By Melz Durston
They say that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts – and this seems to sum up the life of a luthier. Someone who has, through choice, necessity, personal enthusiasm – decided to pursue a career in one of the most enduring, time-consuming trades that exist. Building a guitar is not something that happens overnight. It requires a huge amount of dedication, knowledge, attention to detail and ultimately, patience. The skill to see beyond the here and now, and to realize the bigger picture is where it all begins to take shape. And although each finished guitar is made up of piece upon piece of small steps, precise moves, and intuitive decisions – it is these parts that really do make up the greatness of the finished guitar. These invisible, yet completely intrinsically significant components that give a guitar its depth, its personality, and its endurability. It is these details, that are fascinating – to both luthier, and guitarist – and the chance to communicate these often overlooked steps is an honor to all involved.
Arizona based luthier Jason Kostal was first introduced to the world of lutherie by Kent Everett. Jason’s path to finding his true passion wasn’t always straightforward, and after pursuing a career in the military as a school-leaver, he then turned back towards his fundamental capacity for musical intuition and enrolled at the Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery, before accepting an apprenticeship under the capable guidance of modern steel-string guitar luthier Ervin Somogyi. Jason first picked up the guitar at aged four years old and his first guitar teacher, Dan Schwartz taught him the fundamentals of fingerstyle guitar when he studied at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music in Milwaukee. The journey that Jason Kostal has taken since, has only confirmed that he made the right choice when he decided to give up his corporate career, for a career carved through persistence, personal investment and overall, loyalty to both himself, the world of luthery, and music, in all its subjective beauty.
Guitar Connoisseur: You’ve clearly lived and experienced contradictory paths through life…with a formal education, an MBA, and experience working in a Fortune 500 company – before deciding to settle in Arizona to pursue your calling as a luthier. Do you feel that your development as a person has been an unexpected, but steady, upward path striving towards your current reality? How much do you feel that personal evolution is as much a process that feeds into the physical creation of your guitars, as a formal training? In other ways, is convention only one way of getting there, and how have you learned and grown as a luthier?
Jason Kostal: I look at my entire life as a journey, filled with incredible moments of personal growth, adventure, new experiences, and passion. To others, the path that I have taken may seem different, yet to me, it feels like I am exactly where I am supposed to be in my life, and the path that got me here was the right one for me to take. My education and background were, for me, about personal growth and improvement. I love to learn about the world around me and try to understand how things work or function within our own environment. In my life, I have had opportunities to learn about creating a brand and building a reputation, based on quality and consistency. I have learned about marketing, client interaction, and working hard at something that you love. I have experienced failure, and view it as an opportunity to improve and become better than I am now, as opposed to viewing it as an obstacle that cannot be overcome.
Guitar building, for me, is a very difficult and challenging endeavor. There are three aspects of it: the mechanics of how the guitar is built, the beauty of it visually, and most importantly, the tonal characteristics that make it the instrument that it is. I have been a player most of my life, and as such, the sound is the most important thing to me. It is what I focus on, and what matters to me. A guitar that looks beautiful, but sounds bad, is really just a decorative piece. The sound is a very subjective thing and each of us desires something different in a guitar, so for me, I strive for a tonal palette that sounds good to my ear, my style of playing, and what I desire in a guitar. The sound of my guitars is a constantly evolving thing that I strive every day to understand better and improve upon. I have always enjoyed building things and taking things apart, and my undergrad education was heavily rooted in engineering.
