This is the story of a special guitar, “The Owl,” built for me in 2018-19 by Dan Koentopp. The instrument is unusual; it is worth a look. But perhaps more interesting is the process we used to create it. This article reviews the guitar’s design, construction, and refinement, focusing on how builder and client worked together to make this happen. If you’re thinking about a custom guitar project, you may find this helpful.
The process we used was unusual. Many luthiers offer standard or semi-standard models; buying one of these involves just a small number of decisions. But my situation was different. I had specific and somewhat unusual design requirements, so I chose a very engaged role in creating this guitar.
I got what I wanted. But this hands-on approach is not for everybody. A great builder will build a great instrument, with or without detailed client input. In this project, I jumped into the process. I was delighted to find a luthier who was both able and willing to work with me this way. But it’s certainly not the only way to build a guitar, and it would not be the right way for many buyers. We’ll come back to this point later; see the sidebar “Why Did I Want a Custom Guitar?”
I decided to write this article for two reasons: one, because the guitar and its luthier are interesting; and two, because it’s worth looking at how we achieved such good results.
I became aware of Danny in 2014 via his Internet presence. I was intrigued by his approach to lutherie, and by his design and woodworking philosophies. I watched the touching biographic film on his website.
The Documentary spotlights him and his work, showing wonderful examples of the fine line between artisan and artist. I particularly enjoyed watching him carving in an almost dark room – so that he could see the shadows on the emerging curves. Like many others, I was captivated by this film’s thoughtful and artistic treatment of guitar making.
In the following months, Danny and I continued a series of wide-ranging technical and aesthetic discussions, via email and Facebook. His career evolved; he left Chicago for California; he became a father.
In 2016, I decided, after much soul-searching, to place an order with Danny for a guitar. It was a difficult step for me. The investment would be…considerable.
My decision to place an order was a big step, as it is for anybody who is considering a bespoke guitar project. Why spend all this money? Will it be worth it? How else could I get the guitar I want? Should I talk to other builders? What do I actually need? (My situation was a little unusual, due to the type of music and instruments I play. “Why Did I Want a Custom Guitar?” for some background on why I chose the bespoke guitar route.)
Building a custom guitar is not without risk. A six-string guitarist can go to one of the great retail instrument shops, and play dozens of L5s, D’Angelicos, Buscarinos, Benedettos, and other iconic guitars. Perhaps one “rings the bell”; or none do. Eventually, you find “the” guitar. When practical, we all prefer using that approach to find instruments. But if you need a guitar with an unusual feature, then a custom project may be the best or only option. In that case, you become very dependent on the skills, taste, experience, and personality of a particular luthier.
A big investment
Cost is a big factor. A custom instrument, built by an independent luthier, represents a huge investment – especially an investment of his or her time. I often hear people say “No guitar has been made that is worth more than $X.” They dismiss every hand-built guitar, arguing that a good factory-made instrument will do the job for a fraction of the cost.
Many readers will smirk and say “those idiots don’t understand.” But there is something to this argument. You can buy a really nice guitar for one or two thousand dollars. Why spend so much more to get a bespoke instrument? The only answer that makes sense to me is: That’s what they actually cost to build. Cost is different from value. Only you can decide if that cost is worth it for you. But guitars cost what they cost.
Let’s look at this a little more closely. If a luthier spends 100-300 hours on a guitar, the sale price must at least cover the maker’s time and materials. Archtop builders are an extreme case, because more build time is needed. A great archtop builder might only make 8-12 instruments a year, sometimes fewer. When you decide to have an instrument built, you are essentially renting a private shop and a private master artisan for several weeks or months. That’s the only way to get a custom instrument – so the result had better be spectacular.
By the way, this means that you’re not really paying a premium for the special ebony and rosewood and bear claw spruce. They’re costly materials, true; but that cost is not a big percentage of the final price. Nor are the years of luthier experience and training. Those are all the icing on the cake, the extras that help create and justify a more beautiful result. The real cost is simply to cover the artist’s time and equipment, the same as if you were hiring a plumber full-time for an eight-week job. The cost is real; and it can only be justified if the result is wonderful.
