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Monday, April 9, 2012

Luthiers’ Series… Mike Doolin

Internet has brought the world closer indeed. In the early 80s, it was almost too remote to entertain the thought of buying guitars without seeing the instruments at thousands miles apart. It has drastically changed. I came across Doolin guitars in the internet a few years back. I vividly remembered the double cut-away design and the smart neck adjustment feature offered by him. The world has gotten smaller…

Mike's impressionable double cut-away design

Mike… at a gig

In July 2010, I attended the Guild of America Luthiers Convention in Tacoma, Seattle, USA. Mike Doolin participated in the same convention and we met there. He is big guy as compared to my Asian stature, very approachable and friendly. Through our brief acquaintances, I have discovered from other Luthiers about Mike’s ingenuity in designing his guitars and making guitars as well. He is described as a luthier who possesses the mind of an engineer and the touch of an artist. After I have met Mike and also sampled his wonder guitars, he is indeed what most people have said he is.

We all know that acoustic guitars are susceptible to neck angle distortions. Mike has designed his guitars to allow adjustments to the neck angle with just a turn of a screw at the easily accessed neck heel. That is the engineering facet of Mike. Guitars need to be aesthetically pleasing as well, as such Mike carefully position the adjustment screw and also have selected the matching hardware to accentuate the guitar. Below is a picture of the adjustable neck feature.

Mike's adjustable neck design
Taken from:

To learn more about Mike? Click Doolin Guitars

My experiences in GAL 2010 are illustrated through the three parts blog posting. Here’re the links,

My visit to Seattle was restricted to the GAL convention. Jeffrey Yong ( has invited me on a roadtrip in visiting Luthiers in Portland before the convention. We visited a few luthiers and Mike was one of them. He generously showed us his workshop, talked about his ideas and innovation. Nothing beats seeing and hearing from the maker, it was indeed tremendously rewarding.

Acoustic Bass
 Here is the interview I had with Mike.

1. Why make guitars?

I came to lutherie from being a professional guitarist. Over the years, I did my own repairs and modifications to my guitars, and eventually started doing that for other people too. I think I built my first guitar (a solid body electric) in 1982. In part it was just to save money, in part to get something that wasn't available at the time.

The inspiration to build acoustic guitars came when I first heard Michael Hedges. Up until that time, I thought all you could do on an acoustic was play 3-chord folk tunes in first position, but Hedges changed all that. But I was accustomed to electric guitars with deep cutaways, while even cutaway acoustic guitars weren't cut away as far, so I couldn't play most of my material on them. That's why I designed and built my first double-cutaway acoustic. Then I realized that other people might like a double-cutaway acoustic guitar too, so I launched Doolin Guitars.

2. Can you make other stuff too?

I only build guitars, bass guitars and harp guitars, I basically only build the instruments I actually play. I have very little background in woodworking (I got D's in high school shop class!) so I've never built furniture or done other kinds of woodworking. I do know a bit about tube guitar amps and guitar pickups and preamps, so I've built some of those things.

3. Where did you train?

I'm self taught in lutherie. I never apprenticed with anyone or went to school for it. I did have the great advantage of my long friendship with Jeff Elliott, so I learned a lot from him in an informal way (mostly over beers). But the information is readily available, from sources like the Guild of American Luthiers, ASIA, forums like the OLF, and Cumpiano and Natelson's book "Guitarmaking: Tradition and Technology".

4. What influences you?

In terms of functionality, my designs are a direct result of my being a player. All the little innovations I've come up with have been to make the guitar more playable. So that's my overall motivation.

In terms of aesthetics, I guess I've been looking at guitars all my life and have developed a sense of what looks good to me. I'm also mostly untrained in graphic arts, so my visual design elements come from my sitting at a drafting table drawing and redrawing a line over and over until it looks right to me. So I guess I'm influenced by everything I've seen and those designs which most appeal to me. Steve Klien and Ken Parker come immediately to mind as two of my favorite instrument designers.

5. How long has it been?

I rewired and otherwise modified my first electric guitar (a Fender Strat) when I was in high school, about 1974. I built my first electric in 1982, my first acoustic in 1992, and launched Doolin Guitars in 1995.

6. Was there a time(s) when you wish to stop?

I have actually retired from professional lutherie as of this year. I'm still building a few guitars for myself and my wife, but I'm mostly focusing on being a full time musician again.

A Doolin Harp Guitar
About you guitars

1. Are your guitars works of an artist, scientist or craftsman?

Lutherie is a craft, with some artistic and scientific/engineering elements, but a craft nonetheless. When I design the arc of the harp arm of a harp guitar, or select the colors of the woods to go into a particular instrument, or lay out segments of spalted maple for a rosette, those are probably artistic activities. When I calculate the string gauges for a particular tuning or scale length, or design an FET preamp for a pickup system, those are engineering. But actually building the guitar, shaping and bending the wood, gluing things together, surfacing and finishing and setting up, those are all craft. So I guess the answer is, all three!

2. What is unique about your guitars (work)?

The most obvious thing is the double cutaway (I've never built an acoustic guitar that wasn't a double cutaway). The Adjustable Neck Angle System and the pinless bridge are also important features. My spiral rosette, headstock crest, and some of my body shapes are the artistic part.

3. What guides you during the making process?

I have a book of proceedures in which I've written the steps to making all the components of the guitar. Even after all these years, I still refer to it every time. I also write up an order form with all the particulars of the instrument I'm building (woods, string spacing, inlays and other decoration, electronics, ect) which I refer to constantly to make sure I'm building exactly what the customer has requested. Beyond that, I try to stay in touch with my aesthetic sense at all times, taking in as much information as possible as I go - tapping, flexing, feeling, and listening to the wood, being as sensually involved as possible in the build process.

Justin King Design
4. The most difficult part(s) is…??

It's all difficult to do really well, and everything depends on everything else. For that reason I suppose finishing is the hardest, because the finish will reveal any little defect in the underlying construction, and because the surface of the finish itself must be so close to perfect to look acceptable.

5. Is there a Doolin voice in your guitars?

I think every luthier has a voice, and I don't think we have much control over that. I've talked about this with several luthier friends, and it's one of the glorious mysteries of the craft. We all have our pet theories about what makes a good guitar and of course we do our best to implement them, but even if I were to try to build a Jeff Elliott guitar down to the thousandth of an inch, I think it would still come out sounding more like a Doolin. And that's a good thing! If it were that easy to copy someone else, everybody's guitars would probably sound pretty much the same.

All pictures are used with kind permission from Mike Doolin.

-End of Interview-

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