Going all the way back to high school, guitars have always been an important part of my life. Given how much I love the work of so many builders, I wanted to share some of my favorites with anyone that might be interested. This a chronological list of builders that got me into lutherie and helped kept me going. I've kept this list of favorites fairly concise, but there are many more builders who's amazing work has inspired me as well. Some of these include: Leo Fender (Fender, Musicman, G&L) and Semie Moseley (Mosrite of California) from the early days of the electric guitar, Rick Turner and Alembic who hit their stride in the 70s, Ned Steinberger and Philip Kubicki who made waves in the 80s, and finally Ulrich Teuffel and Michael Spalt that were just becoming popular as I was getting interested in guitars in the 90s. There are also a lot of newer builders who I follow, for example Florian Bouyou, Nicolai Schorr, and Robin Stummvoll are all building really unique and interesting instruments right now.
Paul Reed Smith
When I was in high school PRS was everywhere, used by many popular players and all over the pages of guitar magazines. In my freshman year I sent away for a brochure by mail and received back the coolest package ever. It included a sticker, price list, large individual cards for every model, a color chart, and a printed folder to hold everything. I can't exaggerate how many hours I spent pouring over that package, learning about each model, the features, the wood, etc. I became obsessed, and even though my family did not have a lot of money, I did eventually save up for a used EG, which at the time was the lowest cost model and basically a high-end strat copy.
PRS was probably my first big crush, but my interests were always in the more simple models like the EG, Standard, and Studio. Over time PRS leaned even more into high-end material thing with super figured woods, antique whale bone inlay, and bald eagle feather padded gig bags. That's not really my thing, but then they started doing import instruments and offering generic Gibson and Fender style models... I lost interest.
What I did take from PRS that always stuck with me was the concept of a silhouette. Going back to that brochure package, every single model had the same basic outline. Even though the materials, features, and cost might vary wildly, that very recognizable base design was there at the core. These were also just beautifully designed and constructed instruments, coupled with great photography and marketing. PRS is an impressive company across the board.
Almost everything you could say about PRS in the 90s you could also say about Warwick. They were very well represented by top artists in all genres of music and they offered unique designs using interested materials. I think the marketing was not as strong, but that didn't stop a lot of people from falling in love with the brand. There was a consistent thread connecting their various models with some common design elements and material use, but it wasn't nearly as cohesive as PRS. For me that means some models were not as interesting, but others really stood out.
The Warwick Dolphin is by far my favorite bass. At this point Warwick has moved on much in the same way that PRS has, not offering much I am interested in and with changes that aren't my taste, but that original Boire Pro-I Dolphin is the stuff of dreams. I've owned three Pro-Is... two Boire and one Birdseye Maple and I would put the Boire models up against anything. This is the bass that started my love affair with Wenge. The main body design and carvings are also very unique across all instruments. I know Warwick initially borrowed the carved body thing from Spector, but the Dolphin takes it to a level that still seems to be untouched by anything since.
Steve Klein & Steven Kauffman
Klein Acoustic & Electric Guitars
If someone dropped a pile of money on my lap and said I could buy all the guitars I want, the first thing I would do is order a Klein 457 in Claro Walnut. Klein Acoustics are my favorite instruments of all time, and I think Steve Klein is one of the best instrument designers ever. His electric designs are iconic, his customs are amazing, the acoustic bass he designed in collaboration with Taylor is a modern classic, and the Kiso acoustics are also beautiful... but none of those can hold a candle to his classic acoustic designs. A model from the mid 70s still feels modern, fresh, and without equal on the market. On top of all that amazing design work, Steven Kauffman is a craftsman of the highest order.
When I was a kid in my late teens I played a Taylor/Klein AB at a local music store and it opened my eyes to how strange and beautiful an instrument could be. From there I learned more about the model and Steve Klein. I eventually was able to visit Klein's Music in Sonoma many times and all the interesting instruments there further inspired me to eventually go to lutherie school.
Visit Steve Klein @ kleinsbench.com
Ken Parker Archtops
Ken Parker is another one of those guys that just seems to have the golden touch in lutherie. Everyone is familiar with his now iconic Parker Fly guitars. These instruments were basically modern classics as soon as they hit the market, revolutionizing multiple elements of the instrument. For a long time that was my exposure to Ken 's work, then at some point I found one of his early basses available and it shocked me to see how long he had been working on that same core design/style. I dug a little at that point but still didn't fully learn just how amazing Ken was until he started offering his own line of archtops. These guitars are an absolute masterclass in tasteful design, amazing craft, and a re-consideration of EVERY aspect of the instrument. His balance between understanding and respecting the past while pushing the art form forward with new techniques and materials is impressive beyond words.