I have worked closely with several brilliant luthiers, young and old, famous and emerging. They each have individual strategies for custom projects – affecting their approach to design, their openness to new ideas, and their willingness to offer discounts to working musicians. I have taken the custom instrument route more than once. I now have a good sense of how this process can go, and what works.
Why do I buy a custom guitar? I consider a custom project to obtain a wonderful instrument, built by a certain maker in a certain way, to fit a particular musical need.
Why did I ask Danny to build me a guitar? Before proceeding, I thought long and hard about this project. It would be a big stretch for me, financially – a lot of man-hours and a lot of money. With my earlier guitars, I had paid for them with previous income; with Danny, for the first time, I would pay for a guitar with future income. I picked him because I liked his particular vision of guitar making, and his sense of aesthetics; and because we seemed to talk the same language; and because I knew he would build me an amazing 7-string, large, oval-hole archtop.
The project begins
We had many preliminary discussions about design concepts and woods, acoustics, amplification, neck geometry, and the many other factors that would make this particular guitar worth building and worth buying. We talked mostly by email, because that is what I find effective. (I like having a permanent record of discussions; I can never remember details from a phone conversation.) We both had a lot of specific ideas about how my guitar should “work” from an acoustic and playability standpoint.
I also had a number of aesthetic goals – and with this magnitude of investment, I definitely wanted a pretty instrument! Danny showed me many beautiful back sets that he was hoarding, in various wood species. These included a striking figured birch set like nothing I’d ever seen. This wood eventually became The Owl, but there were other breathtaking options. (I’m still sad about the mahogany and maple that I turned down.)
I placed my order for an oval-hole Chicagoan archtop shortly after Danny’s daughter Maya was born. We continued frequent contacts via email and social media, discussing aspects of lutherie and the possibilities for this project. The real work began after a couple of
We went over every aspect of the design, in detail and at length. Not every luthier is willing to work this way. Many are simply letting you prepay, to buy a spot in their production cycle. They will build you the guitar they want to build, subject to a few parameters. This is a very normal and sensible way to build instruments. The luthier has already invested decades in developing a style and a technique, a set of design principles, and certain guitar models; at this point, he or she simply doesn’t want to be guided in most technical decisions. The buyer can help pick woods, and dimensions (to an extent), and electronics, and some aesthetic points. The luthier builds the instrument, and makes most of the choices. Again, this is very sensible. It’s probably how I would build guitars. I’m sure Danny uses this approach on many projects.
But with my new archtop, I preferred to take a more active role. I had specific goals that needed detailed discussion. Danny was willing to accept this, and opened himself to a lot of uncertainty, flexibility, and kibitzing. It took time for both of us.
This approach is not for every guitar buyer (nor every builder). It had consequences. I needed to make my decisions quickly, and I had to think details through carefully. I was sometimes successful at this, sometimes less so. But the results speak for themselves. He built me a guitar that is absolutely unique – brilliant in tone, easy to play, and as beautiful as a bird in flight.
Koentopp believes strongly in designing a guitar around a player. This is more than just an awareness of player style and musical direction. He recognizes that, for many guitarists, our instruments become extensions of ourselves. Finding distinctive personal elements, both musical and decorative, helps him create a special bond between guitar and guitarist.
There is hardly an aspect of the instrument that didn’t undergo extensive discussion and analysis. From the choice of
I’ll touch on a few specific areas that illustrate the give-and-take involved; see the sidebar for more detailed specs.
- Dimensions. This guitar’s unusual dimensions (17.5” lower bout, 60mm nut width, 25.75” scale length) synthesized many factors, including the specific woods involved, my playing style and setup preferences, string weights, and amplification strategy. We considered many approaches.
- Neck. Perhaps the most important aspects of playability are determined by neck design. Width, taper, thickness, profile, radius, binding, markers, relief, bass string scoop, and many other elements are involved. We spent much time crafting the neck of my dreams – and that’s precisely what I got. I love this neck. It plays itself.
