Modern Builder Vault: Martin Keith Guitars

Premier Guitar - December 2012

by Rich Osweiler


Like Transylvania has vampires, Woodstock, New York, and the surrounding area has its share of luthiers — luthiers in the vein of Michael Tobias, Harvey Citron, and Joe Veillette. Having worked in Veillette's shop since 2000, and more recently as a shop assistant with Ken Parker's operation, Martin Keith certainly has been blessed with the lutherie equivalent of an Ivy League education. While he still divides his time between several different shops, Keith also builds a number of stunning instruments through his solo operation, Martin Keith Guitars.

The son of a well-known banjo player, Keith began playing guitar and bass when he was 15. From the beginning, the technical aspects of the instruments interested him almost as much as the musical ones. He quickly progressed from simple setups to mods and then "other bedroom-floor guitar butchery." Long before he started building, he spent much of his free time in college hunting down trivia about guitars, instrument making, and repair. This obsession is what led him to beginning his apprenticeship with Veillette, a working relationship that continues to this day.

Striving to build from his experiences as a player, Keith wants to remain focused on making choices that matter at a functional level. He'd rather not play with exotic finishes, make crazy shapes...

Keith initially built basses in his shop, with the exception of an occasional one-off guitar, but he officially introduced his new line of guitars in October 2011. "I'll never make something that I can't play — like a violin, for example," he says. "I simply wouldn't know how to make any decisions or judgments if I didn't have an opinion as a player." Keith's instrument expansion represents a reflection of the direction he's moved as a player and guitar lover, but his main inclination is toward acoustics because, he says, they have more variables to play with. "There is clear and immediate feedback from so many different factors of design and construction," says Keith. "The builder has much wider frontiers to explore."

He's not afraid to experiment, including with carbon-fiber and composite neck construction. Inspired by his recent work with Ken Parker, Keith has developed a neck design that uses a softwood core, an interior shell of carbon fiber, and an outer layer of hardwood. "These necks are lighter, stiffer, and more responsive than solid-wood necks — with broader frequency response and definition, especially in the bass," Keith says. "The strength of the carbon and the natural resonance of the softwood core really make for a great combination that's organic and wooden sounding, strong, stable, and light."

Striving to build from his experiences as a player, Keith wants to remain focused on making choices that matter at a functional level. He'd rather not play with exotic finishes, make crazy shapes, or be slavish about nailing down every cosmetic detail of, say, a '52 Tele. Instead, Keith's goal is to build instruments that sound, feel, and perform differently. "When you pick up one of my basses with your eyes closed, you can feel that it's very different from just another J bass. And for some people, that difference is what they've always been seeking," he says. "That's not to knock J basses, but they can't be right for everybody!" As for his acoustics, Keith believes that the best modern D-28s and L-5s are already being made, but that there is a sonic and stylistic middle ground between an archtop and flattop where a lot of intriguing possibilities exist. "My Aurioles don't sound like anything else," says Keith. "They touch aspects of many different types of sounds, but in a combination that is their own."

Pricing and Availability

Keith does all the work on his guitars and basses, save for having a local finisher spray a high-gloss polyester finish on the electric instruments. While pricing varies considerably with the custom options, his electric basses start at $2,800 (with the average retail price in the $3,500 to $3,800 range) and the acoustic instruments start at $6,000. "I am extremely flexible with options and can accommodate almost any custom request," says Keith, "if I think it's a good idea!" Build time is generally between three and five months. Though Keith's production schedule is ever changing since he still divides his time between several shops, he produces approximately 10–12 instruments annually.