Ryan Guitars

By Doug Young, Acoustic Guitar Magazine

ag dec 2010 cover.jpg

AS INTEREST IN GUITARS made in small shops has grown over the past couple of decades, a small group of luthiers has achieved legendary status among players, collectors, and other builders. One of these is California luthier Kevin Ryan, whose guitars have become known among players, from amateurs to professionals, for their rich tone, extraordinary playability, and beautiful design. Ryan's high-tech approach to building instruments has been a constant since he introduced his first model in 1988. 

From the beginning, Ryan has designed his guitar specifically for fingerstyle guitarists, and his clientele has included such notables as Pierre Bensusan, Michael Chapdelaine, Pat Donahue, Peter Finger, Laurence Juber, and Eric Lugosch. In addition, Acoustic Guitar readers have honored Ryan with several Player's Choice Awards. Over the past two decades, Ryan has built more than 700 guitars, while establishing a reputation for leading-edge innovation in the guitars themselves as well as the processes he uses to build them. We talked to Ryan about how he got started, his approach to design and building, and the instruments he produces. 

From Aerospace to Luthier 

Kevin Ryan never imagined he would end up building guitars for a living when he was growing up in rural Ohio, where, after graduating from high school, he spent time working as a carpenter and cabinetmaker and playing acoustic guitar in a band. But in the mid-'80s he moved, along with his wife and parents, to Southern California to take a job in research and development at Northrop Grumman Corporation's aerospace laboratory, building models of jet fighters to be tested in wind tunnels. At Northrop, Ryan began to pick up new skills, using high-tech tools to create new designs and pursuing extreme precision. "When I was a cabinetmaker, I thought in terms of 1/16th of an inch,” Ryan says, “but as model builders, we were dealing with 1/1,000th of an inch. It changes your whole mind-set." 

Around 1987, Ryan came across an article by Canadian luthier Grit Laskin in Fine Woodworking magazine about building a small-body steel-string guitar. Ryan was immediately fascinated both by the idea of building a guitar and the concept of a guitar with a smaller body than the dreadnoughts he was used to. He got a copy of a then-new book, William Cumpiano's Guitarmaking: Tradition and Technology, which Laskin mentioned in the article, and began dreaming of building a guitar. Recalling his initial excitement, Ryan says, "It's kind of like marriage—you need the irrational insanity called being in love to make the initial commitment. Guitar building is so difficult that if you don't have that initial passion, it's pretty tough to keep going." 

Ryan's "irrational insanity” began to bear fruit relatively quickly. Even before completing his first guitar, which Ryan gave to his mother, friends and neighbors became curious about the guy building a guitar in his parents' garage, and an acquaintance asked Ryan to build one for him as well. That first customer eventually led to an order from Al Stewart (of "Year of the Cat" fame), and Stewart's new guitar attracted the interest of Laurence Juber, who was just beginning to gain notice in the fingerstyle guitar community. 

Mission Grand Concert 

Early on, Ryan developed a basic design he called the Mission, drawing inspiration from Jim Olson's small jumbo design as well as the Santa Cruz Guitar Company's FS model. Like those guitars, Ryan's Mission was intended for fingerstyle players and Ryan fairly quickly identified an ideal tone he hoped to achieve, one that balanced warmth and a bright shimmery tone, with a sparkle and clarity to the bass notes. Ryan says, "There are two ways to get a sparkly tone. If it's bright because of the strings, it sounds metallic; I don't like that at all. But if the brightness comes from the wood itself, I love that." Particularly impressed by the cedar-topped guitar Olson had recently built for Phil Keaggy, Ryan was drawn to cedar tops—somewhat unusual at the time—as he pursued his ideal tone. However, he tended toward more traditional woods for his back and sides, generally preferring Indian rosewood, which he calls "the most underrated tonewood," on his earliest instruments. Although today Ryan often builds with Brazilian rosewood, he says that at the time, Brazilian was "such a pricey wood, I didn't feel like experimenting with it." 

Ryan delivered his fifth Mission to Juber in 1990. While Juber liked the guitar, he didn't shy away from telling Ryan that he thought he could do better. Ryan wasn't so sure. "I was devastated," he says, and initially he had no idea how to improve the design. But Juber also commented that he wanted a guitar for alternate tunings. Ryan had a flash of inspiration that a longer scale length might work well for lowered tunings and decided to build a guitar with a 25.7-inch scale, slightly longer than the typical 25.5-inch scale found on most steel-strings. Juber was ecstatic about the result, and Ryan decided to stick with the longer scale, reinforced by Juber’s feedback that he liked the feel of the increased tension even in standard tuning. 