Michihiro Matsuda and my mentor, Ervin Somogyi, are two luthiers that inspire me every day to push my own limits of what I like and understand. So many builders can sit down and come up with an incredible artistic design in minutes. It is a gift, and not one that I possess. As such, I spend a lot of time thinking about how to add to the visual beauty of my guitars. There is so much to be said for innovation and self-discovery in this craft. I think that attending schools and reading up on your subject all help speed up the learning process compared with trying to learn everything on your own over time, but I still believe that there is no alternative to actually doing it and finding what works. I build guitars during the day, and at night, I read about guitars and their history and other builders’ methods. I study other aspects of woodworking, tools, joinery, glue compositions, and anything else that I can get my hands on. I also reach out to my peers on a regular basis. While we are all striving to make a living, one of the things that I feel so fortunate about is that the vast majority of the luthiers out there are so giving of their time and information. We collectively want to see each other succeed. I work in a field of truly gifted and generous people, and it is only one of the reasons that I love what I am doing so much.
GC: Did you always intend to make the transition into guitar-building, or did it happen through circumstance and the people you met and experiences you had along the way?
JK: I have played guitar since I was four years old, and as such, music has pretty much always been a part of my life. I considered pursuing music as a career when I was in high school but just didn’t feel like I had what it takes to be successful in that world. I had the great fortune of studying at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music while in grade school and high school. I took classes in their American fingerstyle department and learned a great deal while studying with some truly remarkable instructors. During that time, I met some exceptional musicians and, while I enjoyed it immensely, I realized that there were others far more talented than myself, and I just chose to enjoy the experience for what it was.
I opted to serve in the military after high school. I attended the United States Military Academy at West Point and went on to spend the next few years of my life leading soldiers all over the world. During that time, music remained important to me, both from a meditative standpoint as well as having a balancing force within my own life. I attended graduate school before leaving the military, and had the opportunity, at that time, to learn the basics of guitar building from Kent Everett. My intent at that point in my life was not to learn so that I could do it myself, but rather to better understand the value, and construction of the guitars that I owned in my own collection.
Kent warned me on the first day when he said that “You’ll be bitten by the bug”, and I can tell you that no words have ever been truer. I had no real formal woodworking experience at that time, so creating a guitar was a huge challenge for me, and I set about learning it in the same way that I did everything else in my life. I read I studied, I learned as much as I could in any way possible and tried to apply everything I learned. I had no intention of ever becoming a luthier. My decision to become a guitar maker really was the result of searching for something that I enjoyed in my own life, and challenged me in new ways.
As I look back on the journey itself, it feels both comfortable and surreal. I finished grad school and left the Army to pursue a career in the corporate world. It was the dream job that my family always hoped that I would have, and I was miserable. I made the decision to do something for me, and within one week of deciding, I left my job, put my house up for sale, packed up my things, and moved to Phoenix, Arizona to enroll in the Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery. I really wanted to build full time, but had never really done it as anything more than a hobby. My thought was that if after attending a 5-month long course, I still enjoyed it than I was where I needed to be. I finished the program at Roberto-Venn, and stayed on as an acoustic guitar assistant instructor, while also teaching some business development courses. I opened my own shop nearby and began dedicating myself to getting better in every way possible. I worked about fifty hours per week at the school, and another fifty hours per week at my shop, applying what I was learning in my own experiences, as well as those gained from teaching others. My life was nothing more than a bunch of seven day work weeks at the time, but I felt that I was growing as a builder. During this time, I met Ervin Somogyi and began to talk with him on a somewhat regular basis. After three years of teaching at Roberto-Venn, Ervin offered me the opportunity to apprentice under him in California. Without hesitation, I packed up my things and headed to the Bay area to begin the next journey in my life. I can say unequivocally that my time with Ervin was the single most important time in my career.
During the years that I spent with him, I learned not only from him but also from Chris Morimoto and Lewis Santer. These three people are, in my mind, are some of the finest luthiers in the world. To have them all under one roof, and taking the time to teach me was truly invaluable. I am the builder I am today because of each of these people. Ervin taught me a lot about design, and voicing, and provided me with an understanding of what the guitar can do, and how it can be manipulated. Things that I thought were impossible suddenly became possible. Chris taught me how to be meticulous in every detail, and Lewis taught me about doing your best and how to deal with clients in any setting. Towards the end of my time at Ervin’s, I also had the opportunity to work with Gustav Fredell, who would ultimately replace me as the apprentice at the time. He, too, is an incredible builder in his own right and taught me a lot about the scientific approach to building and sound. In each guitar, you can see a little of each of my teachers, and mentors, but the finished product is my own interpretation of what the guitar can do, and how it should perform. I am very happy with the guitars that I am creating now and excited to see what the future holds for me.
