Jim Olson is a woodworker, a visual artist, a machinist and an inventor who creates guitars of extraordinary quality in his Circle Pines workshop.
By Jon Bream
Star Tribune Staff Writer
The Stradivari of acoustic guitars works and lives in Circle Pines.
Think that’s just hometown hyperbole? Then take it from James Taylor, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer who made handmade Olson guitars famous.
“I played it, and I haven’t looked back since,” said Taylor. “I love those Olson guitars.
Jim Olson, who’s as modest as one of Taylor’s blue work shirts, smiled when told of the singer’s comments. “James said that? Well, good,” he said with satisfaction.
Like Sweet baby James, Olson is a bald, plain-spoken and ordinary dressed guy who’s a master at his craft. His guitars- priced from $5,000 to $25,000- are far from ordinary, however.
“You can get all kinds of colors you can’t get with other guitars,” said acoustic ace Leo Kottke, who so cherishes his Olson that he won’t risk taking it on the road. “It’s really a rare guitar.”
Known for their stylish contours Olson guitars are made with rare woods such as Brazilian rosewood and choice mahogany, and are filigreed with mother of pearl and abalone. Their design enables players with a light touch to get extraordinary sounds.
Sting and Lou reed phoned Olson’s shop in Anoka County to buy guitars. Demand is so intense sometimes, when an instrument is delivered, the purchaser puts it up on ebay for a quick, and sizable, profit. Olson decided to make five 25th Anniversary guitars next year at an intentionally steep price of $25,000. Four of them have already sold.
His signature is a luminous “O,” inlaid with mother of pearl in the guitar’s peghead. You can see it in “Simpsons” reruns, in an episode featuring a cartoon Taylor guest star.
A one-man factory
Easygoing on the outside, Olson, 52, actually is an obsessive perfectionist. While he looks like a church janitor- which he once was- he is a maniacal combination of woodworker, visual artist, machinist and inventor.
Minneapolis guitarmaker Charlie Hoffman has traded tips with him since the early ’70’s. He said of Olson: “He is always thinking: How do I do it better?’ or ‘how do I do it right?’ He has a great passion for the process– the tools, the jigs, the equipment.”
Most of Olson’s competitors toil in tiny workshops, crafting a few guitars a year. Olson Guitars is a two-story garage in the northern suburbs that has been converted into a one-man factory with one of a kind machines, designed by Olson to make his craft easier and more consistent. Since 1977, he has produced 1,050 instruments.
On the first floor, glued necks are drying in one room, guitar bodies in another. Upstairs, there’s a computer to design parts, a custom made device for gluing the body and a wall of photos of stars- from Paul McCartney to Kathy Mattea playing Olson guitars.
When it comes to his shop, he drops his humble facade: “The product is subjective. What I will brag about is there isn’t a guitarmaker that’s got a shop like mine.”
Taylor visited the shop last year. It was an eye-opener, he said.
“It’s amazing to see what he’s invented,” said Taylor, who will perform Saturday at Northrop Auditorium in Minneapolis. “He has vacuum templates to hold onto pieces of wood so he can hold it a certain way. He has laser engravers. And he’s invented this stuff. He’s simply a really remarkable guitarmaker.”
One machine was fashioned from part of a bicycle frame. Another is so special that Hoffman drives out to Circle Pines to use it.
“His wide belt sander is more accurate than the ones by the company that makes them,” Hoffman said. “The tolerance is a couple thousandths of an inch, max. He is a very, very careful workman.”
A true do-it-yourselfer
Since he was a kid in Hudson,Wis., Olson has been obsessed with woodworking. At age 9, he swiped the shelves from his mom’s fruit cellar to build his version of a go-kart. In ninth grade– the only year he took shop class- he won a “Future American Craftsman” award.
Olson is self-taught, though he has taken a vo-tech class here and there.
“He’ll find a project and work it until it’s exhausted.” said Sue Olson, his wife of 30 years. “He’s always been a fighter. When he was 18 months old, he had polio in his right arm, and when he was going through treatment, the nurses said what a fighter he is.”
