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Incoming Kostal MDW & OMC: A Q&A With Jason Kostal

New guitar arrivals from Jason Kostal don't come along very often, and we are so excited about the upcoming arrival of two new guitars from Jason, an MDW and an OMC.

As we eagerly anticipate their arrival, we asked Jason a few questions about the build process of these two guitars, which we are proud to say that Jason is unveiling at the Woodstock show in October. Read on for a great insight into the thought process behind these wonderful instruments.

TNAG: What inspired you to build these guitars?

JK: I am constantly interested in building guitars that excite me or challenge me to take the guitar to a new level. In recent years I have been building pretty exclusively with Brazilian rosewood, but the quality of wood available, CITIES limitations, and lack of legal, documented sources has left me uninterested in buying more of this wood, so I started to focus on woods other than Brazilian Rosewood, and create guitars that could still create a great sound without the issues or burdens associated with this once great wood. 

In January, the global community made the decision to add all species of rosewoods to the CITES list. While this does not make the woods illegal, it does add a high degree of paperwork and potential problems to the mix while all of us on both ends try to figure out what it means. I have hundreds of sets of rosewood, of all species, and all of them were documented and approved on a Master File by the US Fish and Wildlife Service before the implementation went into affect in January, so all of my wood is legal to use and export, but no one really knows what the future will hold, or whether other countries will accept a guitar that was made with woods that have been certified by the US Government to be ok, so that has left me with a new found desire to build some guitars with traditional woods that have been on the back burner for a while. 

Walnut and Koa are two of my favourite woods, and two of the finest guitars that I have ever owned was an old OM made out of Walnut and a dreadnought made out of Koa. I truly believe that most of what people know or believe to be true about these woods is from guitars that have been made by factories. While there is nothing wrong with a factory made guitar, the truth in how they are made is that there is no time allocated to actually manipulate the wood on an individual guitar for a desired result. 

Every guitar is made the same in these settings regardless of the materials they are made from. Every wood has a benchmark, or inherent, tonal property, but in the hands of a luthier that has the time, knowledge, and experience can manipulate the wood and achieve a desired result. I am excited to build these two guitars, out of woods that have no import or export issues, that I know to be incredible woods, and I cannot wait to show people what these woods are capable of, and how they sound in my guitars. 

I have built two walnut guitars in the past and two Koa guitars, and all four have been amongst my most memorable builds. I know that these guitars are going to make people change their minds about what walnut and koa are capable of.

When searching for a specific tone from an instrument what qualities do you look for in a particular set of wood?

Choosing wood is a very important part of the process, and I always try to go into the decision making process without any preconceived notions. Some clients will ask me to build a rosewood guitar or a maple guitar, while others will ask for a specific set of tonal characteristics. Both end up as great guitars but the approach that I have is very different for each guitar. I try to start out with what the desire endstate is. I talk with the end user or the dealer, and find out what they want. 

From a very basic conversation, I can determine with about 80% accuracy which wood type we should go with for the guitar. From there, it is up to the client to choose the set of wood that they find visually appealing, and then once that set of wood is decided upon, I use my understanding of the wood, building process, and experience to determine how I shape the braces, voice the top, etc to bring the guitar that final 20% and eventually achieve the desired outcome for the guitar. It is an ongoing process that is constantly being adapted while I am building the guitar, and that is why you cannot approach each build the same way. 

Every single guitar I build is truly one of a kind as it is built for a specific client with a specific voice in mind. Three guitars of the same body and wood choices will still be different as the three end users all want different things. That is one of the things that I love about what I do is that there is a definite art to what I do in making it look nice and remain visually appealing, but there is a lot of science that goes into it as well, and it is that part that excites me the most.

Did you have any set backs with these guitars or pleasant surprises during the planning or early construction?

No… these guitars have all gone very smoothly, and the woods have been a pleasure to work with.

Why did you decide to go for Koa for the MDW? And likewise, why walnut for the OMC?

In all honesty I knew that I wanted to make an MDW and an OMC for my next show guitars. I started thinking about which woods I wanted to work with the most, and decided on Walnut and Koa. I picked out two sets that I really enjoyed visually and tonally, and opted to use the walnut on the OMC as the larger bodied guitar will give the guitar a little more volume and articulation than one normally associates with walnut, but it will still have the balance and warmth that walnut is known for. To my ear, walnut creates a lot of the same effect as the warmth that you get from a cedar topped rosewood guitar. It will be a pleasure to play individually and yet will still have that orchestral feel that I desire so much.

Koa is just a great wood, and I love the MDW that I am making right now. It is truly one of my favorite guitars. The 12 fret and smaller body, coupled with some new bracing ideas and a few other changes have made the guitar a very versatile guitar while also providing it with an intimacy that I don’t find in many other models. Koa is going to be a wonderful choice in terms of making this guitar shine in all of the ways that I want it to. It is the wood choice that just seemed to naturally work with the shape, size and bracing of this model, and I cannot wait to hear it strung up.

