By Brian Nixon, Special to ASSIST News Service
ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO (ANS – May 6, 2015) — Growing up as kid, I loved Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. Fred Rogers had a way to calm me down and shed light on a variety of stimulating topics. Of special interest was when Mr. Rogers met people from his “neighborhood” that built and played musical instruments. I remember an episode where he entered Joe Negri’s Music Shop (Episode 1463).
Mr. Rogers had Joe play a guitar while he played a drum. There was another broadcast where Mr. Rogers met and talked with cellist, Yo Yo Ma (Episode 1457). During these programs, I was able to hear fine musicians perform amazing music. And as a kid with musical sensibilities, Mr. Rogers Neighborhood was a wonderful conduit to majestic sounds.
Ah, those were the days.
Unknown to me until recently, my own neighborhood has its own creator of marvelous sounds. I’ll call it Mr. Coleman’s Neighborhood.
Luthier, Keith Edward Coleman is a man with a passion for music and a knack for creating fine musical instruments.
I meet Keith—through a mutual friend, photographer, Joyce Meck—at his Taylor Ranch home in Albuquerque, New Mexico—near the Petroglyphs National Monument. After a brief greeting, Keith walked me to his studio located in his home. We pass images and memorabilia of Ireland, collected from a recent trip where he met one of his clients, Paddy Kerr, member of a support band for singer, Niamh Ni Charra.
We enter the workspace. Wood and tools are everywhere: half finished mandolins, bouzoukis, and guitars, vices, hammers, and saws. Keith shows me examples of wood piled in drawers, beautiful samples acquired from different sources throughout the country.
“One piece of wood was sent to me from a violin maker back East,” he says. “A Facebook friend.”
Keith begins to explain the process of making the instruments, from wood choice to construction. He taps the wood, showing me various examples—ordered from Ohio—and talks about wood width and grain strength. He demonstrates a tool that measures wood depth, explaining the various widths needed for the top of the different instruments.
Holding up mandolin in its infancy stage, though definitely in good form, he says, “up to this point it’s taken me about a week. From here on out comes the hard part—sanding, carving, and getting the tone just right.” Keith puts the mandolin in a vice. He shows me how he sands the instrument until he hears the tone he’s after, following specific measurements he has written out on paper.
Keith then discusses the glue. He explains the process, noting that the glue he uses is animal hide that’s been turned into gelatin by adding water. I ask where he gets the hide glue. “I order it all from online. It’s amazing what is available to a luthier today.”
In all he says, Keith is humble and passionate about his instruments, knowing that each instrument is a work in progress. “I learn as I go,” he says. “Making adjustments to help create the finest instrument and sound possible.”
After explaining the construction process, Keith brings in the finished product: the first and third mandolins he ever made. They both sound great, particularly as the earliest attempts to create such an intricate instrument. Both the construction and tone are fine examples of a man dedicated to excellent craftsmanship.
I begin to unpack Keith’s love of instrument making.
When did you first begin building instruments, I ask?
“I’ve been building instruments full time since 2009. Prior to that, I worked part time. My previous work consisted of fabrication of metals, woods, plastics, sealants, lacquers and painting. I even made knives professionally.”
Did you have a musical background?
“I played guitar and bass for 40+ years, mandolin since 2008. I’ve played in a couple of groups, did some recording, led worship at church, and recorded some compositions on my own through the years. Music is—and has been—an integral part of my life. I find it fascinating and enduring. There would be less trouble in the world if there was more people involved in learning and sharing music!”
What instrument did you start making first?
Carved archtops— both guitars and mandolins. I make all my instruments by hand, utilizing old school and new-school techniques and materials. Sound is the primary pursuit, but along with a great tone is playability and beauty. I have standards in my instrument making. If I wander off the path, I need to ensure I get back to a standard of excellence.”
Do you have any influences; people that helped shape your philosophy of your art?
“My work is influenced by the writings of Robert Siminoff, Tom Bills, Robert Benedetto and Cumpiano. Their writings, lessons, and experience have been invaluable in educating me—and others—in the art of stringed instrument making. I have been fortunate to create for—and learn from—some wonderful and talented musicians. Their needs and wants have helped me to learn so much. My desire is to offer an affordable and attractive instrument with a sound all its own.”