GC: Being based in Arizona, presumably there is huge local demand for your guitars?
JK: My market really is international at this point. I build primarily for clients, with about 80% of all of the guitars that I build being direct commissions. The remaining 20% goes to seven dealers worldwide: three in the US, one in Europe, two in Japan, and one in Korea.
GC: Does climate affect the quality of wood you work with – and do you have to be extra careful in the preparation of the wood, to prevent them from deteriorating in the building process?
JK: Climate control is one of the biggest issues that all builders face, regardless of location. Here in Arizona, we maintain a yearly relative humidity of about 8-15%. The good news for me is that it is pretty constant, so I focus on adding humidity to my environment, and it works out pretty well. In that regard, the constant temperature and climate of this area actually make it easier to manage than if I lived somewhere with hot, humid summers, and cold, dry winters. Most luthiers build between 40-50% relative humidity. I keep my shop at about 45% humidity, and about 75 degrees, and I have had no issues maintaining that.
GC: You offer four main styles of guitar – do you have plans to extend this range or prefer to keep to a ‘quality not quantity’ ethos – so as not to dilute the detail and distinctiveness of each design?
JK: At this point, I am pretty much right where I would like to be. I started out making only two models, my modified dreadnought, and my orchestra model. About a year ago I added an OO sized guitar that the market seemed to desire, and that has been doing great since its release. I recently added a Jumbo to my line, and that too has been getting a lot of interest and attention. I don’t really see myself adding anything new for a while, but you never know. I really want to take the time to refine these four models, understand everything about how they work, and continue to enjoy creating them. I think that most luthiers, by nature of the fact that we are all mostly one person shops, strive for quality over quantity. Every builder that I know works obsessively to make the best instrument that they can. It really is a special group of artisans and craftsman, and I feel very fortunate to be a part of that.
GC: Much like writing a new song, and the way it can come to you sometimes already fully-formed – do you ever have an instinctive idea of a new guitar design or a solution to a problem that you have been struggling with that has been resolved in a similar way?
JK: I try to make a new and unique end graft on every guitar that I build. I also do some different design elements in the rosettes, headstocks and back strips. I don’t ever plan these things at the beginning of a build, but rather choose to tackle them when the guitar is at that stage in the process. I find that seeing the guitar at that point allows me to better envision where the guitar wants to go from a creative standpoint. Ervin taught me a lot about making a design work, but more importantly than that, not forcing it. Human nature dictates that as we come up with a new idea, we want to incorporate it into that instrument, but sometimes it just doesn’t work. Learning when to shelve something for later is a tool that he taught me that I am forever indebted to him for. I know that I have done a good job when something feels right to me. I have learned that I can’t progress until I feel that it is right. My mind works in such a way that if something doesn’t sit right with me, it never will, and I will obsess over it while working, and even at night when I am trying to sleep. I don’t take shortcuts, or allow something to be “good enough” for that reason. It will upset me long after the guitar is out the door if I do. So, much like writing a song, my creative aspects come to me when the time presents itself. Sometimes it takes minutes, and sometimes it takes days, but I have gotten a lot better at following my heart to achieve the desired outcome.
GC: How much has travel and attending international festivals impacted on your own ideas for your guitar designs?
JK: Guitar shows and festivals are a vital part of my personal development. The big shows that I attend are the Healdsburg Guitar Festival in CA, the Woodstock Luthiers Invitational Showcase in NY, and until recently, the Montreal Guitar Show in Canada. Next year I will be displaying my guitars at the Memphis Guitar Show, and also hope to be a part of some of the international shows like the Holy Grail Guitar Show in Berlin.
