“So, how’s guitar making these days?”
“A customer asked me to do ‘whatever you want.’ That much freedom can be dangerous!”
“Well, with that many choices, you can end up spending a lot of time thinking about what you want to do.”
I’m sitting in a North Stonington, Connecticut, café with guitar maker Kim Walker. All of that “thinking” must have really paid off because I’ve just spent the morning playing the most incredible musical instrument that I’ve ever encountered. Perhaps to get me to come back to earth, Walker has invited me to lunch. “Do you want to go to Mystic Pizza or the hippie place?” he asks. Knowing that Julia Roberts has long since abandoned waitressing, I chose the hippie place.
We’re sitting at a communal table, and Walker is chatting with Mac, a local contractor/philosopher/political theorist. We’ve exhausted current events, and talk has turned to Kim’s latest creation.
“So,” Mac asks, turning toward me, “what is it that Kim’s been making?”
Hmmm. How to respond to Mac?
“Well,” I say, “this thing is part Lloyd Loar, part John D’Angelico, part Jimmy D’Aquisto–and all Kim Walker. It’s the Walker Solo Novo, a Brazilian rosewood and European spruce archtop. It’s an instrument that is at once modern and vintage. It’s …”
“Hold on there,” says Mac. “You’ve got some explaining to do!”
OK, here goes.
Greg Scholl owned two Walker flattops and one archtop, along with a number of other fine instruments, when he came to Walker with a simple aim: “Let the master stretch, have no constraints other than those related to one’s body geometry, and magic can happen.” So, he provided specs for a 16-inch-wide archtop body and told the luthier to “have some fun, get your creative juices flowing and make some Walker magic.”
Of course, magic doesn’t happen without some skill and artistry. In this case, the buyer has chosen his luthier well. Kim Walker is a solo luthier who builds about 20 guitars per year in his North Stonington, Connecticut, shop. Archtops account for about a third of his production; flattops make up the rest.
“Kim Walker is unique in his ability to make quality guitars in all genres, be it flattop or archtop,” says the Smithsonian Institution’s Randall Kremer. Kremer, the public-affairs director for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and a booker for their Jazz Café, was “taken with the sheer beauty and playability” from the moment that he first saw and played a Walker guitar.
The late guitar collector Scott Chinery was equally impressed with Walker’s guitars. Walker was one of the 21 luthiers whom Chinery commissioned for the “Blue Guitar” project, which was inspired by one of Jimmy D’Aquisto’s last archtop guitars. “Scottwas only going to commission 20 guitars for the ‘Blue’ collection,” says Walker. “George Gruhn, [vintage-guitar guru and owner of Gruhn’s Guitars in Nashville,] had sold Chinery a Larson Brothers harp guitar, possibly the first–it matched the patent drawings–that needed major restoration. George told Scott that I was the guy to do the restoration. I went down to Scott’s house to pick up the harp guitar and show him some of my archtops. When Scott saw and played my guitars, he asked me to participate in the Blue Guitars.” For 12 months in 1997 and 1998, the Smithsonian exhibited the 22 guitars, including D’Aquisto’s original, all finished in the same “Mohawk Ultra Blue Penetrating Stain.”
Chinery was obviously pleased with his decision to include Walker’s guitar. “Scott loved [Kim Walker’s] guitar,” said the Smithsonian’s Kremer. “It was one of his favorites.” Chinery described the guitar in the Blue Guitar companion book as “the lightest and most delicately made 18-inch guitar that I’ve ever seen. The wood is, seemingly, paper thin.” According to Chinery, the guitar was half the weight of any of the others in the collection. Guitarist Steve Howe, quoted in same book, described the lightweight beauty as having a “very lutey–medieval–an original strong sound.”
Kim Walker’s love affair with the acoustic guitar began when he was a teenager in the late 1960s. “After hearing Doc Watson play, my life was changed,” he says. “I spent countless hours trying to learn his music, both his fingerstyle and his flatpicking style. What I found was that, although I never became a great musician, I was totally taken by that wooden sound of the acoustic guitar.”
