BELOIT, Kan. (AP) - Nelson Palen builds some of the sweetest sounding guitars in existence, and he doesn't even play the instrument.
Palen may not be a musician, but during the past three years, he has earned the respect of jazz guitarists throughout the world. When these professionals pick up one of Palen's archtop guitars, they instantly know they are playing an instrument with a unique tone, depth and resonance.
Palen's sudden success has taken him by surprise. A design engineer at Sunflower Manufacturing in Beloit, Palen, 56, had been a woodworker most of his life and for 12 years designed and sold decorative wooden bowls. While that was satisfying work, Palen was itching to find something to make that would really challenge his carving skills. A co-worker there encouraged him to make his first guitar.
Palen credits the Internet with supplying him a wealth of information on archtop guitar- building, an instrument used primarily in jazz music. He took an Internet-based guitar-making class, and bought a video on the subject. He also corresponded with other archtop builders.
The back panel and soundboard (front) of the archtop are made from two thin wedges of wood. When these pieces of wood are glued together and carved into a dome shape at the center, the look is similar to that of a violin. The front of Palen's guitars are made from Engleman spruce from the northeastern U.S., and the back plate and sides are made from Oregon, Washington or Vancouver maple.
To cut a precise shape for the guitar, Palen uses a homemade lathe he built eight years ago
from scrap iron. After shaping the guitar, Palen uses a cabinet scraper to shave the wood even
more finely, stopping periodically to tap the surface of the wood in a technique called "tap
"Each one will sound just a little different, as opposed to something that's just an assembly-line product. You try to make them the same as possible, but each guitar is unique."
Palen estimates it takes him about 150 hours to build a guitar, working 30 hours a week on evenings and weekends.
Palen built three guitars before he got up the courage to sell one on the Internet. A man from New Jersey bought the guitar on eBay, then told his business partner about the instrument's high quality. Suddenly Palen had a promoter and distributor, Lou Del Rosso, who runs a business called guitarsnjazz.com.
He said the instant he held Palen's guitar, he knew it was remarkable. "The tone is just wonderful," said Del Rosso said from his office in Summit, N.J. "I've had many professional players comment on its resonant tone. Anyone with a good ear can tell how good it is."
George Benson certainly knew.
The famed jazz guitarist tested one of Palen's guitars at the Long Island Classic Guitar Show, then turned to Del Rosso and asked if he could buy it. "He said it was a beautiful guitar, and then he handed me his American Express card," Del Rosso said. "I lmost fell over."
Today, Del Rosso said, there is a waiting list for Palen's guitars, and he believes as Palen continues to refine his skills, his reputation will grow. "Consistency is the most important thing Nelson has," Del Rosso said. "I think his woodworking background helped a lot, but he's also able to produce guitars that have a consistent sound, and that's not an easy thing to do."
Jones agreed: "His guitars have a resonance that transcends the wood. I think it's an intuitive process for him. He has a sensitivity and awareness of his craft, and he puts love and feeling into each guitar he makes. He's an artist through his craft."