Luthier Jim Olson of Olson Guitars

jim-olson

James A. Olson is a legend in the world of acoustic guitar making. The Minnesota-based luthier is a cult favorite among guitar collectors around the world thanks to the instruments he’s built for James Taylor (Taylor’s Olson was once immortalized in cartoon form on a Simpson’s episode), Phil Keaggy and Leo Kottke. Due to their high demand, Olson’s new creations start at $15,000, a price that even he is a little embarrassed by. “I’m the Forrest Gump of guitar making,” he sheepishly explains. “I fell into here. I don’t think these things are any more special than anything else.”

During this candid talk, Olson tells us about the first guitar he built (with help from the classic Irving Sloane book), how Keaggy ordered the first cedar guitar and how an early (and failed) distribution deal for his dreadnoughts in the late ‘70s resulted in his fanatical appreciation for tooling and build efficiency. “I’m sometimes more interested in making a new piece of tooling than a guitar,” he admits.

We also talk CNC machines (Olson talks about which components he uses his Fadal CNC for), the origin of the Small Jumbo body size, tone woods and hear about his fateful meeting with James Taylor. Plus a lot more.

Source

Between the Strings

between the strings

In 2004 Jim was asked to contribute an article for a book being written by John Schroeter called Between the Strings. It contains behind the scenes stories from guitar makers and musicians as varied as BB King to ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons. Below is Jim’s contribution.

It was the last straw, the one that broke the camel’s back. I won’t say it precipitated a nervous breakdown, but I was probably just this side of it as I stood in the shower and cried. Only moments before, I had finished a guitar for a customer in England. A high-end guitar with a few custom touches that made it really special. I noticed a tiny spot on the top near the bridge that I’d missed when buffing. It was no big deal, but being a perfectionist, I took it back to the buffing wheel one more time.

The buffer spins at a high rate of speed, and for dust collection and safety’s sake, the wheel is partially covered by a shroud. So with the guitar in one hand, I grabbed a lemon-sized piece of buffing compound with the other, and touched it against the buffing wheel. Inexplicably, it tore out of my hand and shot around that shroud like a baseball thrown from a pitching machine, smashing the face of the guitar. The top was shattered into splinters before I could react.

It was late at night, I was tired, and I was completely overwhelmed by a backlog of 160 guitars. I was already working seventy hours or more a week as it was. How was I going to find time to start another guitar to replace
this one? How was I going to explain to the customer that the guitar he had been waiting on for over two years would not be shipping tomorrow as promised? Overwhelmed, I made my way to the shower.

I had always been a player, but by the mid seventies, I decided I wanted to build a guitar. I was a fairly accomplished woodworker, and so, despite the dearth of instructional materials of any kind, I thought I might be able to do it. The one resource I was eventually able to get my hands on was the now classic book on guitar construction by Irving Sloan. Building those first few instruments was such a wonderful experience that by 1977, I made the decision to quit my day job and go full time into making guitars. The only problem was that I couldn’t sell
them. I could barely give them away! Those first few guitars ended up going to friends for two hundred bucks or so.

I thought my prospects brightened when I was approached by a distributor who promised to buy everything I could make. So I worked very hard over the next two and a half years building 78 guitars under the arrangement we made. At a list price of $895, I would get half of that. The stores and distributor would split the other half. They didn’t sell well at all, and ended up being closed out at cost or below. After expenses the entire venture barely netted me a profit. People just weren’t interested in guitars without any name recognition.

Fortunately, at that my wife was working full time as a schoolteacher, and she basically supported me as I tried to build a business. Nearly every penny I made, got plowed back into the shop as I bought more wood and tools. On the bright side, I did gain a lot of experience, I was doing what I wanted to do which was make guitars, but by the end of this period, I was broke.

I had been sharing a building with a harpsichord maker who also made dulcimers and ran a small music store. But unable to afford the rent, I moved into a building purchased by an inner city church my wife and I attended. They had just acquired a large property. A once glorious, but now old, mostly gutted, dilapidated brick building. The previous tenant had wooden beds of dirt inside and had actually been raising worms to sell. In exchange for rent, my job was to help rehabilitate the building. When the rehab was complete, my position changed to full time janitor and
building maintenance. In other words, I cleaned toilets, set up tables and scrubbed floors. That was the downside. On the upside, there was plenty of room there for my shop. In my off hours I managed to do guitar repairs for local shops and make about a dozen or so guitars a year.