What’s your favorite instrument to build?
“Anything archtop. I really enjoy hand carving the tops and backs. I’ve been working on a current Irish Bouzouki project, and it has really taken a toll on my hands with all the carving. But the challenge, sound, and appearance of an archtop instrument is fascinating, a remarkable experience, really.”
What is your favorite wood to work in?
“That is a tough one. The more you work with wood the more amazing it becomes, and you discover the different characteristics and idiosyncrasies of the different species. For instrument building, my favorite wood visually and acoustically is quilted maple. It has a wonderful stability, sound transfer, and the alternating grain is visually stunning when dyed or stained. Playing with the colors and the intensities brings the wood to a whole different level of appearance. So maple is my favorite wood for backs, rims, and necks of instruments. But an instrument must also have tone woods for the soundboard portion to distribute the sound. In this area, I like using acoustic woods in the cedars—Adirondack red or Alaskan yellow—or spruce wood—such as Engelmann, Carpathian or Sitka. The soundboard is the heart of the instrument, arched or flat; the strings drive that soundboard with the appropriate bracing.”
What instrument are you getting the most response from clients?
“Mostly mandolins in different style and scale length. But the Irish Bouzouki has been popular as well. I focus primarily on carved archtop instruments and have done Jazz Ukuleles in several sizes. I’ve also had interest in jazz tenor guitars and hammer dulcimers, of course flat top—not archtop. I am looking to begin work on full size and ¾ size guitar in an archtop jazz style, and I have been playing with a bowed guitar design for a while.”
How long does it take for the average instrument to build?
“Mandolins take about 90 days, the Irish Bouzouki I am working on now has taken 6 months.”
How do you view your field of work—as a craftsman, an artist, or as a calling, a deeper intuition to create?
“Yes, all the above. It is a definite craft, working with woods, power and hand tools and accomplishing the intention of that work, no matter how daunting it may be. I find elements of art that incorporate shape, symmetry, coloring, wood choices, tonality and finishes. These choices make each instrument more than just a functional tool. I have an insatiable desire to create, even though there are days I wish I was doing something else. I love the opportunity to take raw material, craft and convince it to become something different; finding a different purpose for their existence.”
You’ve mentioned that you play on your worship team at church. Do you use one of your instruments? How does it feel to see one of your instruments being played in public?
“I am pleased to see my instruments being played in public. I have been fortunate to make instruments for several musicians in working groups and many solo players as well. Seeing something that I spent time on and being utilized and empowered by the musician’s skill is wonderful. I built a solid body electric guitar around 1996 in the height of my worship team days. It was paired with a Roland synthesizer and I played it with a local Christian group based in Los Lunas named, Getting There. We played at quite a few outings in Valencia and Bernalillo counties and even did a CD. I used that guitar with them.”
“All this happened before my real instrument making time. I don’t participate on the worship team anymore. And, sadly, I don’t play guitar much anymore. Arthritis has sapped my strength and control. Fortunately I can still play the mandolin and it is so wonderful for those days when ‘ya just gotta play!’ I think it is cool to insert the woody tone of the archtop in worship music, as, for example, Third Day, Crowder and others have done. The mix of acoustic instruments with electric instruments suits my taste. The archtop sounds just as amazing when amplified as they do when played acoustic. I work with a manufacturer who makes light, efficient, and affordable pickups. Acoustic instruments have a very different sound than electronic driven or synthesized instruments.”
After our conversation in his workshop, we head upstairs to play some of his finished instruments—three mandolins, a jazz ukulele, and a tenor guitar. After playing them, I came to the conclusion that—yes, it is a beautiful day in my neighborhood. When the stunning art, craftsmanship, and passion of a luthier’s work are conjoined with a craving for excellence and love—the product will be splendid. And this is exactly the case with Keith Edward Coleman instruments.
To learn more about Keith Edward Coleman instruments, click here: http://www.keithcolemanluthier.com/home.html or https://www.facebook.com/KeithEdwardColemanLuthier?fref=ts
Photo captions: 1) Brian and Keith with mandolin (Photo: Joyce Meck). 2) Measuring a mandolin (Photo: Joyce Meck). 3) Discussing wood (Photo: Joyce Meck)
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