An Interview with Armin Kelly, Founder of Guitars International

The following interview with Armin Kelly first appeared in American Lutherie magazine no.80/winter 2004, which is published by the Guild of American Luthiers. Guitars International wishes to thank Cyndy Burton and the Editors of American Lutherie for allowing us to reprint its contents in a slightly abridged and amended form. (Reproduction of this article in any form - in whole or in part - without the expressed written consent of the Guild of American Luthiers is prohibited).
I see your ads for Guitars International everywhere. It looks like you represent classical guitar makers in the same sense that an agent represents musicians. Are you thinking of yourself as somebody who is promoting classical guitar builders rather than selling guitars?

Yes. I mean obviously we have to sell the guitars to stay in business, but it's a very personal business. We have been in business now for over twenty-four years. And still, this business reflects my taste in fine classical guitars, albeit a broad-based taste. But you know, of the many classical guitar builders we represent, I would say almost a majority at one time were not known at all in the United States. They may or may not have been well known in Europe. Many were younger classical guitar makers whom I took on here in the U.S. who were not known at all, who are now, I am proud to say, quite well known and respected. It's a very important part of my work, bringing their names and the beauty of their unique musical art before the public. Perhaps most simply then one might best characterize me to be a seeker, admirer, and promoter of unique, moving, musical sounds.

How have you done that?

First of all, I had to find them. I travel a great deal, and I also have a number of friends with very refined sensibilities who concertize both here in the U.S. and in Europe. So all the time I'm asking questions and looking at people's work. Often I see classical guitar builders whose work is promising but not yet at the level that we deal with here. But I will see them maybe two, three, four years in succession at various festivals and notice how their instruments are improving. They may ask me for a critique or pointers along the way, and with some of them, there comes a point where they improve so much that it is a great honor to invite them to join us.

Going back to this being a very personal business, I still look at each one of these classical guitars as a personal instrument for myself when it arrives. Each of my classical guitar builders has heard this refrain more than they care to recount: ``it might be July, but when your guitar comes in, it better feel like Christmas." So there's a very strong personal element in each guitar. I spend a lot of time talking to each classical guitar maker about the next instrument that they're making for us. I carry back a lot of information to the maker from customers on player response and/or teacher response. The hope, of course, is always that the next instrument will be an even more refined, more magnificent musical work of art than the last.

What are you looking for when you're talking to a classical guitar builder or a customer? That is, can you verbalize what sort of instrument you're looking for from a maker or suggesting to a customer?

That's one of the most difficult aspects of the dealer/luthier and the dealer/customer relationships - finding a meaningful workable vocabulary that is shared and understood. And it's one of my greatest challenges and has been since I began this business. I spend a great deal of time talking to customers on the phone (which I prefer and find most productive) and by e-mail, trying to find what that customer is looking for, suggesting what might work for that particular customer. And once they describe their playing style, likes, and dislikes to me, although I much prefer to see them play, I try to define what might work particularly well for that person. When I say that the guitars here reflect my taste, I need to add that my taste is not so narrow so as to exclude a great many people. It might be more accurate to say that what I am looking for in instruments are the finest examples of particular types of guitars that inspire me. With this said, I would be the first to admit that there are certain types of guitars being produced these days that I just don't like. So these types of guitars we don't offer. We could, and from a purely dollars and cents perspective maybe should, but we don't. We are not in business just to ``move product.'

The question that I get quite often from customers, and which I find totally impossible to answer is, ``Well, let's cut to the chase. Which is your best guitar?" And God bless my customers, they are usually very patient in my response, because I cannot honestly respond to that question in the way that it certainly implies. I have to explain to them that we do not represent makers whose instruments we're not excited about. And we pride ourselves in representing makers whose ability and talent are at the very top of the group of makers with their experience in their particular price range. And with that said, there is a whole range of different guitars by different makers of very high quality that we represent. It's a question then of discovering which guitars will work best for that particular customer; and so there's no quick fix involved. If they come to visit and audition guitars here, of course they can do a great deal of elimination and find the instrument that's exactly right for them with little help from me. If it's an elimination that has to take place at arm's length with phone calls and e-mails and so forth, that can be done too, and we've gotten to be very good at that.

The majority of our customers do not come here and play guitars. So the way the instruments are described verbally becomes extremely important. I must define my terms that I'm using to describe guitars, but I also have to stop customers and ask them to define their terms, the adjectives they're using, to make sure that we're on the same page, and often times we're not. One adjective may mean one thing to one person and another thing to someone else. For example, even after all these years, I still have found no consensus as to what the word ``boxy" means. So there's actually a lot of talk to just define one's terms. The general response of people we deal with is one of great gratitude, that they find that the process has been a fun and rewarding learning experience for them. It's certainly a learning one for us. We get to know our customers. I enjoy that. As I've said, it's a very personal business. And it should be, after all, they're buying a beautiful work of art that itself is used to produce art. Can you imagine a row of disengaged, disingenuous telemarketers sitting in an office somewhere staring into computer screens involved in this endeavor? Sadly, I can, but sincerity of purpose is going to be lost. What could be the point of such an operation other than the fiscal bottom line? So yes, the manner and terms used to describe these works of art, the sensitivity, experience and love of the art which we bring to our discussions with our customers are extremely important.