Walker built his first guitar in 1974, and in 1979, he moved to Nashville to take a repair position in George Gruhn’s shop. While with Gruhn, Walker restored instruments that had once belonged to players like Hank Williams, Merle Travis, Gene Autry, Ray Whitley and Clarence White. By 1984, Walker was running Gruhn’s six-man repair shop, and two years later, Gruhn, who had become a principal at the Guild Guitar Company, asked him to build prototypes for new Guild models. In 1987, on Gruhn’s recommendation, Guild hired Walker to head the company’s research and development and custom shop, where Walker built prototype guitars for Eric Clapton and Brian May. The following year, Walker became Guild’s assistant plant manager. Finally, he went solo and started Walker Guitars in 1994.
Gruhn holds Kim Walker in very high esteem. “Kim Walker is one of the finest craftsmen I have ever met,” he declares. “He was already a good craftsman when he came to me,” but, “like any good craftsman,” he took advantage of the opportunities provided to him at Gruhn to “learn from the great guitars of the past.”
Today, says Gruhn, “Kim is one of the most talented builders out there.” In Gruhn’s mind, Walker is able to “take the best of the old ones, eliminate the problems–not everything is perfect on the old ones–and make the right stuff…. Too many people who start out [building guitars] don’t even know what makes an old Martin great.”
Walker’s guitars have typically been rooted in tradition. Take traditional, successful designs, says Walker, “add a twist of Walker, and voila!” For the Solo Novo, though, the luthier added a bit more than merely “a twist of Walker.”
Kim Walker did indeed relish the opportunity to “go beyond the traditional archtop designs” (see sidebar), and so Greg Scholl’s mandate provided Walker with a nearly blank canvas on which to paint his masterpiece. “When Greg first ordered this guitar several years ago,” Walker explains, “he was thinking he would get a traditional, D’Angelico-inspired Excel model. When it actually came time to build the guitar, Greg decided to let me build whatever I would like. The rough guidelines were that it be an archtop, strictly acoustic, and more of a modern design than a traditional model. It was a fun project, and this is my take on the modern acoustic archtop.”
Even the guitar’s woods represent an evolution of archtop design. The top material, alpine spruce from the Italian/Swiss border, may be commonly seen in an archtop, but the Brazilian rosewood back and sides are a rarity in the realm of carved guitars. There may be several explanations for the typical choice of maple for archtop back and sides. In creating these instruments, essentially “six-string cellos,” it may have been natural for archtop pioneer Orville Gibson to gravitate toward the materials used to construct the bowed family of instruments. In addition, archtops were mostly designed as rhythm guitars for orchestral use, and the brightness of maple helped the instruments cut through the ensemble’s sound.
Finally, there is a practical barrier to common use of rosewood in carved instruments: Just where does one find a two-inch-thick slab of Brazilian rosewood? Perhaps the world’s rarest and most valuable wood, the gold standard of guitar construction is usually carefully rationed out in thin planks, perfect for the backs and sides of the flattop guitar. But, for this project, Walker needed to carve the radius into the back. So, he sought the assistance of his usual array of wood suppliers, who comb the backwoods and (legal!) international markets for the makings of Walker’s guitars.
One supplier came through with a gorgeous piece of Brazilian rosewood from salvaged stump wood. Not only does the wood give the guitar what Walker calls a “big hall reverb,” but because it’s carved, rather than (slightly) bent like a flattop guitar’s back, the wood’s curly grain flows about the guitar’s back in gorgeous rivulets of brown, black, gold and orange. For the neck, Walker chose more conservatively. He used American curly maple from New Hampshire to impart a bit of “small hall reverb” to the overall sound. He opted to use Indian ebony for the fretboard, bridge and tailpiece.