(I originally had something else in mind. I was trying to recreate the greatest neck I’ve ever played, on the greatest guitar I ever played – Chuck Wayne’s D’Angelico Excel. Now…that guitar really played itself. It had very low, fast action. Wow. Danny started out building a neck that could be set up that way – but I had forgotten something important. Without magnetic pickups, and with an emphasis on acoustic performance, this guitar needed higher action for more string excursion. So it doesn’t play at all like Chuck’s guitar. Yet even with heavy strings and relatively high action, my guitar feels effortless to play. It’s magic.)
The aesthetic aspects of the neck – fingerboard extension design, wood choices, halfmoon fret markers that switching from bass to treble side at the twelfth fret, a tenth- (not ninth-) fret marker, and many other issues all got talked out. Again: it’s the neck of my dreams.
- Rosette. Oval-hole guitars have rosettes. This is a lovely visual element missing from f-hole guitars. Danny has designed many striking rosettes. I asked him about using reconstituted lapis lazuli (an unusual inlay material that I fell in love with on a Rick Davis guitar). Danny liked the idea, and he created a striking rosette design that led the way for a number of other blue features – from fret markers, to the tailpiece, to the owl’s eyes.
- Headstock. Danny’s Chicagoan archtops have generally featured a splendid skyline inlay, partly inspired by famous New Yorker archtop headstocks of yesteryear. However, I didn’t want that design. (My wife was glad to leave Chicago, and would not have enjoyed this reminder.) Builders are justifiably proud of their logos, and often resent such requests; but it was no problem for Danny. “No skyline. Check.”
Later, when discussing ornament, he asked “Is there any image you’d like to incorporate?” At first I said no; I like a simple look. But then I recalled an image from earlier in my life, an owl logo I had created for my business that was never used. He said “It could work. On the headstock?” I said “Maybe someplace less obtrusive.” He put it on the back of the headstock, where only I can see it while playing. Thanks, Danny, for bringing this great image to life, at last; and for helping this guitar find its name.
- Electronics. I wanted the oval hole, for both acoustic and aesthetic reasons. But I didn’t like the idea of placing a magnetic pickup within or above the oval hole, as in the familiar Howard Roberts design. Nor did I want a pickguard. We went back and forth on a hundred different approaches – ways to place a pickup, ways to incorporate one in the fretboard extension, etc. Eventually, I decided that this guitar would suit me best as an acoustic-sounding instrument. We settled on a Barbera Transducers saddle, plus a K&K Pure Mini under the soundboard. Both pickups are installed passively, in stereo, with volume thumbwheels in the upper bout sound port. I knew both these pickup systems well, and knew they would give me the clear, brilliant acoustic tone of the natural instrument. Danny had to do a lot of mental gymnastics plus bench work to plan the right installation for these unfamiliar (to him) components.
- Voicing. My guitar has a striking voice. I’ve never played another like it. It’s very loud and clear, especially high up the neck, with a ringing, crystalline quality. Some of this is related to the careful choice of string afterlengths, which adds brilliant resonance. Yet the guitar also has a wide dynamic range – I think this is its most important quality – and it works very effectively with a light attack. String-to-string balance and low tones are all excellent, and are perfectly suited to my solo playing. To my surprise, this guitar is a viable substitute for the 7string classical guitar I normally use on solo jobs. I am, somehow, able to use the same fingernail-based classical guitar technique that I use on nylon strings, and I can play the same repertoire, which ranges from Bach to jazz standards. I can’t explain it. It shouldn’t work. But for weeks after this guitar arrived, I didn’t touch nylon strings.
- Setup. When ordering a custom instrument, one should (if at all possible) visit the maker. Ideally, there are three critical times for this: 1) During wood selection, 2) Before the body is assembled, and 3) During setup.
Setup time is the most important. A good setup makes an enormous difference to a guitar. We all know this; but it’s even more important than most of us think. Each custom guitar I’ve had built was set up perfectly by the luthier before I got there. Of course they were! These are proud artists, showing off their work. But in every case, it was amazing to see the difference between what they liked and what I like. Spending a few hours or a few days on little tweakage issues would take me from “this is great” to “this is so much better.” (This explains why it’s so hard to judge guitars at retail showrooms. If you happen to find a guitar that is set up perfectly to your taste, you’ll prefer it to the other guitars at hand. Yet many of those other guitars could have been setup that same way.)
