This is a story about how an accomplished guitarist/producer finally satisfied his personal quest for his “dream” instrument.
JGT: The instrument the author had been playing and hearing in his head for decades. To be fair, there are many amazing luthiers who build custom guitars. You may have some searching to find the instrument that ‘talks’ to you. We hope you are inspired by this story and if you have a ‘dream’ guitar, keep up the search!
First a bit of backstory. I am a working musician, guitar being my primary instrument these days, albeit I started as a bassist. I play on average 150 gigs per year covering genres from jazz to blues, rock, and reggae. My gigs can be solo jazz hits or up to octets, playing my own compositions and standards. I am 60 years of age and have been playing public venues and private functions since the age of 8, from Carnegie Hall and Broadway to jazz clubs and festivals around the world. I am also an awarded audio engineer and producer with about 150+ CD projects and dozens of tv/radio commercials in the can.
It’s been a pretty cool ride so far…
Through the years, I’ve bought, sold, traded and missed out on so many instruments that I really can’t put a number on that. Right now, as I sit writing this, I can count 16 guitar cases in my studio. As a result of my ‘dual career’ life, my instruments work for a living. I am not a collector. If something doesn’t inspire me, perform with me, record or help compose, it goes. NOTHING is under the bed as an investment.
That should be enough for purposes of ‘cred’.
Let me focus, now. I own a few guitars considered to be ‘jazz’ guitars, albeit any instrument works for jazz; I assume that you would agree. It’s in the hands. On solo gigs, when playing standards or my own ‘jazz’ pieces, I tend to gravitate toward my Gibson L5CT, built for me as a custom order about 15 years back. It is the finest ‘big box’ I’ve had (until now), having gone through a few L5’s, ES-175’s, etc. I also play Sadowsky guitars a lot; wonderful instruments…and certainly lots of solid body guitars. But to be clear, I always pined for a fully hand-made archtop. Something made specifically for me. Something that checks all the boxes on my personal archtop ‘hit list’, if you will. And in my decades of playing hundreds, I’ve never found that precise fit (until now).
Good golly, I have played everything from builders like D’Angelico, D’Aquisto, Ken Parker, Kim Walker, Ribbecke, Trenier, Manzer, Mirabella, Monteleone, Comins, Unger, Benedetto…and countless others. And they all are, pretty generally, great instruments made with a lot of love, respect to tradition, care, at times innovation and craftsmanship. Now and then I have come close to finding that ‘Holy Grail’ archtop (I refer to a couple of insane D’Aquisto’s that Rudy Pensa dangled before my eyes and ears, Rudy the tease…), but most of those times, the prices have been beyond my reach as a player. Those boxes go to collectors or the few famous cats that can justify such an expense. But how many players take a $75k+ guitar out on a local trio hit or travel with it to a festival abroad?
I have found that there’s a lot of ‘sameness’ out there with archtops. Unless you are really breaking the mold, like Ken P’s guitars (phenomenal guitars), so much of what I’ve tried tends to have a certain, now popular sound and…character. Yes, neck profiles, finishes, pup configurations and bout sizes range. So much of this is personal taste, a given. But to me, so much of what I try seems…the same, or close to the same. Like if you erased the name or logo on the headstock, you might not even know who built it. So many have that aggressive, strident voice acoustically, string choice aside. To my ears and in order to chase the sound in my head and heart, they are far too…loud, trebly, forward sounding and at times, unwieldy as a result of the sheer size of them. So many guitars and perhaps players seem to love this approach to building and play the bop thing in that bag…with that sound. And that is cool. And those players are great. And I adore that music, let’s be clear…I play out of that bag, too. But sameness..I dislike sameness. Who needs another ‘google’?
So I’d go back to the L5CT a lot; it can sound mellow and dark when plugged in (some pickups from Ron Ellis help!) and my choice of amplifiers (thanks to Henriksen) helps as well. But there’s still that sense of sameness with the Gibby, albeit I get closer to what I want to hear and feel. Still, I seem always to look for THAT instrument that is my perfect partner for so much music. And a last thing…archtops, in my (not so humble) opinion, should not be considered only ‘jazz’ guitars. A fine archtop, with or without pickup, should be able to play anything and just be…a great guitar.
About 8 years ago, I happened across a young builder named Danny Koentopp, thanks to social media. The guy intrigued me. He was in his mid/late 20’s, working out of a violin restoration shop in Chicago, just getting into the luthier world. He was already building, but I sensed that he was…searching. So we began a dialogue. He struck me as a sincere soul, a big-hearted fellow with a great passion for life, for music, friends and family…just an all ‘round good guy. As we grew more familiar with each other’s backgrounds, humor, likes and dislikes, a trust and a friendship was forged. We’d chat often and not usually about guitars! Our fathers for example, who we both miss so much, and their impact on our lives… we’d chat about travel, food, fine ale. We just became friends.
