48 Volts: Interview with Dan Koentopp of Koentopp Guitars

Chicago is a city of makers, and instrument building is no exception. From Ludwig and Slingerland drums to Deagan vibraphones, from Specimen and Darnton & Hersh Fine Violins to Emperor cabinets & drums (and the list goes on and on) - many of the best luthiers and instrument makers hail from the windy city.

Luthiers are especially fascinating folks. A luthier is someone who builds or repairs string or lute instruments such as guitars and violins. They are professionals who have devoted countless hours of labor to develop their skills and trade, blessing their instruments with a devoted human touch that no assembly line can match. Bestowed upon their instruments is not just skilled labor, but hundreds of years of tradition, and an amazing attention to detail as each instrument is custom tailored for its future owner. While it is indeed very possible to mass produce excellent instruments, no one can argue that for truly exceptional instruments, the ones most coveted and most musical - all are made by hand by individual luthiers who have devoted their life to their craft.

I’m glad to have had the chance to interview the talented luthier Dan Koentopp of Koentopp Guitars who has opened up a physical location since we first interviewed him several months ago. The store is located at 4754 N. Rockwell, Chicago, IL and is available by appointment Monday through Saturday. For more information and great pictures, visit his website or his Facebook page!

When and why did you build your first instrument? How did it sound?

I built my first guitar in 1998. I was so intrigued with the idea of constructing my own guitar - I was a freshman in high school and up to that point I had surrounded my life with playing guitar. Something in me wanted to take this journey with the guitar a little deeper. I was always into visual art - I grew up painting and drawing. I thought that it would be cool to assemble a guitar and paint it. I then thought, why just assemble a guitar and paint it when I can build the whole thing? I went to the library and borrowed a dozen books and read every one from start to finish. After reading and studying these books I was so excited about building guitars that I had no desire to paint them anymore. My father read the books when I wasn’t and he put in just as much work into that guitar as I did. It is a cool guitar and I still have it. It is a semi-hollow guitar with a set neck, like a 335. It was a complicated guitar for my first one but we planned the whole thing out. We even carved the top on it. Our experience as guitar makers was obvious in the end because the neck angle was not aggressive enough and the action was not very even. I need to re-plane the fingerboard and get that guitar back in business. My father passed away two days after we finished the guitar and I know he is with me as I build every guitar. He loved working on that guitar and he is one of the reasons why I keep going.

How did you learn this craft? Was it mostly trial and error, or were you an apprentice?

In the beginning I learned a lot from reading books. I observed all these different styles and traditions of building guitars and there were always similarities between them. It was interesting to see the same thing being done in multiple ways. Being around my father, I knew how to use tools and plan things out but nothing would teach me as much as working with violin maker Michael Darnton. I learned how to work with tools that I only saw in antique stores. I saw the beauty of working this way, but more importantly, I saw the efficiency. Working in the world of string instrument restoration and building showed me how to see things correctly. There are so many subtleties involved in violin and cello making. To work with these golden examples first hand and study them was paramount in my development as a guitar maker. I began to see what was wrong and what was right. This was more important than learning how to work with the tools. If what you’re seeing is wrong, then it will be very difficult to create beauty from your hands.

You mention on your website that doing things by hand can sometimes be faster than a machine. How can this be?

Michael Darnton can carve a violin top and back faster than a computerized router and I am pretty sure he tested that out! :-) I can carve a guitar neck ready to be fit to the guitar in one and a half hours. If I set this up on my carving table, which I have done, I have to set up the machine, carve it out and then hand finish the rough machine marks, which in the end takes longer. When you work with hand tools you work from the largest tool to the smallest tool. An aggressive start and a delicate finish. When carving a neck, it is much more personal because your hands have been carving the entire thing. Makes sense when your hand is going to be the tool used to play it. A machine can’t make decisions like we can. Wood is organic so naturally every piece of wood is different and needs to be treated as such. A machine can not feel the changes in wood, the feel, the sound, as it is being worked. Our senses can observe all this changing. We use all our senses and make continuous decisions through the entire process.

