Tony Klassen | 2009 | Luthier Interview
TT – Thanks for taking the time to do this interview with us! I understand your interest in the Larson bros. guitars triggered your lutherie career, could you tell us a little about that?
TK – Thanks for the interview! It all began back in the summer of 1985. Prior I had only been collecting for a bout 5 years, and most of those, if not all, were Martins and Gibson’s. Pretty plentiful then. My dream guitar was a pearly Martin. 12 fret or 14 fret, it really didn’t matter. By that summer, I’d finally saved up enough dough. With cash in hand and my 1929 000-28 in trade, I headed off to Gruhn Guitars in Nashville. George had a pearly 00-45 for sale, and I decided that was the one I would get. I was really excited. My first time in Nashville, and a chance to hang in one of the worlds premier vintage shops. That trip changed me forever…..
I got to George’s shop shortly before closing, and his hospitality was amazing. He locked the doors. He called his wife (“I’ll be home later”), and he let me spend the next two hours playing guitar after guitar. I played Martins, Gibsons, and Washburns, and I admired them all. What stuck in my mind was something called a Euphonon. What is this!? Who made it? I wasn’t quite sure…
My immediate impression was the look. It hung among many guitars, but stood out and seemed to call to me. Very different then anything I was use to at that time. The pearl stars in the bridge, the wide band of abalone around the top, and the vine headstock inlay were stunning. The craftsmanship was equal to the best. The Brazilian was figured, and even had tiny knots in it. Something I think most builders at that time would pass on. One of the most visible characteristics was the guitars back was larger then the top! What was their intention! Nobody knew, but I couldn’t help but think these guys where not afraid to experiment, and push the limits.
George placed a mirror in side to show me the laminated braces. WOW! I just grew more and more intrigued. The fact that this came from a 2 man shop, and not a factory was very impressing to me. It truly felt like a hand made instrument. Something up until then I had never encountered. George was totally excited about it. I wasn’t quite sure… odd shape….. George had to leave and we would hook up the next morning, so I had some thinking to do.
That next day I spent 4 or more hours playing that Martin 00-45 I wanted, and the Euphonon that was getting more and more enchanting every time I picked it up. I was hidden away in a quite little listening room playing both for sound comparisons. Every time I picked up the Euphonon George would knock on the door, poke his head in and say “ I can here when your playing that one, right through the walls!” He was referring to of course, the Euphonon. So we talked more about the guitar, and it’s makers. George gave me the book Bob Hartman put together.
The book was full of interesting instruments. The Brothers made everything from mandolins to mandocellos, and guitars up to 21” wide! This Euphonon just had a vibe I didn’t feel in the others. As for the sound, it too was very different, and ultimately what helped make the sale. Bright, lively, loud and very well balanced. It was much more suited to my style of playing compared to the more delicate Martin. This was a true steel string guitar! The deal got better. George offered me more for the 000-28 then he originally quoted, so now had a pretty easy decision. I left the shop with the Euphonon, George said spread the word!
That was by far my best and most memorable guitar buying experience ever. It set in motion a quest to learn more about, and collect as many Larson made instruments I could find.
My background and education was in Graphic Design. I have always had strong interest in woodworking. I grew up around tools in my grandfather’s shop, so learning how to use them came pretty easy. In Fall of 1987, after about 4 years in the Design field, an opportunity to relocate to Northwestern Connecticut and work in a small high end furniture shop presented itself. Man how romantic! I could pass this up! So I quit my job, packed up everything I owned in a tiny U-Haul (including my most prized possession, the Euphonon ), and headed east not really knowing what would happen. It was a very exciting time. Northwestern Connecticut in the Fall was breathtaking. I totally felt at home in the shop. Woodworking seemed to be my calling. It came pretty naturally.
It was the shop and the access to all those woodworking tools that inspired me to make my first guitar. I didn’t really know where to start. I had an article from Fine Woodworking on how to bend sides, and I owned a book a friend have given me years ago on guitarmaking by David Russell Young. ( everything you need, Right??)