Danny worked quickly and cleverly to make the fine adjustments I wanted. The instrument blossomed. It was great when I got there; and it was much better when I left. Specifically, it was much better for me.
Why would any luthier not have an instrument setup perfectly on delivery? Because there is a wide range of “perfect” setups. Guitar technique varies more than with most other instruments. Violin, piano, trumpet, etc. each have more or less an “official” conservatory technique. (Some virtuosi are exceptions; but those are notable.) In contrast, guitar technique seems to be all exceptions. We vary in terms of neck angle, body position, left- and right-hand positions, left-hand thumb placement, plectrum technique, finger technique, voicing, strap use, etc. This makes personalized setup much more important for us.
Should you consider a custom guitar?
This has been a long article, and I’ve omitted many important details about the process. It’s all sort of blended together for me into a happy memory of wide-ranging artistic interaction.
But here are some take-aways for readers thinking about a custom project:
- Is a custom guitar worthwhile? Building a custom instrument is an exciting and rewarding process. It is absolutely worth doing. It is not for everybody, because it is costly, time-consuming, and mentally taxing, and because it involves an element of risk. Nobody knows exactly how a new guitar will turn out, especially if it has unusual features. Very few builders (I only know of one) will say “If you don’t like it, I’ll build you another one instead.” If you can find your perfect instrument on eBay or at a shop, then you’re lucky – you don’t need a custom instrument. However, a custom build is the only way to get precisely what you want.
- Deciding what you want. There are essentially three strategies for building a custom instrument. 1) Choose an existing model by the builder, and say “Yes, I’d like one of these with a few little tweaks.” 2) Tell the builder in general what you want (“7string, short scale, feedback-resistant, big cutaways, fast action, dark wood”) and then let the builder design a solution. 3) Take an active role in the design process.
Each of these methods can produce good results. They require progressively more engagement on your part. If you want or need something that is very unusual, be prepared to spend the necessary time and brainpower. (By analogy: It’s a little like hiring a contractor to remodel a kitchen. If you’re open-minded, you can let the contractor choose many details. If you want very specific things, you’ll need to be involved – and make quick decisions.)
Most luthiers will give you plenty of feedback, to be sure you won’t be surprised by what is delivered. They’ll listen to you play, show you their past work, and discuss your musical and aesthetic goals. For this process to work well, you’ll have to make key decisions at the right times. “Maple or rosewood? How many strings?” If you have a hard time making such decisions, be prepared to spend time with the luthier talking the issues out.
At the beginning, you should try to have a good answer, at least to yourself, of generally what you’re after, and why available guitars won’t meet your needs. Unless you’re a collector who just is amassing a wall of cool guitars, you should have a definite idea (or hope) of what this particular instrument can do for you.
- Finding a partner. Working with the right luthier for you is absolutely critical. It’s not enough to like a builder’s instruments when you run across them in the wild. You need to have a good enough personal and technical rapport that you will be able to work closely over several months. If you’re taking an active role in the project, be sure you can talk the same language about technical details. If you’re leaving more of the details to the luthier, then be sure you have enough common ground and a common sense of aesthetics. The last thing you want to hear is “Oh…but I thought you wanted it this way.” The old woodworker’s adage is “Measure twice before you cut once.” For a luthier’s client, this might be: “Explain twice before you agree once.”
- Taking a risk. Your custom guitar may be the greatest thing ever built, as mine was. Or it may have some tradeoffs. There are always tradeoffs. The tradeoffs can become problems if they don’t get talked out. This is part of the risk of any custom project. Some projects wind up with surprises. You must have a lot of trust and confidence in your luthier. It is important to build that trust up over time.
Are there tradeoffs with The Owl? Of course. The lack of a magnetic pickup, an important design decision, makes this guitar not really suitable for certain styles of music and styles of playing. It doesn’t have that fat 50s-60s amplified jazzy sound. In a bebop quartet, it sounds…surprising. It’s interesting, but different, like hearing bluegrass on an archtop, or rock-and-roll on nylon strings. There are various other tradeoffs due to my string choices, my long scale, and my electronics. None of these were surprises.
