favorite jamming tune at Kauffman Kamp, the musical-instruction intensive hosted by Steve Kauffman every summer in Tennessee. As he had done with All of Me, John wrote out chord diagrams for this new song. This time, he pointedly specified chords consisting of three notes, and those three notes are always configured on the 3rd, 4th, and 6th strings. The idea being to pare the chords down to their most basic structures, while still providing a backbone on which to hang the tune.

And speaking of tunes, he took time to write out the beginnings of a single-line solo for the song. Besides serving as a basis for eventual jamming, this little ditty, repeated over and over, is a great little exercise for left- and right-hand technique, tone, dynamics, etc.

So far, practice with these three-note chords has been much easier than anything we’ve covered up to this point. I feel certain this is due in part to the fact that they are all very similar in configuration, and in part because I’m getting more accustomed to being in “practice mode.” The solo is coming along nicely, too, although I have not yet spent quite as much time with it as I have with the chord progression. I’ll be concentrating more on that today, as well as working on the exercises in the Method book.

Forward motion…