Article on Konkoly Guitars in the May/June 2007 issue of the Flatpicking Guitar Magazine.
There are probably few guitar repairmen in the world who have had their hands on as many vintage Martin guitars as Joe Konkoly. For the past twenty years Joe has worked in the repair department at one of the premier vintage guitar dealers in the country, Elderly Instruments of Lansing, Michigan. For the past fourteen years he has been the shop manager. So Joe has had the opportunity to get close and personal with some of the greatest guitars that have ever been built.
Although he has been building guitars as a small side business since 1982, Joe recently decided to increase the number of guitars he builds every year. In doing so he also made the decision to stick with what he knows best, the vintage Martin guitar design. Although he has made a few minor modifications over the years, what you can expect from a Konkoly guitar is pretty much what you would have seen coming out of the Martin factory from the 1930s to the early 1940s.
Joe Konkoly grew up in Western Pennsylvania dreaming of a career in music. He said, “I was playing the standard acoustic stuff from the 70's like Cat Stevens and the Eagles. I was always interested in the acoustic side of pop music and so that led me towards bluegrass and an interest in mandolins and banjos.” The movement towards roots music inspired Joe to learn how to play the mandolin. He remembers, “I borrowed a cheap mandolin from a friend for a while, but my father was a woodworker and had a very nice shop, so we bought a book on mandolin building and we built one together.”
After graduating from Penn State in 1980, Joe started teaching guitar lessons, which led him to “dabbling” with repair work. He said, “Students would come in with guitars that were in need of repair. I started doing small repairs and set up work for the students who needed it.” In 1982 Joe saw a magazine ad for the Vermont Instrument Workshop and decided to enroll. He spent three months at the school working under George Morris. He said, “Most of the time I was there I was the only student so I was able to get a lot of great one-on-one instruction.” While he was at the school Joe built his first two guitars. He said, “I built one for myself, which I still own, and I built the other for one of my guitar students.”
After returning home to Western Pennsylvania, Joe picked up where he had left off before he attended the guitar building school. He resumed teaching students and repairing instruments. He said, “I set up a small workshop in my parents basement. I had dreams of becoming a guitar builder, but I was mostly doing repair work.” In 1986 Joe was hired to teach an electric guitar building class at the National Guitar Summer Workshop. Around that same time, at a meeting of the Association of Stringed Instrument Artisans (ASIA), Joe met TJ Thompson who was the head repairman at Elderly Instruments. Joe inquired about a job there. He was hired in the winter of 1987. At the time there were only three people working in the shop. Today, twenty years later, Joe continues to work at Elderly. From 1991 through 1993 he was the assistant shop manager. In 1993, when Thompson left, Joe took over the head repairman/shop manager job. Including Joe, there are now ten repairman working in the shop.
Over the past twenty years Joe has primarily focused on his job as a repairman, but has never stopped building instruments. He said, “For years I was spending about 80% of my time with repair work and 20% building. For the past five years I’ve tried to put a little more emphasis on building.”
It was through the work he did on a couple of projects at his home shop that prompted Joe to move more towards building because these jobs involved half building and half repair. He said, “About five years ago I bought a Martin C-2 that had a damaged top and I also had a client with a badly damaged 1956 Martin 000-28 that had bad cracks in the top, but a crack-free Brazilian rosewood body. I wanted to convert he C-2 to a OM flat top and the client wanted the 000-28 converted to a 1930’s style 000-42. I geared up my shop at home to do both of these conversions at the same time.” The person who ended up with Joe’s C-2 conversion was actor Jeff Daniels.
Gearing up his home shop to do the conversions provided Joe with the inspiration he needed to ramp up his building business. For the past five years he has built 3 guitars a year and also continued to due major restoration or conversion work at his home shop. He said, “I’m on the verge being to a place where I can build at least 6 guitars a year at home.” He is currently selling his guitars direct, and at Elderly Instruments and has no intention of leaving his repair job there. Joe said, “I build my own guitars at home, but I use the spray booth at Elderly to finish the guitars. Using their facility outside of my regular work day is a nice perk.”
In his guitar building business Joe focuses on Dreadnought and OM-style guitars. Joe said, “When I was in guitar building school I was somewhat pretentious and designed my own guitar. However, when I build now I go back to the roots. I started building D-18 models to build my chops on a straight forward proven design. I think that learning the craft by copying what others have done is a good place to start. I am known as a repair person who works almost exclusively on vintage Martin guitars. I realize that a vintage Martin copy is what customers are interested in buying from me. Plus, my favorite guitars are the 1940s era Martin D-18s. Since I donít build many guitars a year, I felt like I should narrow my focus.”
When Joe first started building his own guitars he started with exact copies of the 40s Martin D-18. He said, “Over the past five years the design has evolved. While I had it in mind to make exact copies, I have made a few changes here and there and I’m going with them. So, I’m not as interested in making exact copies anymore.” The majority of Joe’s molds, templates and dimensions have remained the same and his bracing pattern and placement are also consistent with the 40s era D-18. Where he has made changes is in the radiusing of the top, the shaping and scalloping of the braces, and the addition of the adjustable truss rod. He has also removed the “popsicle” brace and he does not add the neck block extension that can be seen in the modern Martins with truss rods.
Joe said, “The vintage Martins essentially had a flat top. Today many modern builders use a 25-foot top radius. I’m using a 30-foot radiused top. I wanted to have the top radiused for strength and ease of construction, but I wanted to have it closer to a vintage style.” Joe explained that when the sides and the braces are all sanded with a 30-foot radius arch everything fits together nicely and streamlines the construction process. He added, “I think the stiffness the dome imparts allows me to reduce mass in the top and braces and get a more responsive instrument.”
Reducing brace mass can be accomplished in several ways. You can remove material from the top of the brace and reduce the height along with the stiffness, or remove material from the sides while maintaining the strength. There is not much difference in stiffness between a rectangular brace and a brace of the same dimension with a triangular cross section. Joe triangulates his brace shape more than the old Martin design. He said, “The vintage Martin bracing had some triangulation in the high spots of the scallop and near the X joint, but the scallop and end tapers were trapezoid in shape. The combination of scalloped and triangulated brace shapes allows the guitar to vibrate freely, while adding to the complexity of the tone.”
Although Joe’s design varies slightly from the vintage Martin, the changes are relatively minor and they were made so that Joeís guitars can deliver the best possible tone to his customers. If you are in the market for a new guitar that looks and feels like an old Martin D-18 from the early 1940s, you need to check out one of Joe’s guitars. For more information about Joe and his guitars, please visit his website: http://www.konkolyguitars.com/