Coincidentally, though, it was also the dawn of the disco era, and with its rise, came the fall of everything acoustic. Once again, I could hardly give a guitar away. I sold most of what I made to church members and friends just to buy more wood. I was addicted and giving up never crossed my mind.

In 1983 I had the good fortune to meet Phil Keaggy. I was blown away when I first heard him. Amazingly, he liked my guitars, bought one and started playing them. The first guitar I built for him was a spruce top, but eventually he
requested a cedar top version to replace the Mark Whitebook he had been playing. It was the first cedar top guitar I ever made. Over the course of the next few years, as Phil began touring with that guitar, I began to get
noticed. More orders began to follow, and things started to pick up. So much so, that I now had to juggle my guitar building with my janitorial duties. It was a real struggle to find the time to complete the orders and still see my family.

In 1989, my business would receive a huge boost when James Taylor bought three guitars from me. It was an unbelievable turn of events! The orders began to accumulate and with them came deposits. It was great! It enabled
my wife, Susan, to quit work and to stay at home to raise our three young sons. Before I knew it, I found myself with a backlog of 160 guitar orders. With that deposit money in the bank, I finally felt secure in my chosen vocation. I moved out of the church and bought a ten-acre property with a large shop building close to the house. It was just a tin “pole” building that needed the interior to be finished. That meant sheet rock, heating, electrical, etc., but it was mine! The house needed some work also, but things were looking pretty good. With some hard work
and help from church friends, before long I was set and ready to go.

Managing the backlog, though, was more difficult than I had anticipated. It seemed that everyone with a guitar on order would call to “chat” or check on its progress. Spending an hour with each of the 160 customers was equal to a month worth of forty-hour weeks! That, along with visitors and prospective customers, left me with less time for
production. Even with my wife answering the phone, people still wanted to talk to me. I thought an apprentice might help matters. I’ve had several over the years, but I usually found that I ended up spending so much time teaching them and repairing mistakes that I preferred working alone.

Also at that time, I was switching over to a new finishing process. Although eventually it would be beneficial, the initial changeover was wrought with problems. I was also trying to get up to speed on a Fadal CNC machining center I had acquired. Someone jokingly told Steve McCreary at Collings Guitars that I had gotten a Fadal, and that last year
without it, I had made sixty guitars. The person said, “How many do you suppose he will make this year?” Steve answered, “About twenty.” And that was the truth! You don’t just throw wood into these things and have them spit out parts. Creating the computer drawings and setting up the fixtures for that machine was no small task. I spent many hours learning how to get it up and running. In the meantime, the work was piling up, and my first real wake up call was just around the corner.

I was pushing some stock through a 14″ table saw, cutting a neck blank. The blade caught the tail end of the “fall off” piece and kicked it back with such force that it embedded it into the 18′ foot-high ceiling, but not before it blew past my head on its way up. I realized in that moment that had it hit my head, I would be dead or at best a vegetable, leaving my wife Sue to either learn how to make guitars really fast, or skip the country. All of a sudden, I realized that maybe I wasn’t doing so great after all. With all those orders booked and deposits in, the fact was, I had a huge debt and a tremendous liability on my hands.

And then I smashed that guitar at the buffing wheel.

This wasn’t the first time I’d lost a guitar buffing. I’ve had a whole guitar ripped from my hands as it caught the edge of the spinning wheel and bounce across the floor and come to rest demolished! Almost every seasoned guitar maker has witnessed that nightmare scenario. But this was something new. Something I hadn’t ever anticipated. A perfect guitar set to go, destroyed in a second by what appeared to be a cannon ball shot from the mouth of “Beelzebub,” my buffing machine!

In no time, what seemed a great blessing was morphing into a nightmare. Working as a one-man shop, I was overwhelmed and exhausted and staring at years of grossly over committed work before me, The only certainty I knew at that point was that I wouldn’t be taking any new orders for a while.