He’s made furniture, built a house and repaired guitars. He worked as a janitor in a St. Paul church in exchange for basement workspace. He made his first guitar in 1975 but he didn’t expect to make a living at it. In 1987, for example he earned only $12,000 as a guitarmaker.
Two years later, however, his fortunes changed forever. Through the friend of a friend, he managed to deliver a guitar to Taylor’s hotel room during a Twin Cities appearance.
“I didn’t want to meet him,” said Olson, who simply left a note on the guitar with his phone number. “The whole weekend went by and I didn’t hear a word. On Monday morning, I went to work doing my janitor duties– I was cleaning the toilets– and my portable phone rang.
” ‘This is James Taylor calling.’
“I said, “Seriously?’ And he said, ‘We played your guitar all weekend and were very taken by it.'”
Olson won’t go into details about how much his business has grown. Put it this way: three years ago, when he stopped taking orders for new instruments because he couldn’t keep up, his base price was $4,795 for one guitar. He’s made as many as 60 guitars a year.
On a typical day, he spends 10 to 12 hours in his shop, with breaks for lunch (often spent checking e-mails) and dinner (more computer time). And he works on weekends. Sometimes he’ll go an entire week without driving the family car.
His wife, a former math teacher, does the books and paperwork, but he long ago gave up on having workers because they slowed him down and affected quality control.
Behind the shop is a putting green– another sign of his obsessive nature. He took up golf a few years ago, partly to spend more time with his dad and partly to get a break from work. On a recent day, the green was blanketed with golf balls. The hacker had just bought 1,500 golf balls online from a fellow in Georgia.
He doesn’t play guitar much anymore, though he occasionally accompanies his wife’s singing at church. All three of their sons- ages 14,16, and 25 play music. The oldest is studying saxophone at the prestigious Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY.
Olson doesn’t cater only to be famous. On a recent chilly day, one of his customers, Barry Lee, drove up from Pensacola, Fla., to check on the progress of a $15,000 guitar he’d ordered three years ago. An amateur guitarist, he already owns two Olsons and plans to give all three as keepsakes to his children.
Shooting video footage of Olson and the workshop, Lee appeared more enthralled than impatient. And he cheerfully departed without a delivery date for his six-string Stradivarius.
After Lee left, Olson said, “I’m not sure when I’ll have his guitar done. It’s not one I normally make anymore. But I’d better get back to work.”
– Jon Bream
Olson sets guitar gold standard
You can’t buy a new Olson Guitar in a store. And there’s been a three-year wait to order new ones. But you can purchase used ones in guitar shops or via the internet.
Two Olson Guitars were sold on Ebay last week. Guitar Gallery (http://www.guitargal.com), a retailer in Nashville, has one new Olson ($21,000), plus a used one ($7,000) for sale.
“He is the standard all the other [guitar] builders go by,” said guitargal.com’s Robin Weber.
They sell fast, said Jeff Molde of Podium Premium Guitars in Minneapolis, because they have “snob appeal,” and the demand is greater than the supply.
Olson has about 500 inquiries on file about buying a new guitar. He stopped taking orders three years ago so he could catch up with a backlog of 160.
Prices vary from $5,000 to $25,000 depending on the design, materials and filigree. What makes them so valuable? It’s a combination of Olson’s artistry and the instrument’s sound and durability.
“They have a beautiful voice,” Molde says.
Said James Taylor: “They haven’t self-destructed on the road in the couple of decades that I’ve been giving them hell.”
Olson has access to top-of-the-line supplies such as rare Brazilian rosewood. And he’s known for his integrity. Although he charges a down payment, he doesn’t ask for final payment until the owner has played and approved the guitar. And if it takes Olson three years to fill an order, he still charges the original price quoted.
Olson is accepting orders for his new James Taylor Signature Model and the limited-edition 25th-anniversary guitar. But he says he has enough orders to keep him busy all next year.
Even with their Mercedes-like price, the guitars will appreciate in value, said Weber.
“It’s a great investment — much better than the stock market.”
– Jon Bream