With the woods selected, Walker turned to the basic lines of the guitar’s body. He settled on three possibilities from which his client might choose. From there, Walker would customize and refine the design. Those three initial design drawings ran the gamut from a traditional f-hole instrument–modernized only by the elegant shape of the cutaway and the use of wood bindings instead of “ivoroid” plastic–to an arched guitar that otherwise looks like a round-hole flattop, to a very modern, D’Aquisto-inspired design. Greg Scholl chose the last option. Sporting D’Aquisto’s cat’s-eye sound ports and Walker’s Style A trim with minimalist wood purfling and Brazilian rosewood bindings, the guitar is modern and angular, yet refined and elegant. In other words, it’s the next step in the evolution of archtop aesthetics.
With the basics in place, Walker still needed to design the headstock and a matching tailpiece. Again, he involved the buyer in the design work. He produced three “virtual” photographs of possible headstocks. One resembled the wide, sweeping, asymmetrical headstocks that modern archtop master John Monteleone originated. Another was essentially Walker’s “traditional” flattop headstock, with a large cutout in the center and side-mounted tuners. The third option combined the first two, but added a hint of D’Aquisto: a wide, asymmetrical design, with cutouts resembling the sound ports on the body. Scholl chose the third. Walker capped the headstock with his trademark Brazilian rosewood/maple/Brazilian rosewood overlay with beveled edges and his Elizabethan pearl script “Walker” logo.
To round out the package, Walker designed an ebony tailpiece with cutouts to match the sound ports and headstock cutouts. He also constructed an ebony bridge of a new design that combines the style of the D’Aquisto guitar bridge with that of the Brekke mandolin bridge. Traditional archtop and mandolin bridges adjust via metal knobs mounted on metal screws. D’Aquisto and Brekke maintained the adjustability feature, but eliminated the metal parts. (Both luthiers theorized that metal and wood vibrate at different frequencies, so combining the two materials results in some frequency cancellations and inhibits transfer of the instrument’s entire frequency spectrum to its top.)
D’Aquisto’s bridges are quite large compared to other archtop guitar bridges and adjust via a single wooden wedge that slides under the saddle. Brekke’s design is about the same size as a traditional bridge and adjusts via two small set screws that act on small wedges mounted in both ends of the bridge. Walker’s invention really does bridge (pun intended) the two designs. Slightly larger than a Brekke design and smaller than a D’Aquisto, it fits perfectly with the look of this evolved archtop.
That look is, indeed, evolutionary, and Walker’s name for the model, the Solo Novo, is certainly apt. When he broke away from D’Angelico’s traditional designs, D’Aquisto also abandoned D’Angelico’s Deco-influenced guitar names. Instead of New Yorker and Excel (derived from the New York State slogan, “Excelsior!”), D’Aquisto opted for model designations like Advance, Moderne and, for one of his most radical designs, Solo. Walker uses D’Aquisto’s work as a springboard, so the Solo Novo, or “new solo,” represents Walker’s take on the modern archtop guitar.
Yet, this isn’t the modern, angular design of 21stcentury architecture, furniture and fashion. Rather, “modern elegance” is the phrase that comes to mind. Though vaguely triangular, the rounded corners and placement of the sound ports lend a gentle flow to the design. The cutaway is shaped somewhat like those of the guitars that Mario Maccaferri designed for Selmer–the ones Django Reinhardt played–but is more gently bent. It looks less like a “cutaway” than a “designed-in” feature.
Certainly, the D’Aquisto influence is evident. The body’s sound ports look quite like those of D’Aquisto’s Solo guitar from the early to mid-1990s. But, where D’Aquisto opted for different shaped cutouts on the body, headstock and tailpiece, Walker has a more unified aesthetic vision. The cutouts throughout the design complement one another, giving the guitar a calmer, perhaps less dramatic, but also less jarring look. The bridge has far less visual mass than those that D’Aquisto used on his later designs. The tailpiece and fingerboard end have gentle, complementing curves.
The subtle bindings and purfling, not evident on D’Aquisto’s designs, but almost garishly displayed in the “ivoroid” of D’Angelico’s and Loar’s offerings, look both to the future and to the past. Then, there’s Walker’s unique varnish finish. He doesn’t use the polyesters or nitro-cellulose lacquers that modern makers use. Rather, he uses a finish of his own mixing that lends a warm, vintage glow to his guitars.
