By Chris Gill
Compared to the other independent luthiers featured here, Kevin Ryan is a relative “newcomer.”
Whereas Goodall, Olson and Petros started making guitars during the Seventies, Ryan began his craft in the late Eighties. A guitarist himself, Ryan was always interested in the instrument, but initially he made his living as a carpenter. Later, as an aerospace engineer, he built wind-tunnel models for Northrop.
His decision to build guitars was inspired by two events in 1987: seeing Phil Keaggy perform on a custom Olson guitar and receiving William Cumpiano’s Guitarmaking book as a birthday present from his wife.
“She gave that book to me at dinner,” Ryan recalls. “I flipped through every page underneath the table, and by the time I reached the end I decided I was going to build guitars or die trying. I had the bug.”
Although Ryan initially set out to build a guitar or two for himself, word of his shop quickly spread around Southern California. Ryan’s first guitar went to a local collector, the second to the collector’s brother, and the third to that brother’s friend James Jensen, who owned the Solid Air record label. When Solid Air artists Laurence Juber and Al Stewart saw Jensen’s guitar, they wanted their own.
“I was very lucky that I had great players giving me input almost from the beginning,” Ryan says. “You can study books for years and still not understand something, but a great player can teach you everything you need to know in five minutes.”
Ryan was intrigued by side sound ports, a design element that emerged during the mid-Nineties, and he sought a more elegant-looking yet functional alternative. His solution was the Ryan Bevel Flute, available on several Ryan guitars, including the new Paradiso Grand Concert model pictured here. “I envisioned something that looked organic, like a chambered nautilus, or mechanical, like the vent ports on a Fifties Buick,” Ryan says. “I already developed the bevel on the lower bout and realized that was also the ideal spot for sound ports, since the lion’s share of the sound is generated in the lower bout. The player hears more sound, but the ports also project more sound out front.”
Ryan also developed a flexible abalone purfling strip called Zipflex and A4 kerfing—bendable kerfing liner—to reduce the tedium of certain tasks and give himself and his cobuilder, Bob Neff, more time to concentrate on important details of building their five models. These innovations led to a successful side business called AST, which provides these products to other guitar companies like Taylor and PRS.
“It’s important to build a nice guitar, but you also need some breaks,” Ryan says. “A lot of things needed to align for me to become successful, but I’ve been lucky and blessed. It’s been a great ride.”
Annual Production: 40 guitars
Starting Price: $8,000
Average Price: $12,000; Signature Series guitars range from $27,000 to $40,000-plus
Notable Players: Jackson Browne, Peter Finger, Laurence Juber and Rich Williams