Joe Konkoly Guitars. Luthier Interview

Joe Konkoly Guitars. | 2011 | Luthier Interview

Joe Konkoly is best known for his work at Elderly music where he heads the repair department, taking over from the reknown T.J Thompson. Taking inspiration from vintage instruments, Joe has been crafting superb OMs and Dreadnoughts in his own time. We are very fortunate to be able to drag David away from his workbench(s) to speak to us about repair work and Martins of old.

MP3: Konkoly Guitars: ArkansasTraveler [audio:]
Performed on KOM-28 in Adirondack and Brazilian Rosewood

TT: Thanks for taking the time for this interview Joe. I understand you’ve been doing repairs for Elderly for some time, but have only recently started building?

JK: I started at Elderly, in 1987. I have been the manager/head repairman since 1993. I built a half dozen dreadnaught guitars during my early tenure at Elderly, in addition to a couple dozen other instruments (electric guitars, mandolins, acoustic guitars, and dulcimers) at my previous shop in western Pennsylvania. In 2005, I had the opportunity to expand my shop at home, and jigged up to build vintage style Martin top replacements. I started with 2 conversions, a 1934 Martin C-2 archtop to OM-28 flat-top, and a 1950’s 000-28 to 1930’s Style 42 sunburst. From there I have continued to do flat-top conversions while building my own vintage influenced dreadnaughts and OMs. I have recently been commissioned to build vintage reproduction of 1920’s Martin 000-45 12 fret slot-head, complete with bar frets and other period appointments including hide glue construction. I am in the process of completing templates and jigs for this guitar, in addition to working on several dreadnaught /OM orders.

TT: So it’s fair to say your guitars are primarily influenced by vintage Martins?

JK: Yes it is true. I have been a big fan of vintage Martins. I came to Elderly to work with T.J. Thompson and his expertise with vintage Martin repair, particularly the OM model has had a lasting influence. The first guitar I built after I arrived in Michigan was modeled after several early 1940’s D-18 I had a chance to play and repair. The current bracing pattern I use for my dreadnaught guitars is taken from a 1937 D-28. I wanted to hone my chops on a tried and true instrument, and I am still trying to capture the magic of those guitars. There are many other builders from the same school of thought, and i have been influenced by these modern makers as well.

MP3: Konkoly Guitars: Orpheus [audio:]
Performed on KOM-28 in Adirondack and Brazilian Rosewood

TT: So adjustable truss rods etc?

JK: I use an adjustable truss rod in my necks, a spruce cap (as opposed to cloth) on my x-brace, a more modern brace shape, an inlaid maple strip on the end block, and the end block tapered to the kerfed lining at the top and back joints. I feel these changes from the vintage models enhance the sound, structural integrity, and maintainability of my guitars. I am always searching for ways to improve the guitars, while remaining true to the inspiration.

In conjunction with the 000-45 12 fret guitar I mentioned previously, I plan to offer a “vintage reproduction” option for my current models. This will include bar frets, non-adjustable ebony or steel T-bar neck reinforcement, and the hide glue construction.

TT: I have to ask: how do you think the barfret/non adjustable truss affect the sound?

JK: Bar frets add a tremendous amount of stiffness to the neck, and so that most of the energy from the strings is transmitted to the bridge. You get an increase in the treble response, and a unique overall character. This extra stiffness also makes the neck very stable, so there is very little need for adjustment. I think it is a big part of the special sound of the instruments from the 20’s and ’30’s. Bar frets are tall and narrow compared to modern T- frets, so there is a difference to the feel for the fretting hand.

TT: So even with a change in humidity the neck need little adjustment?

JK: Humidity changes would still have their effect on the neck, although the bar frets would help to minimize that. The pull of the strings would be stabilized over the long haul.

TT: And how about the difference between the ebony and T bar?

JK: I prefer a stiff, rigid neck. It is best to avoid extra weight in the effort to achieve that stiffness. A light, stiff neck provides better balance when holding the guitar, and you get the sparkling highs I mentioned earlier. There is of course a point of diminishing returns when balancing these 2 factors. The lightweight ebony bar needs the stiffness provided by the bar frets. Martin used an ebony with T frets during the war years, and many of these necks do not hold up well under constant string tension. The T bar is somewhat heavier then the ebony, but considerably stiffer.