I had so much fun working with Danny on this guitar project. The result is a remarkable instrument, with a special voice, outstanding playability, and dramatic appearance. It stops conversations. Everybody wants to know about it. This guitar ties together many threads – including my return to music, my unusual playing style, my hopes for the future, Danny’s two children and his perceptive wife, the owl image I developed in the early 80s, and my wife’s aesthetics. The project was entirely successful.
My next big project? Getting some recordings done with The Owl, so I can show it off properly.
Any other guitar projects in the future? I’m not telling.
The Owl details
|Model||Chicagoan Oval Hole|
|Body Join||14th fret|
|Cutaway Join||19th fret|
|Upper bout||13.125″ with oval sound port|
|Frets||21 ½, Medium jumbo (.092″W x.048″ H), 60″ radius|
|Nut Width||60mm = 2.36″|
|Top||Old-growth low-density Sitka spruce, recovered from Alaska bridge|
|Back and Sides||Figured Birch|
|Neck||Birch and maple|
|Fretboard and details||
Macassar ebony (Diospyros celebica)|
Lapis lazuli Mother-of-pearl (Pinctada maxima)
|Pickups||Barbera Transducer Systems saddle, plus K&K Pure Mini transducers|
|Wiring||Stereo passive wiring, with two volume thumbwheels in sound port|
|Machine Heads||Waverly, with oversize ebony buttons|
Dan Koentopp, builder
Dan Koentopp started taking guitar lessons at age seven. From that point, the guitar became his lifelong passion. His father, an architect, and his mother, an artist, helped mold and inspire his future. At age 14, he asked his parents if he could turn a basement closet into a small workshop. With the help of his father, he made his first guitar.
After studying guitar performance through high school with Thomas Clippert and then at SUNY Purchase with Fred Hand for two years, Danny decided to come home to Chicago and enroll in Product Design at Columbia College. He focused on the guitar. At that point Danny had completed six instruments, the last three being archtop guitars.
While making his seventh guitar he met master violin maker Michael Darnton and joined the restoration team at Darnton & Hersh Fine Violins. This was the beginning of four years in the world of string instruments, the true ancestors of the archtop guitar. While working with Michael he learned and practiced restoration techniques on many museum quality instruments. To examine, close up, the detail, the knife work, and the overall tradition of some of the most important instrument makers of all time, was paramount in developing his eye. At D&H, he had the chance to read through and study books written about violin makers and their works. During this period, he categorized and documented every instrument that came through the shop. This focus enabled him to see the nuances of different makers and the techniques of their schools.
Darnton’s work and teachings solely
Soon after leaving D&H and starting Koentopp Guitars in 2009, Danny opened a storefront on the northside of Chicago (the “Rockwell Shop”). As one of the few guitar builders in Chicago, he soon developed a reputation among area professionals, not only for his repair work but also for the custom guitars that took more and more of his time in the small storefront shop. In 2013, at the age of 30, Danny and his wife Anjuli headed to Hawthorne, California for a new beginning and to start a family. He was able to construct a new workshop, designed from the ground up to improve upon all the shop designs he had seen in the past. His reputation continues to expand, as he builds more and more exceptional archtops. His work remains in the focused, Chicago style school of musical instrument construction.
Trevor Hanson is a U.S. guitarist from the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. He mostly plays seven-string guitars, both nylon- and steel-string. His solo performances draw on an eclectic mix of material, much of it improvised, ranging across classical, jazz, folk, and other traditions. He also works with many ensembles – spanning big-band dance music, mainstream jazz, gypsy swing, folk music, Irish pub songs, and some cross-genre material that defies description. Trevor enjoys working in duos, joining a saxophone, trombone, keyboard, bass, or another guitar. His busy schedule takes him to many area venues and events. (To date, he hasn’t found much time for recording; but he will be addressing that issue shortly.)
Trevor sums up his musical career this way: “I’ve played guitar much of my life – classical, jazz, and other styles. Long ago, I performed and taught on the east coast and in Chicago. I moved to the Olympic Peninsula in 2004. My formal training included study with classical guitarist Myroslav Radawiec, jazz icons Chuck Wayne and Sal Salvador, and composer/musicologist Easley Blackwood (at the University of Chicago). I also studied piano, trumpet, flute, violin, and percussion; but guitar is my focus.”
