What is a Boutique Guitar? Seeking the X Factor in Koll Guitars

After 30 years of meticulously carving out his own identity as a luthier, Saul Koll has set a standard that many view as a high-water mark in the world of boutique guitar building. His 200-square-foot backyard workshop is packed full of projects: piles of necks, slabs of wood, old Kolls in for repairs, odd one-off and custom projects, and any number of pieces in various stages of the assembly process. This is not an assembly-line operation by any means. Every guitar is viewed as its own unique project.

While his solidbody Junior Glide is a simple construction — two pieces of mahogany and rosewood without any bindings — his Super Glide Almighty and RE models are quite intricate, with chambered bodies and finely-detailed fret inlays. Where appropriate, he makes use of modern guitar building technology, but all are handbuilt over the course of Koll’s 12-to-14-hour work days.

Despite the many thousands of great guitars there are to choose from today, few are as recognizable and appreciated for their tone and playability as a Koll. To find out what goes into his creative process and discuss the X factor that differentiates them from the competition, Reverb spent a day with Saul Koll in his shop.

Finished Koll Super Glide Almighty (Photo: Chad Bartel)

What Makes a Guitar Boutique?

While Koll guitars are all individually handmade, he’s not afraid of technology. His CNC machines are really just a “more-accurate router holder,” and it’s not the machine, but the human behind the machine that’s important.

“What is really ‘handmade?” Koll asks, adding that his use of CNC machines really is just a starting point to stamp out an accurate representation of his design on the wood. Even after the CNC has cut the pieces, each of them — and especially the spruce tops — require hours of hand carving and finish work after they come off the machine.

Even pickguards are carefully rounded by hand in order to give the smooth, polished look Koll prefers. Upon closer inspection of a few finished guitars in the shop, it is apparent that each guitar has at least a few variations specific to just that individual instrument.

“The thing about guitars is that the materials are expensive; they are very labor intensive. And there are a ton of cheap and well-made guitars,” Koll says. “There has to be an X factor that no one else has. That’s how I envision a Koll guitar.”

The product of his vision, Koll explains, is a result of all this meticulous detail work and the “humanness” he applies to each build, adding that the value of a Koll guitar cannot be simply quantified by time, which is considerable, and materials, which are premium.

Luthier Saul Koll in the Koll workshop (Photo: Chad Bartel)

Sourcing Pickups and Hardware

While the details are almost always changing, one of the important characteristics of Koll’s guitars is his use of premium pickups and hardware, which he believes is necessary to maintain the integrity of his sound and vision.

Over the years, Koll has used pickups from just about all of the boutique builders, but tends to gravitate toward those built by friends. For example, TV Jones, a friend from way back in his Gretsch days, makes the Filter'Trons that have been featured in many of Koll’s designs. Pickups made by Jason Lollar, a friend of over 20 years, are a trusted favorite and Koll frequently uses his humbuckers, Charlie Christian, Gold Foil and custom P-90s. More recently, Pete Biltoft’s Vintage Vibe Charlie Christian-style pickups have contributed a specific sound and look that fits into the newer Koll builds. Currently, Rob Timmons of Arcane Inc., has been working closely with Koll to develop a more primitive sounding custom-built P-90 with an Alnico 3 magnet for the relaunch of the Koll Glide series.

Koll Guitars awaiting final assembly (Photo: Chad Bartel)

“There a thousand pickup makers, and most of 'em are really good,” Koll says. His views on selecting hardware are similarly eclectic. Hardware is “curated” based on quality and how it fits the aesthetic.

Koll has used the TonePros AVR2, the Pigtail wraparound bridge, Wilkinson and John Mann bridges as well. A recent favorite is the Schaller Signum wrap-around bridge that seems to be finding a home on more Glide guitars these days. Gotoh and Schaller tuners are also used on the Glide guitars, while Hipshot tuners will be used on the more techie stuff, such as the Tornado and the RE series.