On a few visits to NAMM in Anaheim, I became familiar with Danny’s guitars. His magnificent Amati model, his Blue Line, his Chicagoan as well. I wanted to be in this guys corner. I wanted to help get the word out on him and I knew that he was developing his own approach to building; he was experimenting with so much and was a lightning rod for input and information. What he was already building was pretty exceptional. Easy to play instruments with great sound, fine craftsmanship, gorgeous finishes…but they weren’t what I was after back then. That did not stop me from telling folks about him and his instruments! I was not thinking of buying or ordering, but I was digging his guitars and his personality. Friends would ask me if I’d played anything great lately; Danny’s name always came up. In the space of a few years, I steered a number of players to Danny that bought his guitars – and they were always happy with the results, the process and the new-found friendship. To do this for me was easy; I was introducing friends to friends. My mom always said: “..show me your friends and I’ll tell you what you are…”. I had zero reluctance connecting Danny with my network of friends and musicians.
Our friendship and trust grew. We would speak endlessly (apologies to Danny’s wife, Anjuli!) about guitars, about the connection with the player, about the details of construction, dimensions, how the ‘system’ of a guitar worked…and all the time the conversation seemed to embrace philosophy…life, art, creativity and integrity…a sense of being responsible to the player and one’s self…and to the world. And what we both knew instinctively was that we were BOTH learning from this friendship, these conversations. My understanding of the luthier’s craft and art was deepening and I like to think that Danny was also evolving.
It became apparent when, about four years ago, Danny called to tell me he was considering building me a guitar. I told him that I wasn’t in a position to order one from him…and he said that we’d figure that out down the road and that the process to build THAT guitar for me would be such a challenge and so much fun that he loved the idea. Thus began a four-year collaboration that resulted in the creation of a guitar that is THAT guitar.
We discussed everything that I was after…dimensions, what woods to use and why, color and how to apply it, neck profile, pickups and mounting, feel, soul, action, neck set, bridge and fingerboard materials. Frankly, we discussed and worked out every element of this instrument together, always with clear, shared goals in sound and aesthetic. Scale, materials, weight, thicknesses…the list is so long because there is not one single element of the instrument, down to the design of the volume and tone knobs that we did not discuss, debate, differ on, agree to and pursue. EVERY SINGLE THING. We even aimed the guitar at the strings I would inevitably use. This depth of collaboration was something I’d not understood possible with a builder.
So what exactly did I want?
I wanted an agile, fast playing, dynamic instrument that would not be strident and aggressive but would also not lack ‘high-end’, that would be able to play anything that I put into it. A visually stunning instrument that would not be…too shiny. That would convey: depth of character…vibe…hidden power…magic…inspiration. And I was praying that Danny’s build would just be ‘in the ballpark’ and that I would be able to bring the instrument closer to ’me’ through fine adjustment and playing. I had no expectation that I’d find the Grail here…or Excaliber, if you will. But I did not want a ‘broad-sword’, I wanted a…sabre. And I was just hoping for something that was ‘close’.
The build began with great excitement. He chose woods based upon our decisions and found wood that was fantastic – and gorgeous. As time went on, Danny was assembling the materials and going deep on his approach and then – he started sending me photos of progress…and after three years, it was getting close. And things were getting at times stressful! Our decisions had to be carefully considered; we ruminated…and pulled triggers, with deep breaths.
As the guitar was nearing completion, Danny didn’t like the neck he’d shaped. So he made another one. I played them both; he was right to change. He asked his mom, an artist herself, to work with him to create that ‘red’ we wanted. Somewhere between Vermont barn-red (I live in one, in Vermont!), old brick and deep organic sensibility; a red that spoke of depth of character and not of ‘flash’ – and it was so wonderful to receive photos of the two of them working and smiling, side by side in Danny’s shop, working on this together. To see that…to know that this guy was so engaged in this build that he would work with his mom on it…I mean, wow…think on that for a minute. The love is in the guitar.
Danny knew that a big thing between my own father and me was a sense of adventure and fun. My dad turned me on to the Buck Rogers comics when I was a little kid. Those art-deco rocket ships, the sense of exploration into the unknown…science fiction…imagination, dreaming, invention…courage and again, integrity. So Danny designed a few appointments to keep that bond inside the guitar; like a truss-rod cover in the shape of Buck’s own space ship. And we collaborated on it’s shape and size with Danny making it beyond perfect, as usual…the window, the needle point, the little bits of expended rocket fuel jettisoned on to the first few frets…the atomic symbol surrounding it and making a second appearance on the tailpiece – a tailpiece that Danny designed specifically for this guitar. And on the back of the headstock where only I could see it while playing, another rocket ship – tiny, inlaid in three different woods.