Over the next year I made some headway and managed to work through a good bit of the backlog. In the meantime, though, demand for my guitars continued to rise. The market for them was incredibly strong and used ones were selling for considerably more than the prices at which I had originally booked them. I’d deliver a guitar to a customer only to see it show up on eBay for twice the price I had just delivered it at. But that’s the American system. I was happy when I took their orders, but it still stung when things like that happened. I was determined to deliver everything that I promised and at the price it was promised, and I’m proud of that. But once I got through that backlog, I was able to make some adjustments.

It can be difficult to maintain perspective at times, even when you have success. Sometimes people look at what I have, and seeing the pictures on my wall say, “You must be so happy.” I am very blessed to have enjoyed success as a guitar maker and I am relatively happy. Yet whether it was in the early days of my building or now, my happiness has
remained fairly constant and at times seemed elusive. But I never want to go backward. Happiness seems dependent upon going forward. It’s those day to day triumphs. Those are the moments that make us happy. There is no plateau where suddenly everything has accumulated and you’ve “arrived”, and happiness remains forever. You can never stop going forward. There is always a new challenge, a new idea, a new jig to make, a new song, always something new to conquer.

I am as thrilled as ever to be making guitars. There are more possibilities and the bar has been raised incredibly high. There are many great builders doing astonishingly beautiful work today. I’m always amazed at what I see at the guitar shows! The guitars look great, and there’s no doubt they sound great too. The guitar buying public is going to have a hard time choosing an instrument. There are so many good choices. But it’s also going to be hard for the newer makers to distinguish themselves. That’s just the nature of life and business. It takes effort to excel. It’s no different than becoming a guitar player. You get into making music or playing an instrument because want to and you can’t stop. You’ve just got to do it. You have got to learn the new chord, the next song. Even if you can’t seem to make a living at it. You do it because it’s something you just feel you have to do. That’s how it is with guitar makers also. You start on a guitar, and before you’re finished, you have to start another one because you have learned so much and have new ideas. You don’t care that it’s difficult. In fact, perhaps it is the difficulty that drives you!

There isn’t a musician or guitar maker or dreamer on the planet that hasn’t gone through hardships and heartbreak. My story is certainly not unique. But when I am working on a guitar, I feel like I am doing what I was created to do. Like it was chosen for me. It feels good. It is exciting to see your ideas come to fruition. Its exciting to see how efficiently and perfectly you can get things done. It is fulfilling when you see music being created on something you made. Despite the difficulty, for me, there’s just nothing that drives me more.

There were many divine interventions that I believe contributed to my success. Hard work was essential, but I believe faith and prayer created the intangible differences. It sustained me through the hard times and kept me level headed through the good times. Life is a blessing and a gift! As my good friend Michael Card once said.

“The Joy is in the Journey”.

The adventure of a lifetime!

In March of 2015, I had the adventure of a lifetime!

It began when I was planning a trip to visit my friends Bob Taylor (to tour their new Mexican facility), and also to visit with Doug Shane (to tour The Space Ship Company) . Doug is now the President of Richard Branson’s space tourism project.

Bob was also interested in the Space Ship Company tour, and Doug was interested in seeing the new Taylor factory. Doug is a great guitar player! The problem is the distance between the two companies is about a 6 hour drive. We were trying to figure out how to coordinate it all when Bob graciously said ” How about we take our jet”. “Jim, you spend
the night here with me, in the morning we can fly out to visit Doug and spend the day with him. Doug can fly back with us and you guys can spend the night with me and in the morning I will drive you both to Mexico”. Wow!! how cool is that! Count me in!

I have put together a few highlight photos from the trip. I can’t say enough about Bob and his generosity to me over the years. The guidance and inspiration he has given me is priceless. Two Taylor’s have changed my life. Bob and James.. I am forever grateful.

James Taylor presents Jim Olson with a “One Man Band” RIAA Plaque

Jim was recently honored when he was presented with an RIIA plaque from James Taylor. The award was to commemorate RIAA Certified Gold record sales for the Hear Music compact disc “One Man Band. It was so unexpected and probably undeserved… but so greatly appreciated. Thank you James! It will be proudly displayed at Olson guitars!