Rochester guitar maker's instruments played around the world

Guitar maker Michael Keller holds a finished 'Baby Keller' guitar in his workshop in Rochester.

From an unassuming shop in southeast Rochester comes world-class guitars.

The instruments, by maker Michael Keller , find homes in places from Japan to China to France. In February, one of Keller's guitars, the "WowHaus," was featured in an online advertisement for the well-known Guernsey's auction house in New York.

The guitar, which Keller made in collaboration with Florida graphic designer David Bricker, was featured alongside guitars played by Eric Clapton, Eddie Van Halen and Stevie Ray Vaughn . Guernsey's said the guitars assembled in the auction "might well be the most diverse assemblage of collectible guitars ever presented." The guitar was estimated to be worth $7,500 to $10,000.

That's some company Keller keeps.

"In my own opinion, his workmanship compares favorably with the top 5 or 10 luthiers in the industry," said guitar enthusiast Henry Lowenstein, a former organizer of the Newport Guitar Festival.


A guitar Lowenstein commissioned from Keller was featured in the 2005 Blue Book of Acoustic Guitars. The incredibly ornate guitar, covered in intricate mother-of-pearl inlay, sounds as good as it looks.

"Accomplished musicians who play it make faces like somebody is dropping chocolate truffles in their mouths," insists Lowenstein.

Other of Keller's guitars have been featured in national publications, including Acoustic Guitar Magazine and The Fretboard Journal. His instruments were part of a 2009 show at the Plains Art Museum of Fargo, N.D., entitled "Art of the Guitar: A Luthier's Renaissance."

In all, Keller estimates he's sent about 800 guitars into the world over the past 40-some years, and that 80 percent of his customers purchase a second instrument from him.

So, what makes a Keller guitar so special?

"He's really obsessed about the quality of his work," said Bricker, who's known Keller since 2007 and has owned two Keller guitars.

"Everything comes down to tone," Keller said. "I construct guitars to fit people's needs tonally."

He describes the laborious process of choosing "tone wood" — wood that is not only perfectly unblemished, but that also produces a sweet, bell-like tone when it is tapped.


Holding up a thin piece of rosewood loosely between two fingers, Keller demonstrates how a slight finger tap creates a sonorous vibrating tone. Keller reminisces about the odd stares he received in the Minneapolis-based Youngblood's Lumberyard when he "listened to the boards."

Though his guitars are world-class, the shop where he builds them, on first glance, is not. It's an unassuming, slightly dingy garage structure Keller built in the mid-1980s. Inside, though, it's filled with veneer saws, wooden clamps and patterns for his unique designs including the "Baby Keller," a half-sized guitar that can fit in a plane's overhead compartment.

Keller traces his love for guitar making to his days playing guitar as a gigging musician in Portland, Ore., in the mid-1970s.

Some of the earliest instruments he made contain messages, short poems or passages quotes from books written out of sight, inside the guitar top. For example, Keller recalls writing a message mourning John Lennon's death in a guitar he was building on Dec. 8, 1980, when Lennon was shot.

Besides building new guitars, Keller makes high-quality repairs to keep working musicians' instruments in playing shape.

For him, it's every bit as much a lifestyle as a career.

"If I couldn't do this for a living, I would do it anyway," he said.

Learn more


See Keller's website:

See Keller's "WowHaus" guitar in action: and

Guitar maker Michael Keller works in his shop Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2016, in Rochester. Keller makes about 10 guitars per year.

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