There really isn't a specific reasoning other than they work well and they feel good, Koll says, and there are boxes and boxes of great tuners and bridges in the shop. Whatever fits the customers requests or the particular feel of the guitar, that's what gets installed.

In that way, Koll is very much like most other small builders: other than the Schaller tuners and bridges, which he occasionally buys in bulk, he’s not able to buy substantial quantities at discount, as most of his work is custom and rarely repeated.

Many Koll guitars are made of sustainable and locally sourced wood (Photo: Chad Bartel)

Sourcing Sustainable Wood

Common tonewoods, like big leaf maple, alder and ash, are readily available and used liberally in Koll’s projects, and sourcing wood for roughly 100 guitars per year is rarely a problem, he says. There are several supply houses in Oregon offering local, FSC Certified, green woods that are sustainably harvested. However the exotics, such as ebony, rosewood and koa, are increasingly rare and expensive.

Some of the suppliers will offer alternatives like Katalox — a dense and durable wood like ebony with the look and feel of rosewood — as a fretboard material, and Koll has used this in some of his recent builds. Nothing is off limits as long as the look, sound and feel are high caliber, he says, and as a result, he’s constantly looking for furniture wood, craft wood or even the liquidated inventory of a retiring luthier.

“The thing about guitar woods is that it seems like when you need it, you can’t really get it that day,” Koll says. “So I tend to just buy it whenever I can afford it and then I store it and use it years later.” Pretty wood is used as a design element, but sometimes it's just too pretty, he jokes. And juxtaposing its beauty of wood against his more-industrial designs is what gives his guitars their very individual and characteristic vibe, though sound and feel take precedence over the visual elements, he says.

All of Kolls meticulous finishes are done in-house, mostly with old-school nitrocellulose lacquer, though he also occasionally uses acrylic urethane — a two-part catalyzed automotive finish — for a more-durable guitars, like the Junior Glide or the Duo Glide.

Closeup of Koll fretboard inlay (Photo: Chad Bartel)

Market Differentiation

After so many years in the business, Koll is well connected to many musicians and others in the music business, so getting the guitars in the right hands is never a problem. All of Koll’s advertising and branding is grassroots. Koll, along with his business manager Gary Hustwit, who has a history as a film producer and record label manager, do their best to make sure the instruments end up in the hands of artists they appreciate and who they agree will represent the brand well.

Koll headstocks awaiting inlays (Photo: Chad Bartel)

So considering the many man-hours involved, the comparative lack of scale for purchasing power for components and materials, and the current output of two or three guitars per week, one might wonder how Koll determines his price points and remains competitive.

In short, he doesn’t compete on price; Koll is among the upper echelon of all boutique builders based on what people are willing to pay for a well-made, one-of-a-kind instrument. While Koll’s Junior Glide and Troubadour models are priced around $2,895, his Duo Glide and Super Glide Almighty models — with all the accoutrements — will set you back about $5,495. The RE model, Koll’s fusion of the Klein ergonomic design with a classic Jazz box, can range upwards of $8,000 or more.

Want something specific? Koll is always open to requests and loves to explore new territory as he’s frequently making custom, one-offs. Although these might be out of the price range for many players, it hasn’t slowed the demand for Koll’s guitars in the slightest. In fact, even with the help of fellow luthier Matt Proctor, of M-Tone Guitars, now working in his shop, Koll has trouble making them fast enough. Nearly every guitar is sold before it even leaves his shop and his custom orders are presently booked out through June.

And, while most manufacturers are offshoring and outsourcing production, Koll has moved all of his production back to Portland, after recently splitting from the Premier Guitar Builders Guild, and plans to move his shop into a larger space in the heart of the city.

“I've been here 20 years and it's very important to me to build guitars in Portland,” Koll says. “There's a sense of community here on many different levels, in clothing, printing, blacksmith stuff, leather making,” not to mention other instrument and electronic builders, such as Malekko, Catalinbread and Spaceman. “People are making real things,” he says. “I wanna sell guitars but I also want to create a cool place for people to hang out.”

Koll guitars awaiting finishing (Photo: Chad Bartel)

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