I found a guitarmaker’s supplier in New Hampshire, and of all things called The Euphonon Co.! I never did ask them why the name, and it hasn’t really sunk in until now as I write this!! Anyway, got my supplies and dove right in headfirst! I spent many after hours and weekends in the shop. Always my trusty Euphonon at my side. I used it as my model. Although the body on mine was kind of OM shape, internally, it was ALL Larson! After 21 years I still remember what it felt to string it up for the first time. Magical!
Now with this first guitar, I wondered why there weren’t more Larson inspired guitarmakers out there. At this time I knew of Franklin Guitars who made something very close. It was Stephan Grossman that brought those to light. Very cool and I want to persue the same! As fate would have it, It was time to leave CT. It was a great year and I learned something I knew would last me a lifetime. So back on that road to discovery!
It was now 1989 and I wound up in Chicago. Not in furniture making or guitars, but back to using that degree I earned, and still owed on! It ended up being a great move, and a great job. I found my self in an award winning Design firm where one of the strangest tools entered the field.
A Macintosh computer! I really hated it at first, but as time passed, it became my friend. In 1993 I set out on my own, computer in hand, and moved to my present location 1 hr form Chicago. All this time still never letting go of my dream of someday becoming a Guitarmaker!! I persued Computer Illustration, and it became very lucrative. So I started collecting tools and putting together a shop, which at one time was the 2-car garage. The one thing I persued more than tools was anything built by the Larson Brothers. These guitars are rare and few, but seems like many presented themselves.
I met Bob Hartman for the first time in 1997. We did some trading and dealing, and I supplied him with photos of my collections which are in a few of his books. Many Larsons passed through my hands over the years. Mostly the smaller parlors which are much more plentiful than the larger 14 fret models. I was fortunate to have meet a another fellow collector and have access to his collection for measurements and comparisons.
TT – What’s your philosophy to building the Larson-style guitars?
TK – The Larson Brothers production stopped in the Early 1940’s. There was no family to carry on and keep the business going. So no one exactly knows how they did what they did. How many instruments they produced or even how the shop was set up. With every Larson instrument I have owned and/or examined, I think of myself as an archaeologist, and as I build them I try to put myself in their shoes. “How shall I approach this” , and “did they do it like this!? “ It is a challenge that I look forward to every day I spend in my shop! I respect them highly as Artisans and inventors. Their work has been the fuel and inspiration that has taken me to this point. I am very excited to be carrying on this fine tradition the Larson Brother’s left behind.
TT – So do you build entirely authentic replicas or are there modifications?
TK – I build very close to the originals utilizing modern materials and techniques. I build my necks with an adjustable truss rod which I feel is very important. It also depends on what a customer wants. If they prefer a lighter weight feel I will add carbon fiber rods for that extra stiffness. For the most part everyone wants to be able to tweak there action, and what better way the an adjustable rod. I’m sure if the Larson’s had them at there disposal they would have used them too ( I think Gibson had the patent at that time). The Larson’s were not opposed to using metal for support.
They incorporated metal rods in the bodies of their Prairie State guitars, and sometimes even large wood screws hidden in the heels of their necks! My other modification is the use of adhesives. I really prefer modern glue, but I am now experimenting with hide glue. Just to take it one step further to the originals. Another, and very slight modification, would be the bracing pattern I have chosen. I have examined many originals and have found many variations on the bracing patterns used by the Brothers. I have settled on one specific pattern for each model thus adding an overall consistent sound to my reproductions. I am very happy to have come as close as one can to emulating the Larson sound, and vibe. I truly believe no matter what materials you use the overall sound depends on the hands of the maker, and how much passion the one puts into their craft.
TT – And how about tonewoods? Which do you favor?
