Interview: Saul Koll Guitar Co.

Portland, Oregon has a reputation as being a bit of an unconventional place to live, so it’s fitting that since the early 90s, luthier Saul Koll has been hand-crafting guitars there that are also a little bit out of the ordinary.

I first encountered Saul Koll’s guitars several years ago after tiring of ‘the same old thing,’ and deliberately seeking out something different, fresh and original, yet familiar enough to feel ‘classic’. That’s exactly what I found, as it also happens to be a concise description of what Koll guitars deliver.

That and, of course, plenty more by way of quality, style, and a certain elusive magic that so many of us seek in a unique electric guitar. Since that first exploration I have owned a few different examples of his workmanship, and currently include one in my thinned-down arsenal – a Super Glide Almighty done out in triple-bucker Les Paul Custom style, which I love dearly.

Saul is perfectly capable of making ‘just another guitar’ – something functional, good-sounding, reliable, playable – but if that’s all that his craft came down to, Saul Koll likely wouldn’t bother building guitars at all. This guy got into it for the artistry and the self-expression of the craft, and one Koll guitar owner after another will tell you that he delivers these qualities consistently.

Letters From America: Saul Koll Guitar Co.
American garage

Like a lot of guitar makers, Saul Koll was an habitual tinkerer as a kid growing up north of Los Angeles, California. “I found myself into woodwork and [Meccano] sets, models,” he told me. “I was never really into the sports. I was happy by myself in the garage building stuff. I picked up guitar when I was 12 and started taking classical guitar lessons, and then more folk guitar lessons, and eventually moved to electric guitar. So that’s who I was when I was in high school: I was making stuff in the garage, and I played the guitar.”

The more he got into music, though, the more his home-town locale just didn’t cut it. ‘North of LA’ sounds like it would be a hip enough location, but as Koll describes it, “I was in this little town north of Los Angeles called Newhall. Now it’s a commuter town for LA, but back then [late 1970s] if you were heading north to San Francisco you would pass this town that was like the last gasp, just a dusty little shithole. There was nothing to do there. We didn’t get the good radio stations like K-Rock like friends of mine who grew up south of there, who got to hear punk rock and all that stuff.”

Yet rumour had it there was plenty going on out there in musicland, and a revolution of sorts was in the making: “We had older brothers who would go over the hill into the valley and go see [punk bands] The Weirdos, or The Plugs, and all this kind of stuff, so we were hearing these stories of all this stuff that was happening. So I just needed to get out of there. There was no live music happening in that town, other than cover bands in bars.” As it has for countless thousands of kids over the years, college provided a way out of said last-gasp town and in to the big wide world. And even if Saul had no idea what he wanted to study, he knew that he wanted to go.

At San Diego State University in southern California, a sample of general courses taken during his freshman year – as is often required of first-year American university students – landed Saul in an art class, and although he’d never previously had anything to do with art, something clicked. “When I was in that department it felt just like I had felt back in my garage in Newhall,” he relates.

“So suddenly I had a name for all that stuff I’d been doing, which was ‘art’. Not that it was really art, but it was like I’d found my tribe in the art department. I got involved in the sculpture department – that’s what really interested me. They had a really good wood shop and a really good metal shop. We were casting bronze, aluminium, we were forging things, welding things.”

Put that experience together with Saul’s rediscovery of Irving Sloane’s book Classic Guitar Construction, which he now had the practical skill set to tackle – what with its emphasis on tooling, jig making, the construction of inside and outside body moulds and bending forms – and a guitar-maker was born.

Letters From America: Saul Koll Guitar Co.
On the bench

After college, on the strength of his art degree and one guitar he’d built on his kitchen table, Saul got a job as a repairman at World Of Strings in Long Beach, the south-LA suburb to which he and his wife Dede had relocated. Initially the offer of a part-time bench in the busy repair shop was taken up just to help make ends meet between his band’s brief out-and-back van tours, but the more he got his hands on a range of acoustic and electric instruments, the more he honed what was becoming his true vocation.

“The owner of the place, Jon Peterson, was really well known for his stand-up bass work,” Saul tells us, “so he did all the orchestra instruments for the LA area, which included both the Philharmonic and the rockabilly guys, Slim Jim from the Stray Cats, all these serious guys would bring their basses in, so I got to see how a professional works with his client to try to get the most out of an instrument and work at a high level. While that was happening, on another bench a guy was setting up a Floyd [Rose vibrato] – since this was the 80s – and on another bench a guy’d be re-hairing a violin bow, then somebody’s restoring a pre-war Martin. So I was just kind of bouncing around doing all the odd jobs.”

Saul’s first actual guitar building commissions came, though, from the unexpected world of seven- and eight-string jazz guitars, which he custom-built for notable jazz men Ron Esceheté and Robert Conti – both of whom gave lessons out of the shop. “I was making my first real guitars,” he relates, “but I had these pro players playing them, so I was in a really lucky situation. It was all by chance. I was just looking for a job so I didn’t have to sleep on somebody’s couch in between these van tours. Meanwhile I was kind of developing my own building style that became more and more of a deal. I was looking at myself as an actual guitar maker; this wasn’t just a whim, or a part-time thing. It kind of became who I was.”

