A Closer Look

As I write this, it’s almost exactly three weeks since I received my first custom hand-built guitar, Ken Miller #139. Having followed its development closely throughout the build, even to the extent of traveling to Florida to visit Ken’s shop, I had every reason to believe that I would be extremely pleased with the results. But however high my expectations, I was completely unprepared for what a wonderful instrument it turned out to be. Having had some time now to get to know her a bit, I’m taking time to write down some of my impressions. I’m also adding a few more photos.

First, this guitar is simply gorgeous to look at. Although it doesn’t show especially well in these pictures, the Adirondack spruce top has a tight grain interspersed with subtle bear claw figuring, with more prominent figuring across the lower bout.

click any photo for a larger image
click any photo for a larger image

Equally subtle are the blue-green hues of the abalone rosette.

These somewhat understated features are contrasted against the powerful visual statement made by the back and sides. Fashioned from the highly figured quilted Honduran mahogany of “The Tree,” they can be almost dizzying to look at.

The bindings throughout, as well as the armrest bevel and the headstock veneer, are of Brazilian rosewood. Wooden purflings are teal and black. This photo also shows some of the bear claw figuring in the spruce top.

The fingerboard is ebony bound by Brazilian, with stainless steel frets. At the twelfth fret, more abalone inlay: the Tibetan word for “karma.”


But of course the true measure of any instrument is how well it performs, and here is where #139 really shines. The fingerboard is extremely easy and the set-up is great. This combined with it’s light weight make it a very comfortable guitar to play, made even moreso by the armrest bevel.

Most impressive of all, though (saving the best for last), is the sound. I’ve played many, many guitars over the years, and recently tried out many more before I began working with Ken. It is not an overstatement to say that none of them matched #139 for tone. All my life I’ve heard guitarists say a given guitar “rings like a bell,” and now I know what they mean. The trebles here are clean and bright, and the mids full and rich. The bass has a woody, robust complexity without any sacrifice in tonal clarity. Across the entire fretboard the guitar responds to the lightest touch with wonderful tone and tremendous volume and sustain.

If it is not already obvious, I will state it plainly: I don’t believe I could be any more pleased with or excited about a guitar than I am with #139.

Here At Last!

This morning at 11:30 I brought her out of the box, and I’ve hardly taken my hands off of her since. Ken Miller #139 has finally arrived! I did take a few minutes for some pictures:


Click Any Image for Larger Photo
Click Any Image for Larger Photo

The Back

And it sounds every bit as good as it looks! I’ll write more at some point when I can bear to stop playing it for awhile.

Four Little Words

After Sunday night’s Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Finals, as we were getting ready to hit the hay, I took a minute to check my email. There it was, the email I had been waiting for, really, since sometime in August of last year. The first sentence of Ken’s latest message:

“Your guitar is done.”

It made me laugh out loud. I had the urge to make Suzy come in the room and read it, maybe to verify that it actually said what I thought it said. But instead I just yelled into the other room and read it to her.

In the remainder of the message, Ken said it looks, plays and sounds good, and that he’ll ship it out on Friday for a Monday delivery. So…here it comes! The wait is almost over.

Closer and Closer

Sunday night I received a few more pictures from the Millers. Ken had started varnishing the guitar last week, and here was a peek at the results so far. I’m not completely sure how long the entire varnishing process takes, or how long it has to dry or cure. But it doesn’t take a genius to realize that we’re moving nicely into the final stages of the build, and I’ll soon be playing my new guitar. Take a look.

The Adirondack spruce top, showing the beveled armrest (lower right):

click any image for larger pictures
click any image for larger pictures

The Honduran mahogany back, made from ‘The Tree’:

The Brazilian rosewood peghead, and a peek at the mahogany sides:

Another shot of the back:

At the 12th fret, shell inlay of a Tibetan word meaning “karma”:

Even in uncompleted pieces, it’s beautiful. I can hardly wait.

New Interview with Ken Miller

Fellow blogger and FLATPICK_L list member ‘GoodAcoustics’ recently published an interview with Ken Miller. It covers how Ken got into building, his thoughts on materials and methods, and his ideas about how his instruments compare to others. Interesting, informative, and concise. Check it out at GuitarBench.Com.

Moving Right Along

This week I got an update from Virginia and a few new pictures. I suppose once work gets under way on a project like this, things progress rather quickly.

For starters, the back bracing has been shaped:

click any picture for larger images

The top and sides, last seen in the gluing process, are dry and ready for the next step. These images also give you a good look at the unkerfed linings:

And the back has been glued and weighted:

According to the email, the guitar body is now out of the forms altogether, and ready to be routed for the bindings. Also, Ken will soon be starting work on the neck.

Can’t you just feel my suspense building?

Good Times

Well, the time finally arrived. Last Friday morning Suzy dropped me at the airport and I headed down to Tallahassee to visit Ken and Virginia Miller. Due to a delay during my layover in Atlanta I arrived in Florida roughly an hour later than planned, but otherwise the trip was smooth and uneventful. Ken was waiting for me in the terminal, and after just a few minutes’ ride I was standing in his shop staring at the makings of my new guitar. Too cool. We chatted about it briefly, and the Ken showed me around the house and to the guestroom, where I unloaded my stuff and settled in a bit. Then it was right back out to the shop for a closer look.