TK – I believe the top is the most crucial component in the guitar. The back and sides ad to color the sound. So my favorite wood of all is Adirondack. I really like the wide grain stuff. It sounds more open and the bass seems stronger. I also use Adi for top bracing no matter what the top wood is ( Sitka, Engelmann, etc…). As for back and sides, I like to stay with tradition woods. The Larson Brother’s used Brazilian Rosewood extensively. It has always been the favorite. Since it’s getting pretty hard to get, a good replacement is Honduran, Cocobolo, and Madagascar. I have used all of these and like them very much. Mahogany is another favorite and maple. Both of these woods you’ll find on vintage Larson guitars.
TT – Thanks for that, how do you think Honduran, Cocobolo and Madagascar compare to Brazilian rosewood?
TK – Density and weight are key. These three woods are as close as you can get. I have found Brazilian to be a very easy wood to work with where as Cocobolo can be difficult. It’s oily and brittle, but sure makes a great looking and sounding guitar. I have just recently gave Honduran a go on one of my 17” models. The tap tone is excellent and I’m pretty positive the tone will be too. Madagascar is a super tonewood, and probably looks the closest to Brazilian. It’s nice to know we have some great alternatives out there.
TT – How about those laminated braces and stiffening rods?
TK – The bracing is what sets the Larson’s apart form all the rest. This is where the innovations of the Larson Brothers really shine. There guitars where certainly meant for steel strings! On the top, ( the X, and first upper transverse brace ) are laminated spruce/rosewood/spruce. I prefer Adirondack, and have tried different rosewoods for the center strips. Cocobolo, Brazilian, Ebony, and Padauk. All producing the same result. A very stiff brace! I feel this bracing technique is the main ingredient for the Larson tone. The other great innovation is the rod system. Only seen on the Prairie State’s.
The rod system acts to reinforce the body against the tension of the strings. The idea here is for the top to vibrate more freely. Most of the original guitars had two rods. A main rod about a 5/16” in diameter, and running close to the top from neck block to heel block, and is fixed into place. The second rod is about a 1/8” in diameter, runs slightly lower then the top bar. This one is adjustable. It passes through the neck block and wraps around the heel of the neck. Then passes through the end block where it acts as the end pin and can be adjusted, tightened or loosened!?
If this idea works or not is a mystery to me. I know that the Prairie States do have a distinctive tone all their own. The rods produce a sympathetic vibration when the guitar is played. Very, very unique! I have only incorporated this system in a couple of my replicas, and only one rod, the non-adjustable fixed. I working on developing it a little further. I want both rods to be removable, but more on that as it develops…..
TT – Other than the Larson repros, I know you’ve also working on a Bacon & Day…
TK – Oh yes! The Bacon & Day Senorita S-6. One of my all time favorite guitars. An exceptionally rare instrument as well. The Larson Brothers are my main interest and inspiration, but I am also wanting to reproduce other guitars that I find to be rare and desirable. The B&D is a great example. No one really knows how many were produced, and in my 25 years of collecting I know of two.
The guitar fingerstyle guitarist John Fahey played in the mid to late 1960’s, and the one I was very fortunate to have found about two years ago. A very inspiring guitar. Bacon & Day, a banjo manufacture, got in to guitars after the banjo boom of the late 1920’s. The guitar was made by Regal in Chicago, and B&D did the fancy stuff. The pearloid and rhinestones! I just love this combination! I’m also really excited because I am collaborating with Bob Flesher, a banjo maker! Bob is a master engraver as well.
He hand engraves pearl and metal. Now he says he has developed a technique just for the plastic pearloid. It is currently in production, and I’m really excited about it’s development. I think this is going be be a total winner!
Another guitar I’ve owned and admired is the Gibson made Recording King Ray Whitley. This is another very rare and seldom seen instrument on the market. Made for only one year 1939-40. A classic dreadnought Cowboy guitar! One of Gibson’s greatest achievements. I often have wondered why they didn’t make more. Anyway a great guitar to reproduce!
So I’m always thinking what would be next??? I haven’t owned an Epiphone Recording yet. If I could get my hands on one of those you might be seeing one pop up on my website. They have one of the coolest body designs, their very rare, and another plus for me, engraved pearloid!!!.
©2008 Terence Tan.
Pictures courtesy of Tony Klassen ©2009
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