Ken has recently started making his wealth of knowledge available via articles and videos on his site. His work and content are infinitely inspirational!
I became familiar with Peter Malinoski's work back in the early days of the internet on BunnyBass.com. I loved that site and spent a ton of time on their forums. I learned a lot about lutherie and photography via interviews and tutorials on Bunny Bass. Pete was featured there and his instruments made a strong impression on me. He has made so many interesting instruments over the years, and although his style is strong, he rarely repeats himself. These are all special instruments that really stand out, but I especially love the basses.
The thing that most inspires me about Pete's work is the fearlessness to do just about anything. I love his DIY, punk rock kind of attitude and approach to building. I often get so far up my own ass it's nice to look at Pete's work and remember we're supposed to be having fun.
Harry Fleishman has accomplished a feat very few instrument designers have, creating both iconic acoustic and electric designs, as well as both guitar and bass designs. His work is getting harder to find online so I don't have names for all his instruments, but his asymmetrical acoustic design is one of my favorites of all time. He's made some beautiful multi-scale basses over the years as well.
I've often complained how little I care for inlay, but on many of Harry's more ornate instruments I almost feel like I am looking at a scene frozen in time. The design of the instrument and the design of the inlay are so tightly integrated that it all feels as one. This is real artistry, and I would swear if you look long enough, that bee on the fingerboard might just wake up and fly right off the guitar.
I first learned about Michihiro "Michi" Matsuda while attending Roberto Venn. Michi is probably one of the most accomplished graduates of RV so there has always been a certain amount of pride just being associated with him in that way. My first introduction to his work was through his amazing flat top acoustics. These introduced many notable features to the stuffy flat top world (my words) such as his own unique body shapes, VERY unique rosettes, and beautifully carved heels. These guitars are inspirational in themselves, but soon after I was introduced to his more wild work.
His custom work seems to stand on its own as I have never seen anything like it. Most of these instruments feature many overlapping levels of carved woods, with some being glossy finished and others more natural finished. Sometimes multiple necks, often custom hardware, and always many unique flourishes. I honestly have trouble my wrapping my head around some of these instruments, but there's no question they are always beautifully and perfectly executed.
There's a madness to the instruments of Atlansia, but is the kind of madness that speaks to me so strongly that I come back again and again. I've owned a Greco/Atlansia Stealth Bass in the past and now a Solitaire Single String Bass. These instruments have many unique features, but the custom hardware and pickups stand out above all. These basses go in so many directions I can really relate to how many ideas are bouncing around when you look at everything they make. You have to respect someone willing to put six pole pieces into a single string bass pickup. Why??? Don't you mean, Why not?!?
Beyond the amazing hardware and pickups I am also in love with the wood selection and overall design. These are guitars and basses spanning over a 40 year run with a cohesive style that is unique and completely their own.
Serge Michiels & John Joveniaux
Tao Guitars by John & Serge
For me Tao Guitars is a celebration of what's possible when beautiful design, amazing materials, and excellent craftsmanship all come together in a way that seems to be completely without limitation. These instruments are so beautiful and unique. You can tell EVERY SINGLE DETAIL has been poured over with so much love and attention.
I would say being able to design and execute on one model at this level would be enough to make your career as a luthier, but Tao has done it over and over again across many very unique instruments. Not every one of their instruments are to my taste, but ones that I do love are some of the most beautiful and interesting guitars that I've seen in recent years.
Kaz Goto, Akiko Oda, and Eiko Goto
Jersey Girl Homemade Guitars
I think I may have been the last person on the internet to hear about Jersey Girl Homemade Guitars. They got their start in 1991, and made their first big USA splash at NAMM in 2004, but I still managed to miss them over and over again. I'm almost thankful that I did miss them for so long, because at some point you see enough luthier-built guitars that it really feels like you've seen it all. There's always room for someone to do something really silly and out of left field, but it becomes more and more rare to find really well designed and tastefully appointed instruments executed so perfectly.
As I've stated in the past, I'm not a person that really appreciates ornamentation. I guess JGHG is the exception that proves the rule. Everything they do is just so perfect and correct. These have always been really nice guitars, but going back maybe 5-7 years is where I think they fully hit their stride. Their style is so well defined, yet they have a ton of variety in the instruments they build. Just the design alone is impressive, but they are also making a lot of custom hardware and custom pickups. These are really exciting guitars that set a high bar for everyone else!