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Built to Sound

Dan Koentopp: Chicago Manual of Style

By Published: January 19, 2010

"The classical stringed instrument represents to me the most pure acoustic form that we can experience," Koentopp continues. "When builders copy designs of early 20th century guitars like Gibson or Stromberg, their guitars end up over-built." While Koentopp says some factory-built guitars are decent instruments, he thinks the odds of getting one that really sparkles are not great. "It's really from guitar to guitar. They are made to withstand being shipped all over the world. Some are great and some aren't. The odds are like 1 out of 20 that you'll find one that really plays," he estimates.

To get his instruments to breath and sound like his Platonic ideal of what a guitar is meant to sound like, Koentopp pays close attention to the lessons each guitar teaches him. Meaning, although Koentopp has distinct guitar models, in reality each guitar is a customized job that blends the buyer's input/needs, what the materials allow for, and the knowledge Koentopp acquired from the last guitar he built. "What's cool about Dan is that he has this amazing hold on the tradition but is not afraid to put his own stamp on the guitars, to put in his own ideas," Andy Brown commented. "I think acoustic instruments are magical," Koentopp says. "They should really be breathing. When it's right, it's like the walls are vibrating when it's played." Critiquing his Amati model, Koentopp says: "This guitar represents the finest incarnation of my traditional methods. It's as light as possible while still maintaining the body's stability. A violin rib is 1 mm thick, a cello's is 1.5 mm—very thin and light. I'm looking for ways to have the least amount of possible mass like that."

And the eye toward detail continues in the instrument set up. "In a violin, the strings' after-length is very important to the instrument's tone. It adds a frequency to the sound, a fuller harmonic," he says, adding, "It's traditionally one-sixth the total string length, which is how I did mine." Thomas Cray, a DK Custom Guitar enthusiast and owner of guitar '#7,' sees the pay off in that kind of attention. "I go to meet with him and we spend hours playing, listening and talking," Cray remembers. "I picked up the guitar that I had not come in to look at and two strums later, I couldn't get the guitar out of my head," he recalls. "It's the first oval hole archtop Dan built. It's half the weight of a [Gibson] ES-175. There's a real clarity to the mids and highs, but the oval sound hole gives it a warmer lower-end too. The bracing is thin. It's a beautifully resonating instrument. You can really hear the sustain," Cray says.

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