St. Clair – Curly Koa w/Port Orford Cedar top – Previously Owned:
My Experience with a Ken Casper L-00
I’ve been buying, selling, playing, and evaluating acoustic guitars for over 30 years. It’s been a life-long obsession. I’m still fascinated by the physics of how these wonderful machines work. You know that feeling when you pick up an instrument that has “that sound” your looking for? Well, that’s something I never get tired of. But, it’s incredibly difficult to find “that sound” without actually getting your hands on the instruments. If you’re like me, you find most guitar reviews to be a bit lacking. The guitar magazines are trying to sell stuff, so they usually just give us a very general overview of specs and features. Everyone knows you can’t trust most forums and online customer reviews to be real. It’s tough to get any solid in depth information about individual instruments. If there is one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s that you have to play it yourself.
Well that being said, I know not everyone has the chance to try every guitar that interests them. So I’m going to try to describe the playing experience and sound of a Ken Casper L-00.
Every instrument is unique. Two guitars built side by side, by the same luthier, at the same time, out of the same wood will sound different. Most players understand when it comes to factory made guitars, they need to play several to find that one “good one”. Hand crafted instruments usually have a higher batting average, but can vary wildly in their character. What’s interesting about Ken’s guitars though is how consistent they are. I had the pleasure of meeting with Ken and playing several of his instruments. Although they were all made out of different woods, and even had different body sizes, they all sounded incredibly consistent. And let me tell you, that sound is wonderful.
I first stumbled across Ken’s instruments while searching for a Michigan based luthier to build me an L-00. I had talked with a few great luthiers around the state, but just hadn’t been able to find someone that was on the same page as me. When I saw the photos of Ken’s guitars on his website, I knew right away I had found somebody that had the same thoughts about understated elegance. His guitars were beautiful without being flashy. They had traditional body shapes without looking like the same tired old thing being produced by the big factories. They looked great, and were exactly what I had been searching for. But, how did they sound and play?
We’re fortunate enough here in Michigan to have the venerable Elderly Instruments nearby. As luck would have it, Ken had one of his OM guitars on display there. I never pass up an excuse to travel to a great guitar store, so I headed over to check it out (along with everything else in the store of course).
When I picked up Ken’s guitar, I was first struck by the workmanship. Every mitre was perfect, every appointment looked like it belonged right where it was placed. It was a wonderful looking instrument, so the photos on his website were not misleading. I started to play it a bit, and….(Now, this is where I need to remind you that I had just finished playing many high-end Martins, Collings, Huss & Daltons, Santa Cruz’s, and others)…the first thing I noticed was the balanced tone. Not overly bassy, or middy, but just nice and balanced across the whole spectrum. I could hear ALL the frequencies. I could hear articulation in the notes everywhere on the neck. I was very pleasantly surprised by how this guitar sounded.
I contacted Ken after my trip to Elderly, and spoke with him about my experience. He invited me to come down and try a few of his instruments, and discuss a build. Again, the best way I can describe Ken’s instrument’s sound is consistent. Each guitar I picked up had this wonderfully balanced tone. Ken takes the time to “tune” each piece of the instrument as he builds. The result is this wonderful consistency of tone.
Ken had only built one L-00. He originally built it for himself. His son liked it so much, he talked him into taking it with him to college. I was fortunate enough to be able to play it during our meeting, and immediately fell in love. This is what I’d been looking for.
I’ve been growing increasingly interested in small bodied acoustics over the past few years. I’ve searched for and purchased several, and found the traditional L-00 size to be my preference. My personal favorite (until I tried Ken’s) was a Gibson Keb Mo Signature model. It’s basically a modern copy of the Gibson L-00s from the 1930’s – ’40’s. I liked it a lot, and played it more than all my other instruments combined. It just never quite had the tone I wanted. When I picked up Ken’s L-00, I knew I had found “that sound”.
I know sound is very subjective, and almost impossible to describe, but here goes: If I took my three favorite guitars from my collection, put their sound in a blender, and made one instrument, Ken’s L-00 is what I would be playing. It has the bass response of my Martin D-18, it has the articulate hi sparkle of my Taylor 412, and it has the punchy mids of my Gibson Keb Mo. I don’t quite know how he does it, but Ken manages to produce guitars with all the tonal characteristics I love from all the instruments I love.
By the end of our meeting, two exciting things had transpired. The first is that Ken is going to build me an L-00! We hatched a plan to build an L-00 made from all Michigan species of wood, but that’s another story for later (This commission is also done, you can see a YouTube video of it here). The second is that somehow, to my continued surprise, I was able to talk him out of the L-00 he had built for himself, and his son wanted. After a few weeks of playing it now, I can say the honeymoon is NOT over. I’m still just as enthralled as I was when I first picked it up. Now, if I can just keep my location hidden from Ken’s son!
— Jack / Grand Rapids, Michigan / January 2012