I’d received an email just a few days prior saying that the side bending was done, and that was the first piece I saw. Made of highly-figured mahogany from ‘The Tree,’ the sides were now pieced together in a jig:

click any picture for larger images

Next, he showed me the top. The bracing:

The face:

The shell rosette:

The back is made from the same mahogany as the sides:

The back bracing is in place, but not yet trimmed or shaped. The center stripe support is also made from ‘The Tree’:

Ken and I chatted about the build, and guitars in general until time to start the grill for dinner. It was sprinkling rain outside, but we stood around on the screened in “pickin’ porch” and got to know each other a bit while we waited for the coals to catch out on the deck. Soon Virginia arrived from work, and joined the conversation. Before long, there was grilled chicken, baked sweet potatoes and steamed broccoli on the table, and we washed it all down with fresh brewed iced tea. (Why can’t I ever remember to make iced tea at home?) Delicious.

After dinner we all made our way back into the shop, where Ken pulled out a large storage container filled with small panels of rosewood. He grabbed a clear plastic headstock form, and I was able to dig through the woods and pick out my own piece for the headstock veneer:

We also looked over the fingerboard and bridge pieces:

To cap off the evening, we each grabbed an instrument from among the wide assortment in the living room and played a little music. It’s been quite a long while since I played acoustic music with actual live musicians, and I had a blast. My own guitar picking is nothing to write home about, but I don’t believe anybody enjoys playing any more than I do.

Saturday morning we had a leisurely breakfast and then went to Wakulla Springs. This is a nature preserve where Ken and Virginia were married. There’s a natural spring that pumps up to half a million gallons of water per minute into the W. river. On a boat tour we rode around the perimeter of the river, seeing all sorts of wildlife in the area. Various fish; osprey, anhinga and other birds; turtles; and of course, alligators. This park also served as the set for “The Creature From the Black Lagoon” and two of Johnny Weismuller’s Tarzan movies. On our way back home Virginia drove us through downtown Tallahassee, past the Capitol Building, the courthouse, and other municiple buildings. People were out enjoying a street fair on the side streets and in the park.

After lunch, I watched as Ken went about gluing the top of my guitar to the sides. This photo shows a good look at the side bracing, also made from ‘The Tree’:

The upper shoulder of the lower bout is built up with an extra thickness of wood. This will later serve as the structural underpinning for a beveled “armrest”:

The bridge support is made of dogwood:

Ken’s signature and the date are already in place inside the top:

After fitting the sides to the top in a dry run, Ken smoothed out one little area to achieve the perfect fit:

Then it was time to glue it up:

With everything in place, he weighted it all down for a tight seal:

Before long it was time for dinner. Virginia drove us to Mockingbird Café in Havana, where we ate snapper and quail and had pie for dessert. The café offers live music on Saturdays, as well, but we decided after two or three songs that we’d really rather go home and make some music of our own. Back at the house we picked a handful of fiddle tunes and Virgnia sang some good killing songs and a few gospel numbers. Unfortunately I had a very early flight home on Sunday morning, and before we knew it bedtime had rolled around.

Sunday morning at the crack of dawn, Virginia poured me a travel cup of hot coffee and Ken delivered me to the airport to make my way back home. I can’t begin to say enough about what great people I found Ken and Virginia to be. So warm and welcoming it seemed as if we were old friends despite the fact that we’d never met before. We parted company vowing to get together again, and I look forward to the next time we can do just that.

In Process; En Route; On The Mend

I can hardly believe it’s been almost two months since my last post. Man, what a slacker I am.

I heard from Ken in February that work was underway on my guitar. Of course I knew the time was coming, but now that I have definitive word that it’s in the works I’m feeling a little obsessive. Everything —and nothing— triggers me to think about it all the time.

In an email on February 25th, he told me “…the back is done: center stripe in, seam re-enforcement in, braces on. The face has the rosette installed and is sanded to thickness.

Against all my rational faculties, I’ve splurged on a plane ticket to Tallahassee for March 27th. I’ll fly in Friday afternoon, visit the Millers, their shop, and my guitar through Saturday, and come home Sunday morning. Ken expects the top to be braced and possibly voiced by that time. I almost feel like a kid at Christmas.

Meanwhile, I’ve encountered a bit of an obstacle in my playing. Three or four weeks ago on a Saturday afternoon, I spent about four hours recording rhythm tracks for myself to play along with in practice. Aside from the length of the session, I didn’t do anything unusual or strenuous. But the next day I had some fairly serious discomfort in my left elbow. “Pain” would be too strong a word to use. For lack of a better phrase I’ll say it felt like the kind of “good hurt” people associate with exercise (so I’m told), and I assume it came from spending so much continuous time in playing position the day before.

The problem is that however “good” the hurt might or might not have been, it still hasn’t completely gone away. I skipped practicing for a couple of days, and since starting again I’ve made it a point to practice in shorter sessions to keep from aggravating the situation. There’s been some improvement, to be sure, but the discomfort is still there. It’s especially noticeable if whatever I play/practice involves a lot of fourth finger (pinky) use. I’m also pretty sure the problem is exacerbated to some extent by my sleeping position.