I like the ebony with bar frets, and the steel T with T frets. I have also heard some wonderful sounding guitars with T bar and bar frets.

Konkoly guitars
(click for fullsize)
Adirondack Top
Koa Back and Sides

TT: To keep on the subject of necks and construction, I was wondering what you thought of the popsicle brace? It’s been maligned by some and defended by others…

JK: I don’t use one in my dreadnaught or OM models. I began this just copying the ’30’s Martins I had seen, and I found no structural issues. Shortly there after I was exposed to some modern “A style” sound hole brace designs, and I like that idea. While I understand the idea of preventive measures for top cracks along the fingerboard edges, I think arched braces and domed tops are very effective for top strength. I have used an abbreviated version when those concerns are raised. Overall, I don’t feel it is necessary.

TT: I see- there are a lot of other minutiae out there which comes up for discussion like sitka braces on adirondack tops (vs. adirondack braces), cloth side re-enforcement, hide glue etc etc. I was wondering if you felt all of these had an accumulative effect which contributes to the prewar tone and feel?

JK: I think any guitar is the sum of all of the minutiae that goes into it, including the vibe of a pre-war instrument with a respected pedigree. I think we experience a guitar with all of our senses, including our previous knowledge. Individually these small parts have minimal effect by themselves, but it all adds up.

JK: The sitka braces with adirondack top is a fairly new idea to me, so I need to do more research on that subject. It certainly has merit. I have been using adirondack braces with both sitka and adirondack tops for quite a while and I am very fond of the consistency that I have been able to achieve with that combination. Cloth side re-enforcement does not provide the same kind structural integrity that wood strips does. While I have used hide glue for years in repair work, it is a relatively new addition to my building arsenal. I am hoping to get some tonal benefits in addition to the structural and repair differences.

TT: So with the sum of the parts in the guitar, which would you say contributes relatively more?

JK: I think the quality and age of the wood along with the design (and how well it is executed) are the main factors.

TT: I see, I ask because now a lot of folks are beginning to say how much the finish contributes especially with the varnish finish revival….

JK: I do believe that a varnish/French polish/shellac finish can make a noticeable difference from lacquer, but keep in mind that many of the classic pre-war Martin guitars were finished in lacquer.

TT: I supposed it’s time to talk about tonewoods, strictly vintage would really mean spruce, mahogany, brazilian rosewood and koa right? With dwindling supplies, what do you think of the substitutes?

JK: I have built with a somewhat limited palette of traditional woods (red/sitka/german spruce, mahogany, brazilian/indian rosewood, and koa) for the most part. Being a part time builder, my output is easily supported by the current supply of these woods. Still, I am very excited to try my new stash of cocobolo, madagascar, and honduran rosewood. The guitars I have played that use these rosewood alternatives have really peaked my interest. Very close to the response of brazilian, but still not quite the same magic.

TT: I see, well I guess another way is to repair and retop existing instruments- something I gather you have a lot of experience in…

JK: I do have extensive experience in repair and restoration of the vintage classics with my day gig at Elderly Instruments. I started the current version of Konkoly Guitars doing arch top to flat top conversions of Martin C series guitars. I have also had a few opportunities to re-top several other Martin styles. I think that as the years go by and traditional resources continue to grow ever more scarce re-topping will be a more prevalent and viable way to obtain a guitar with back and side woods such as Brazilian rosewood or even Honduran mahogany. Luckily red Adirondack spruce is now being found and cut for instrument grade wood, even if it is in small quantities.

TT: How many have you converted from arch to flattop and what consideration one should take before converting such an instrument?

JK: I have done 6 conversions so far. You have to take the condition of the instrument, and the overall cost of the conversion (cost of the instrument plus the conversion price) into consideration. I know that some folks would consider it unwise to convert an undamaged archtop, but if the guitar is going to go un-played I feel it be can made a viable instrument with the conversion. That judgement must be made on a case by case basis.

