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.

Injury Update

Regular readers may recall that I developed an elbow problem a couple of months ago. At the time I attributed it to playing my guitar for an extended period during a home recording session, based on my experience since then I remain convinced that this is the case. Playing guitar seems to be the only activity that affects the condition, and any subtle changes I have made in regard to playing position, length of practice/playing sessions, and even the music I’m playing, will cause some change in the condition. As I said when I originally wrote about it, I determined to treat the problem by playing in shorter time increments and paying strict attention to playing posture. I also have made a point to wrap the elbow in an ACE bandage, especially when sleeping.

VERY slowly, but surely, all this seems to have paid off. Since that initial injury, this morning is the first time I have absolutely no stiffness or soreness in the elbow. In my mind I keep expecting to feel a twinge when, say, I pick up the milk jug for my cereal, or pull my t-shirt over my head. But so far, nothing.

I’ll continue the wrapping and the short practice sessions for some time to come, because I feel sure if I’m not watchful the condition will return. But today at least, I feel like nothing ever happened.

Thinking about all this lately, something interesting occurred to me. While I was in Florida visiting the Millers, we all played music together for a fairly long time on Saturday night. On Sunday, though, my arm didn’t feel any worse than it had on Saturday. So now I’m wondering if perhaps the neck profile on the Miller guitars, which is considerably thinner than on my D-28, might have been a factor. Of course there are all sorts of variables involved, but if I’m still having discomfort when the new guitar arrives it will be interesting to see if I can tell any difference in how each affects my problem.

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.

What’s Happening Now…

Well, I seem to have let this blog go…unblogged?…for quite awhile now. That’s not an indication that I’ve eased up on any of these pursuits. I just eased up on the writing.

The lessons continue to go well. I feel that John and I have gotten into a good groove now. My ability to articulate my notions of what I’m doing and what I want to do has improved, and therefore so has his direction of my path from here to there. I’ve also gotten something of a handle on how much material I can cover in a two-week period, so we’ve streamlined our lesson time to some degree.

Practice sessions generally continue to go well. I know time behind the box is the biggest key to success, and with the ongoing daily rountine I definitely continue to see improvements in my technique. On alternate Mondays, though, my brain does go into a bit of a meltdown. I suppose because I’ve been so long removed from a classroom or teacher/student setting, there is a bit of what I can only call “test anxiety” that sets in during my final practice session before a new lesson. Of course there is no testing involved, at least in any formal sense. But for some reason, on those particular Mondays my perspective shifts from what I’ve accomplished to how far there is to go. But then the next day the lesson goes well and I bring home another batch of stuff to work on and all is well again.

As for the new guitar, there is no real update except to say that all my initial excitement over this project returned in full force when I recently read that Anita Hammond, a fellow member of the Flatpick-L online community, picked up her new Miller guitar, “Snowflake,” over the Thanksgiving holidays. Her own excitement was infectious and the photos she posted just underscored what a great experience this build is going to be.

It also occurred to me that my guitar should be getting started sometime pretty soon. I believe I read somewhere that Ken said it take him approximately 4 months to build a guitar. He estimated to me during the initial planning that I’d receive mine sometime around April of ‘09. This being the case, my math says it could get underway any time now. Very exciting.

I continue to wonder what I might want for my guitar in terms on inlay. Ken Miller’s wife, Virginia, does wonderful inlay work, and it just somehow seems right that a custom guitar needs customized decoration. But I’m having a tough time coming up with something.

After some contemplation early on I had almost shelved this idea, but at Suzy’s prompting I am again considering sending some photos of Floyd, the bloodhound we lost to a brain tumor in ‘06, to see if Virginia might be able to work from them. Floyd and I had a strong and unique connection, and he had a wonderful countenance that may translate well for this kind of project. And I think “Floyd” would be a great name for a guitar just as it was for Floyd himself.

Taking a different tack altogether, I have long held an interest in Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, and most especially the concept of karma. I had the idea to perhaps find the Tibetan characters for “karma” and have them inlaid at the 12th fret. But in the admittedly limited time I have spent researching it thus far, I haven’t found a definitive source for this information. I don’t want to wind up in the situation you sometimes hear about, where someone has the Chinese character for “Courage” tattooed on their chest only to discover later that they were mislead and it actually says “panties” or something.