As a small shop builder, nearly every one of my guitars goes directly to a client, and most of the guitars going to my dealers are sold before they arrive. This makes it incredibly difficult for the average person to play on of my guitars unless they know someone that owns one, or live near a dealer that is getting one in. These festivals allow us, as builders, to not only bring guitars representative of the work we do but also allows us to interact with potential buyers and get to know them and answer questions. In my opinion, buying a high-end, handmade guitar is not just about the guitar, but also about the personality of the luthier building it. As luthiers, we are often building in an isolated vacuum, relying on things like Facebook, forums or articles to see what our peers are doing, and how they are doing it. For me, the shows are incredibly valuable to be able to see up close what my peers are doing and talk with them about their ideas or difficulties. This community is incredibly generous in sharing of their time and ideas, and I appreciate being able to be a part of that. Some of my closest friends in the world are fellow builders, and I always walk away from these shows inspired. Most of all, I always walk away from the experience feeling proud of the community, and proud to be a part of such a great group of people.
GC: The actual process of building a guitar must be an investment of intense, personal value. Is there a moment during the process when things start to click into place and take shape, or when you feel most satisfaction?
JK: I think that there are a few times throughout the build process that I choose to enjoy. The first is usually when we first select materials for a build. I have so many wonderful sets of wood, and each one is right for someone. Once the wood is selected, I can begin to see the completed guitar in my own mind. Where I start to really see the guitar become a guitar is when the box is glued up, bound, and the end graft is complete. At that point, I start to really see and feel the personality of the guitar. The next big moment for me is after the finish is applied. This is the first time when I am seeing a guitar in all of its beauty as it will be presented to the world. The deep hues and colors of the guitar really come out at this point, and you get to see how all of the ideas came together to create a symbiotic feeling. The final moment for me, and I would argue for many luthiers, is when I string the guitar up and hear its voice for the very first time. This is a very special and intimate moment for me. In those few seconds, I understand intuitively what the guitar will sound like over time, how well I have achieved my own goals for this guitar, and I really begin to appreciate what I have created. It is at that point that I become a (metaphorical) proud parent and feel comfortable sending my child off into the world to do amazing things!
GC: In the world of lutherie is there someone in particular you admire? In what ways did having a mentor and one-to-one guidance, really boost you personally, to continue on this path?
JK: I have been very fortunate to have had a lot of amazing people help me get to where I am at this point in my life. Ervin Somogyi is truly my mentor, but more than that, he is a father figure, and he is my friend. We don’t always agree on everything, and there are times that I am sure that I make him shake his head in wonderment, but I respect him on so many levels and feel so grateful that I had the opportunity to learn from him. Chris Morimoto and Lewis Santer are both responsible for teaching me about attention to detail. Lewis refuses to accept anything that isn’t as close to perfect as possible and always strives to be better and do something to a higher standard, and Chris is someone that is capable of executing every woodworking task to a level that I have never seen before. Each of these luthiers taught me about taking my time, and doing a task over again, as many times as necessary, to get it right. People that I looked up to and revered as a young luthier are now friends, and I believe that we have mutual respect for each other in a lot of ways. Mike Baranik and Ed Claxton are two people that I credit with being responsible for why I wanted to become a luthier. I owned two of Mike’s guitars when I was performing a lot, and Ed Claxton was one of the first small shop builders that welcomed me into his shop and showed me what a guitar was capable of.
Mario Beauregard, Michi Matsuda, and Ray Kraut have all been hugely welcoming to me over the years, and have not only helped me to grow as a builder but have been there when I needed help or guidance. I feel good knowing that I am a part of this Somogyi legacy and am constantly amazed by the work that these three builders create. One other builder that has been instrumental in my development is Kathy Wingert. I have always respected her work and met her a few years ago when I was not someone that was known in any capacity. I don’t really know why, but she took me under her wing and spent hours talking with me over the next couple years, providing me not only with advice and ideas about the lutherie world in general but she has also been a great support in other ways. A more recent addition to my list of mentors has been Jim Olson.
