What happens when an engineering mind meets an artist’s hands?
Conklin Guitars is born.
Bill Conklin has been riding his hobby for almost 35 years now. He’s a professional guitar-maker, more sophisticatedly known as a luthier.
To get there, he had to quit college and convince his parents there was a future in manufacturing instruments. His original plan was to work with oil companies as a geological engineer. Then music entered his life, alongside the 1980s oil bust, and his attention shifted from his senior-year engineering studies at Missouri University of Science & Technology in Rolla. It was a tough sell.
“I really didn’t think of the guitars as something that would be my career,” Conklin says, remembering the “wild-shaped” guitars he would often sketch before his big pivot from oil. “Then there were no jobs. Everything just dried up. I thought if I’m going to struggle with that, I’d rather struggle in music.”
Frets on fire
One might say he’s perfected the struggle since Conklin Guitars started in 1984. The Branson music boom in the 1990s was a fortuitous part of the journey.
“We had a guitar or bass in just about every theater down in Branson,” Conklin recalls. “As the Branson hype started to fade away, a lot of guys would go out on tour. A lot of our instruments would go around the world then.”
Over the years, Conklin Guitars have been in the hands of a good number of rock stars: the lead guitarists for Alabama and Heart, Gene Simmons of Kiss and Tanya Tucker’s bassist, as well as soloist Steve Vai, who was voted the 10th “Greatest Guitarist” by Guitar World magazine.
But Conklin figured out that’s not the niche for him. Turns out, the bigger the stage, the greater the rock star’s expectations. Conklin’s found the superstar musicians want freebies to play, theoretically, in exchange for exposure of the instrument brand.
“We haven’t really seen the return on that,” he says. “We’re focusing more on the local players.”
Conklin and one other craftsman, Mike Apperson, now churn out 12-15 instruments a year in a shop on five acres at Conklin’s residence in west Springfield. The instruments start in the $2,500-$3,000 range and go up to $10,000-$12,000.
“It’s not big volume. That’s not really what we strive for,” Conklin says, noting annual revenues of late are in the $120,000-$150,000 range. “It’s not a big money career. It’s an art.”
His website identifies nearly 60 musicians who play a Conklin. Their origins stretch from New York to California and Japan to Slovakia. But one local artist is Shaun Munday.
“He’s made a name for himself making fantastical instruments,” Munday says of Conklin, “in seven, eight, nine strings with exotic woods and colors.”
Munday is a year into a two-year agreement to exclusively play his Conklin instrument. But his four-string bass of choice is somewhat anti-Conklin.
“I don’t like a lot of knobs and bells and whistles myself,” Munday says.
He calls his bass a “Conklin Classic 4-2-4” with a bit more headroom to increase the number of frets and sounds.
“That’s all I need,” Munday says.
Conklin says he pursued Munday after hearing his slap-work bass and soulful vocals.
“He kind of has a one-man show,” Conklin says, noting exclusive agreements are rare in his shop. “I knew he was going to go somewhere, and he had that buzz. I knew I had to jump on this guy.”
Munday brought his matte-black and deep-red marbled Conklin bass out to Los Angeles in November, when he was invited to play on Steve Harvey’s variety show. Munday’s instrument is actually on the lower price points for Conklin Guitars, because it’s part of a stock line. Though he has a year left playing it, Munday foresees the relationship continuing.
“If I have any say in it, it’d be a great thing to keep working with those guys,” he says. “They certainly know what they’re doing.”
Conklin says the local luthier industry is a bit deeper than most think.
He identifies eight to 10 others, including those who make violins and mandolins or just handle repairs. Not Conklin. He’s hard-line guitar and bass instruments – and for the professional musician he describes as a “weekend warrior.”
Conklin works with vendors nationwide, but the only local companies are wood suppliers O.P. Hardwoods and The Rosewood Shoppe.
Mike Pyeatt, owner of The Rosewood Shop south of Halltown, says Conklin places about four orders a year in an assortment of wood: Michigan hard maple, Cocobolo, Macassar ebony, Honduras rosewood and granadilla.
“He might have two or three different woods in his basses,” Pyeatt says. “It might be a small piece of Macassar ebony for a finger board and a curly maple for the body. He does a nice collage of materials.”
Conklin and Apperson visited Rosewood last month to purchase supplies on their way to the several thousands of dollars they’ll spend there a year.
“We consider ourselves custom to the nth degree,” Conklin says.
Right now, the emphasis is on retro/vintage.
“Everybody wants everything to look old,” he says, noting the popularity of a distressed finish and the comeback of pickguards and tortoise shells. “So it looks like it’s been around 20 years.”
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Guitars built from the ground up in west Springfield are played worldwide.
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