Talking Guitar: Stephen 'The Hidden Jewel' Strahm
This year has been an unforgettable year and a big part of that has been seeing some incredibly new and exciting luthier talent join the TNAG Luthier roster and Stephen Strahm has been a big part of this excitement. Since meeting Stephen Strahm back in 2016 at the Santa Barbar Acoustic Instrument Celebration (sbaic.com) he and I have been in constant contact both as friends from across the pond and future work colleagues. I managed to squeeze some time from his busy work schedule to catch with him and talk about guitars, his inspiration, build and voicing techniques and what he has cooking for TNAG and the future...
Ben Montague: Hi Stephen, Welcome to The North American Guitar! Tell our readers a little bit about yourself and your journey as a luthier.
Stephen Strahm: Hi Ben, it is a huge honour to be part of the TNAG family. I'm giving you all a virtual high five right now. BOOM! Yeah, so music has always been with me on some level since I can remember. My mother always liked to have the stereo on instead of watching television which at times drove me crazy but looking back I'm thankful for the experience.
At age 13 I started playing the guitar and soon after started doing modifications and set up work on my electric guitars. My love for this type of work grew and eventually I decided to get serious about it, so in 1999 I attended the Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery in Phoenix, Arizona. I spent 6 months there building 2 guitars and completing a repair course. In June of 2000 I returned home to the Bay Area and landed a job working for the Santa Cruz Guitar Company. Over my 9+ year span, I worked my way through each department learning every aspect of steel string guitar construction.
The last 4 years put my previous training to good use working as the Service Manager where I learned all the various repair techniques and I also saw what tension, stress, and abuse did to an acoustic guitar over time. Over the years I have also worked for Rick Turner doing various production work and final assembly. This training brought me back to the electric guitar and inspired me to create my own electric design. I spent a year apprenticing with luthier visionary Fred Carlson which taught me how to think outside the box. I have also lent my services to Addam Stark who operates a guitar finishing business and more recently Jeff Traugott. I worked with Jeff on several fanned fret guitars that were built for Charlie Hunter.
BM: Can you please describe the Strahm Guitars sound?
SS: Well, I find sound to be pretty subjective but what I constantly hear when I play my guitars is an extremely balanced, piano-like tone that is wide open and incredibly responsive. I also find my guitars to be very articulate with an effortless sustain that blooms as the note decays. Since I use different materials from guitar to guitar the tonality can change when thinking about the EQ but my philosophy is to always bring out as much tone as possible.
BM: You studied at the Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery in Phoenix Arizona. Tell us a little bit about your time there.
SS: Roberto-Venn was my college experience so looking back it was all about guitars, BBQs, and swimming pools. I lived with two of my best friends and we definitely had some good times. I remember the excitement of learning about guitars and everything involved. That feeling is still with me today.
BM: Who is your biggest inspiration.
SS: My wife Francesca. Through adversity she still gives more to others than to herself, plus being a luthier's wife isn't easy. I spend more time at the shop than anywhere else and thankfully she's not a jealous person so the guitars are safe! She is currently working on her teaching certification with an emphasis on Special Education.
BM: You have been called the “hidden jewel..” in the guitar world by legendary luthier Jeff Traugott. How does it feel to receive such an accolade, from such a highly respected luthier?
SS: It feels weird and extremely humbling. I mean it's Jeff 'freaking' Traugott!!! Working for SCGC you definitely knew about the lineage of builders that worked before you and Jeff was the one I admired the most. We met many times over the years but it wasn't until he broke his elbow in a cycling accident that he reached out to see if I'd be willing to help him out on a special project. I remember the first few days were pretty nerve-racking but what I found is that we both work in a similar manner and have the same standards quality wise.
BM: Every luthier has their own magical techniques for creating their identity of sound. What is your approach to voicing your guitars?
SS: When people talk about voicing a guitar the emphasis is on the top and I agree with this, but there are other factors involved that help shape an instruments sound. For instance, the back plays an important role and must be tuned to work with the top. This is something I do throughout the entire build process. The neck angle is important as it ultimately sets how much the top gets driven under string tension. You also have the soundhole size, body taper, scale length, headstock angle, even the brace stock material all affect the sound. The list goes on and on so my approach is to look at the instrument as a whole when voicing. I'm constantly flexing and tapping the wood at every stage of the process and what I listen for is the musicality of the sound. I pay attention to the attack and how easily the sound wants to vibrate. Ultimately the goal is to maximize the potential of each component in a harmonious and musical way.