Jim is an incredible innovator, educator, and builder, and some of the talks that I have had with him will stay with me for the rest of my life. Each of these people helped make me a better luthier, and their lessons and mentorship continue today. Two other people who have been just as instrumental in my development as a builder, are Michael Watts and Robin Weber. Michael is an incredible musician in the UK and has also managed some of the top boutique guitar stores in all of Europe.
As a result, he is intimately aware of what is being done on different instruments made by different builders, and how the market embraces these things. I respect him as a player and friend that gives honest and sincere feedback, even when I don’t want to hear it. This has allowed me to push my own boundaries in a lot of ways. Robin was my first dealer when I was starting out, and took a chance on me when others wanted to sit and wait to see how I turned out. She has taught me a lot about the music business, and I am forever grateful to her and her guidance.
GC: Who are you currently working with, in terms of clients, and custom-mades?
JK: Every single person comes to me looking for something, and I enjoy the journey with them as we work together to create the guitar that is right for them. Mostly the thing that I am most excited by is the ability to continue to innovate, explore my own creative side, and push my own boundaries. I am so appreciative of my clients who work with me to create these instruments. I am preparing a build project for a client next year that ordered one of each of my guitars, four in total. The intent is to make them all from the same billets of tonewood so that the four-match in terms of tops, backs, and sides, and I think that this will be a wonderful showcase for the tonal range that my guitars possess. I have another project for a client that has two guitars on order that will begin late next year. His father, who was a woodworker, recently passed away, and he has sent me some of the tools that his father used, which I have had reconditioned, and will use them when building his guitars. One other project that I am excited about is a guitar that I am working on now. My introduction to fingerstyle guitar, and my love for music, in general, came from one of my first guitar teachers at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music in Milwaukee, named Dan Schwartz. Dan taught me the foundation of what I know about the guitar and what it can really do. He has been a very important part of my life for over 25 years, and I am excited that I am building him a guitar right now. For me, it is a really exciting moment that allows me to close my own loop in my life’s journey. These are the projects that have a story or allow me to feel connected to my clients in a unique way.
GC: There’s a luthier based out of Finland called Juha Ruokangas who builds guitars and sources all the wood from nearby forests. Do you have your own workshop space and what is your most favored wood to work with, as well as places to visit for inspiration?
JK: Juha Ruokangas is an incredible builder, whose work I greatly admire. I had the privilege of meeting him at the Montreal Guitar Show a few years ago, and he is truly a wonderful person. My shop is actually located in my home, in my basement. In that regard, I feel very comfortable in my shop as it is where I live and spend most of my time. I am very fortunate that the shop itself is rather large, about 2200 sq ft, with high ceilings, great lighting, and windows that allow sunlight in as well. I don’t feel like I am in a basement when I am building, and it works well for me.
GC: Are there any moments in your life that have shaped you or given you clarity?
JK: I was in a car accident a few months ago that should have ended my life. It thankfully didn’t, and as a result of that experience, I have made a lot of changes to my work week, and decided to enjoy my life more, and experience the people and things that are important to me. As a result, these days, my inspiration comes primarily from the world around me, and my journey through it. I love to travel and seeing new places, and experiencing new things has brought about new ideas that have found their way into my building. People continue to inspire me and I find myself being more present in my building, and in my life than I have been in the past. I love to be around people, but I also enjoy the solitude of being alone with my thoughts. There are places that I enjoy going to here in the desert, as well as elsewhere throughout the world, where I can just enjoy the moment, and reflect on where I have been and where I am going. The result is a bit of a cleansing process that allows me to go back to the shop and enjoy the process once again. I love what I do, and am excited to get up and build guitars every day, but I also enjoy seeing the world and meeting new people. All of these things are important to me and how I live my life.