This year has been one of the busiest years for you with your waiting list at 7 years now. How do you cope with the demand for your guitars?

It’s honestly a tough place to be. In the beginning, I wanted the business as it made me feel like it added some level of credibility to my brand by having a long wait list, but to be honest right now it is more of a curse. I am working hard to work through the long queue, and have doubled my output over the last two years by focusing on the process and finding ways to reduce in the build process. I used to work in a linear fashion where I worked on one guitar from start to end, and then went on to the next. My undergrad degree is in systems engineering and queue management, so it surprises me that I never thought to implement what I learned into my own company, but this is exactly what I have done over the last two years or so. 

Every guitar, regardless of what materials are going to be used or how I want it to sound will have a top and a back, and every single one of these is joined the same way…every single time. When I do one top, it takes about an hour to plane the tops to get a good gluing surface and then glue them, but I have found that once I am set up, and “in the groove”, I can do a top in about 15 minutes. So, instead of doing 20-30 tops throughout the year and having it take an hour each time, I do all of my tops for the year at the same time, and can get them done in 15 minutes or so. This means that in this one step alone, I can do a years worth of that step in 6 hours, as opposed to 30 hours. I have just save 24 hours in one step, and there are 319 steps to building my guitars. You can imagine that as I look at the process for each step, I have been able to save a lot of time, which has allowed me to build more guitars more quickly, and even take time off. I used to work 7 days per week, 16-18 hour days. 

When I implemented some of these changes, I was able to reduce my work load to 5 days per week, 8 hour days, or 160 hours per month. Last year I decided to increase my work day to an 11 hour day, and work 3 weeks out of the month and take a week off for travel. In those three weeks I put in 165 hours vs the 160 I was putting in before, I am working more efficiently than ever before, and I have have doubled my output from 12 guitars per year to almost 30. Each year that I have done this, I have worked off not only the year that I am working on, but the next year of orders as well, so that 7 year wait list that you mentioned is actually down to about 4.5 to 5 now, which makes me happy. I feel good emotionally and am not burned out, I am living an amazing life, building the best guitars that I have ever built, and doing so while working smarter instead of harder. I am very proud of the path that I have taken and how I have gotten here, and continue to work through the orders, and reduce the wait time for most people. My goal is to get to a wait list that is about 2 years in length. More than that makes me nervous, and less than that does as well!

We love that these are guitars that are coming from you, rather than builds made to specs from us or a client. It feels like these are Jason’s guitars. When they eventually find a home, do you have hopes for where they will end up? And do you ever think about all of the instruments you have made and how or where they all are?

I actually think about every guitar that I have built on almost a daily basis. Every guitar that I have made has been a part of my personal growth as a luthier, and has been very special to me. One of the hardest things that I have to deal with is seeing a guitar come up for sale on the market. I understand it as a player, as I have sold many guitars, and for some it is just a commodity, or an object that helped them play and enjoy music until something new or different comes around, and I would never fault anyone for that, as I do it myself. 

For me though, none of these instruments is “just a guitar”. They were all built for someone, and when I was building it, I was thinking about that relationship, that person, and what I wanted to create for them so that it was special. I am happy to see my guitars find new homes, and know that there are some that are enjoying them now that are not the original owners, but I still think of that original client when I think of the guitar, and it is hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that it may be in a new home now. I think that biggest thing that I hope for is that my guitars will allow people to enjoy music in a new way or renew the passion that they have for playing guitar. I have owned over 300 guitars in my lifetime, and I don’t have a favorite. All of them, in some way, have made playing more enjoyable, and helped me to become a better player, and I hope that my guitars will continue to do that for the select group of people that have given my guitars a home.

We saw the birth of the MDW in association with our dear friend Michael Watts last year for his MDW. Do you have any new R & D plans for a new guitar in the future?

I don’t have any plans for a new guitar right now, but I would never say “never”. I am at a point in my life where I enjoy trying new things and challenging myself in new ways. I built a ukulele this year as well as my first 12 string, and the MDW last year. All three guitars were amazing experiences for me and I enjoyed the thought process that went into figuring it out, and the process of taking the idea from conception to actual product. 

I have had a desire to build an electric guitar for a while now, as well as a baritone, a harp guitar, and some other fun ideas. It’s hard to find the time to experiment these days, as my time is better spent building guitars and reducing my build queue, but at some point I will make these things happen…either because they are important to me or because a client asks me to and I decide that it is the right time. 

A lot of time and energy go into making a new guitar…months of planning, followed by months of preparation of jigs and fixtures, and custom cases and things of that nature, so it is not as simple as just “making it happen” but when the time is right, you will most like see some new guitars emerging…either as one-time instruments or maybe they will be here to stay like the MDW. I don’t know what the future holds, but I do know that my mind is always thinking about what is next and what could excite me by taking the building or design process in a new direction. 

These two Kostal guitars are available to pre-order here.

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