Do you deal mostly in new guitars or do you have used guitars as well?

We represent around thirty-plus makers and those obviously are all new guitars that are coming in. Every now and then we have a used guitar. Typically it's a guitar that we previously sold to a customer and then the customer comes back after a few years and wants a different quality, maybe changing from cedar to spruce or spruce to cedar, or perhaps is looking for a more expensive guitar. As long as the guitar has been well taken care of and still sounds great, we can usually offer our customer a very good return in trading up for another guitar. We take almost no guitars in from outside sources, that is, non-customers who have a guitar to sell or a guitar to consign. We do not see ourselves in the business of just selling guitars to sell guitars. We have to be excited about each guitar as a truly viable musical instrument, and often have turned down used guitars offered to us on consignment made by well-known makers because we were not inspired by that maker's musical aesthetic or because, though it may have been a fine guitar at one time, it is now merely a tired old guitar. We do some work with vintage guitars, not a great deal, but again we're not interested in selling guitars just because they contain a famous label from the past. With this said, some of our colleagues provide an important service, offering excellent examples of vintage instruments. But for me, as I once told a group of makers at a lutherie convention, I find it more fun working with living makers than with dead ones. Needless to say, there was no dissent from that particular audience. (laughs)

What range of prices do you offer in the instruments you carry?

For the most part, from about $2,000 to a over $50,000 with most falling between $2,000 and $15,000. The exception on the low end is a student guitar, a truly handcrafted student guitar for about $1650.00 which is very special in that it's all solid wood and has an impressive dynamic range, excellent balance and a lovely, musically flexible quality of sound, a wonderful guitar at that price and a real alternative to the many factory production guitars you usually find in this price range.

Since you've been in the business about twenty-four years and experienced a lot of instruments, where do you see classical guitar design headed and how do you feel about it?

These days we often hear about the dichotomy between quality of sound and quantity of sound, or ``loudness,' as it is often expressed, versus quality of sound. The adjective ``loud' is imprecise, for what is usually being referred to here is actually two different things: (1) acoustic feedback to the player and (2) projection to the player's audience. Some guitars have both attributes in spades, most guitars more of one than the other, and in the worst case, some have next to none of either attribute. The quest for greater projection is driven mostly by today's concert players and aspiring concert players, many of whom will tell you they feel a need for more powerful instruments, both to project their music in larger or un-resonant concert halls and to be heard in ensemble and concerto situations. And yet many of those extremely powerful so-called better-projecting instruments have suffered in their sound quality. As a boy, the first time I heard a classical guitar performed upon live, I broke out in goose bumps. There was something so poignant, so fundamentally beautiful about this instrument's plucked sound with its perfect decrescendo. These days when I hear one of the extremely powerful and aggressive guitars that lack a quality, flexible sound, I can't imagine as a boy getting goose bumps over it. Hives, maybe, but not goose bumps. (laughs) As one very respected concert artist once commented to me regarding a particularly abrasive, aggressive guitar he had just encountered, ``it was a relief when it stopped! The world is full of many loud things, but that doesn't mean that they are all beautiful or capable of subtle expression; a jack hammer is loud for God's sake!"

I attend many solo classical guitar concerts around the country each year held in many different venues - some acoustically good, many indifferent, and a few outrageously bad - yet I can't remember when, if ever, I could not hear the solo guitar. (Guitar with other instruments, be it in chamber or orchestral settings, can of course be a different matter). So in the case of artists performing solo concerts, I really do think that there is a machismo, ``bigger is better" factor which, though unspoken, is also driving this general craving for more powerful guitars. Still, with this said there is one other factor, a very real and undeniably important factor in certain cases: a number of artists just don't want to work that hard to produce their sound. To protect their hands from injury due to strain or overuse and to facilitate the ease and artistic spontaneity with which they execute fast passages, they want to couple a very low string height with medium or low tension strings and produce a big sound with very little effort. If to achieve these traditionally contradictory ends quality and flexibility of sound must suffer, this is to a greater or lesser extent a trade off some artists are willing to make. Whatever the reasons, however, it is undeniable that there is a general desire for more powerful, quicker-responding, easier to play instruments; and I hope that with continued refinement of traditional designs plus innovations, the sound quality will ultimately not suffer. In fact I think some makers are already making very powerful instruments that have either new, promising qualities of sound or qualities of musical sound that are directly in line with the great masters of the past.

What sort of innovations are you referring to?