The cost of procuring a 1930’s C-2 has gone up in the recent past, so the pool of viable conversions has been limited. It has been a little while since I have done one. Most of my current work is building new Konkoly guitars, although I have re-topped other Martin models with damaged tops.

TT: And how about converting those classicals?

JK: There are several models that would work well for conversions, although I have not had the opportunity to do so. The C series classical bodies are the same as 00 and 000 12 fret guitars, but the neck is a little bit wider at the nut. I have would love to tackle a 000-28C conversion.

TT: Wouldn’t it be easier to convert a classical vs. archtop as there aren’t so many problems with the neck joint/ angle?

JK: I have not found the neck angle changes in the arch top to be a problem, but you are correct. The classical neck angle change should be more straight forward. My main concern with the classical conversion would the neck shape/size. I feel the archtop neck shape works well.

TT: Thanks for explaining that, Joe. I think it’s time for the controversial tap tuning question. A few luthiers like William Cumpiano have asserted that tap tuning isn’t that useful a tool, but there’s been a lot of confusion over what exactly is tap tuning! Maybe I could get your opinion on what constitutes tap tuning and how effective or useful you think it is?

JK: One of the reasons for the controversy is the lack of information on the subject of tap tuning. There is a massive amount of information out there about almost every other area of instrument construction. I believe one major reason for this is that the main tool an individual luthier has at his or her disposal to make an instrument sound good is intuition. That intuition is informed by their entire experience as luthiers, which goes grows and changes all the time. It can be very difficult disseminate this information without a one on one experience.

JK: Despite that, I have found tap tuning to be very informative and helpful. Tapping and listening gets you more “in tune” with your materials. The stiffness/flexibility of the plates is one of the keys. Dana Bourgeois has some very interesting and helpful information out there on this subject.

TT: Back to vintage martins- do you have any favourite periods or styles? Guitars from an era which seem to consistently sound better?

JK: Great question. I have a number of favorites. Of course the standard bearers are the pre-war herringbone dreadnaughts and original OMs. I have been exposed to some D-28 cannons from 1937 in particular. The OM-28s from 1929-30 seem to be the cream. My first opportunity to really get to know a quality vintage guitar was with a trio of D-18s from the early 1940’s. I was able to borrow 1943 that really inspired me. From there I went to some D-18s from 1967. That was a more affordable group. I still play my ’67 D-18 that I bought in 1988.

The non-scalloped Dreadnaughts from the early 1950’s offer a unique alternative to the pre-war sound. And you can’t beat 000-18 from the 1940-60 for a wonderful finger picking couch guitar………. I could go on, but I will stop before I get too excited.

Konkoly guitars
(click for fullsize)
Joe Konkoly Guitars. Luthier Interview. Adirondack top.Joe Konkoly Guitars. Luthier Interview. Brazilian rosewood back and sides.Joe Konkoly Guitars. Luthier Interview. Pickguard and detailingKOM-28
Adirondack Top
Brazilian Rosewood Back and Sides

TT: Would you happen to have any rough indication of the general differences between the eras?

JK: That is not something I have contemplated before. Let me give it try. 1930’s is the quintessential pre-war era booming bass/open/woody dreadnaught and balanced/live OM. 1940’s is the ultra-light/warm D-18 and 000. 1950’s is the focused non scalloped dread. I guess I tend to focus on particular instruments rather than general era statements. There are plenty of other quality instruments I have neglected with these generalizations

TT: Given the various construction features of these eras (eg. ebony vs. steel truss, bar vs. T frets, advanced bracing etc) I’ve seen quite a lot of folks pick and choose their favourite features from each of the eras and meld them into an instrument- with the aim of getting a specific vintage sound. Given the fact that we’re not that sure how the vintage Martins sounded- do you think we’re building towards a goal which is dynamic and perhaps not realistic? Should we be building towards how the vintage Martins sounded when new- if such a thing could be done?

JK: I think the goal in building vintage copy guitars is to try and figure out what makes these coveted guitars tick. What is it that makes them sound and feel so wonderful? Mixing and matching features is a way to learn how we can get it right. We can’t create 80 year old tone in a new instrument, but we can get as close as possible to capturing what they may sounded like new. I love to try and experiment within the frame work of the vintage makers mindset, and see if you can come up with new interesting sounds.

