Within minutes of talking to Chicago guitar builder and DK Custom Guitars founder Dan Koentopp, it becomes readily apparent what lights him up: this guy is all about getting it right. His knowledge of stringed instrument-making is vast and his conversation flows effortlessly from the Amati violins of Renaissance Italy, to modern tool-making, to the need to understand customer playing styles, to the built-in acoustic limitations of factory made guitars. As with the masters he so admires, Koentopp's instruments artfully incorporate a respect for traditional building techniques, a bent toward purposeful innovation, striking visual beauty and a warm, organic tonality.
Although just 27, Koentopp has acquired a broad range of experiences that directly affect his building style and instincts. He built his first guitar as a teenager in the basement with his father. "I was attracted to the guitar as THE instrument at an early age," Koentopp recalls. But he quickly moved on to the playing and performance side of music, eventually studying Classical Guitar Performance under Fredric Hand at The State University of New York at Purchase. "Studying classical guitar gave me an ear for hearing different things that are lacking in the modern age of guitars," Koentopp says. The idea of instrument building never vanished. "Even as I was learning and studying that experience of building a guitar always stayed with me," Koentopp reflects. After relocating to Chicago, Koentopp enrolled in Columbia College's Design School which he credits with giving him the time and incentive to imagine a guitar line of his own.
There are any number of things that set DK Custom Guitars apart from the herd, but certainly Koentopp's understanding of classically built stringed instruments is foremost among them. You can see it in the overall portions and look of his instruments, as well as in his eye for the details. For example, he chooses to use a French polished shellac finish on a number of his guitars as opposed to the heavier lacquer finish favored by most modern guitar builders. This plays a big part in creating the warm, immediate tones his guitars radiate. "I really like watching the 'wow-ness' in a player's face when they pick up and play one of my guitars," Koentopp says. "My guitars are very responsive across all the strings. They're alive." Chicago Jazz guitarist veteran, Andy Brown, agrees. "Dan's attention to detail is really amazing, and his guitars have such a consistently warm sound all over the neck. They are really light but very stable," Brown explains. "Each note really rings clear." Brown is currently awaiting delivery of the DK acoustic archtop he commissioned this fall.
Koentopp's ability to incorporate so many ideas and techniques associated with traditional violin building comes right from the many hours he spent working under Chicago master violin-builder, Michael Darnton, whom he met after graduating from design school. "Michael is a master of the craft and a wealth of knowledge. In his workshop there are no power tools, everything is done by hand," Koentopp recalls. "I said to him: 'I want to do what you do.'" Working with a Master Builder gave Koentopp an unique insight into how and, more importantly, why instruments are built the way they are. "Really 15th and 16th century violins are just perfectly made. There is a purpose to everything that goes into them," Koentopp says. "I spent a year learning tool-making. And then learning how to get my hands to copy what my eyes were seeing. That's a huge part of the learning curvereally using your eyes to see and then using the tool to get you going in the right direction," Koentopp remembers.
After three years with Darnton, Koentopp was ready to commit to building his own guitars full-time. He'd already been building in the basement of his mother's house in the off hours. So Koentopp found space for his own workshop and DK Custom Guitars was founded. He set to creating his own line of guitars using the classic building techniques he had honed with violins, cellos and violas. "I wanted to take what I had learned and immediately transpose it to guitars," Koentopp says. " Like I'm using a single-piece bridge on an archtop which I modeled on a Baroque violin tailpiece. The f-holes I create [for one model] come right from an Amati cello. If I hadn't worked with a violin maker, I'd be building old Gibsons or D'Angelicos today. I'd be copying those designs.