One promising example is what we've been calling double-top instruments. Nomex, an extremely light and strong honeycomb material made by DuPont, is sandwiched between very thin layers of traditional top woods. A number of makers are now experimenting with it. To date, although the pioneering work of a couple of makers has yielded some very impressive instruments, there are other makers following their lead who have had, at best, only mixed musical results. But this is to be expected in any area of instrumental innovation. In the long run, with a better understanding of its potential strengths and weaknesses, I think this technology can present some very exciting options for all makers. Many makers are trying out different bracing designs as well: lattice, radial, and so on. Some are altogether new and some are variations on more traditional patterns. And sometimes going forward first necessitates not only looking back but also reevaluating the current standing of certain received traditions. This has certainly been the case with one of our gifted makers whose lovely innovative contemporary guitar draws much inspiration not from the dominant Hauser/Torres tradition which most are familiar with today but from the generally less understood, less appreciated 19th century Viennese guitar making tradition of Stauffer, Schertzer and others. By the way, you would be amazed at how well some of these 19th century makers' wonderful, musically refined, instruments project: Yes, clearly as well as some of today's iconic, so called innovative, super powerful concert guitars. Hmmm....

A friend of mine with golden ears who is both a high-end audio dealer and classical guitarist tells me there is a great deal that can be done with amplifying a quality guitar sound which has not yet been fully realized. In this case, one might be able to take the sweetest, most flexible, soft-spoken instrument and provide enough discreet electronic support to fill the largest hall without compromising the instrument's core sound.

I also think mixing tone woods in a non-traditional manner has possibilities. I know makers who laminate different back woods or mix different back woods side by side. I recently purchased a gorgeous maple guitar with a three-piece back with an African blackwood center panel. I believe the blackwood lends a depth and warmth of color and added projection to this instrument without destroying the beautiful clarity I associate with an all maple guitar. It has a very interesting, very refined sound. Mixing woods appeals to me not only for the possible new and wonderful tonal flavors that may be imparted, but for the conservation of extremely rare woods.

In any case, I believe that whatever the approach (traditional design, innovative design, or something somewhere between) and whatever the materials (traditional, nontraditional, or various combinations of both) a great luthier will more often than not create an artifact most discriminating listeners will applaud as a sincere musical work of art, whereas a factory or even a small production operation using similar materials and a similar design will at best produce merely a shiny representation of a work of art. There is still a very real difference between the two, you know, thanks to the sincerity and sensitivity of individual artists dedicated to cultivating their signature sounds. We mustn't forget, an individually handmade classical guitar is in its highest form the rarest of the rare: a tangible work of art which in itself is an inspiration and conduit to forming intangible art - music. There lies the magic. As one great maker who eschews power tools for hand scrapers and elbow grease says about his highly personal approach, "The wood sings to me; I listen to its song and let the sound guide my hands."

It's hard to hear the wood when the router's running!
I know you're also involved with producing a guitar concert series in cooperation with the Cleveland Institute of Music. How does that fit in with your other activities?

As a profession, I see it as our obligation as guitar dealers to help support the live performance of classical guitar music in our communities. In Guitars International's case, it has been a great honor to work with the Cleveland Institute of Music and its wonderful Guitar Department in an effort to nurture local appreciation of the performers' art. Participation in the live performance of music, be it as performer or member of the audience, must be the greatest end towards which we all strive as music and guitar lovers. After all, it is ultimately the live performance at its finest, in my experience, that can produce the most rewarding contact between instrument maker, performer, dedicated amateur, collector, music lover, teacher, student, interested neighbor, and professional musical colleague. For it is in those live, heightened moments of musical magic - when time stops, egos dissolve, and we become truly a community of one - that we are often made aware most of our shared humanity.

I wish I'd said that!

Is there anything else you'd like to add?

As with all human gifts, lutherie talent is limited to no one country or region. Today, around the world, a small, dedicated, group of individual artists are creating at the highest level concert guitars of various types capable of producing exceptional beauty, character and flexibility of sound.

With this said, it is important to understand that great materials and great or innovative designs do not necessarily make great guitars. Great guitar makers make great guitars. And even then, in the final analysis every classical guitar embodies a set of compromises. There are no perfect guitars. Yet, clearly, a little like a life well lived, some guitars do embody a more pleasing, more complimentary set of compromises than others. In sum, one hears in the finest individually handcrafted classical guitars an overall musical aesthetic which is without doubt more refined, more alluring than the simple sum of their parts.

Our business philosophy is not a win/lose business model. Simply stated, we believe that everyone up and down the line: maker, dealer, customer, has to benefit in his or her way equally. There are no mere winners or mere losers. Everyone has to be rewarded equally according to his or her particular needs, or it's just not going to be a successful relationship for us, the maker, or the customer.

Finally, I've been accused of being an armchair luthier (laughs), and if that means I'm fascinated by the luthier's artistic vision and construction process, I plead guilty. I have also been accused by one of my dear friends of being a collector in dealer disguise, and I suspect there is some truth in this as well. But unlike the collectors I know, I have never quite figured out how to hold onto all the guitars that come through here. In sum, I guess, I do what I do the way I do it because it is fun and I believe that it is socially worthwhile; it makes me happy if I can help bring a little musical joy into people's lives. I greatly enjoy working with our luthiers, our customers, our player friends, and everyone else associated with this business. As more than one customer has told me over the years, ``you've created the greatest job in the world for yourself." From where I stand, I can't disagree.(Learn more about Guitars International)