A Penchant for Innovation 

While switching to the longer scale length was a relatively modest change, it had a more significant long-term effect on Ryan's approach to design, because he realized that he didn't have to follow the beaten path. "When I first started building, it was all black magic," he says. “But after a year or two, I thought, maybe there's a little black magic, but there's no law against changing things." Ryan began to exploit some of the ideas he had picked up from structural engineers at Northrop. For example, he increased the width of his bridge from 6 inches to 6 3/4 inches to disperse the tension over a wider area of the top, which allowed him to make the top thinner, and he experimented with different approaches to bracing, taking the X braces right to the corners of the bridge plate (similar to Olson's SJ) and moving the lower face brace closer to the bridge to reduce bellying of the top, which in turn allowed a lighter, thinner top. "Weight is the enemy," Ryan says. "That has been a guiding principle to me." 

Ryan also discovered that he relished trying new things. "I'm never happier than when we're sailing into uncharted waters and doing something that's never been done before," he says. While experimenting with a deeper body size, Ryan realized that the body needed to be tapered to make it comfortable to hold. He decided to introduce a radical radius for the back to decrease the guitar's depth at the upper bout, while increasing the depth at the tail block. While many builders were using a 15-foot or even 12-foot radius for their guitar backs, Ryan chose a seven-foot radius, creating an extreme arch. Although meant partly for comfort, Ryan says, "I knew from engineering that if you bend any thin plate into a radius, you increase the effective strength. That meant the back could be lighter. And the guitar just looked sexier." 

Ryan guitars also feature less visible innovations inside the instruments. For example, the highly radiused back presented a problem with the traditional approach to kerfing, which Ryan solved by designing a unique, flexible kerfing. Another hidden feature is his wide, micro-adjustable, differentially threaded truss rod, which Ryan calls one of his most important innovations. The chrome truss rod takes up a large cross section of the neck, and is extremely stiff, creating a very stable neck, while the micro-adjustment mechanism allows Ryan to dial in a very precise amount of relief. Another internal feature that is somewhat visible is the laser-cut EO (Engineered Openings) bracing system, which Ryan introduced in 2006. By removing material from the braces, Ryan continued the pattern of reducing weight while retaining strength and stiffness.

High-Tech Tools

Many people have an image of the individual luthier painstakingly handcrafting guitars with sandpaper and chisels. Ryan chose a different approach, taking advantage of his high-tech background to develop tools and processes to facilitate the construction and create repeatable processes. "I had a mania for tools right from the get-go," Ryan says. "My family and friends called me the Jig Meister, and they'd say, ‘You don't want to build guitars, you want to build tools!’” 

Ryan's fascination with tools led him to increasingly high-tech approaches, and he credits Bob Taylor for helping him in his developments. Before long he acquired a CNC (computer numerical control) machine, a complex tool that allows Ryan to develop designs in a computer CAD program, which then directs the machine to perform precise cutting and routing operations. With the CNC machine, Ryan was able to introduce more precise and intricate details, including his MicroPearl inlay around the headstock and rosette, as well as blind fret slots where the binding is integrated with the fretboard. While some feel that CNC machines take some of the romance out of building, Ryan disagrees, viewing the machines as creativity boosters. Before he started using CNC machines, he says, "I'd have an idea, and I'd be depressed because I'd realize I couldn't do it. With the CNC and laser, I have ideas, and I can do them." 

One recent CNC-enabled development is the Acoustic Parallel Plate (APP), a complex laser-cut honeycomb structure that is partly Ryan's answer to the increasingly popular double-top concept. The APP allows Ryan to eliminate all bracing below the X brace, creating an even lighter, more responsive top.

The Ryan Bevel

One of Ryan's best-known creations is the Ryan Bevel, a smooth beveled edge on the lower bout of the guitar. Like his original foray into guitar building, the inspiration for the bevel came from Grit Laskin, who had designed an armrest to eliminate the sharp edge of the guitar body under the player's arm. Ryan liked Laskin's idea, but wanted to do it differently for both aesthetic and technical reasons. Ryan showed Laskin his conceptual design and got his blessing to pursue the concept, which he spent two years perfecting. While Laskin's armrest is mitered into the body with a clear beginning and end, Ryan wanted the bevel to feather in at the waist and out at the tail block, with no definite starting or end point. The continuous bevel provides comfort for players, regardless of where their arm falls on the guitar. 