BM: In a bit of detail can you please describe your bracing structure?
SS: Well I definitely borrow from the Traugott school of luthiery here. For my tops I use an evolved x-brace system. I taper my braces and do some other things to help create an incredibly strong, stable, and light super structure. The most visible feature is a floating back brace that runs the length of the back and is dadoed into all 4 of the braces. The purpose of this brace is to help the back keep its radius lengthwise which can limit the body distortion that occurs under string tension. This also aids in maintaining the proper neck angle over time and hopefully will cure or at least prolong the need for a neck reset later in life.
BM: This is a classic question we like to ask all our luthiers….What are your favourite materials to work with?
SS: Spruce and Mahogany. I'm always amazed at how resilient these woods are under stress and the important role they play in tone production. The workability is great and I love the smell and how musical the wood is as you handle it. It really is a privilege working with all the different species involved in creating a guitar and I try to give as much respect to the wood as possible. I save all the leftovers and use them for decorative parts and even for some of the jigs and fixtures that help me make guitars.
BM: We have two outstanding instruments on their way to our London showroom. Tell us a little bit more about the EROS model we have coming in.
SS: What we have dreamt up will be an absolute stunner in looks and sound production. The gorgeous set of Malaysian Blackwood for the body has a similar sound to Rosewood but is slightly drier with a lovely sustain. The German Spruce top adds complexity, warmth, and overtones. Together you can expect an incredibly resonant, balanced, rich tone with great note separation and bloom.
BM: We are incredibly excited to be have the worlds first OO heading to the UK! Tell us a little more about this instrument.
SS: Excited is an understatement! The idea was to create a comfortable instrument that would compliment my EROS model but have a voice of its own. This version will feature a 24.9" scale length, 14 frets to the body, and will have the classic immediacy of a great OO guitar but voiced to sound surprisingly larger than it looks. We have chosen a stunning set of Amazon Rosewood and paired it with a German Spruce top. Tonally you can expect a similar experience to my EROS model but with all the sweetness and intimacy of a small bodied guitar.
BM: How do you deal with obstacles in the build process?
SS: I rely on my production and repair experience. Production is a numbers game and you get insanely good at the processes involved at each stage of assembly and the issues that may arise. Repair work at its most basic level is just problem solving. Sometimes you have to improvise and be creative but I always enjoy the challenge.
BM: You have some incredible artists already playing your guitars. How does it feel seeing your guitars being played and loved but such incredible artists?
SS: It felt a little surreal at first but I absolutely love it. The great thing about working with musicians like Gretchen Menn and Nick Johnson besides their insane talent is how they perceive things. I always learn something from these experiences that make me be a better luthier and ultimately a better human being. I mean I'm now part of the process that is creating music and sharing it with the world. To be part of something that has had such meaning and importance in your life is a gift and I find it all very cathartic.
Nick Johnson playing his stunning EROS
BM: We first met at The Santa Barbara Acoustic Instrument Celebration back in 2016. Do you have any plans for exhibiting at any shows next year?
SS: Next year I'll be displaying my work at the 2018 La Conner Guitar Festival May 11-13 in La Conner Washington. I'll have a few guitars on display and you can follow me on social media to see what I'll be creating just for the event.
BM: What plans do you have for 2018 and beyond?
SS: Well next year you'll see the release of my OO model and a jumbo design. The jumbo will be named the ARES model after the Greek god of war. This will complete a 3 guitar lineup which has always been my plan. I'll also increase production and start the transition into building full time. Beyond that I hope to fulfill my dream of building a shop that Strahm Guitars can call home. In between all this I also plan to enjoy several cups of coffee, watch my MotoGP races, take a vacation, and spend some quality time with my wife Francesca, our dog Samson as well as our two cats, Luca & Sylvester.
BM: Thank you for your time Stephen, we are all just so excited to recieve our EROS & OO and of course thrilled to be representing you beautiful brand. Cheers. Ben