By Rory Anson
art noun \ärt\: the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.
craft noun \kraft\: an occupation or trade requiring skill in making things by hand.
Guitar makers are craftsmen. At the highest level, they are considered master artisans. Seasoned artisans whose work reflects a refined precision. Sophisticated design, paired with meticulous execution that only arrives after many thousands of hours in the shop. And while most guitar makers are craftsmen or even master craftsmen, they are not all artists. In my estimation, Saul Koll is both.
For over thirty years, Koll has been creating world-class instruments. There is an understated elegance to his work. Exemplified by clean lines and contours that coalesce in a seemingly effortless flow. His guitars are impeccable. With the aptly named Glide series (Junior Glide, Duo-Glide, Ultra Glide, Super Glide Almighty), Saul has designed an electric guitar that holds its own alongside the most iconic shapes made famous by the guitar industry giants in the mid-twentieth-century.
No one-trick pony, he also builds acoustic guitars, archtops, basses, double-necks, seven strings, and even ukeleles. According to the Koll Guitar Company website, “We can design to accommodate for nearly any physical, sonic, or aesthetic considerations. We’ve made everything from straight-ahead Strat-style guitars to multi-string extended range freakouts.”
Koll’s guitars have found their way into the hands of several notable players. Including Isaac Brock (Modest Mouse), Peter Holmstrom (The Dandy Warhols), and Lee Ranaldo (Sonic Youth). Composer and avant-garde musician, Elliot Sharp, plays an incredibly adventurous and highly-customized, eight-string RE guitar. Koll’s Tornado model was designed in collaboration with and is played by “textural” guitarist, composer, and producer, David Torn.
Despite having firmly secured his place in the pantheon of elite guitar makers, Koll remains delightfully humble. I recently had an opportunity to spend some time with Saul, and his dog Louie, at his workshop in Portland, Oregon.
GC: Do you recall when you first became aware of the guitar?
SK: I was the youngest of several siblings, so I got all the hand me downs. As they left home, the records were passed down from one to the next, so I ended up with a nice collection. We’re talking Beatles, Stones, The Who, all of that kind of stuff…Led Zeppelin. I grew up in Los Angeles, and I listened to a lot of radio too. KLOS, KMET, and AM radio was big back then. So music was a big thing. At some point, the possibility of learning to play an instrument came up. I was perusing the Sears catalog, which was three inches thick, and here’s an electric guitar and an amplifier for like $79.00. I presented this idea to my folks, who said, “Oh, no-no-no. You can’t do this electric thing; if you’re gonna learn guitar, it will be on a proper acoustic guitar.” So we rented a little nylon-string guitar, and I started taking lessons. This was when I was 11 or 12. After a while, they noticed that I was sticking with it and stepped me up to a steel-string guitar, an Epiphone. I kept on learning, taking lessons, and that became my thing. They did not want me to have an electric guitar; it was the devil’s music, it was just bad. But I would always hang out at this one guitar store in Newhall, where I grew up, and eventually, I ended up buying a cheap Teisco guitar. I think it was like $75. I got it, but I couldn’t take it home, so I took it to a friend’s house. It lived there until I got older, and I felt comfortable bringing the guitar home.
GC: How did that evolve into guitar making?
SK: I was kind of introverted as a kid. I was always happy by myself, making things. Either out of clay or Legos, erector sets, whatever. Doing things with my hands. After high school, I ended up at San Diego State. I suddenly found myself within the art department studying art history or taking an intro to sculpture class. It occurred to me that everything I’ve been doing in my life has basically been for this. I finally found my tribe. I enjoy making things; I enjoy design, I enjoy drawing, this whole department is all about that. So I declared my major in art, studied sculpture, and went down that path.
At some point, I discovered Irving Sloane’s book on guitar making (Classical Guitar Construction). And because I was in the art department, I had access to tools and a woodshop, so I bought some wood and made a guitar. It all just came together, all of these things that were of interest to me.
