No Secrets, No Edens:
In The Shop With Jim Olson

From the Minnesota arts newsletter,
Kamikaze: Arts and Literature From A Different Persepctive,
Vol. 5, issue 36,November 1995; pp. 12-13.
Copyright 1995 by Liminal Press.

"Jim Olson's one of the finest builders today. I know him well. Next year, he'll build about 60 guitars. If you're considering ordering one, I would suggest that you do it now. He has quite a waiting list. The people who own his guitars seem to be quite happy."
—Bob Taylor, Taylor Guitars

Introduction

You may have never heard of Jim Olson, but you may remember seeing one of his distinctively designed acoustic guitars, with the "O" on the headstock. Or maybe you've heard of some of his customers—James Taylor, Phil Keaggy, David Wilcox, Sting, Leo Kottke, Kathy Mattea and others.

That's right. For two decades, Jim Olson has been creating some of the most sought after acoustic guitars in the world. Today, Olson is still building guitars out of his 3,200 sq. ft. workshop/warehouse that sits adjacent to his log cabin home, a small pond and lush trees in Circle Pines, Minnesota. And he gives all the credit to Jesus Christ.


The Beginnings

"I was basically just a guitar player and a woodworker, and I thought it would be pretty neat to try and build," says Olson humbly, leaning against his desk. Unfortunately, in the late 1960's, when he first became interested in guitar-building, there was very little information on how or where to even begin.

It wasn't until 1974 when his wife got an Irving Sloan book on guitar making, "that got me started," says Olson. "It taught me how to bend the sides, and I just went goofy from there." By 1977, Olson had gone into full-time guitar-making.

From 1982 to 1992, Olson ran his business out of the basement of Good Shepherd Church in St. Paul, where he performed janitorial duties as well as pursued his career. "There was a crossroads in my life where I wasn't sure if I was going to continue building or not, because renting a separate shp is very expensive," says Olson.

Out of the Basement

After looking for over a year to find a more suitable location for a home and a shop, Olson received enough guitar orders to afford his new home in suburban/rural Minnesota.

Olson still performs special music with his wife at the Good Shepherd, where he accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior in 1980. However, the Olsons have no major label aspirations. Olson's personal CD collection is small, and consists mainly of albums given to him by his prestigious clientele.

Though Olson steers clear of most local music happenings, he is invited to quite a few concerts by the performers who play his guitars. He recalls James Taylor's 1989 performance in the Twin Cities as "more edifying" than most Christian concerts, because of Taylor's God-given talent.

It had taken Olson some time to get one of his guitars into the hands of Taylor, who he knew to be a discerning guitar player. After corresponding back and forth, Taylor eventually met with Olson, and enjoyed the Olson guitar so much that he now refuses to play anything else. (As we found out, there is quite a bit of "folklore" surrounding Olson and his relationship to Taylor and other artists. There are many fun stories that Olson delighted us with that he considerately asked us not to print. But, if you get the chance to speak with him yourself, I'm sure he'd oblige you.)

"Jig Man"

Olson's secret is his extensive use of homemade tools. It has even earned him the nickname "Jig Man" (or "Jigmeister"). Every imaginable tool needed to create an acoustic guitar hangs form the walls of his two-level workshop/warehouse. Though his characteristic style has made him successful, Olson still speaks freely about the tricks of his trade. Surprisingly, he speaks just as openly about his personal struggles. "When my wife wakes up in the middle of the night, she immediately thinks of our boys," says Olson. "When I wake up, all I think of is jigs and tooling, and what I have to do the next day.

"When I try to do my devotions, I'm constantly drifting off," he continues. "Some people drift off to food or other things. I drive off to my next jig I have to make. It's almost an obsession, in that, if you're very self-motivated and driven to do something, it's consuming. Whether it's good or bad, I don't know. Sometimes I think it's bad because I spend way too much time out here (in the shop), and not enough time with my family. I'm short on devotions a lot of times. It is a problem."

One Day at a Time

It is hard to imagine Olson being more soft-spoken or humble, when he has so much to be proud of. Glancing across his wall of fame, satisfied Olson guitar owners gleam back. Saturday Night Live's Kevin Nielen is pictured with a capo on his nose, an Olson in his hand, and a smile on his face. "It's really neat—thrilling," says Olson with a smile. "Basically, it was a just a love of wood and the opportunity to create something that's more functional than a coffee table. [The guitars] take on an interaction with the person. These actually express what the person that's behind them is expressing. It is very satisfying, but it is not the end of anything.

"Life still goes on everyday when you get up," he continues. "There are no Edens on earth, and it doesn't seem to matter where you are in life, you're still presented with frustrations. Everyday you're presented with being away from your family. If you travel on the road, you're presented with hotels and bad rides. If you're a guitar maker, you're presented with humidity problems and wood that you pay a fortune for that comes in cracked, and people have problems that are beyond your control.

"But does that mean you want to go back to where you started? No. You love the success, but I think the happiness has not grown proportionally to the success. Sometimes, people think that success at some level equates to a level of happiness. But there are no Edens left on earth, we're always toiling. I think it's evident by the number of unhappy successful people [in the world]. Without the Lord, you don't have much happiness regardless of your level of success.

"But I'm very thankful and certainly excited to think that James Taylor and these others create on something that I made. It's probably more than I could've envisioned when I started out. God has blessed exceedingly, abundantly above what I could have even envisioned. I thought if I could have a shop and create guitars in my basement and sell twelve a year or something and my wife worked to support me, then that would be about it. But, no, it's been incredible."

Olson was working on a batch of 24 guitars when we visited with him—Jeff Arundel, Pat Alger and Fighter, among the lucky recipients. He'll build 60 guitars this year, and hopefully be able to take some time off.

"I talk to a lot of people and they get the idea that, if only they could be successful playing guitar like Phil [Keaggy] is, then they would be happy. And they should have that vision because that's what keeps us going, but they're never going to arrive at a place that is satisfactory. There's always something beyond that place.

"You know, Bob Taylor [Taylor Guitars] has 128 people working for him, and they build 50-some guitars a day. And he's still going somewhere. He's still got problems. I think it's the day-to-day drive that creates the most happiness, and the little day-to-day successes."

At the end of the day, Olson thanks the Lord for his happiness and his success, and he enjoys sharing that joy with the artists who play his guitars.


About Kamikaze...

While art has always had a very spiritual nature, it has often been ignored or overlooked. The vision of Kamikaze magazine is to be a vital forum for the news and information of the arts and music community—from a spiritual perspective. "Kamikaze" means "Divine wind."