Meet the Dealer: Armin Kelly

The following interview 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.

I see your ads for Guitars International everywhere.
Can you tell me how you got started dealing in classical guitars?

I made a very serious mistake! (laughs) For fifteen years, I studied classical guitar very intensively with several very musical teachers. But at some point I realized I had to decide whether this was what I wanted to continue doing the rest of my life or not. I felt that I'd hit my peak as a player, and I wanted to explore other things. So I stopped playing - not an easy thing to do - and eventually sold my guitars. Playing classical guitar had been an all consuming endeavor for me, and I couldn't do it part time and remain happy. Instead, I returned to school and studied English literature and literary criticism at Columbia University and teacher methodology at Harvard University. Later I taught English for several years both at university and high school levels.

However, after a number of years I started thinking it would be nice to have a fine instrument around, a little musical magic to connect the present with the past. I orderd one guitar and that was my downfall. One thing led to another and eventually my love of music and the classical guitar won out, leading me down yet another path to become a dealer in fine individually handcrafted classical guitars.

Early on I had an interesting experience, a quite refreshing and exciting one actually. I had contacted a number of makers with outstanding reputations and enjoyed very much speaking with them and learning about their work. What I discovered was that every maker had a theory about how the best sound is achieved, but much to my surprise their theories often didn't agree; however, all these makers were fascinating and each in his own way very convincing and indisputably accomplished.

The first fine classical guitar I ordered was from Manuel Velazquez, who taught me a very important lesson somewhat along these lines. At one point in my life, I had briefly owned a guitar by a young maker, and it had some very strange or nonstandard dimensions that I didn't really require for my playing, but the maker had so convinced me of the charmed attributes of these measurements in his presentation of his instrument, that I fell for it. That guitar and I quickly parted company, but somehow I remained naively wedded to the maker's theories. Strangely, despite my disappointment with his guitar, I was blindly convinced that I needed all these little oddities. So when I contacted the great Manuel Velazquez and tried to order a guitar from him, I am embarrassed to say, I forced all these nonstandard measurements on the poor man, like a very slightly shorter string length and various other things. The Maestro took it all like a trooper. He said, ``Yes, of course Mr. Kelly, I can make you a guitar just like this.' There was a whole lengthy laundry list of my so-called special needs. Over the next several years, I would give Manuel a call about every six months to see how we were progressing. Oddly, however, it seemed we weren't progressing at all. He was always very cordial, made me feel like I was the most important person in the world, but ``no' he hadn't started the guitar. ``Yes,' he was definitely thinking a great deal about starting it, he always said, but ``no' he hadn't quite yet started it. So still, I had no guitar.

Whenever I called Manuel he was very warm, very respectful, but I noticed after a while that during each call he took the opportunity to talk about one of my special requests. (laughter) ``Now, Mr. Kelly,' he would say, ``I could do this for you, but you know I have much more experience building my standard guitar, and maybe you might want to consider not doing this one little thing.' Of course, I would end up deferring to the Maestro on that one little point. He'd be happy and I'd be happy, and I'd hang up the phone and wait another six months and give him another call. In the course of that next conversation another little point would inevitably be brought up from my laundry list of special requests, and eventually we would both agree that it would be better for him and definitely better for me if I would drop that little point too. Well, after about three to four years of this the Maestro finally informed me he'd started my guitar. By that time, of course, we had eliminated all of my little points, and he made me his guitar, an absolutely fabulous instrument, which I own to this day. But I did have to wait close to another year before it was completed.

I like how your obvious love of guitars led you, somewhat passively, toward a whole new profession. About how many guitars at any given time do you have for sale these days?
Inventory can be anywhere from about sixty to seventy-five guitars. The pattern established early on has persisted; that is, I have standing orders with the many makers I represent. We have a stable group of thirty-plus guitar makers from around the world that we represent year in and year out, and we have standing orders for a certain number of guitars every year that we're committed to with each one of these makers.
When you say ``we' is this an editorial ``we'?

It's both an editorial ``we' and my perception that we, the guitar makers and I and everyone else who has anything to do with this business, our website people, our advertising people, our graphics designers, our professional player and teacher consultants, customers and friends, are all working together.
It sounds like you represent guitar makers in the same sense that an agent represents musicians. Are you thinking of yourself as somebody who is promoting makers rather than selling guitars?
Yes. I mean obviously I have to sell the guitars to stay in business, but it's a very personal business. For better or for worse this business reflects my taste in classical guitars, albeit a broad-based taste. But you know, of the many makers 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 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 their unique art before the public.
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 people 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 guitars as a personal instrument for myself when it arrives. Each of my makers 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 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 better, more magnificent musical work of art than the last.
I think that this is the crux of the matter. Many makers don't want to have anything to do with dealers. They'd rather just deal directly with the client and cut out the middleman. But it sounds to me like you are offering somebody you represent something much bigger, namely a larger exposure. And you're also nurturing the builder by providing valuable feedback.
Yes. Yesterday I was talking with a maker from England I represent, who had just sent over a lovely guitar to us. I asked him about various places around the world where he sends his guitars, and he mentioned a dealership in Asia. He said he sends the guitars off and he never even gets a confirmation that they have been received, let alone any feedback about the quality of the instrument. It was amazing for me to hear this. He said, ``You know, the only time I would hear would be if there was some problem, like a shipping delay, or the guitars were damaged in transit.'