GC: I own an Earth Cort acoustic guitar. It has a really warm and full sound, and I bought it when a guitar store in Brighton closed down. The guitar I came away with is beautiful – with handcrafted stylistics in pearly, opal shell around the fretboard and created from solid mahogany. The sound is what I love. Do you bring your guitars to the UK at all, either as imports to be sold or to showcase at festivals?
JK: I am represented by The North American Guitar in London and they are responsible for bringing most of my guitars into not only the UK but Europe as well. Easily 10-15% of my clients are based in the UK. I have a pretty incredible guitar collection at my home that is comprised of nearly twenty handmade guitars from some of the world’s top luthiers. Quite often, I can get off the phone with a client and walk into my guitar room and sit and play one of the guitars that they used as a reference, and get a better understanding for the nuances created by different builders. From there we start with wood selection.
The woods will have a natural baseline for the tone that they create, but it is really just a starting point. I choose to use mostly woods that I understand and are accepted within the guitar community for their proven tonal characteristics. I love rosewoods the most, as the sound that I can get from them is what my ear enjoys the most for my playing style. Building a guitar is a lot like playing chess in that you cannot think about what you are doing right now, but rather think about what you want to do five moves from now and then plan backward. This kind of backward planning is instrumental in my thought process. I may start with a back and sides that is bright in tonal characteristics, but then add warmth through the top choice, or placement of the braces, or inner laminates for the sides. The client is there to tell me what they want to experience in the end, and my job is to help guide them through that process and select the materials that will achieve the desired end result. It is my responsibility to know not only my strengths but my weaknesses as well so that I can accomplish what I commit to my client.
GC: When buying a guitar for the first time, what are the main points that you would always suggest to a potential customer who visits your store?
JK: It is important for the client to know what they seek in terms of tone and playability. The more a client understands these things, the abler I am to meet their needs and expectations. The more experience a player has, typically, the more refined they are in understanding things like their desired neck thickness, nut width, string spacing, sound response, and size of the guitar that they are looking for. I can guide them in all of these areas and more, but having a foundation to start with makes a huge difference. The first step for any potential buyer is to do the research, play some guitars made by the builder if possible, but if not, then study the forums, websites and other venues that allow you insight not only into the builder, but the satisfaction level that past clients have had in dealing with them, and the finished result. Some of the best guitars that luthiers make are the result of a client saying “just do your best”. Have faith in the amazing journey that you are about to embark on, and know that the reputation of the luthier you choose was earned over many years of consistently doing what was expected of them. I promise you will not be disappointed.
GC: From a lifestyle point of view – do you prefer to be your own boss and have your own self-sufficient business as opposed to working for a larger corporation?
JK: I enjoy being my own boss, and thrive best in an environment where my success and failure rests solely on my shoulders. There is a great sense of fulfillment, accomplishment, and autonomy when running your own business. You are the ultimate decision maker and can decide what the creative direction of your company is. You get to interact with the clients, decide how the revenue is utilized, and ultimately grow or sustain yourself however it fits within your lifestyle. I am fascinated by technology, and while I still build guitars completely by hand, the capabilities that CNC and other type systems provide is incredible in terms of ingenuity, innovation, and consistency. I don’t know if I will ever go down that road, but it is definitely on my mind.
GC: Lastly, what was the first song that turned you to the lifelong route of following a passion for music?
JK: I don’t really remember the first song that set me on this path, but I can say that, since I was first introduced to him in the late 1980’s, my biggest inspiration in music, and life, have come from the songs of American singer/songwriter David Wilcox. His music provides me with messages, and stories, that I relate to and can understand my own life. His views on life, loss, love, happiness, and the journey itself resonate with me, and I find myself turning to his music in most moments in my life. I sincerely hope to someday be able to build a guitar for him. Much like building for my first guitar teacher, it would be a way for me to say thank you for the wonderful gift that his music has provided me over much of my lifetime.
To learn more about Jason Kostal Guitars please visit: kostalguitars.com
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