The plan right now is to continue to practice more often, but for shorter times, and to try wrapping the elbow in an ACE overnight. I’m pretty sure this will fix the problem, but if not I suppose I’ll have to have a doctor check it out more closely.

Good News and Bad News

Despite the fact that I’ve drawn and painted since I was a child, majored in visual arts in college, and have spent the past 21 years as a textile designer, the sad fact is that I have almost no ability to visualize something in my mind unless I see it with my eyes. So it is, then, that since my last post I have spent hour upon hour Photoshopping pictures of Floyd onto pictures of Miller guitar headstocks and fretboards, trying to come up with even a general idea of an inlay design I might like. But alas, it was not to be.

Fortunately, I have had much better luck with my other idea. Throughout these weeks I’ve been fortunate enough to find several Tibetans willing to share their time and teach me to write “karma” using Tibetan characters. I found there are many words and phrases in their language that mean or refer to karma, and the project pretty quickly became a matter of winnowing down to just the right word for the task at hand. After much research and numerous emails to monks and scholars all across the country, I’ve settled on the Tibetan word “las” (in some contexts pronounced “lay”), which is the direct Tibetan translation of the Sanskrit word “karma.” It’s a short word with the correct meaning, has aesthetically pleasing calligraphic lines, and is compact enough to fit entirely on the 12th fret. It will be the only marker on the fingerboard.

I am greatly indebted to Ganden Thurman and Tashi Delek at Tibet House in New York City, who got me started with several words and phrases; Pema at the Northwest Tibetan Cultural Association, who, along with Michael Dunn of the Asian Classics Institute, verified and clarified whatever information I found; and most especially to Karma Tashi at the Association Cognizance Tibet in Raleigh, NC, who methodically and painstakingly explained the words, meanings, grammar, usages, and punctuation until I got exactly what I was looking for.

At a point in all this research, I also contacted Ken Miller and brought him up to speed on the ideas I was working with. During our email conversation, he confirmed that work on my guitar would begin at the end of this month or the beginning of February. Niiiice!

So that’s the good news.

The bad news is that on Monday, January 12, I learned that I am among a group of peers at work whose salaries have been reduced in response to the ever-slowing business climate. As a result I’ve had to cut back my guitar lessons from every two weeks to just once a month. I don’t want to bellyache about this because clearly many people have taken much more severe hits than I have over these last months, and I know I am extremely fortunate that my situation is no worse than it is. Contrasted against the lost homes and lost jobs that many have been faced with, my current plight registers as less than trivial, and I know it. I mention it here not to moan and groan, but because this is meant to be a chronicle of all my experiences, good and bad, along this musical path.

Just Like Starting Over

My left arm and fingers must be wondering what’s going on. Aside from the usual sore fingertips that always come when you play more than you’re used to, which I completely expected, my left forearm is in an uproar. I believe it’s because I’m using my fourth (pinky) finger more than ever.

I’ve managed to carve out at least an hour for practice every day since before I started lessons this past Tuesday. After making the initial arrangements for lessons back at the beginning of the month, I started to practice very regularly. I hadn’t played very much at all recently, so I knew I’d be rusty. I also wanted to get a practice regimen established ahead of time so that when the lessons began I could focus entirely on the material at hand.

Back in the mid-’90’s, a friend and I went to a Steve Kaufman flatpicking workshop outside of Philadelphia. Over and above all the guitar instruction, what really struck me most at the time was what he had to say about how to practice. When you hear that old saw about how it’s not “practice makes perfect,” but rather that “perfect practice makes perfect,” as far as I can tell they’re talking about Steve Kaufman.

So I set myself to following as much of his advice as I can. I arranged a little space in our guest room where I can leave all my materials out and at-the-ready. I bought a metronome (as well as an assortment of books and CDs — sometimes it’s hard to stop clicking at Amazon.com), and I got to work. In accordance with Steve, I go through a brief warmup period of strumming just to loosen up and get the blood flowing. Then I spend the first half of my practice period playing and tweaking songs and tunes I already know. The last half of the session is for learning new material. Kaufman’s methods go much deeper than that, of course, with methodology directed at exactly how to work on your material and such, but you get the idea. The long and short of it is I got myself into a structured, methodical, logical practice habit.

Then along came the chord forms and exercises from John Carlini.

Practicing an hour every day with the second half of the session given over to new material means I’m working on these chords for a half-hour stretch. Of course I’m seeing progress after just these few days. In fact, I’m already starting to feel comfortable with most of the forms. But it’s a workout in every sense of the word. An hour or two after each session, I can feel it in my left arm; that hurt-but-it’s-a-good-hurt feeling  deep in the muscles. I suppose it’s possible that I felt the same things back in the day when I first started playing, but I don’t recall it.

I can see where this is headed, getting myself accustomed to and comfortable with the entire fingerboard, which is precisely what I need. In many ways, though, it seems like I’m learning a completely different instrument.