Trevor loves guitars, and is fortunate to be able to play many fine instruments. The Owl, featured here, is a new highlight.
Video of The Owl
Koentopp is a traditionalist, drawing on the philosophy and technique of traditional archtop construction. He developed his skills restoring violin-family instruments in Chicago. As seen in the documentary video about Koentopp his workflow is more like that of a sculptor than a cabinetmaker. His obsession with detail is apparent in many facets of his work.
Consider, for example, these cable clips used in Koentopp’s pickup installation. Many luthiers just install the clips that are supplied by pickup makers – plastic, or metal, or Velcro. But then the cables often rattle; and the clips often come loose after a few years after the adhesive fails. Koentopp decided that a more elegant solution was needed. He designed his own clips using spruce, carbon fiber, hard maple, and neoprene, and integrated them with the side bracing.
Another example of his approach is with the endpin. Most builders turn an endpin from ebony, or perhaps they buy a premade product. Koentopp was concerned about the tension that would be present in this long-scale 7string guitar with heavier gauge strings. He decided to create a more rigid solution: a machined aluminum endpin. It won’t break.
Why Did I Want a Custom Guitar?
Why does anybody buy a custom guitar? In my case, there were several factors. A little personal background will help put my decision in perspective.
- In 2010, I resumed full-time music, after a ten-year silent hiatus. (I have a congenital, lifelong back problem, including a couple of surgeries. Eventually, I could no longer play without pain, so I gave away my guitars, and resigned myself to a bleak life without music. Happily, ten years later, I found a way back to music – a long story.)
- Returning to the guitar was a gamble. Would I be able to play? The physical and mental challenges were considerable. I decided to give myself an incentive. If the gamble paid off, then I’d use my performance income for nice instruments. The more gigs I played, the more I’d have for guitars. This seemed a fair deal. The work was hard. I played a lot of clams, and I played a lot of jobs that you probably wouldn’t take; but as Pat Donohue says, “at least I was playing my guitar.” Looking at gigs this way gave me a more tangible satisfaction than a tip jar full of cash. Each tip represented a tuning machine, a binding, a fret marker, a set of strings. I persevered.
I love guitars. Not everybody does. I work with many musicians who are indifferent about gear. They live for music. They maintain the decent working instruments they need; but that’s where their gear interest ends. Unless they have a very specific need, e.g. some unusual instrument configuration, most of these pros will never consider a custom guitar project. I understand this. I respect this. Making music, after all, is the point.
But here’s the thing. I am fascinated by guitars. I love wood. I love craftsmanship. I love doing tech work on guitars. My shop is full of repair projects and tools and scraps of wood. Much of the joy of playing, for me, is experiencing the instrument itself, independent of the music that I’m playing. When I play a prewar Gibson or a modern handbuilt gem, I’m experiencing both the music and the instrument. I’m linked to the builder’s expression of design and artistic intent, as embodied in that instrument. It’s a powerful connection. When I play a century-old guitar, I am sharing that instrument with all the musicians who have played it before. When I play a modern luthier’s work of art, I am sharing that maker’s vision, the trees that were used, the teachers who shaped that maker’s ideas and skills. It’s a magical feeling. (My “musical purist” colleagues often miss this experience, I think.) So: I want to know as much as possible about how a particular instrument works; and I derive a lot of pleasure from the act of playing a certain guitar, independent of the music I play.
I have a number of wonderful guitars, but I’m not a collector. My guitars all work for a living. Each serves a specific purpose in my musical life. Some are old, some are new. None are redundant; redundant guitars get sold.
I mostly play 7-string guitars, plus some 6- and 8-strings. I play both nylon and steel-string guitars, in various musical genres. This diversity of music styles and unusual instrument types has been the big factor in my guitar choices, and in my decision to commission custom instruments. Suitable 7-string guitars don’t often appear on the used market. As a result, it makes sense for me to work closely with a luthier, designing a new instrument to fill a particular niche.
To learn more about Koentopp Guitars please visit: koentoppguitars.com
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