The neck profile – somewhere between the famed ‘Jimmy neck’ and Danny’s read on the right shape. Every player that picks this up is immediately blown away by the feel of that neck. I just returned from the first Rocky Mountain Archtop Festival, where over 40 players tried the guitar (yep, I brought it out for Danny to show…it NEEDS to be shown, people need to see and hear it). These guys would then plug it into one of Pete Henriksen’s amplifiers…and you’d see the joy in their faces. The amplified sound matched the acoustic sound. Wonder of wonders. The pickup…disappeared. The videos are all over the interwebs now…the cats playing my guitar, our guitar, Danny’s and mine. And then the builders would see it and heft it…same reaction…welcoming another fine luthier into the fold. Made me proud to see…
And then we reached out to our good friend and genius pickup builder, Ron Ellis for the right pickup. We explained what we needed and the sound we were chasing. And I wanted a humbucker with that ‘bloom’, but not something that would be too apparent. No overbearing coloration. Ron got it…Ron always gets it. And he built a pickup that, when he installed it in California and his shop, with Danny present (I was in Vermont), they had to call me…they just threw it in, no adjustment…and there was the sound. Boom. On that phone call, even on an iphone speaker, the sound was there. The three of us on the call we just laughing our heads off…
And then I flew out to Cali to get it. Fedex or USPS? I think not…rather a Hoffee case and some begging to the airline staff…
Danny did not build a guitar whose every element and sound was ‘in the ballpark’. Not even close. His guitar, our guitar, was so dead-on right…so out of this world…such a grand slam…so perfectly conceived and created that the moment I picked it up, in fact the second I actually saw it, I was in tears. It’s all there. Nothing is missing…no sound, no vibe, no feel, no nothing…it is a perfect 10, a bullseye. It is inspirational (already composing on it) and it makes me play better; it’s brought me game up – and friends that are super familiar with my sound have commented on it. It makes me hear better, you dig. It is the conduit between everything musical in me and the world.
I could go on. These are just some of the details of the build and the guitar. I have not even touched on the countless discussions, hangouts, ales, laughs and stories that go with the years behind this guitar – that Danny and I have shared. And the friendship that we’ve created through this process. I could easily and would happily write a book about the process and the instrument…about Danny, his family, his sincerity, drive and passion…about his understanding of what it takes to build for a demanding, pain in the ass, cork-sniffer of a client (moi); with an intention and goal far deeper than simply functionality or aesthetic. His willingness to collaborate and evolve…his understanding of human emotion and caring…
Because that, because all of that is what makes this guitar unique, a guitar that when any player tries it, they immediately understand what is unique about it and want to work with Danny. It is what makes Danny special.
We call it the Red Rocket for now – but Danny tells me that he intends to make it a new Koentopp Guitars model, available to all. I am honored…and not in the least surprised.
I’ve attached photos…and a spec sheet so you fellow guitar geeks and other luthiers can see what we did…what you can’t see is the love and soul buried deep…but perhaps you can. I can. It’s built into every dimension, shade, cut of the knife and pass of the sandpaper. And every time I play it, all this comes singing out of this guitar. I think this thing is alive. J Thanks, Dan. Love you, brother. My archtop search is over.
The “Red Rocket” Archtop Spec Sheet
- 2019 Custom Chicagoan (serial #60)
- 17″ Lower Bout, 13″ Upper Bout, 21 3/4″ Body length, and a 2 5/8″ Depth
- Cutaway, X-braced
- Romanian spruce top
- “Bee’s Wing-Flamed” figured Honduran Mahogany back and sides
- Flamed Mahogany. two piece neck with bone nut width of 1.72″ , Deep soft V profile
- Neck thickness taper .8375″ at 1st fret – .85″ at 10th fret
- String spacing at bridge – 2.1875″
- Palisander Rosewood (Dalbergia baronii, Madagascar) Fingerboard with scale length of 25.25″
- Palisander Rosewood veneer on front and rear of headstock
- Palisander Rosewood heal cap
- Flame maple body binding with violin style purfling, and flame maple bound fingerboard
- Eliptical Side position markers in Rosewood
- Medium jumbo frets
- Unardorned Fingerboard
- Straight Fingerboard extension at 19th fret
- Waverly tuners with Ebony buttons
- Hand cut compensated, Palisander adjustable bridge
- Headstock bound in Flame maple
- DK logo in Maple and Atomic inlay in Maple and Mahogany
- Magnetic “Push-Access” Rocket Truss Rod Cover with Maple jet fumes falling into fingerboard
- Buck Rogers Rocket Inlay on rear of Headstock in Rosewood and Mahogany
- Carved Palisander tailpiece with atom symbol, swoop cut out, and inlaid ground
- Custom Ron Ellis pickup set in a Palisander Rosewood ring
- Volume and Tone knobs (500k CTS) hand turned Rosewood knobs with carved point
- .022k Oil-in-paper Russian capacitor
- Spirit Varnish Finish over “Barn-Vermont Red”
- Rubbed finish on neck
- Custom fit Hoffee carbon fiber case, Black with Green interior