In 2005, I found myself in a small backyard workshop near SW Portland’s Multnomah Village. I had recently engineered a live radio broadcast on which the guitarist had two beguiling, utterly different axes: one seemed familiar; the other, a truly strange bird. When I asked about them, I was told they had both come from the wood shop of Portland luthier Saul Koll. Both sounded amazing, each with its own singular voice. But the second was a gorgeous—if slightly bizarre—concoction of cherry red with a shining hubcap on its top and a Mercury dime in its headstock. I needed to know more.
So I tracked down Saul Koll and requested a visit with the maestro. He was gracious, humble and cool. It was a fantastic couple of hours of chatting and demonstration. Conversation ran the gamut: archtop guitars to punk rock. Guitar freak heaven.
Then and now, the aroma of rough wood hangs in the air and mysterious instruments in various stages of completion are stacked to the ceiling and crammed into every cranny. A place of both dreams and determined, pragmatic labor. My first visit had coincided with a heady and somewhat loco time for Koll. A glowing piece in Guitar Player magazine by editor Joe Gore (who’s worked with the likes of Tom Waits and PJ Harvey) on Koll’s Glide model had put the master maker on the map and demand for instruments soared. Unable to keep up with the escalation, he entered into a new business arrangement: Premier Builders Guild in California would meticulously craft a version of the Glide series, making it more available, more affordable and still completely faithful to the original designs.
This freed up Koll himself for singular, labor-intensive custom work, including often highly unusual—and sometimes eccentric—designs under the moniker of Koll Custom Guitars. “The weird stuff,” as he calls it with a sly, boyish grin. Stuff like the Tornado for New York avant-garde textualist David Torn—a solid body Glide-shaped guitar with an unassuming natural finish, replete with on-board “Tornipulator” electronics that can produce 60 cycle hum, FM radio reception, and possesses a low-fidelity microphone. It’s capable of creating everything from lush, lyrical tones to delicious, otherworldly squall. Unique, to say the least.
When I reunite with Koll in his shop years later, I remind him where we left off. He smiles and pauses. “Much has changed.”
Though the Premier Builders Guild arrangement had great benefits—primarily allowing more players to get their hands on a Koll for a lower price—the momentum of PBG fizzled and the company dissolved in 2016.
Unsure what to do next, Koll rang up his old college friend and documentary filmmaker Gary Hustwit for his take on things. (Among many projects, Hustwit was executive producer on the highly acclaimed Mavis Staples documentary, Mavis!) “What do we want to do with this now?” the two pondered. “Another licensing agreement? Sell the company?” Ultimately Hustwit insisted, “Saul Koll is Koll Guitars.”
“So we decided to move everything back to Portland and, in a sense, start over,” Koll says. All things Koll were folded back into one entity and the whole shebang was definitively rechristened Koll Guitar Co., replete with a new logo by Aaron Draplin. All instruments, Glides and customs, are once again crafted by Koll himself with a couple of highly skilled part-time assistants—back in the compact but highly efficient backyard workshop.
Hustwit, back in New York, works with dealers and promotes the guitars and the company. “He knows how to make things happen on a really cool level,” Koll offers with a smile of satisfaction and, likely, a sense of relief. The maestro is back to making guitars, both “standard” and “weird stuff.”
One of the more exquisite instruments Koll has ever crafted was a fairly recent creation for Portland resident and lead guitarist for Chris Isaak, Hershel Yatovitz. Yatovitz owns several Kolls—his main axe for work with Isaak is a “Yatocaster,” a custom take on Fender’s legendary Stratocaster model with substantial design improvements and secret electronic capabilities. But his newest is a double neck with a seven-string up top and a “soprano” below—a tiny thing tuned one octave up from a conventional six-stringer. It allows Yatovitz to cover an extraordinary range of sound. “It’s insane,” Yatovitz says, “and so well made.”
The process was a deeply gratifying one between player and maker. “I gave Saul a list of ‘problems’ to solve,” Yatovitz tells. The details came down to the most intimate. “I went to check out the guitar in progress, I strapped it on and I said, ‘More belly cut, man!’ It was like a custom tailor fitting.”
“He’s not a guy who got interested in guitars and is academic in approach,” Yatovitz says. “He’s the real deal. That comes from a maker who understands an emotional transfer of music through your body, through your instrument. Everything he makes transfers like a vocal cord does.”
And Yatovitz couldn’t be a bigger fan of the man himself: “He’s world class. He’s humble and rightsized in his thinking. He has confidence with zero cockiness. He’s affable, but he’ll matter-of-factly take on just about anything. No matter what he did for a living, I would choose him over the competition... to do my taxes, to cut my hair. Whatever.”
Koll Guitar Co. seems to be better—and busier—than ever. He’s put the finishing touches on custom models for Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo and locals like Isaac Brock of Modest Mouse and The Dandy Warhols’ Peter Holmström. The first new “standard” model in many years was recently released, the Super Cub. It’s a gorgeous, high-end build inspired by downstream cheapo guitars from the early ’60s by Harmony and Epiphone. All these years later, Joe Gore has again written a rave review—this time a cover story for Premier Guitar, giving it a “5 Pick” rating for tones, playability, build and design.
For the last several years, the Koll Guitar Co. booth at the annual NAMM trade show has been, arguably, the hottest spot on the grounds. And all the guitars shipped for the event sell out completely.
So yes, much has changed. But it seems everything has come full circle in the best of ways. Saul Koll is making some of the finest and most adventurous guitars in the world. The quality and imagination is as fine, if not better, than ever. And it’s all happening back home in Portland, Oregon, USA.