“This guitar is, indeed,” I say to Mac, “part Lloyd Loar, part John D’Angelico, part Jimmy D’Aquisto–and all Kim Walker.”
“Ah,” says Mac. “So it looks great, but how does it sound?” In truth, I’ve never heard anything like this guitar. It’s loud and it cuts, yet it’s unbelievably responsive. It roars at the lightest touch. And the tone is otherworldly, a three-way mix of flattop, archtop and Maccaferri. It’s bright yet warm, with an astounding balance of tone. Each note on the fingerboard is equally loud.
This guitar’s amazing sound did not come about by accident. Walker took care to consider the sonic characteristic of every element of the instrument. Indeed, that concern carried over even to the pickguard. When Walker had completed the guitar, I asked him whether the buyer wanted a pickguard; I was so bold as to suggest a small ebony pickguard attached to the side of the fingerboard, leaving the body unmarred. Walker had already considered the tonal impact of that type of pickguard. His response reveals just how thoughtful his approach to the art and craft of lutherie is.
“I’ve been thinking about this for a while and still have yet to settle on anything,” he explains. “There is the inherent problem with pickguards on archtop guitars. Because, what you want is, literally, a floating pickguard. You really do not want it to touch anywhere. The little pickguards attached to the fingerboard extensions have the effect of being like a ruler held over the edge of your schoolroom desk and plucked. Unfortunately, that gets transmitted and amplified into the guitar.
“I have contemplated the idea of suspending a very light pickguard on pillars attached to the top and also the more traditional brackets, although these would probably be ebony/graphite composite. It will be something lightweight, most likely curved slightly on top, and ebony. Other than that, I’m not sure yet.”
This meticulous methodology informed every step of the design and building processes. For example, the traditional archtop employs very little bracing and relies on the thickness and radius of the top to provide some of the instrument’s much-needed strength. The result is that archtops are heavier than similarly sized flattops and, perhaps, not as responsive as the builder might wish. To address that issue, Walker resorted to Old World craft and Space Age technology. He designed and built a beam that runs from the neck block to the end block. Walker drilled a series of holes of various sizes in the beam to lighten it and, for strength, sandwiched paper-thin strips of maple and carbon fiber on the top and bottom of the beam.
The Solo Novo looks both backward and forward in time. The internal beam reminds one of the metal bars that ran from end block to neck block on the Larson brothers’ Prairie State guitars of the 1920s, but the ultra-modern materials and careful design, engineering and execution resemble the efforts of contemporary classical guitar builders like Greg Smallman and Jim Redgate. Like all of these makers, Walker has added strength and stability to the guitar body so that he can build a thinner, lighter, more responsive top. Unique, though, is the application of these ideas to the archtop and the use of a single beam in the design. Its heritage may be evident, but the guitar is uniquely Walker in design and execution.
The beam’s impact on the Solo Novo’s construction becomes apparent immediately upon picking up the guitar. This has got to be the lightest archtop guitar ever built! It weighs no more than a similarly sized flattop, and the guitar is still responsive to even the lightest touch.
If you’ve been fortunate enough to take delivery of a Walker guitar, then you know that a Walker isn’t ready for you until the luthier has put it through its paces for a few days–or a few weeks, depending on the guitar. The Solo Novo is no exception; in fact, Walker has taken an extraordinary interest in this project.
“I’ve been pretty obsessed with this guitar,” he admits. “I start my workday off with a list of things that I intend to finish, and then at the end of the day, find that I have spent the day with the Solo Novo. It’s very absorbing and quite the challenge.”
His obsession began with the bridge.
“Jimmy [D’Aquisto] always said that he could radically change the sound of his guitars by modifying his bridges,” Walker notes. “I am experiencing that with this guitar. I think this may be the primary difference between the ‘modern’ D’Aquisto style of building compared to the ‘traditional’ D’Angelico style of building. Jimmy’s later work moved to lighter tops, which were more ‘acoustic’ and had more volume. The heavier ‘traditional’ archtops have an advantage for being electric guitars–feedback resistance–and also have more control over overtones, inherently. The lighter tops, although louder, have more potential problems with overtones. The heavier, wider bridges are how the overtones are controlled.”
