In issue number 83 / Fall 2005 of American Lutherie, the quartely journal of The Guild of American Luthiers, John Calkin reviewed my book, CD-ROM and plan on lap steel guitar building

American Lutherie review

Review by John Calkin

Build Your Own Lap Steel Guitar
Martin Koch
ISBN 3-901314-09-1; 2004; 118 pp.
Available from Stewart-MacDonald, $26.95

Build Your Own Lap Steel Guitar
Martin Koch
CD-ROM; 2 movies; 75 minutes total
Available from Stewart-MacDonald, $21.45

Martin Koch's take on lap steel creation was to devolve the process to make it accessible to the most unsophisticated readers. At the same time he hints at the small added details that make construction more difficult but add a touch of elegance to an otherwise Plain Jane instrument.

Two lap steel designs are illustrated in this book/CD set. The first is literally a plank with lines for frets, a thick maple board just wider than the untapered fretboard. The nut end is scooped out to create a headstock. The nut itself is a length of aluminum angle stock. The "frets" are inlaid bits of maple veneer. The only guitarish hardware involved is the machine heads, a Les Paul Jr. bridge, a single coil pickup, a volume pot and an output jack. Another piece of angle stock might have been used for the bridge, but the LP Jr. item smacks more of a musical instrument and was a good choice. Construction was accomplished entirely with a few hand tools. A bit of decorative trim was added by making a control cover and pickup ring from the same wood as the fingerboard. The guitar was finished in Danish oil. There's an understated innocence to this instrument that I admire. At the same time, it would be fun to show up at a jam with it and rock out just as hard as the guys with "real" instruments. It would be a very in-their-face statement.

The first movie was an eerie reminder of my own early days. I made instruments for years before I had a bandsaw, but none of my efforts were as hand tool biased as Koch's. He gets more mileage out of a bow saw and a Ryoba saw than I would have dared to try (even if I knew what a Ryoba saw was in those days). His work shop is an 4'x10' attic space, his bench a 20"x20" stand-alone table. His message is clear - if you want to do this there really isn't anything standing in your way. He's not a hand tool snob, he just wants to reduce your excuses for not doing lutherie to zero. The book tells how to build a case for your new Plain Jane, which I thought was a considerate way to extend the text. The movie doesn't go there.

The second project is a Gibson-ish lap guitar with a bound top and fretboard. Ironically, a Tele-style bridge, pickup, and pickup cover are part of the beast. I like that. Koch isn't interested in recreating anything in particular. He' shooting from the hip at a target that is both cool and accessible to everyone. The Telecaster bridge cover looks cool indeed, but anyone one employs palm muting as part of their playing technique is going to tear it off at once. No matter, it's a friction-fit device that can be pressed in place to show off the guitar and pulled off before playing. What, you never did anything to your instruments just for show? I don't believe it.

Koch sticks true to his intent on lap steel II. He uses a router to cut the rebate for the body binding, as well as a Dremel for routing the pockets for his inlays. (I didn't mention that, did I? There's a brief encouragement to personalize your work with the sacrificial shells of mollusks). But even after introducing routers to the project he continues to cut the control and pickup cavities with a boring tool and chisels. The man is incorrigible. If you aren't motorized or electrified you can skip the decorative stuff but you still can build an instrument. Koch never lets the reader off the hook. Lap steel II is made of mahogany and finished in gloss varnish. No spray gun silliness or polluting off-spray. It also has real frets rather than markers, just in case the reader might have plans of moving on to instruments you actually have to touch with your fingers to make music.

To spice up lap steel #2 the author decides to wind his own pickup. His winder is a manual hand drill held in a vise, decked out with wire guides and all. Pickup winding is included in movie #2. It's pretty clear that Seymour Duncan can sleep easy at night but the right attitude still holds sway - if Koch can do it you can do it. There's no bravado involved, just a resolve to take command of the lap steel portion of life. Both movies make it clear that there is little romance in hand tools, they are simply one way to get the job done. Successively less aggressive tools are called upon to clean up the coarseness left by the one before. Koch mentions that he has another shop full of motorized groovies but he limits himself to hand work to make his point, and I think he makes it very well. If you want to be a luthier the door is open. Walking in may take some determination but it doesn't have to break the bank.

Martin Koch has embraced the present as few other authors have. He has his books, he's made his movies. The book is also your ticket to his website where he keeps an updated list of suppliers, corrections and updates to the book, as well as color versions of all the pictures in his book. There's also a list of intriguing links as well as some downloadable templates. If you still live in a world where paper rules supreme, and think you need your hand held even more, you can also buy a plan for lap steel #2, $12.95 from Stew-Mac or a little cheaper if you buy it with the book.

So consider the humble lap steel, that plank with lines for frets. Today's lap steel whittler may be tomorrows hot GAL contributor and the future's Bob Taylor. Or not. Sometimes it's enough just to start, and the future be damned. GAL members may be too far along to garner anything from this book and CD, but somewhere in the shadowy Out There live folks who know they were meant to be luthiers but don't know how to get in. Martin Koch just might have the key.

© American Lutherie

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