The Art of the Hand-Made Guitar

By John Schroeter

From Fingerstyle Guitar Magazine, No. 10, July/August 1995; pp. 31-33.
The second part of the article (pp. 34-35) profiles Michael Millard of Froggy Bottom Guitars.
This article is the first in a series profiling outstanding luthiers.

Copyright 1995 by Fingerstyle Guitar Publications.
Reprinted with permission (thanks, John!).

Introduction

As a child, Jim Olson would appropriate the wooden fruit jar shelves from the cellar and transform them into far more useful objects, like bird houses. Michael Millard would spend his summers working his way through college building wooden sailboats in local boatyards. Woodworking, it would seem, was in their blood. Today, Olson and Millard, both in their mid-forties, focus their woodworking passions on guitar making. A high calling, indeed. While both men produce magnificent instruments of the highest standards of materials and workmanship, that is where their similarities end. Their philosophies and approaches to their craft are as unique as the instruments they produce. In the profiles that follow—the first in a series of visits with lutherie's leading lights—we'll get to know each of them and their marvelous work a little better.

Jim Olson: Olson Guitars

[A pair of Olsons!]Working from a shop that would rival many fine furniture factories, Jim Olson, a self-confessed tool freak, takes as much pride in his workshop as he does in the guitars he builds. Touring his spacious shop nestled in the Minnesota pines, one takes in the aromatic wood shavings and observes the many guitars in various stages of completion. The sights and smells can quicken the pulse and glint the eye of anyone given to the magical combination of wood and music and the art and craft that unites them. Any romantic notions about guitar making, though, are rapidly dissipated as you hear of the sacrifices, the costs, and frustrations these dedicated artists have endured on their long and arduous paths to becoming master builders. Very few are up to it. Fewer still have the good fortune to realize a sufficient income. While the guitars they build are expensive, many builders would have a hard time affording their own work. Still, there is nothing they'd rather do. Jim Olson is no exception.


With an Irving Sloan book on guitar making, a good deal of woodworking experience behind him, and a lot of ambition, the undaunted Olson forged ahead on his journey.

"It was very difficult," he says, "and it certainly was not profitable for many years. Fortunately, during that time, my wife was a school teacher, which helped with household bills. I spent all of my time and her money forging ahead with my hobby. Most people figured there was no chance for success as a guitar maker, but it didn't stop me. It's like the person who wants to be a musician. They don't set out on that path because of the end, they set out because they like what they're doing to reach the end—their quest to learn to play guitar and to get better at it. They'll overcome any lack of monetary incentive to keep doing it. I think it's the same with guitar making. You don't look at it as a vocation, you look at it as an obsession, almost."

"Overnight success"

Jim Olson's apparent "overnight success" as a guitar builder was eighteen years in the making. When James Taylor began appearing playing his guitars, it gave Olson the credibility he had long desired. Suddenly, everyone wanted one. "It's the blessing of God," says Olson, "because I don't think I've built a better mouse trap. I think I build a good guitar, but every time I play another maker's guitar, I think their's are as good or better than mine." Of course, Olson is his own worst critic. "So it's not because I have a better mouse trap, but that I caught some bigger mice, I think." A few of those mice include Sting, Kathy Mattea, Russ Barenberg, Pat Alger, Michael Johnson, David Wilcox, Leo Kottke, and Phil Keaggy.

Eventually, Olson was able to move his shop from a church basement, where he did janitorial, maintenance and guitar repair work to supplement his guitar making income, to a new 3,200 sq. ft. shop equipped with more power tools and jigs than you can shake a guitar at. With the production efficiencies he's realized, he's able to build about fifty to sixty guitars a year by himself. Today, he's backlogged by seventy to eighty guitar orders.

Guitar Characteristics

In recent years, Olson's instruments have gained popularity primarily with fingerstyle players. Nearly 80% of his guitars are made with a quick responding, lightly braced cedar top (Phil Keaggy commissioned the first cedar topped Olson). As such, he recommends that they be strung with light gauge strings.

Olson credits guitar maker Charles Hoffman for much of what he learned in his early years of guitar making. "I never worked for him," he says, "but when I would visit his shop, my eyes were as big as cameras. I recorded everything I could see!"

One of the key Hoffman features Olson adopted is the five-piece neck. "I do a number of things that are very time consuming and that no one in their right mind would do! If I went to a one-piece neck, for example, I could eliminate all the time of resawing and laminating. But it's important that the neck be as stiff as possible. It allows you to slack tune the guitar without the neck bowing back. Also, a stiffer neck loses less energy, and therefore, more energy is sent to the top plate. I also bind and purfle every headstock. I hand-carve an arrow-head volute behind the truss rod pocket. So I'm still doing some things on them that make it harder on production, but I just don't want to give them up!"

Olson's elegantly simple headstock design stands proudly above a small jumbo body shape (SJ), the model that comprises about 95% of his orders. As Henry Ford once said of his cars, "you can have any color you want as long as it's black," Olson's productivity, too, has benefited from a certain level of standardization. While his policy is somewhat more flexible than Ford's, nearly all of Olson's building is based on replicating the last guitar he built. "All my orders," he says, "come from people who say they want one just like the one they saw or heard before; they want one like James' or Phil's. Someone called today and asked if I ever thought of building one out of walnut. It would be kind of fun to try, but why? I have eighty orders for rosewood! Why should I try to talk anyone into walnut? I offer a particular size of guitar, and to that, people can add options of abalone edging, inlay patterns, cutaway, and things of that nature. But I'm not a one-of-a-kind builder by any means."

Like most hand-made guitars, if you want one, you will usually deal directly with the builder. You won't find an Olson guitar hanging on the wall at your local music shop. As such, the majority of people who buy them do so without ever having played one. Of course, Olson guarantees his customers' complete satisfaction.

"No Mystique or Voodoo"

In the shop, Olson likes to think of himself as a straightforward nuts and bolts builder; "no mystique or voodoo," he says. While he may not aspouse a mystical philosophy about his art, there are at least four things that he strives to achieve with every instrument he builds: intonation, volume, sustain, and playability. "If you have those four things happening, probably, the guitar is pretty good," he says with characteristic understatement.

Upon closer inspection, though, one can discover the special Olson touches. Size, weight, and placement of the top braces are some of the trade secretes he reveals. "The braces," he says, "should allow all different areas of the top to reinforce the notes. If the braces are in the wrong spots, the guitar may still sound good, but it will have dead spots here and there. It might not be as loud up the fingerboard as it is down below."

Olson's methods include locating his modified X-brace pattern on the top's nodal points. That is, the places of non-vibration. "There are parts of the top that vibrate a lot and areas that don't vibrate as much," he explains. "If you can keep the braces on areas that don't contribute to reinforcing sympathetic notes, and keep them off the places that are going to vibrate, it's going to help."

The Bottom Line

Olson cautions, though, against honing-in on any particular aspect of the guitar's construction. It's the holistic view that is most important—how the guitar sounds to your ear, how it feels in your hands, how you respond to it. "That's the bottom line," he says.