Visually, the bevel appears to be a continuation of the binding, and Ryan uses the same woods, generally Macassar ebony or koa, for both the bevel and the binding. Ryan also feels that his bevel design makes a positive contribution to the tone of his guitars by essentially combining the optimal treble and midrange response of a slightly smaller soundboard with the bass response of a larger body.

The latest twist to the bevel is a feature Ryan calls Acoustic Flutes—basically miniature soundports in the bevel. Ryan was intrigued by the way sound ports in the side of the guitar enhanced the players' experience, but resisted the approach other builders were using. "We wanted to have some fun with it," he says. "We came up with the idea of oval holes, which are a non-isometric ellipse. It's very natural, because it makes you think of a chambered nautilus. The other thing is that it looks like the vent ports on some '57 Buick!"

Zeroing in on Tone

While Ryan relishes the opportunity to exercise his creativity, he also has a more methodical engineering side. For example, he took a very deliberate approach to learning how to tune his tops. Many luthiers rely on "tap tuning," the process of tapping a potential top and listening to how it responds. Ryan thought the process was too subjective. "I felt that if I tapped on that top Monday morning, it would sound different to me than if I tapped on it Wednesday evening," he says. Instead, he created a graph—a Cartesian coordinate system, with the weight of a top on one axis, and its deflection under a known weight on the other. After each guitar was finished, he evaluated its tone and marked the graph at the appropriate spot, using a color code to indicate a range from "OK" to "great." While following a scientific methodology, the evaluation criteria was necessarily subjective, and Ryan's ratings were based on how close he felt each instrument came to his ideal tone, which Ryan says includes "a beautiful blossom to the notes." 

It didn't take long for a pattern to emerge, and Ryan found that all of the "great" guitars fell within a small range of weight and deflection, which is essentially a way to characterize the density of the wood. Today, Ryan simply chooses tops to match the range of weight and deflection he initially identified, with the exact numbers varying according to the size of the guitar. 

A Flurry of New Models

After years of being known for a single model, Ryan began to design a new, large-body guitar he called the Cathedral in 2002. In contrast to the Mission's now classic lines, Ryan wanted the Cathedral to be somewhat avant-garde, drawing some inspiration from Steve Klein's jumbo-size M-43. At the same time, John Schroeder, a longtime friend and original founder of Fingerstyle Guitar magazine, proposed a project to build four parlor guitars based on an arts-and-crafts theme. Ryan was intrigued by the idea, and recalls that it was "fun to take a theme—a graphic design movement, but also an architectural movement—and translate that into a guitar." The parlor design led to another new model, the Abbey.

While working on these designs, Ryan learned that Pierre Bensusan was looking for a new instrument. Collaborating with Bensusan, Ryan created a guitar that he offered as a signature model from 2002 to 2006; that same design process also resulted in another model, the Nightingale. 

In 2009, Ryan revealed yet another model, the Paradiso, which was driven by customer requests for a Mission with a bevel. Ryan felt the bevel didn't work aesthetically on the Mission—which has a different shape than the CAD-designed curves of his later models—so he designed a new body roughly the size of the Mission, but with a new shape that accommodates the bevel.

Working with Guitarists

As with most builders, Ryan enjoys the personal element of working with customers. Some customers simply want to replicate a Ryan they have seen, while others want to customize and be involved in every design detail. For customers who aren't sure what they want, Ryan tries to provide some guidance, although he recommends that customers trust their instincts on wood choices. "I will say, `Right now, if I press you, you probably have an instinct of what you should have,' and I find almost always they're exactly right." 

Ryan also suggests that people narrow their choices systematically. "If you tell me you want a really responsive guitar, and you have a light touch, then good choices are Swiss spruce, Engelmann spruce, cedar, or redwood," he says. “Then narrow it down. Do you like the look of dark wood? If not, then cedar and redwood are off the table." 

Ryan recognizes that while the sound of a guitar is paramount, players care about other aspects, as well. "We're not just selling an instrument, we're selling something they're going to cherish," he says. “We want them to be drawn to it. It's the whole package—how it smells, how it feels, even the experience of buying it. It's about getting joy from it, and that works at so many different levels."

Copyright Stringletter Media. December 2010. Reprinted with permission.