Howard Klepper Guitars |
After two decades away from the craft, this former
philosophy professor has returned to building
innovative flattops and archtops.
By Scott Nygaard
Left: Howard Klepper’s unique Nakyd Laydie guitar.
Right: The luthier with his Dovetail Madness model.
Take a quick glance at some of Howard Klepper’s immaculately built guitars and you’ll see the work of a master craftsman devoted to the art of the guitar—with a variety of exotic and gorgeous tonewoods, unique handcrafted rosettes and bindings, and even a sly sense of the outrageous (as in his Dovetail Madness guitar). Look further, and you’ll find that Klepper is just as consumed with the science of lutherie, creating new bracing systems and body shapes and modifying numerous structural elements to strengthen his instruments and refine their sound.
Klepper’s first experience working with guitars was as a repairman at Guitar Resurrection in Berkeley, California, in the 1970s—a fertile and active place for guitar devotees. “I was having fun having my hippie second childhood,” he says. “But I wasn’t making any money. After a while, economic reality set in, and I decided I needed to use the other side of my brain and went off to law school.” After a few years of practicing law, he returned to school, got a PhD in philosophy, and found a permanent faculty position in Chicago. But the Windy City didn’t suit him. “I needed warm weather and mountains,” Klepper says. He returned to Berkeley and began working with his hands again. “I had the opportunity to make a transition in 1997, when my father passed away and I inherited some money. For about four years I mostly did woodturning, which really fascinated me.” Klepper had a couple of solo shows and even had pieces in national shows. But by 2001, he says, “I had done most of the things I’d set out to do in woodturning and came back to guitarmaking—this time with more woodworking experience and more of a sense of how to make things happen. It’s been all guitars ever since.”
Though Klepper had mostly done repair work in the ’70s, he did build one instrument modeled on a Martin 000, and this design serves as a base from which he now experiments. “For me, that’s always been a model of really good guitar design,” he says. “I think one should always break with the past respectfully. You should recognize that a lot of smart people went before you and that the designs were developed not only out of experience but out of solid scientific knowledge. So while respecting designs of the past, both visually and acoustically, I think there is room for creativity and some improvement in sound, using some of the newer materials such as carbon fiber.” He’s also been working with the wide variety of woods now available to guitarmakers. “While Brazilian rosewood is still the paradigm wood, a lot more experimentation is accepted in tonewoods,” he says. “I enjoy that because there are hundreds of woods that haven’t been used, and a lot of them will make a great-sounding guitar.”
Klepper’s designs use new and borrowed elements that, added together, illustrate his sense of how the parts affect the whole of the guitar. For example, he has developed a topbracing system that he calls “Klepper bracing,” which was a result of doming the tops of his flattops. “The traditional way of making a flattop guitar was exactly flat,” he explains. “But more recently, builders have started to dome their tops to a spherical shape, which gives them more stiffness, more strength, and the ability to withstand humidity changes, and also shifts the tonal pitch of the top upward a little bit.
“My thinking was that, since a piece of wood is much stiffer longitudinally than it is across the grain—if you flex it with the grain it’ll easily flex, and if you flex it lengthwise it feels stiff—why flex it in all directions at once when there’s one direction in which it naturally wants to flex and in which it could use a boost of stiffness? So I started flexing my guitars across the grain only, rather than lengthwise. And since I’d gained more latitudinal rigidity, my bracing design runs more longitudinally, because the guitar doesn’t need as much across the top.”
Such a reasoned rethinking makes sense, but for those guitarists primarily interested in sound, Klepper adds, “It’s described by a lot of people as sounding like a mix between an arch-top and a flattop, or like it has a bit of resonator blended in. There’s more of an emphasis on trebles and midrange than with standard X-bracing. But it’s not lacking in bass, it just has a little more of that archtop projection and midrange emphasis.”
On his 12-fret guitars, Klepper uses a graceful double cutaway that he calls a “recurve (see page 77).” “It’s an historical allusion to the viol family,” he says, “but it’s functional as well. The 12-fret neck joint with the double recurve allows access that’s pretty comparable to a 14-fret guitar. It also adds some rigidity to the upper bout. One of the things I try to achieve in a few different ways is to stiffen the junction of the neck to the upper bout in a way that will delay and possibly prevent the need for neck resets. The recurve helps to stiffen that area.” Klepper also puts a heel on the neck block (in the Spanish style) and runs carbon-fiber struts from the top of the neck block down to the lower bout below the waist, sending some of the compressive force of the strings down into the lower bout of the guitar.
Klepper builds five sizes of flattops (starting at $3,950): 13-inch, 14¼-inch, 15-inch, 16-inch, and 17-inch, which roughly correspond to 0, 00, 000, small jumbo, and jumbo. In addition to the elements described above, other options include elevated fretboards, laminated double sides, multiple side soundports, laminated necks, reverse-kerfing (which increases the body’s rigidity), and a wide variety of woods. He also makes his own liner blocks, fretboards, bridges, strap buttons, and purflings. All of his instruments are unique and ultimately customizable, although Klepper has been known to turn down a custom order when he thinks his instrument wouldn’t be right for the buyer. “I try to make sure that it’s going to be a good relationship between me, the customer, and the guitar—and that they’re going to end up with something that suits their playing style.”
Sound, style, form, and function are clearly of equal interest to Klepper, who has recently moved his shop to Santa Rosa, California. You can hear and see his work there or at a number of upcoming lutherie shows, or check out his extensive website for more information on this evolving artist.