Can you describe how you work to customize an instrument for someone? Is there an ongoing dialogue with your customers throughout the process or do they trust you with most of the details?

I like to build my guitars for specific people, which means I learn as much about the individual client as possible. I try and visualize an image in my head of what this person is after and what would most compliment their playing. Talking and getting to know a client is a great way to start the process. However, often times when people try and use words to describe sound they end up contradicting themselves or expressing opposing ideas. Actually hearing and watching somebody can tell you a lot. There is always an open dialog between my clients as I work on their instruments. It creates a strong connection between the customer and their instrument from the very beginning. I do make all the final decisions but my client and the idea of the final guitar is always in my head.

In an age of mass production and globalization, how does it feel to be a luthier? Do you feel that a mass produced product could ever match the quality of one built by a skilled craftsman?

I love being an artist. One of the hardest things is balancing art with the whole side of business. I try not to get stressed about the business but it is true that there needs to be just as much energy in the business side than as the art side, if not more. Music and the guitar are organic things. Mass production does yield nice instruments and the level of quality can be flawless. The efficiency of the guitars however has a much higher success rate from an individual maker. Mass production relies on the same process, over and over again, passed down a line of multiple craftsmen. These craftsmen may be very skilled and fast but since they are not present in the entire build they cannot make the same decisions and adjustments that a single maker can. Again, every piece of wood is different and needs to be treated in a unique way, especially when combined with an entire system of other wood components.

Why do you think this is the “golden age of guitar making”?

This is the golden period of guitar making because of the availability of free information. More and more individual guitar makers are popping up everywhere. Before this golden period, the guitar was made popular through mass production. The growth of individual makers is pushing the guitar further because people are forced to be unique. This pushes experimentation and the development of new ideas pushing the guitar to new heights.

What sort of relationship do you have to the instruments you build? Is there a personal connection, maybe a unique personification hidden in each piece? Do you ever have a hard time “letting go” of a piece?

I have a connection to all the guitars I make. It is a personal connection. I like building guitars one at a time because I can focus all my energy on one guitar. I am starting to work on multiple instruments now and overlapping my builds but that is really a business decision. If it were up to me I would definitely make one at a time. After working 90-100 or more hours on something you can’t help but feel a connection to it. At the end of the day, when the guitar is finished and going to its new owner, I know this is my occupation and I need to make a living at it. However, the best thing is watching someone else, especially a great artist, take the guitar to a place that only they can take it.

What do you think the secret sauce was in Stradivari’s violin varnish?

The secret sauce to Strad’s violins and his varnish are five hundred years of age. There are so many opinions and far fetched ideas that have surfaced but the fact of the matter is that he used materials that were available to him at that particular time. He probably worked closely with other artists and painters and used the same common materials.

Do you enjoy playing guitars as much as making them?

I love playing the guitar. When I am stumped or reached a lull I always noodle around. I studied classical guitar performance, played in jazz bands and rock bands, and always loved it. Mastering the guitar is very hard and I am no where near that. Building guitars is a lot more natural to me and I am far better at it.

Are there any other instrument makers or craftsmen in Chicago you’d like to mention?

Only my mentor, Michael Darnton. He is a genius and an incredible teacher. His work stands alone. He makes some of the best violins in the world today. He is so efficient and has spent his life studying the Cremonese masters and it shows in everything he does. Even though I don’t work with Michael anymore, I continue to learn from him and I am so grateful for my experiences with him.

Any upcoming projects that you are working on or are excited about?

I just finished a guitar that is the focus of a documentary. We have been filming since September 2011 and we are not even finished. The guitar is complete and is one of the best instruments I have built so far. When the documentary is finished we are going to have a very big premier at a Chicago venue featuring Koentopp artists in concert and also featuring the special guitar. I am very excited for this and I hope that the documentary will reach a lot of people. I have not seen any other guitar documentaries that come close to the footage that these filmmakers have captured.

  • Photo credits: Paul Hamilton and Caleb Vinson.
  • Video credits: Paul Hamilton.
  • Interviewer & editor: Farsheed Hamidi-Toosi.