After college, I moved to Long Beach, California. I took that guitar to a shop where I was trying to get a job and showed it to the proprietor, Jon Peterson. He looked it over and said, “Well, it’s a naive attempt, but you show some promise. Because you have an art background, maybe you can help us do some color matching and touch-up.” The World of Strings was an important store for restoration and repair of orchestra instruments and guitars. Everything from kotos to violins, cellos, basses, electric guitars. It wasn’t a formal apprentice situation, but I got an incredible education there because experts surrounded me in each of their fields. At this bench over here, somebody would be bending aside, so I watched how somebody bent aside. Over there, someone is repairing a violin bow or popping the top off a cello to rebrace it. On this bench over here is a ’45 Martin. I saw these things every day. And because I was the new guy, I’d get the weird jobs. These guys were like, “I don’t wanna do this seven-string, give it to Saul; maybe he wants to do it.” It worked out really well because this was before Schecter and Ibanez were doing the low-tuning, metal stuff, so if you wanted a seven-string guitar, you had to have it custom made. You either had to find an old Gretsch seven-string, and not that many were made, or you had to have a luthier build you one.
GC: Do you remember your first commission?
SK: One of my first real commissions was for jazz guitarist, Ron Escheté. He gave lessons at World of Strings and also taught at G.I.T. in Hollywood. He played a seven-string Benedetto. Someone at G.I.T. brought in a Klein guitar, and Ron really liked it. He liked that it was headless, and he liked how it sat on his leg, so he asked me if I could build him a seven-string version, and I said sure. So I ended up borrowing a Klein, and I traced it. As I looked at all of these shapes and that point, I was really conservative; I couldn’t really imagine Ron playing that guitar. He was playing with Gene Harris; he’s in a suit, he’s doing these jazz clubs. But I thought, what if I borrow those elements that he liked about the Klein guitar and combined them with a traditional archtop? My idea was that if you walked into the club, your eye would be drawn to the hourglass shape and the f-hole, and it would appear to be a standard archtop. That became the RE model, and it was one of my first design mashups. At the time, I was trying to hide the freakiness of it. Later I came to celebrate it, but back then, it was pretty far out for me. So that was one of my first commissions and when I really started thinking about design and what it means on a guitar.
Another player, Robert Conti, wanted an eight-string guitar. So I had to figure out how to do that. Working on these projects was an exercise in fabrication because there’s no eight-string hardware available; you have to design it and make it. Going through this got me to the point where I wasn’t afraid, someone could throw just about anything at me, and I’d feel comfortable taking it on.
GC: How did the Glide shape come about?
SK: I had a bandmate who was maybe six-foot-four, kind of a big guy. He was playing a Telecaster, and it just looked too small. I thought we gotta stretch this out. So I pushed the lines in all directions and came up with what eventually became the Glide. It started as a gag; we just wanted a guitar that fit this guy’s frame better. I thought, well, what do I like? I like Gretsch’s; I like Danelectro’s, I like Gibson’s, I like Fender’s. So I borrowed a little bit from everybody.
If you take apart the Glide shape piece by piece…that part sort of looks like a Les Paul, maybe that looks like a Jazzmaster, maybe a Tele. It’s got a lot of things going on. It’s not a stolen anything, but it definitely smells like that. My vision for it was that if you were to go into a pawnshop and you saw a Danelectro and maybe a Melody Maker, or whatever the lineup of pawnshop guitars are, I didn’t want mine to seem too far out. I wanted it to kind fit within its homies, you know? I’ve never been a super flashy person; it fits my personality that I want something to stand apart, but not.
I’ve got a funny story about design in general. At World of Strings, there was a guy who I learned a bunch from, Glen Mers. We were discussing the design process, and he said, “If you draw a body shape, and then you move this line over here, and maybe this line here. Keep on tweaking it and tweaking it until it looks just like a Stratocaster. Then you’re done.” The point is that it’s easy to fall back on the tried and true rather than coming up with something fresh and new. We tend to retreat to the familiar and comfortable.
GC: Arere there any artists or designers that inspire you?
SK: Oh yeah. I love mid-century modern—Braun design. I like the minimalist stuff. If it’s quote “good design,” – I probably like it. I frequently go to galleries and museums. My wife and I travel to New York, Paris, and Berlin to look at art…and eat pizza in New York. We’re very active in continually learning and experiencing.
GC: Do you consider yourself an artist or a craftsman, or both?
SK: I think there’s a question of depth. Maybe an artful craftsman? I don’t know that I could hang with the painters or the sculptors that are doing just pure, expressive stuff. For my vision, my comfort zone, I need something to hang those ideas on. And the guitar or the musical instrument is that vehicle for me. I think that good art is about pretty deep spiritual, or existential things…deep human emotion. I don’t know that what I’m doing is in that realm. It’s like writing songs. I play in a great band, but I don’t write songs because I don’t have that in me. But I think I play pretty good guitar for that band. It’s the same with building. I think I’ve got some pretty good design chops, but as far as spiritual depth…Nah.
