Guitar Heroes

Dreams come true one guitar at a time at KMC Music Corp. in New Hartford.

 

Cathy Ross

A rock ’n’ roll guitar riff always sends shivers down my spine. There’s something so passionate about it. Music in all forms may arouse our emotions, but never underestimate the power of a fine guitar. A symbol of freedom all over the world, the guitar is the quintessential American musical instrument.

KMC Music Corp. is doing its part to keep the American Dream alive here in Connecticut, manufacturing high-end custom Ovation, Hamer and Guild guitars. The company started out in 1966 as Kaman Music Corp. after helicopter manufacturer Charles Kaman of Bloomfield pioneered a curved fiberglass guitar body that allowed an acoustic guitar to be amplified without feedback—loosely translated, it was great for live performances and became the hallmark of the Ovation Guitar. Pros from Glen Campbell to Paul McCartney to Al Di Meola play them. (Paul Simon chose an Ovation for the 1981 Central Park reunion concert with Art Garfunkel because it was the only acoustic guitar he could just plug in.) Kaman bought Hamer Guitars in 1988, and in 2007 the company was acquired by Fender Musical Instruments Corp. and renamed KMC Music Corp. 

We recently got a sense of just how special these guitars are when KMC Product Manager Rick Hall gave us the grand tour of the New Hartford facility. It is housed in a pre-Civil War mill on the Farmington River, but any preconceived notions we may have had about old-fashioned conveyor belts and assembly lines evaporated as soon as we entered, because there weren’t any. “In the early days, we were building thousands of Ovations. Now two things come out of here—a smaller number of artist-quality guitars and R & D,” says Hall. Guitars made here carry price tags of $2,000 and up.

Nature, science and art come together to create these instruments in separate areas dedicated to each brand. We entered a room filled with planks of high-quality hardwoods like mahogany and rosewood as well as sheets of spruce. “The planks are used to make solid-body electric guitars, and the spruce is used to make acoustic-guitar tops,” Hall says. “All the wood is kiln-dried.” Computer-guided saws are used to cut guitar body shapes and a laser cutter makes precise decorative cuts in the acoustic tops; intricate inlay work of abalone and graphite or mother-of-pearl is done by hand. “All the people who work here are multifunctional craftsmen—they are luthiers,” Hall says. “Many of them can build a guitar from start to finish,” he says of the factory’s 54 employees.  

A group of mandolins caught our eye. “Mandolins, mandocellos and hybrid guitars are made here for very particular customers,” Hall says. We continued on, meeting talented artisans at every station. One young man demonstrated how he created bracing for acoustic tops and backs. A toolmaker told us how he designed and made customized tools for unique applications. We chatted with a woman who had just finished working on several Ovation guitars ordered by Melissa Etheridge, and then met the man who makes guitar prototypes. But a gorgeous freshly painted Hamer Vector electric guitar oozing sex appeal illustrated the whole story: “The level of attention a guitar gets here is very different from that of a mass-produced guitar,” Hall says. “These guitars look and sound different. They will last a lifetime and even become heirlooms that will be passed down to your grandchildren.” That’s when we got it—it’s the people who make these guitars so special. These artisans create masterpieces with their hands. It has taken them years to develop the skill to be able to sense how sound bounces off a piece of wood, to know whether the bracing is made strong enough to withstand the pulling of the strings or how changes in humidity will affect a guitar.

At the end of the tour we dropped in on Frank Untermyer, vice president of KMC and general manager of the factory. “The people who work here aren’t just craftspersons who take great pride in their work; many of them are also musicians,” he says. “And we aim to give them the respect they deserve.” He told us about an event that had taken place there just two days earlier: “Richie Havens, who designed his own signature model Guild guitar, stopped by the other day and gave an impromptu concert. He brought us to tears. He’s a spiritual guy and he said, ‘If we’re alive’ [referring to the team], ‘then they’re alive’ [referring to the guitars]. And that’s so true—our product is a reflection of our attitude.”

So how long does it take to make one of these beauties? “It takes approximately six weeks to complete a guitar, but true custom orders take three to four months,” Untermyer says. “There’s a saying: ‘You can do anything right if you take as long as you want to, or try as many times as you need to.’ The trick is to do it right the first time. A real craftsperson can just do it and make that dream come true, and that’s what we’re doing here—for a lot of people, we’re making dreams come true.”

For more information, visit kmcmusic.com or ovationguitars.com.

Guitar Heroes

Reader Comments

comments powered by Disqus
 
ADVERTISEMENT