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Author Topic: Ken Miller guitars- an interview with video  (Read 1137 times)
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« on: April 23, 2009, 01:14:28 AM »

Hi Folks

For your viewing pleasure, I have just published an interview with Ken
Miller of Miller Guitars. As always, improvements, corrections and
additional information/ your own experiences are much appreciated-
I'll update the profile citing you and linking back to you! This is by
no means complete a profile, so feel free to add to what I already

I can't link pics directly to here so do pop by to:
for the full audio/Visual presentation. As always, I present the text
portion of the profile for your consideration- although I do highly
recommend popping by to see the videos and pics!

Warmest regards,

Ken Miller | 2009 | Luthier Interview

Ken Miller has been steadily building a reputation as a superb luthier
with a modern aesthetic nut vintage tone. His guitars have been used
by players such as Steve Kaufman (read our interview with Steve here).
Many swear by his varnish finished guitars for their power and
Ken very kindly took a little time out of his very busy build schedule
to speak to us.

TT - Hey Ken, thanks for doing this interview with us! I was wondering
how you actually got into the lutherie business?

AL - In about 1962 I bought my first "good" gtr, a classical from Casa
Urapan in Mexico city. I immedeately glued on golpes - the tap plates
that one needs for flamenco music. In a few months they peeled off
ruining the finish. I went to a local music store & priced
refinishing. I was APPALLED by the price quoted. (tho I now understand

I refinished my gtr myself and it turned out nicely. From then on I
did my own work, which became more complicated as I got more specific
in my musical desires. Soon I was making complete instruments as I
could not afford or find what I wanted. I think that my first projects
were a long neck 5 string banjo and a 12 string gtr. The folk boom you

TT - I notice a very strong flatpicking/ bluegrass streak amongst your
guitar and mandolin models- is this intended?

AL - We have been building a guitar as a "Door Prize" for the Steve
Kaufman Acoustic Kamp for several years now. This years' guitar is
"OM" style in Cuban Mahogany/Adirondack Spruce. We have been the first
week Kamp Doctor (repairman) for five years now. Being associated with
Steve and his Kamp is a delightful experience.

TT - I understand you're involved in providing a door prize guitar at

AL - We have been building a guitar as a "Door Prize" for the Steve
Kaufman Acoustic Kamp for several years now. This years' guitar is
"OM" style in Cuban Mahogany/Adirondack Spruce. We have been the first
week Kamp Doctor (repairman) for five years now. Being associated with
Steve and his Kamp is a delightful experience.

TT - So the dreadnoughts are the most popular model you build at the

AL - Yes, we build slightly more of the Dreadnaught shape than
anything else. Our "J" style is second and our 000 or 0M style is
third. We really build a mix of styles- which keeps things
interesting. Right now we have a small guitar, about a 3 1/2 in Martin
sizes, in the works. It will be the smallest guitar that I have built
to date.

I use Martin sizes for refference, but our instruments are not Martin
copies in design or dimensions. I've seen many vintage instruments
over the years and I think that they have ALL influenced our designs.

We also try to match up with what the customer wants. They may be
oriented to Martin, Gibson, or something more exotic. Our goal is to
build what the customer has envisioned, to make the customer's vision
a practical and artistic reality.

TT - I saw that "Tree Mahogany"-exotic indeed! What are your most
favoured woods/ combinations and could you tell us a little more about
how you ended up building with the tree mahogany? (read more about the
Tree Mahogany in our upcoming article)

A L- As for combinations, for the last 7-8 years we have been using
Adirondack (red) spruce exclusively for faces and bracing. This
because we have a good supply and it works very nicely; perhaps most
importantly, I think that it is really tough to "learn" how to work
with face woods.

By concentrating on one species I have a better chance of gaining that
intuitive sense that helps one produce "special" instruments. For
favored woods, we think that both Koa and Mahogany are the most
rewarding to work with. The "The Tree" mahogany was described in Fine
Woodworking mag #54 in 1985.

Wood with a provenance is always more appealing both to the woodworker
and the customer. Some years ago I was offered a chance at some. It
was pricey, along the lines of Brazilian rosewood. I'm a sucker for
wood so I bought a set. My goodness it was nice!  A very different
wood from "regular" mahogany. It is darker and harder (denser, more
reflective/glassy) than "regular" mahogany, and the figure much more
defined than on normal quilted mahogany.

I bought a few more sets - all that I could afford at the time. The
instruments that I have built with this wood sound richer and louder
than those of regular mahogany. The looks are spectacular - similar to
the "tubular" figured maple one sees occasionally. I sure wish that I
could find some more...

TT - I wish I had some of the tree to start with! How about the
rosewoods, Ken?

AL - We do have a supply of Brazilian rosewood. We use it exclusively
for bridges, often for peghead overlays and binding. We occasionally
use it for backs & sides, it sounds great and can look really

We have put a good bit of effort into getting wood that is legal BUT
there is no way that we can conform to the current & future legal
documentation required for international shipping. We have no had
trouble shipping instruments with Braz components but full back &
sides seems to be asking for trouble. On a similar note, we do not
work with "tortoise shell".

