In the span of just three years (1970-1973), woodworker Steve Kalb took up guitarmaking and ended up selling his creations to Leo Kottke, David Crosby, Jerry Garcia, Robbie Robertson and Paul Simon. And then, with fewer than 30 guitars under his belt, he threw in the towel, sold off his tools, and enrolled in law school.
On this very special Fretboard Journal Podcast, we re-connect with this lost guitarmaking legend, now based in Southern California. We hear about how he took up instrument making upon reading Irving Sloane’s influential Classic Guitar Construction book, how he almost made a guitar for Bob Dylan, the financial (and personal) struggles that convinced him to give up lutherie, and a lot more.
This is a story about more than just guitars: It’s about the fragility of life, the perils of chasing perfection, and one guy’s never-ending love for woodworking. It’s a beautiful story that hasn’t been told until today.
“[In 1969], I was looking around for something to do and I wanted to learn how to play the guitar. I didn’t have the money to buy a good one… I’d always been good with woodworking and I guess I got the idea… that was 50 years ago. I saw Irving Sloane’s book in The Whole Earth Catalogue… I got my hands on it and said, ‘Yeah, I’ll try to do this.’”
“I built the first one completely with hand tools. The only thing I used that had electricity was when I got to the bridge… you have to drill six holes through the bridge to support the strings. So I borrowed an electric drill from these guys across the river and drilled those six holes, but everything else was done with hand tools. I don’t remember the process that well, but for the backs, I cut it down to an eighth inch… and I just went at it with a card scraper and sandpaper.”
“[Jerry Gacia] just bought [my guitar] right on the spot. It was kind of a strange experience. And then he kind of backhand gave me the best advice in the world… that I never followed. He said, ‘I’m ordering number 200,’ because he knew that if I could do this on my 10th or 12th guitar and it looked pretty good and it sounded good, that by the time I was up to 200, I’d be a master. I was too naive to realize that he was giving me great life advice.”
“One of the reasons I quit is that I was always chasing perfection, which is a real trap.”
“I’m kind of stunned that I could have gotten through what I did with those kinds of tools and funky molds, but I did it. I would want to do it right this time.”
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