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Monday, February 13, 2012

Luthiers' Series… with Kent Chasson

Kent working late

One things leads to another, we grow older and wiser (hopefully…) and our desires also graduate from one level to another. I am no exception to this unquenchable thirst for ascension. From big brand guitars, the next step would be a hand-built by luthier.
A Lute
Luthier is someone who makes or repair lutes or other string instruments. The birthplace of modern European lutherie is believed to be in Bavaria, Germany. Then Lute was a popular string instrument among the royalties. Schematic plans of lutes were dated as early as 1450. By the picture of a lute shown below, our guitars have certainly evolved much over time.

I was trawling the internet for a luthier to make my first hand-built. Eventually I found Kent Chasson. From certain past conversations I had with guitar enthusiasts, the idea of commissioning a hand-built guitar is an exciting one. There were reservations as well. Apart from unable to try, most guitar lovers did not possess adequate knowledge in guitar-making to response accurately or succinctly to luthiers' requests for guitar specifications. The perspectives for buying a guitar off the shelves and commissioning a hand-built are drastically different. I will elaborate in another article.

Kent and I corresponded via email for months before we agreed on all the specifications. Actually I could write another article regarding my experiences in collaborating with Kent but this article is all about him. I have this to say about Kent and the guitar he has built for me, extracted from a posting from the Acoustic Guitar Forum.

I have always appreciate guitars with deep-thick bass and Kent is able to translate this preference into this guitar. It isn't the same as my Jeff built guitar but I love them all. Not forgetting the fine craftsmanship and his clean work. It could easily pass off as a CNC built guitar. The fittings, binding, joints, holes, fret wires, etc. are near perfection. It wasn't any exaggeration I have made up. I showed this guitar to other experienced guitar makers at the GAL 2011 convention, they were astonished at its appearance and workmanship. When they played the guitar, they didn't want to put it down. Some made trading offers…

Our collaboration has resulted in this,

My First Hand-Built, in progress then

With great privilege, I was granted the opportunity to interview Kent to find out his personal journey as a luthier and his guitar making ideals.

Here’s my interview with Kent.

About the Luthier…

1. When did you decide to become a luthier?

Headstock design
I built my first guitar 32 years ago. An acquaintance played that guitar and hired me to build one for him the next year. I was 18. I started Chasson Guitars in 1995. I have been building steadily since then and can’t imagine stopping.
2. Where did you train?

I am self-taught and have studied with Charles Fox, Frank Ford, and Ervin Somogyi.

3. How did your training influence you?

Charles Fox is a genius with systems and tooling. Studying with him helped me to develop methods that are efficient and flexible. I can have the precision of a small factory while custom building one-of-a-kind instruments.

I learned a few specific repair techniques from Frank Ford but mostly I was inspired by his creativity and straight-forward attitude about work. If I had to sum it up in one sentence, it would be “Figure it out, do it well, and enjoy any puzzles that come along.”

Ervin Somogyi’s teaching changed the way I voice my instruments and helped me develop a broader palette of voicing options with consistent results.

4. Where did you get your ideas?

Kent's signature rosette
Everywhere I can! I decided early on that I didn’t want to only build exact copies of traditional instruments. Most of my body designs are original and those ideas come from long hours of drawing and refining. It’s surprisingly difficult to design an original body shape.
Although the design of my adjustable neck is similar to Stauffer guitars from the mid 1800’s, some elements were heavily influenced by the work of Mike Doolin and Rick Turner. There are a lot of generous people in the luthiery community and a lot of idea sharing.

5. What luthier(s) inspired you?

One person I haven’t mentioned yet is my neighbor, Dake Traphagen. He has always encouraged me to turn off the power tools and work with my hands and I find myself doing that more and more. He is inspiring in the fact that, after 40 years of building instruments, he still experiments with new ideas, is still passionate about building, and he never stops learning.

6. What helped to shape you?

My parents. While I was growing up, they made it clear by example that it was important to do good and challenging work. At the time, they probably would have preferred that I go into a more secure and traditional profession but they were always supportive of me building things. When I was 19, my mother broke her ankle walking down the poorly built stairs in their new house while it was still under construction. She asked me to rebuild the stairs which I did over the weekend. When the builders returned on Monday, they offered me a job. I have been building things for a living ever since.

7. Do you feel anxious about becoming an luthier?
I probably should have but I never did. I’m not sure I would call it anxiety but I do feel a responsibility to make good use of wood. The wood used for guitars is often rare and hard to replace. It’s important to me to be respectful of that and use it efficiently in something that has long-lasting value.

8. How long has it been?

I sold the second instrument I built in 1980. I started my company, Chasson Guitars, in 1995. 32 or 17 years, depending when you start.

About Kent's Design Philosophies

1. Do you consider yourself a modern or traditional luthier?

Both. I prefer a more modern look and most of my guitars reflect that. But I have great respect for the accumulated wisdom that we call “tradition” and I have yet to stray too far from that.

2. What differentiates your work from other Luthiers?

If I were a marketer, I would answer this by talking about the “features” of my guitars. I would mention my adjustable neck, my unique body styles, and my use of carbon fiber. But what really makes my work different is simply the fact that I build it. It’s the whole package starting with the way I work with clients during the design phase and ending with a custom guitar and often a long-term friendship. It’s very personal and, as cheesy as it sounds, there is part of me in every guitar I build.

3. What is your guiding principle(s) in making guitars?

Kent's braces design
I love collaboration. I do my best when working closely with a player to help them realize their vision. At times, that means stretching my vision. At other times, it means making suggestions that depart from the player’s original plan. I don’t want to build everyone my favorite guitar, I want to build them their favorite guitar.

4. What is the toughest challenge(s) when making a guitar for someone?

Communicating about tone can be an interesting puzzle. It's hard to describe tone in words. I try to get information from people in different ways and see if it adds up. I usually start with words but also ask people about their playing style to see if the tone they are describing matches the playing style. I also try to get a sense of what instruments they have played and liked. Finally, if they have recordings of their playing, I listen to them. It's surprising that this can be done effectively, even over the internet, but it works!

5. Is there a part(s) on your guitar you like most?

Binding & Cut-away
I'm very happy with the design of my new rosettes and I love the shape of my new concert model that is in progress now.
As for the work I like the most, it's voicing the top and shaping the neck. It's peaceful work. There is something inherently joyful about shaping wood with sharp hand tools. By the way, sanding is the least enjoyable and there's a lot of it!

6. With reference to top plate voicing, how did you decide on the ideal tone, or the Chasson sound?

The ideal tone has to do with what the player is looking for. One of my favorite guitars lately was for a local fingerstyle player with a very light touch. It's a guitar I would never have built for myself. It has too many overtones and not enough headroom for most of what I play. But it lights up and blooms with a soft touch like no other guitar I've built and he loves it. So my ideal tone is the one that causes my client to tell all his friends about it!

-End of interview-

Pictures of Kent's many wonderful master pieces…

Kent's work

Floating Fingerboard

End of Article

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