We do not care for Indian Rosewood (personal choice) - why use it if
you have the real thing (Braz)?. We have started experimenting with
Madagascar rswd,  Malaysian Blackwood and Bois d'Rose. They have
similar looks and sound capacity.

TT - And to go with the exotic woods are equally exotic inlays by

AL - I am blessed and grateful to have Virginia in my life. She has
wonderful artistic talent so I taught her the basics of inlay. She
also took a course from David Nichols at one of the ASIA conventions.
One of her earliest (2nd?) efforts was a Heron on a banjo head.

She used up almost all of our "curly" mother-of-pearl! I was appalled,
but it was and remains an excellent job. We use many different types
of shell along with exotic woods and stones to create our inlays. We
try to keep the inlays simple and "cartoonish" rather that photo
perfect, thus allowing the viewer to fill in the details mentally.

We want the inlay to be a part of the whole instrument, not it's own
entity. Fulfilling a customer's ideas and keeping the inlay from being
overpowering is a balancing act. Virginia is still working as a RN but
we are looking forward to the day when she retires and can be with me
in the shop fulltime. Her artistry takes our efforts to a much higher

TT - So no repros of the D100?

AL - No 8^D, that's a bit beyond our aesthetic. I'm a real fan of
CFMartin I, who headed up the Martin shop until about 1870. I've had a
number of his instruments come through my shop. They have this
wonderful simplicity of design while using quite a bit of color in the
purfling and marquetry. With rare exceptions his use of shell work was
very limited. His guitars were not standardized as they were later and
I find them to be delightful to see and play. We often use shell
around the soundhole but are not interested in the "42 or 45" edge
shell work.

TT -Is it hard to get customers into using a marquetry border outside
of the usual herringbone styles? I rarely see that in today's

AL - This doesn't hit us so much as we are NOT attempting to build for
the D-18/D-28 market. People who see and hear our instruments realize
that we are offering a different voice and look. Occasionally we get
such inquires and if we find that they want something other than what
we build, we try to gracefully pass them on to builders who might be
better suited to their needs.

For instance: we don't usually use cedar faces. Yes, we could, but
wouldn't one be best advised to use a builder who regularly builds
with cedar- if that is what their heart is set upon? Yes we do
occasionally use "herringbone", we have several styles in stock- but
we prefer to have a different, more handmade look.

TT - I was speaking of getting folks interested in multi-colour
herringbone- I love that red/green/white scheme which sometimes makes
an appearance on Sobells- but I've not so far found someone who would
order a guitar with that trim!

AL - We have used multi color Herringbone trim often for rossettes but
not for edge trim (marquetry). It probably is a little "busy" for us
if too much is used. I do enjoy the multi-color look though.

TT - I notice you're using oil based finishes, what's the low down on

AL - I have never been a fan of Lacquer - neither the health concerns
nor the brittle finish. I tried the water borne finishes. They did
seem to work well and were very convenient - but the paint just didn't
look "warm". So I went to varnish, the old stand-by. I started with a
Behlen product with nice results but they changed the formula (imagine
that?) and over night it became an unsatisfactory product for me.

Auggie LoPrinzi told me about the Pratt & Lambert product and I've
used it ever since. It dries reasonably well and I think it
contributes to the sound that I get. It is an oil based varnish,
similar to the old violin varnishes. Lacquer finishes look the best
right when they come off the buffer, then it is all downhill.

Varnish finishes look their "worst" when new. As they age they self
polish; with reasonable maintenance the finish gets better forever.
Varnish is softer than lacquer but much more resilient than French
polish. A happy compromise perhaps?

1. Steve Kaufman interview: here.
2. The Tree Mahogany pending.
3. Acoustic Kamp: here
4. Rolly Brown here.

TT - How does the climate in Florida affect the building?

AL - The Gulf coast is humid - like "stepping into a dog's mouth". We
build in a climate controlled shop though, we try to keep the humidity
around 50%. We have not had any unusual problems despite having
instruments in New England and southern New Mexico - these being the
acid test. So, other than worrying during hurricane season, our
building and varnishing schedule is fairly normal.

TT - Thank you for your time, Ken. I was wondering if you had any
words of advice for aspiring luthiers?

AL - For your first instrument build a Appalacian lap dulcimer. Don't
use a kit, get all of your materials locally - not from a musical
instrument supplier. This will introduce you to all of the skills one
needs to to be a luthier, in a gentle and economical manner.

Having done this one can evaluate their level of skill, enthusiasm and
practicality and proceed accordingly. Look carefully at every
instrument that impresses you for any reason. Listen carefully to
every source of learning. Enjoy!

Ken Miller guitars

©2008 Terence Tan.
Pictures courtesy of Ken Miller ©2009
Videos copyright original owners.

Any infringement of copyright or errors is entirely unintentional-
although we try very hard not to make them. Any guitars represented
remain property of their current owners. Any issues should be address
to: We will attempt to resolve these issues
Barefoot Rob
Online Online

Posts: 14316

« Reply #1 on: April 23, 2009, 03:27:21 AM »

Ken live's in tally town where I am.He create's some beautiful guitars and is a fine repairman though I think he mostly builds now.Nice to see some national attention.

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