The first thing I do when a guitar comes in, after tuning it up, playing it, and giving it a little time to settle in, is to call the maker and give an initial response to the instrument. Typically I make two or three phone calls to the maker to discuss the instrument including comparing it to the last instrument which we received from the maker. It's the least I can do and I feel compelled to do it, because it's an exciting moment when those instruments arrive. And yes, what I offer the makers, or I hope to offer the makers, is a window onto the world, certainly, and with our website, print ads, mailers, and the word-of-mouth support of our many wonderful customers, we really get their names and their philosophies of building around so that many more people become aware of their instruments than probably would if they were just promoting themselves.
Right. But don't builders take a terrible hit financially when they sell through a dealer?
No, I don't see it that way. And obviously the makers who stay with us don't either. We have various relationships with builders. It's builder by builder, what our agreement is. Obviously we have to make money to stay in business, and we can't sell the guitars if the builder is selling them at one price and we're selling them at a higher price, and the same guitars are readily available from the builder. It's just not going to work. If the builder has a longer waiting list and the guitars are unavailable except through the dealer in the short term, that's something else again. But there has to be a mutual relationship where in return for the dealer promoting the maker and committing to buy a certain number of guitars per year, the maker will protect the dealer, and not just try and use the dealer as a showroom then steal customers from the dealer. Otherwise, the dealer's not going to be able to sell his allotment of the maker's guitars and clearly not going to be a repeat customer.
I can tell this is a sensitive area, and I think this is where some kind of trust has to be established between the dealer and the maker.
Yes. The whole relationship is based on trust. I'm very pleased and proud of the people that we represent. Of course, some people will take advantage, and we find that we can't represent those people. But if they're willing to make that kind of commitment to us, we're willing to make a reciprocal commitment to them, and hopefully they find the services we provide are of great benefit. I had a maker from Europe just the other day telling me how prestigious it was and what it did for him to have his guitars advertised on our website. You know, he could always point his customers to our prices and justify his prices. I often find that the older, more experienced makers seem to understand the value of a dealer much more readily than a new maker coming into the market.
Which is ironic since they're the ones who need you the most.
Yes, it is. One experienced European maker said to me years ago, ``We just want to make guitars. You're our showroom to the world.' But I think that only through experience can some of these younger guys really appreciate that. We all have to be patient. And too, a dealer connection is not necessarily going to be the right thing for every maker - no matter what the dealer's philosophy is. But in the end it's like our guitars, which are individually handcrafted; the relationships we have with our makers have to be individually crafted. Our business philosophy is not a win/lose business model. Simply stated, 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.
What are you looking for when you're talking to a 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?
As I mentioned earlier, 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, noncustomers 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. (lauighs)
What range of prices do you offer in the instruments you carry?
For the most part, from about $2,000 to a little over $30,000 with most falling between $2,000 and $12,000. The exception on the low end is a student guitar, a truly individually handcrafted student guitar for about $725 which is very special in that it's all solid wood and has a very fine sound to it, a wonderful guitar at that price and a real alternative to the many factory production guitars you usually find in this price range. On the high end, we might very occasionally have a particularly rare, fine vintage guitar at a higher price.
Since you've been in the business about twelve 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 unresonant 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. 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. Finally, there is one other factor: a number of artists just don't want to work that hard to produce their sound. To protect their hands from injury and to facilitate the ease with which they execute fast passages, they want to couple a very low string height with low- or medium-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 a price some artists are willing to pay. Whatever the reasons, however, it is undeniable that there is a general desire for more powerful, quicker-responding 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 foreward 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 very interesting innovative contemporay guitar draws much inspiration not from the dominant Hauser/Torres tradition but from the generally less understood, less appreciated 19th century Viennese guitar making tradition.

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 tonewoods, be it in the back and sides or mixing tonewoods in the top certainly also has possibilities. One very successful example is a three-piece top with two panels of cedar and one of spruce. The result is neither a spruce nor cedar sound, although maybe a little closer to spruce, but it has its own very beautiful, warm, flexible character.

I know other 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 lovely sound. Mixing woods appeals to me not only for the possible new and wonderful flavors that may be imparted, but for the conservation of extremely rare woods like Brazilian rosewood and African blackwood.

One further thought on conservation of materials: why not take older guitars of no historical, collectible, or musical value and retop them? Or, since it is not that unusual to see factory production guitars from the 1970s and even '80s with quite beautiful rosewood backs and sides, why not build a completely new guitar out of them? You don't have to start from a fresh set of Brazilian necessarily.

In any case, I feel very strongly 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 polished 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 handcrafted 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 live performances 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 blissful moments of musical magic - when time stops, egos dissolve, and we become a community of one - that we are often reminded most of our shared humanity.
Bravo! I wish I'd said that! Is there anything else you'd like to add?
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.