TT: I see- speaking of trying to figure out how the vintage guitars work, have you had any cases of well meaning but unsound modified vintage instruments coming though the shop?

JK: We have certainly seen our fair share of bad repair work: including screws or bolts holding on broken peg-heads, bolts through bridge wings (and right through the corresponding X brace), wooden yard stick bridge-plate patches, and a whole host of other ill advised decisions. There are several well meaning and well executed repairs I can think of that may have been good ideas at the time, but various techniques and tools have come along in the mean time to change what is thought of as the “right approach”.

Bridge-plate modification has certainly evolved over the years. When Martin changed to larger rosewood plates in the ’70’s, it became common practice use this technique to battle the “top bulge behind the bridge” problem. This technique is a trade off. You can change the top shape (which may not be a problem at all, just a sign that the guitar was built light enough to sound good), but you sacrifice the sound of the guitar. I have reversed many of these oversize plates by removing the large plate and installing a slightly larger than original but still reasonable plate, while orienting the wood grain of the new plate at 45 degrees to the grain of the top ( towards the tone bars, away from the open area on the bass side). The change in grain orientation can lend some strength to the plate, especially in that bass side area of the X brace. Removal of a large, thick plate (some as thick as 3/16″) can be a challenge. I have had to plane the thickness of the plate down to a minimal thickness with a finger plane to make it possible to remove a plate with standard methods.

One of the most useful tools I have added to my arsenal of late is the Stew-Mac/T.J. Thompson “Belly Reducer”. It consists of two precisely made pieces of aluminum. One is the shape of bridge, while the other is the outline of the bridge plate. The plate piece is ground with one concave surface, while the bride has perfectly matched convex surface. The two piece are heated up. With the bridge removed, you clamp these 2 pieces to the top along with a moist rag in the shape of the plate. It is quite effective in changing the top shape, especially on a guitar assembled with hide glue. It can keep you from having to replace a bridge plate, or even put off a neck reset.

TT: I see- do you have any horror stories to share with us?

JK: The one that comes to mind could also be thought of as “well meaning”, but it was a horror story to me.

We received a 1930 OM-45 for consignment a few years back. It had Deluxe appointments, but it had many repairs and the things that make an OM-45 an OM-45 Deluxe (the inlaid pick-guard and bridge) had been modified. We were not sure it was really a Deluxe. This had to be confirmed somehow to justify the cost of the major restoration needed. We called in favor to the good folks at Martin, and they consulted the original sales data for the guitar. It had left the factory as an original OM-45 Deluxe, so we got an O.K. from the owner to proceed.

The instrument was poorly re-finished with new tuners, a new fingerboard with non-original T frets and new incorrect inlays, a new oversize bridge, and the thickest new oversize rosewood bridge-plate I had ever seen. And that was not the worst part. The original inlaid pick-guard had been removed, and in the process the inlays had been lost. The pick-guard itself was fractured into several pieces, and some of those were missing. In an effort to restore the inlays without having to cut new ones they come up with a very novel idea. A cavity was cut into the top and several full size abalone blanks were glued into the cavity. What was left of the pick-guard was glued on top of this mess. The inlay cavities in the pick-guard allowed the abalone blanks underneath to be visible through these similarly shaped windows.

I had to inlay some new top wood in the cavity and re-construct a part of the outside rosette ring. A new pick-guard made of new/old stock Martin tortoise plastic was inlayed and installed, and the top was refinished. It was a fun but challenging restoration.

TT: Thanks Joe. Before we let you go, given the prevalance of such repairs, would you have any advice regarding care of vintage instruments and maybe when to seek profession help?

JK: Seek professional help before you get in over your head. Where to draw that line would be up to the individual and their particular skills. Err on the side of caution.

The most important area of care is humidification. Forty five to forty eight percent at 70 degrees is ideal. It is always easier to control a small area (like a guitar case). Too dry is more dangerous than too wet.

©Terence Tan.
Pictures & MP3s courtesy of Joe Konkoly
© individuals 2010

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