An afternoon with master luthier Kevin Ryan
The small, faded music-society stickers on the window, to the left of a slanted “Beware of Dog” sign, are the only symbols I had to go on, indicating that I’d arrived at Ryan Guitars in Westminster, California. The front door to Ryan Guitars is almost always locked on Fridays and whenever else Kevin Ryan’s wife, Barbara, isn’t working at the desk in the front office. A few fruitless pulls on the door handle and I decide that my interview appointment with Ryan is authority enough to go ahead and enter the white industrial apartment through the open garage door around back.
The garage entrance inverts the traditional shop tour. From this angle, the means and mechanisms of the luthier’s craft are showcased first: the heavy cutting machines and tools that assist in the production of some of the world’s finest guitars before letting you anywhere near the instruments. Neither beauty nor music is so much as suggested at this point of the self-guided tour. The cramped garage leads next into the workshop’s inner sanctum, where I imagine the rough materials are ushered in for further refinement; that place is shielded from the open garage by a yellowing, industrial plastic drape.
Past the heavy curtain, master luthier Kevin Ryan is seated beside a worktable, leaning back in a dusty and worn rolling desk chair. He’s immediately recognizable by peppered hair and a gray mustache protruding from a faint beard of “designer stubble”. He looks comfortable wearing a dark aqua blue North Face jogging fleece, and letting a cigar smolder between his fingers. It turns out, he’s happy, as well as comfortable. I’m interrupting a conversation he’s having with one of his shop assistants that has gotten around to the subject of board games and, Kevin Ryan admits, he is really interested in “spreading the gospel of board games.” He speaks at length about the burgeoning community of board gamers (they’re mostly Europeans), his favorite games (recent: Age of Steam, all-time: War of the Ring), and the difference between board games and computer games (board games require more elaborate social engagement). What extensive knowledge he has about his hobby specialty that he hasn’t culled from his collection of over 150 titles, he’s studied on boardgamegeek.com—referred to affectionately and authoritatively throughout our conversation as “The Geek.”
The worn shop surfaces and muted sounds of the workshop point to the men’s due diligence. The employees of Ryan Guitar don’t take many breaks, Monday-Thursday. Ryan and his associates enjoy saving them up and taking a long break, all at once. The only implements taken down from off the carefully organized shelves are a wooden cigar box, a heavy silver cigar torch, and an eclectic selection of post-American Prohibition era beverages. Out in the open, at the center of the table where Ryan sits, is exactly where such tools belong on a Friday afternoon like this one. Notwithstanding the locked front door, Fridays are an open house for Ryan’s co-workers and friends; their weekly ritual of music-making all the more potent for the well timed placement of long rests.
The instruments created by the hands in this circle have made their way into the hands of some of the finest fingerstyle guitarists in the world. Kevin Ryan’s first models for Peter Finger, Laurence Juber, Pierre Bensusan and Jackson Browne launched his reputation around the back-stage water cooler and, in time, he had orders from other talents like Muriel Anderson, Pat Donohue, Jamie Findlay, Brian Gore, Eric Lugosch, Woody Mann, Franco Morone, Isato Nakagawa, Tim Sparks, Sean Weaver, Al Petteway and Amy White.
Ruling the wallets and wish lists of renowned guitar players with a product that started being refined in his parent’s garage part-time, Kevin Ryan says that he is humbled by the attention, but doesn’t understate his accomplishment—or potential. Past interviewers have revisited a comment Ryan made early in his career about his capacity: “Do you really think that one day you’ll make the Holy Grail of guitars?” The way he sits in his chair demonstrating the relaxed confidence of a man with absolutely nothing more to prove, one might be led to believe that he’s already made the guitar grail—even just this week, but it’s not likely he’d tell me. A 1999 article speaks of Ryan’s stated ambitions ever since designing his first guitar, “to build an instrument with an unamplified responsiveness second to none” (Acoustic Guitar, April), but it’s a 2002 interview published on the Ryan Guitars website which puts Kevin Ryan on record about the Grail question: “I guess, if I didn't believe that somehow we ultimately could [build the Holy Grail of guitars] I would want to close up the shop. It's a great hope, but there is also humility in me that wants to say maybe we won't even know if we built it!”
The instruments and the music only feature into a part of Kevin Ryan’s ambitions these days. For the last three years, Ryan has been doing less sleeping to make time for writing. From spending time with Ryan, this isn’t a revelation. He has the way of a writer; he speaks carefully, saving his biggest words for when they will do the most to impress and the least to obscure the meaning of what he’s trying to say. He also has an evangelistic way of correcting other people’s speech, similar to how he talks about board games, it’s all for the other person’s good. The shop also has a policy forbidding the word “like” unless it’s employed to make a comparison or point out a similarity or personal preference. Violators pay 25 cents.
A careful attention to the shape of things distinguishes the whole range of Ryan’s pursuits. Yet he’s totally undeterred by being an amateur. He wants me to read some the first chapters of an epic adventure novel he’s writing and makes sure I know he wants the pages back covered in editorial suggestions. His story is all about the triumph of “the traditional virtues”—a cast of ordinary characters like hobbits or Pevensie siblings winning out over a great obstacle through a test of loyalty, honesty, courage and restraint. His characters are mice—“no taller than the shoulder of an average wolf”—but they bear strong resemblances to the men and women he’s met in his favorite stories.
It’s at the point where Ryan starts discussing his book that I realize how he has made it as a luthier. Kevin Ryan, the humble perfectionist, is on a journey of self-denial and considerable dedication to an end-goal. The perils of craftsmanship aren’t so very different from the obstacles in a big adventure story or large-scale strategy game for that matter. In all such cases, success comes with lots and lots of dedicated work. The world’s best guitars aren’t made by magic wands, after all, which is the only tool of epic adventure that Ryan vows not to copy in his book. One gets the sense, looking around the shop, that cozying up to “magic” is cheating, for the lessons the characters must learn, as well as the author.
Ryan has an appointment in San Diego and needs to leave time to get home and change clothes before waiting in the southbound traffic. So, I only get to see a few of his guitars before I leave on the first-will-be-last phase of the tour. The famous bevel Ryan innovated for comfort and acoustics—continuous from the waist of the instrument through and past the centerline of the soundboard at the bottom—is demonstrated on a finished model. Another piece is still under construction and on this one, the small diamond-shaped hole at the base of the tuning head accessing the truss rod shows some neat but illegible markings beneath a thick coat of lacquer. When it’s finished, those markings will be covered over by a small, decorative plate until the guitar neck requires adjustment. But those marks take me back to Ryan’s process; the layers and hidden components which all build on each other to produce an instrument of great beauty and resonance. He’s been honing his craft, layering days of practice over days of practice, for over twenty years. The payoff is that his art finally imitates his life.
Originally published in La Musiconomy: Writing About Listening (9/26/12)