Luthier in tune with art of making guitars
Special to The Union
North San Juan guitar maker Ken Bebensee knew he was doing something right with his luthiery business the day a man knocked on his door, telling him that he had traveled all the way from Japan to learn the art of guitar-making and wanted to serve as his apprentice.
“He came unannounced and he slept on my couch for two months,” Bebensee said. “He spoke very little English, but it was neat to be able to show him around and have him help me.”
Or maybe it was the day he got a call from world-class jazz bassist Robert Hurst.
Hurst, then a member of Jay Leno’s Tonight Show house band led by Branford Marsalis and a veteran of tours playing behind Diana Krall, Willie Nelson and B.B. King, had seen some of Bebensee’s creations in a magazine and wanted him to come to Los Angeles with some of his instruments so he could give them a test drive.
“I was able to meet Jay Leno and Branford Marsalis and attend the Tonight show,” Bebensee said. “I was nervous, but everyone was super nice.”
At this point in his career, Bebensee has created a solid place for himself among guitar-making elites, taking a hobby and transforming it into a lucrative business.
He grew up in Redding, the son and grandson of avid woodworkers. In his teenage years, he also fell in love with the kind of guitar-driven music produced by rock heavyweights like Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and AC/DC.
It wasn’t long after deciding that he wanted to become a rock guitarist himself that he got the itch to make his own instrument. His high school woodshop class seemed the perfect place to do it.
“It took me about a year to build the first one,” Bebensee said. “A lot of my friends didn’t think it was possible. Making the first one was pretty cool.”
Bebensee continued to make guitars for his friends on the side.
“I got the idea that instead of working a full-time job, I could make guitar-making my work instead,” Bebensee said.
His full-time commitment to becoming a luthier coincided with a move to San Luis Obispo to attend Cal Poly.
“I started out making just about everything,” Bebensee said. “I got requests from people for all sorts of things, and if they were willing to commission me to build it, I was willing to try. A lot of the designs that I have used were inspired by both me and my customer base.”
In 2001, he decided he had become trapped by his own success.
“I got really busy making guitars for a long time and decided to move to North San Juan to hide,” Bebensee chuckled. “I got up into the woods, so that I could just build the orders, without feeling overloaded.”
These days, Bebensee produces about a dozen instruments a year costing as much as $9,000 each; no two are ever exactly alike. He estimates that he has made close to 150 instruments since starting his business, everything from mandolins to basses to acoustic and electric guitars – some with six, seven, eight and even 10 strings.
A typical day for Bebensee includes getting up early to tend his garden, then heading to his shop.
“Every day is a little different, there’s making necks, cutting bodies or carving to do,” Bebensee said. “There’s a lot of detailed sanding and filing and stringing instruments, checking to see if they are playing perfectly or not. It’s all tedious in ways and you have to have lots of patience.”
Through the years, Bebensee has had a multitude of friends and acquaintances ask him to teach them how to build guitars and this has led him to offer guitar-making classes.
The program is limited to five people at a time, and allows each student to experience for themselves the art of instrument-building by learning instrument design, construction methods, wood selection, shaping, carving, finishing, fretting and fine tuning.
In the end, Bebensee’s desire for perfection is as strong today as it was when he first began his enterprise as a 16-year-old high school student.
“I’m about quality, I just want to build a few really nice instruments,” Bebensee said. “Clear tones are really important. It takes a lot of refinement to make sure that every note sings well and every little detail has been perfected.”
To learn more about Bebensee and his guitars and basses, go to http://www.kbguitars.com or call (530) 292-0156.
Tom Kellar is a freelance writer living in Cedar Ridge.
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