Something Borrowed

Martin Keith bears the imprint of both father and mentor

Fretboard Journal

Winter 2010

by Michael Eck

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Ten Years Ago, Martin Keith answered an ad in the Woodstock Times. Guitar maker Joe Veillette was looking for an apprentice, and, since Keith had been rewiring junky guitars at home and "burning holes in my bedroom floor with a soldering iron", he decided to apply. "I was just out of college,", Keith says. "He had work, he was five minutes away, and here I am."

In the intervening years, Keith, like coworker Ande Chase, has become an integral part of the Veillette Guitars team. It's Keith who does the final assembly and setup of virtually every instrument that goes out the door. The day I visit Veillette's shop, Keith is finishing up a beautiful honey-blonde six-string and preparing custom battery boxes for the next run of piezo-equipped instruments.

"It's a very low-pressure environment to work here," he says.

Like Veillette and Chase, Keith is a performing musician - I play bass in public," he says, "I play guitar at home" - and agrees that one practice feeds the other.

"I don't know how you can properly asses the quality of a given thing unless you have enough understanding of it to know what's good or bad. The playing is indispensable. I think the only way you can make good decisions when building an instrument is if you have a subjective opinion. Obviously, you can't be right for everyone all the time, but I couldn't ever see myself building an instrument that I couldn't play."

It's no surprise that Keith's life is surrounded by music and the tools that make it. His father is Bill Keith, pioneer of the melodic banjo style. The elder Keith picked the five-wire with Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys, and then strummed it, plectrum style, with Jim Kweskin and the Jug Band. He also invented the famous banjo D-tuners that bear his name.

"I'm very much like my dad in the way that I like to look at technical puzzles," Martin Keith says. "Dad was trained as a machinist and did a lot of tinkering. I don't know whether it's nature or nurture, but I'm very much his son in that sense."

Keith's instruments have certainly been influenced by his time in Veillette's shop. In fact, he says his own workspace echoes that of his day job. "I have basically the same gear in almost the same arrangement." He also learned how to create jigs and fixtures for specific purposes. "Joe taught me how to use machines to do whatever you need to do, in ways that don't necessarily jump out at you at first."

Keith does, however, build a narrower range of instruments, with a heavy emphasis on basses. His most popular model is the Elfin, a sleek, downsized version of the early Singlecut bass, which he helped develop at Veillette Guitars. It comes in four-, five-, and six-string variations, with 24 frets on either a bolt-on or set neck.

Being a gigging bassist himself, Keith has tried hard to reduce the weight of his instruments and to increase their ease of playability. The Libra, which, in the double-cutaway option, has a shape reminiscent of a Greek lyre, pushes the entire scale of the instrument toward the body through the use of a cantilevered bridge tail. Its design and careful balance are specifically meant to alleviate the pains players develop from the long stretch to the low notes and the task of supporting the weight of the bass from the neck.

Each of Keith's creations, including the narrow-waisted Sylph, is available with a variety of woods and custom options.

"It's a really exciting time to be a builder," he says. "There are so many people trying new things, and there are new materials that are starting to become ore accessible, in terms of cost and practical usability."

Keith is intrigued with the idea of creating an acoustic bass guitar that can honestly compete with and complement other instruments in a true acoustic setting, without an amp.

"I think I can do it," he says, though his true dream is both simpler and loftier. "My ultimate goal is to be happy with what I do, and I'm already there."