So, Walker began experimenting with bridge material, “foot” size and mass. He tried ebony, cocobolo and Brazilian rosewood and concluded that the Brazilian best transmitted the tone he sought. After he built a bridge of Brazilian rosewood that pleased his eye, he needed to please his ears. He began the laborious process of determining the ideal bridge mass to control the guitar’s overtones.
“I determined that I needed approximately an extra 10 grams of mass and a bridge that was about an inch and a quarter wide at the bass,” he explains. Walker constructed a bridge of that weight and dimensions and found the tone that he wanted, but a bridge of that size would mar the Solo Novo’s elegant appearance. So instead, Walker installed a “virtual Brazilian rosewood bridge plate” on the underside of the top and strung up the guitar with the original beautiful bridge. Says Walker, “It sounded amazingly close to what I had determined to be the best tone with the modified bridge.”
Once the bridge was finalized and the overtone control was satisfying to Walker’s ears, he set to work on balancing the tone, treble to bass, up and down the neck. The D’Aquisto-like sound ports impart a very modern appearance to the guitar, but such large openings “can let out the bass,” he says. Walker again looked to the past to tune the instrument. In the 1920s, Gibson engineer and designer Lloyd Loar began installing Virzi tone producers in his mandolins and guitars. Virzis are small secondary soundboards installed under the top of an instrument. Loar’s object was to increase the bass and smooth the instrument’s response, but the Virzis became known as “tone reducers” in some circles.
“Loar’s and Virzi’s idea was sound,” says Walker, “but they put the goods in the wrong place.” Loar put the Virzis under the center of the top. The result wasn’t always pretty. Bringing the past into the future, Walker built two small “Virzi” plates, each a bit larger than the top’s pairs of D’Aquisto-style sound ports. He experimented with the size and thickness of the plates, settling on paper-thin wafers of spruce. He then mounted the plates on the underside of the top, on each side, just beneath the sound ports, and began experimenting with the length of the balsa posts on which they were mounted. The result is absolutely stunning.
As Walker puts it, in typically humble fashion, “I think that it sounds pretty good.” Pretty good? This thing is scary good! The bass response is full and throaty, but not dominant, like on a similarly sized Brazilian rosewood flattop. The mid range is very clear and has a pleasant woody quality to it. The trebles ring nicely, exhibiting a beautiful, bell-like tone.
Now, no guitar leaves the Walker shop in anything but a perfect state. This is, after all, the guy who puts a beautiful finish on the inside of his guitars. So, the Virzis, too, received the Walker touch: He finished them in flat black and artfully inscribed his name with gold leaf paint on the Virzi under the treble sound ports.
Well, lunch is almost over, and I’m still offering Mac my evaluation of the Solo Novo.
“Yep, this thing is part Lloyd Loar, part John D’Angelico, part Jimmy D’Aquisto–and all Kim Walker. It’s an instrument that is at once modern and vintage. It’s …”
“Wait, wait, wait,” Mac says. “I’ve heard enough from you. I want to hear the guitar!”
Mac makes a good point, and we ought to be heading back to Walker’s shop anyway. It’s time for me, er, I mean Kim Walker, to stop basking in the glory of his newest creation. He needs to get back to work on his next batch of guitars.
Walker’s next lot of guitars is all flattops. For starters, there’s an SJ. The oxymoronic SJ, or “small jumbo,” is based on Gibson’s 16-inch-wide J185 body shape, which, though perhaps “jumbo” when compared to some other guitars, is small compared to Gibson’s 17-inch-wide “Jumbo” J200. Walker’s will be old-growth maple and European spruce, with his rich Loarburst finish and … Hmmm. Maybe I’ll save that for another day.
Yeah, it’s definitely time for Kim Walker to work some more magic.