Low-End Boutique

Fine Living Lancaster, July 2012

by Will Marks

When you hear the word "boutique" your thoughts will naturally wander to a small store with kitschy items or more likely, high-end fashions. For the musicians though, boutique means something else: handcrafted musical instruments. For those players not moved by the "assembly line" practices of the massive American musical instrument companies such as Fender or Gibson, or more likely, looking for something "off the beaten path" when it comes to their choice of an instrument. Off the beaten path is exactly where Martin Keith Designs lies. Literally off the path in Woodstock, New York, is Keith's home and workshop where he crafts amazing bass guitars for players looking for not only something of pinnacle quality, but something unique. Just a few questions with Martin Keith unveils that he takes the responsibility of his art very seriously.

Fine Living Lancaster: What exactly is a "Boutique Builder?"

Martin Keith: That can mean different things to different people. To me, I would hope that as in other industries, the "boutique" guitar builders are the small, creative businesses that use fresh, innovative, and experimental ideas to find their place in the larger market. Many aspects of modern guitar making were proven viable by smaller companies, and later adopted by the "big boys" after they were shown to be successful. To me, that means that it is both the job and the privilege of the "boutique" builder to explore new territory. Many people feel, and I agree, that we are currently in a new "Golden Age" of guitar making. This has everything to do with the creativity and energy of the custom builders.

FLL: How do you differ from the big companies like Fender and Gibson?

MK: The main difference is flexibility. As a small shop and a one-man company, I am able to be responsive to my clients. needs and build an instrument that fits those needs far more closely. A custom request like a special neck shape would be prohibitively expensive for a large-scale company to accommodate, but I can do it very easily. It really only starts there. Also, I’ve had some crazy requests, some of which have turned out to be very cool instruments! Beyond that, the lesson learned from making acoustic guitars is that every piece of wood counts in the final tone and response of the instrument. even in an electric. Building at the large-scale level forces the company to overlook the minor differences between a decent piece of wood and an exceptional one (or an unacceptable one). The result is that most factory guitars trend toward an average result, since many specifications are standardized for the .average. piece of wood. By contrast, the small builder has the opportunity to select or reject specific pieces of wood for every instrument, which allows a much higher consistency of finished product, and gives greater control over the resulting instrument's personality.

FLL: How did you get your start?

MK: As a young player I had a talent for accumulating instruments that needed work, and started out rewiring and modifying them on the bedroom floor — sometimes burning holes in the carpet with a soldering iron. Shortly after graduating from college I answered an ad that led me to Veillette Guitars in Woodstock, where I spent eleven years involved in every aspect of the business, from woodworking and wiring to customer and dealer relations. Learning how to work directly with clients has made a big difference in how I approach my business today. I really try to create a relationship with the client, to understand what they need and want. Many of my clients have become friends, and [we] stay in touch long after the instrument has been delivered.

FLL: What is your philosophy in building basses?

MK: From a functional perspective, there are a few important areas where many traditional basses could be improved. The first is weight and balance. As a player, I suffered for years with basses that were too heavy and did not balance well. Much can be said for tradition, but it has, in some cases, forced people to accept things that are less than ideal. A major design priority for me is to reduce the weight and improve the balance, both of which make a tremendous difference in the experience of playing.particularly for long gigs! Alongside that, I feel it's important to pursue approaches, materials, and concepts that could potentially expand the vocabulary available to all builders. The community of instrument makers is very open to sharing and exchanging ideas, and we will all need to explore as the time-tested and classic woods becomes less and less available. Within my lifetime, I expect that several time-honored species of instrument wood will be essentially gone from the market. So, it's our job as the builders to explore and demonstrate the viable alternatives. Of the thousands of players I've met over the years, no two have been exactly the same. However, to a great extent, most players are offered a pretty narrow range of choices from major companies. These have gotten bigger in recent years, but many of the differences are cosmetic, not truly functional. You could make the analogy that the bigger companies are like chain restaurants. you're allowed to "customize" by choosing the one with cheese, or without pickles, but the underlying product is still the same. By contrast, a builder like myself would be a restaurant with no menu.you just walk through the door and tell me what you feel like having. It takes a little longer and costs a little more (Writer's note: Keith's instruments are actually comparably priced to most USA made "big name" instruments), but you get exactly what you want.

FLL: Will you ever do guitars or just basses?

MK: Actually, I've built hundreds of guitars with Veillette in the last decade, but very few with my name on them. This fall, I am introducing a range of acoustic instruments that represent the expansion, evolution, and true direction of the line. These instruments will include both guitars and bass guitars. I may well make a baritone guitar also, since those are very fun and pretty popular lately. Limiting myself to just basses, or just electrics — that would be no fun. And the best instruments come from a maker that's enjoying himself every day!