Letters From America: Saul Koll Guitar Co.
Gliding north

Part of defining himself as a guitar-maker involved designing his own, unique electric guitar body shape, which Saul first devised for a bandmate who needed something a little different way back around 1990 or 1991. “He was a really big guy, six-foot-four or five, and he had borrowed the G&L ASAT Tele that I had at that time, and it just looked like this tiny little thing on him. I thought, ‘Man, you need something big!’ So it was probably sitting around some beers or something, he said ‘You’re a guitar maker, why don’t you make me something?’

“I started sketching guitars out – saying ‘What are the other guitars around here?’ There’s a Les Paul, there’s a Telecaster… let’s trace those on this paper, let’s trace a 335 and see what all those lines look like.

I just extrapolated what I liked from all three of those guitars and pushed things around until what you know as the Glide came out. I just stuck with it. Now I look at it and it’s so familiar that it just looks like any other standard shape to me, but back then it was a weird shape.”

That “weird shape” has become a modern classic of sorts, in the lines found on his flat-topped Duo Glide, archtop Super Glide Almighty, and stripped-down Junior Glide models (all of which also sport the distinctive ‘Koll quiff’ headstock), while also echoed in the Superior, Troubadour, and Super Cub models. Wherever you find it, the asymmetrical double-cutaway shape looks simultaneously original and familiar, like a lesser-seen classic you’d forgotten or just hadn’t discovered yet, and it sits equally well dressed as a Les Paul, a Gretsch-like concoction, a Tele, or several other configurations.

Shortly after establishing this flagship electric, Saul and Dede decided they’d had enough of the relentless LA congestion and sought out greener pastures. Somewhere that still had a music scene to cater to, but which would offer a little more breathing room for the rest of what makes life worth living.

Explorations northward took them to Portland, Oregon – now a hip haven of the north west, but less widely known as a cultural centre back in ’92 when the Kolls landed there – and he has worked from there ever since. A part-time slot at a repair bench in Portland’s 12th Fret guitar shop helped to keep it all afloat while Saul grew his trade as a custom luthier, and bit by bit he forged a stellar reputation on word of mouth and the exposure his guitars received from several name players who took them on the road.

Current and past Koll artists include Isaac Brock of Modest Mouse, Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth, Hershel Yatovitz of Chris Isaak’s band, David Torn of David Bowie and a zillion others, Peter Holmstrom of The Dandy Warhols, and Adam Levy of Norah Jones, Tracy Chapman and Ani DiFranco.

Letters From America: Saul Koll Guitar Co.
Independence day

After licensing his Glide model to Premier Builder’s Guild (PBG) around 2009, Saul continued building other models and more esoteric custom guitars on his own, until the Koll brand returned entirely to his care with the dissolution of PBG in 2016. He is currently aiming to produce approximately 100 guitars per year in his Portland shop, with part-time assistance from Matt Proctor, administrative help from his business partner Gary Hustwit, and an occasional boost from other local luthiers when there’s a big rush on orders or a trade show to prepare for. All the while, he’s still out there playing music when he can, notably with Portland rock ’n’ rollers the Lovesores.

Of the whole PBG experience, Saul says, “I think I ended up better on the other side than I did going in. I got paid well for the whole thing. I got to learn how a different kind of business is done… Once I licensed the Glide Series to Premier Builders Guild I think there were a couple dozen dealers worldwide, and this was a reach for my name or brand that I could never do by myself.”

And while Saul was continually impressed with the quality of the guitars produced by PBG head builder Gene Baker and his team, he’s now enjoying having total control of ‘the magic’ again, and chasing that elusive extra spark that promises to makes each individual guitar more than ‘just another instrument’.

“To me, the easiest thing to do is to make a really good-playing instrument. That’s a given. It’s really the intangibles, the magic that’s on top of that, that’s where it happens. On a personal level, one of the really, really important things for me to do is to have fun, have joy, to laugh. A lot of my design decisions are based on – not a joke, but there’s got to be some humour involved somehow. I want there to be something like an Easter egg in there, to be, ‘Oh, I see why he did that. Okay!’ Just a little giggle or something like that.

“I’m not making a guitar just to make a guitar; there’s got to be some other story behind it. Maybe a tip of the hat to another builder, maybe a tip of the hat to an automobile, or echoing something else. In the same way that a really good musician, in his solo, will quote Charlie Parker or whatever. There has to be a reason for it to exist. Right now, there’s 3,000 really good guitar makers out there making something a lot cheaper than what I can do. Why would you want one of mine? So I try to insert something that nobody else can insert.”

Call it magic, the Easter egg, the element of fun, or a tip of the hat to some other inspiration, most Koll players will tell you that extra something is pretty easy to locate once you start playing one of Saul’s creations.