GC: Tell me about the building process?
SK: Some of the most fun is having raw materials to imagine what instrument will look good. Laying it out, having a big block of wood, and visualizing what it’s going to be. That’s really exciting to me. The future. What is this thing going to end up like? I’ve made so many guitars that the making of a good sounding, good playing guitar is automatic.
What I’m always striving for is the X factor. What will lift this utility instrument to a higher level, as we discussed earlier, maybe even into art. Much of what I do with guitars is to use my customer’s ideas as a starting point and then take them to a higher place. I always pause to listen, then react.
There was one guitar that I made for a guy who was very into Japanese Horror. So I incorporated some of that into the guitar. I found a recording of the voice of Godzilla and built that in. You could press a button on the back of the guitar, and Godzilla would scream. It didn’t need to be there, and he didn’t know that it would be there, but I knew that he was so into it that it would be funny. Kind of a little Easter egg for him. So it can be something as silly as that, or something deeper.
GC: Is there a project that stands out as being particularly challenging, maybe something that kept you up at night?
SK: Most of them. I have an emotional engagement with any new design. One guitar that I’m super thrilled with is an eight-string that I built for Elliot Sharp. It was one of the RE models. He wanted eight-strings, and he wanted it hollow, but he also wanted me to riff on the Selmer Maccaferri kind of vibe. So that meant the mustache bridge and an oval soundhole. I get that all the time. I’ll get a laundry list of ideas that I have to somehow process and regurgitate in a way that looks cool and looks like something that I would design…so that it looks like a Koll.
GC: Your most recent model is called the Super Cub. How did it come about?
SK: The Super Cub is an evolution of the Glide. If you look at the Duo or the Super Glide, you’ll see that they’re nice and shiny; they’re real formal. An inlay, extra binding, that sort of thing. But you don’t always want to have to be playing a tuxedo. So the whole idea behind the Super Cub was; what guitars are fun to play? Like an Epiphone Wilshire, those ’60s American guitars with thin bodies, the Melody Maker. And let’s give it a crazy six-in-line headstock. But I wanted it to echo the standard Glide headstock. If you took my standard neck, the vision I have is heated up in the forge and then slammed it down on the bench…THUNK!!! So it’s still of the family, but it’s its own thing. Once I established the basic outline of the guitar, that became a standard, and I could hang any number of suits on that. It’s a very versatile thing; for example, here’s a baritone twelve-string, here’s a lefty bass of that same shape.
GC: It seems that we are in a renaissance of builders and makers. Everything from cables and pedals to tube amps and guitars. Are there any young builders out there that have caught your eye?
SK: Among my favorites are the guys at Tao Guitars in Belgium. I love what they’re doing. There’s a whole minimalist, Japanese kind of quality to it. Also, Jens Ritter from Germany. He makes amazing stuff. Michael Spalt is fantastic. There are many builders out there; I’m going to leave somebody out and feel bad about it. I usually like the weird guys; they bring something else to the table.
GC: Mild-mannered guitar builder by day, punk rock guitar warlord by night. Tell me about your band, The Lovesores.
SK: The Lovesores is a band fronted by Scott “Deluxe” Drake, who, if you remember the ’90s, was the lead singer for a band called The Humpers. They were on Sympathy for the Record Industry; then they got signed to Epitaph. They wrote some great rock ‘n roll songs of that era. I knew Scott from Long Beach, and he and his wife moved up here several years ago. So I’ve been playing with them for the last 6 or 7 years. Our latest record is called Gods of Ancient Grease, and I’m really proud of it. Some guys play poker; maybe they bowl. I don’t know what people do. Once a week I play punk rock with my friends. And because of Scott’s notoriety, we usually get pretty good gigs, excellent opening slots. We recently opened for The Flesh Eaters, class of ’81, X, The Blasters, and Los Lobos. Just an amazing lineup.
I’m fifty-four-years-old and still trying to be a rock ‘n roll star.
Check out the complete lineup of Koll Guitars at www.kollguitars.com
For more about The Lovesores: https://lovesores.bandcamp.com