By Chris Gill
Jim Olson was one of the first independent luthiers to specialize in acoustic steel-string guitars, having established his shop in 1977. Even so, his business didn’t start to gain momentum until 1991, when James Taylor appeared on the cover of Acoustic Guitar magazine holding one of Olson’s instruments. “James had toured with three of my guitars since 1989, but no one seemed to notice them,” Olson recalls. “After that article appeared, people started to call me and the orders started to come in.”
Today, Olson offers four models — SJ (small jumbo), Jumbo, Dreadnought and Parlor — but the majority of the guitars he makes are the SJ model.
“The SJ was inspired by an old Guild guitar,” he says. “I tried to reduce their 17-inch jumbo to 15 inches while retaining a similar body shape, with a tight waist and rounded bottom. James Taylor, Dave Wilcox, Leo Kottke and Phil Keaggy all play SJ models, and that’s what most of my customers want.”
Many fingerstyle players favor Olson guitars for their exceptionally responsive characteristics. Olson says that’s a result of several important elements, including a cedar top, light construction, and his distinctive bracing pattern.
“A violin maker I knew who was either manically insane or incredibly brilliant showed me how he tapped the wood to hear where the f-holes and braces should go. I had him come over and tap out where he thought I should put my braces. When I made my first cedar-top guitar, I used his bracing placement, which had a much wider X and different placement for the transverse bars. The bracing provides more peripheral overtones and less fundamental tones, what some would call a ‘new age’ sound. If a customer wants a different sound, I’ll vary the guitar’s weight instead of moving braces around. For example, if you want a brighter sound, you get a stiffer top.”
While Olson’s $12,500 entry price is higher than many other independent luthiers’ starting prices, it includes a wide variety of options that he tailors to each buyer’s preference. Some are available at an additional cost; among them are Brazilian rosewood back and sides (which Olson now only sells and ships domestically due to the Lacey Act) and intricate custom inlays that he or Larry Robinson create. Olson builds a single run of approximately 40 guitars annually, delivering the instruments after a construction period of about nine months.
“It’s a huge job, but in the long run it saves me a ton of time,” Olson says. “It’s gratifying to get lost in my work. It’s still exciting for me to focus on building guitars.”
Annual Production: 39 guitars
Starting Price: $12,500
Average Price: $12,500 (Brazilian rosewood models start at $18,000)
Notable Players: James Taylor, David Crosby, Leo Kottke and Phil Keaggy