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Published: Sunday, 3/8/2009

Denny Kopp s handcrafted guitars are works of art

BY ROD LOCKWOOD
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Denny Kopp clamps a guitar top before carving it in his shop. Denny Kopp clamps a guitar top before carving it in his shop.
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One of the most striking things about Denny Kopp s guitar-making shop is this:

There are hardly any guitars.

In his workshop garage tucked away on a side road in Ottawa County along a golf course, the setting is bucolic. The afternoon sun shines through the window, a fat cat lazes on a workbench, and the view out back is of a lane that appears to meander off to nowhere. There are forms and wood pieces and tools and sawdust, but the only musical instruments are four guitars that hang from the ceiling as models.

His one-man operation relies on efficiency, expert craftsmanship, and the ability to sell his beautiful arch-top creations as soon as they re done.

The shortest amount of time I ve had an instrument after I finished it was 30 minutes, he said. My guitars don t lay around. My goal is to build them and get them out, right?

He s a friendly, high-energy guy with a nearly-shaved head and a goatee who punctuates many of his points with either a quick laugh or, more likely, the word right? offered as a hypothetical question to make his points.

We re all just tradesmen, blue-collar people, right? Mr. Kopp, 36, said by way of explaining the craft.

A 419 model semi-hollow electric guitar in Mr. Kopp s shop. A 419 model semi-hollow electric guitar in Mr. Kopp s shop.
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Actually he s more of an artist, combining perfectionism with craftsmanship and the ear of a musician.

His business this is now his only job has picked up in the past two years as his skill level has climbed. He only makes arch-top guitars and sells them for between about $2,000 to around $4,000. Each model is given a name that relates either to northwest Ohio there s a 419 version and a Tedrow model, the latter named after the street where Rusty s Jazz Club was located or his family, and Mr. Kopp generally builds four at a time, with each guitar taking about four months.

Last year he made 23 and the year before he made 15. The only place they re sold locally is at Durdel s Music, 2628 West Central Ave., but he also has several for sale in the prestigious Gruhn Guitars store in Nashville.

Mr. Kopp came to the guitar-building trade in about as straightforward a manner as possible. Ten years ago he was at his job at a printing press in Willard, Ohio, when he came to a realization.

I was standing there thinking, Geez, I ve got 25 to 35 years yet to go before full retirement. Do I really want to be standing here that long? And one thing about my generation is we could never get a good job because the baby boomers had them all. And it dawned on me that, hey, they re all going to retire, so pick a trade, any trade.

I thought, What s the coolest thing in the world to do? I m going to make arch-top guitars.

The arch-top, a favorite of jazz guitarists because of its crystalline sound and f-hole design is Mr. Kopp s passion. He learned the trade at the Summit School for Guitar Building and Design on Vancouver Island in Canada.

All of his guitars have hollow bodies, but they have pickups so they can be played through amplifiers. A key part of the guitar-making process is getting the wood just right, which Mr. Kopp demonstrated by grabbing a piece that had been in a form and showing how he tap tunes it. He knocked on the wood, first in the center and then on the outside, and you could hear the distinct change in tone, indicating that the piece had been routed and honed just right.

He s an artist, said Bobby Ferrazza, a jazz guitarist and professor at the Oberlin College: Conservatory of Music. He s got that bent to him. He s a craftsman, but he s an artist.

Mr. Ferrazza plays a Kopp Guitar and it s his instrument of choice whenever he s performing, including on a recent tour of Europe where other musicians were intrigued by the instrument. The key is the playability of the neck and the overall craftsmanship that makes the guitars have a fuller sound than many other instruments.

They were interested and now they want one. That s kind of the way they are: when you see them, you want one, he said.

For his part, Mr. Kopp said he takes the most pride in being part of a long string of luthiers who have worked toward perfecting the instrument.

When I look back at the end of my career, I m going to be like, Hey I got to pick up the ball and carry it a little further.

Contact Rod Lockwood at rlockwood@theblade.com



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