When I was about 8 years old, my parents and I took a walk through Old Town in Pasadena, Calif. In those days, the area wasn’t much more than crummy liquor stores, an old movie theater and a few pawn shops. We stopped to look in the window of one such establishment, and that was the very instant I fell in love with the guitar. A couple of old, beaten-up acoustics and several gorgeous electrics hung from the store’s walls. It took me four years of begging before I was finally given an ancient, nylon-stringed classical guitar that had belonged to my grandfather. It was barely playable and needed a lot of work, but it was mine. I’ll never forget the incredible feeling that washed over me as I felt the softness of the wood and heard the plucky sounds of the only two strings it had left.
These feelings were perhaps what caused me so much excitement when I heard that Santa Fe now boasts a master luthier in Denver transplant Jim Kath. (A luthier, in case you are curious, is a craftsperson who builds and/or repairs guitars and other stringed instruments.) Learning the art is a painstaking process, which is why I jumped at an opportunity to tour Kath Guitars. It’s a small operation currently housed in a garage. (Kath sells his work out of a booth at the Artisan’s Market on Saturdays.) The workspace is small, messy and stocked with countless tools and varieties of wood, as well as a handful of guitars in various stages of completion. The instruments are stunning, and Kath allowed me to noodle on a few as he took me through the basics of building a guitar.
The first element involved is the wood. Of course, old standby varieties such as maple or mahogany are available, but as Kath, who has spent more than 30 years as a luthier and musician, builds nothing but custom instruments, a certain level of leeway is involved. Sitka spruce, ebony and other exotic species are available, with man-hours and costs increasing for the rarer and less pliable materials.
“Depending on the style of the player, certain woods work better than others,” Kath says. “It’s really up to the customer, though, and I want to help these people find their dream guitar.”
Kath plans the body once he has sectioned the wood. He builds many styles and, depending on the final product, pours anywhere between 90 and 150 hours of work into the process. For example, an archtop guitar (one in which the body isn’t flat) requires far more effort than a flattop. The same goes for a solid body (one in which the neck and body are a single piece of wood) as opposed to a guitar with a bolt-on neck.
“There is steaming the wood, bending, shaping, filing, gluing and more,” Kath says. “It’s one of the few crafts that requires measurements to be within a thousandth of an inch—hair is thicker than that—or the
guitar simply won’t play right.”
With the body shaped, Kath focuses on the neck, and once again, different woods come into play based on the customer’s desires. The fret board, tuners, faceplate and basic neck shape come together, finally allowing the instrument to take its familiar shape.
Staining and lacquering are the final steps and, after months of effort, a guitar is ready to play. As a player for more than 15 years myself, I almost wanted to do some stealing when I visited Kath’s workspace.
For many, the guitar is merely a finished product ready to play, with the dizzying amount of time and effort put into making each becoming a distant afterthought. Having seen what Kath is capable of, I highly recommend him as a new local resource.
“Bring me your guitars, Santa Fe,” he says. “I will make them play like new—or better.”
Open 10 am-4 pm Sundays
Artisan’s Market (Railyard)
S Guadalupe Street and Paseo de Peralta
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