And I must also point out that despite how much I’m intrigued by beautiful inlay work, my general less-is-more aesthetic tells me the best inlay could be none at all. I find this to be a completely acceptable —perhaps even preferable— idea, and will be perfectly happy with it if the guitar gets finished before I can settle on an inlay design.

Practice Points

As of August 26, I’ve had five lessons with John. I don’t know how to accurately describe what a great experience it is. Every two weeks I leave his house with some other aspect of my playing or some new concept to consider. Sometimes he’ll say just one sentence that will completely change the way I think about what I’m doing, or what I’ve been doing inefficiently or incorrectly for the past … 30 years. Even in this short time, my practice regimen (which previously was more or less non-existent) has become organized, focused, and demonstrably productive. I’m seeing noticeable improvements in the efficiency of my playing, most especially in the more technical aspects. And my brain is absolutely swimming in theory, even though I am sure at least as much of it is going over my head as into it.

On the topic of practice, I must say carving time out of the day really hasn’t gotten any easier. When I started out, I expected that after a week or two that hour would start to seem like a normal part of the daily routine and I would just do it without even thinking about it. That hasn’t happened. Perhaps it will with more time, but as it stands right now it is still a conscious decision and effort to make sure I get that time in every day. 

The practice sessions themselves generally go pretty well. I’ve established a routine where I “warm up” with a few tunes I know. Starting slow and gradually increasing speed, I begin by going over a few chord changes, and then running through a few repetitions of one or two fiddle tunes. I’ll also spend a few minutes going over older material from my lessons. Anything that I already have in my head, as opposed to the new material I’m working with at a given time. Out of an hour’s practice time, I’ll spend between 5 and 10 minutes on the warm up. Following that, I usually focus on two main “topics” in each session. Twenty minutes on learning new triad conversions, say, and then twenty minutes on a new chord solo. Working this way seems to produce results, and it’s an organized way for me to cover everything. On some occasions, when I’ve had the time, I’ve gone another 20 minutes on a third piece, or returned to the first item for further work.

Lately, no matter what I’m working on, I have been trying to pay more attention to my playing posture and hand position. During a recent lesson John suggested I use my guitar strap even when seated, as I have developed a tendency to use my left (fingering) hand to support the neck. Optimally, of course, both hands need to be completely free to move around. I also tend to hold the neck like a baseball bat, rather than resting my thumb on the back as I should. Paying more attention to that, I can immediately feel how much more efficient the proper positioning is when I’m learning something new. On the other hand, everything I’ve known how to play all these years seems almost completely foreign when I play from a new physical position. Logically I know it’s the right move to make in the long run, but it is a little frustrating to suddenly struggle with tunes I’ve known for years.

Another overall concern I’m trying to focus on is what John calls making my playing “sing.” A few weeks back he had written out a little single-line solo for Oh, Lady Be Good. In practice, of course, I basically used the solo like a drill. Not surprisingly, when he and I played it together at the next lesson, John said that all the notes were in the right place, but it sounded like an exercise. He was absolutely right, of course, because that’s how I had been approaching it. Since then I’m consciously trying to always play past the notes and get to the music. 

Out of all this practice, I’m definitely seeing a difference in how I’m playing. I’m not completely sure a person who’s heard me play in the past would necessarily hear me now and consciously think, “hmm, that boy’s playing has really improved.” But I feel a considerable difference in how relaxed I am, both in my hands and in my head. I also notice that I’m able to learn new material more quickly, and correct mistakes with less effort.

Another thing I notice is that I am practicing every day, but I’m not playing much at all. I very much need to find a way to fit in some time to just simply play, without any nod toward accomplishing this task or that. This is going to be tough, because my days are pretty well maxed out as it is. As I’ve said several times, finding an hour to practice is no easy task in itself. Finding time to just doodle will really take some doing.

Ahh well…. However hard it is to fit everything in, the real truth of the matter is I’m lucky to have this opportunity and I’m loving every single minute of the ride. Looking at the whole situation, I think I’m immersed in all this just about as fully as I can be. Every few days I learn something new, or figure out how to do something better than before. And each accomplishment makes me see how far I still have to go. If I were still in junior high school with nothing but time on my hands, or if I were, say, independently wealthy (send your donations to my PayPal account), I could very easily be completely obsessed.

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.