Bob Crelin's inlay work at Takamine brings Art to the masses

For the last ten years, Bob Crelin has designed the inlays on Takamine’s annual LTD limited-edition series. With this special line of production guitars, Crelin and the craftsmen at Takamine achieve the goal of bringing top-shelf inlay to everyday players. How did you get into doing guitar inlay work? I’ve been i

For the last ten years, Bob Crelin has designed the inlays on Takamine’s annual LTD limited-edition series. With this special line of production guitars, Crelin and the craftsmen at Takamine achieve the goal of bringing top-shelf inlay to everyday players.

How did you get into doing guitar inlay work?

I’ve been in the music industry for years. One of my good friends, John Roderick, became the percussion manager of Kaman music, which distributes Takamine guitars. Takamine had just been set up with a full-blown laser-CAD router setup, which was a brand new thing in the industry. It allowed them to do inlay, routing, and all kinds of fine woodworking, and they were looking for something to do with it. The LTD Takamine line was something that they thought would be a good fit for this process. John told me about it and suggested I throw something into the mix.

Do you create the designs with pen and paper, or on the computer?

A little bit of both. A lot of times when I’m doing the design ideas, I’ll work with a pencil to sketch things out and just get a bit of a flow going. I’ll work with the soundhole and the outline of a guitar body to pick up the energy from the curves and make it all work together.

Then it gets applied to the computer to be rendered in a way that I can take it even further. I’ll use Photoshop to apply actual wood scans and create a mock-up photograph of what the final guitar would look like before any woods are cut, so we can get an idea of what the finished guitar will look like if we use certain kinds of woods, grains, stones, or shells. It’s funny—if you were to see initial Photoshop mock-ups and final photos of the finished guitars, they look almost identical.

Do you think the use of computers can make the creative process sterile in any way?

It depends on the operator. The computer is really just a tool; it’s a brush, it’s a pencil. If you’re just using clip art or pre-manufactured graphics or templates it can be sterile. But I’m primarily a hand artist. I’m not letting the computer do anything for me.

Have you gotten any criticism from purists who say that real inlay work should be done only by hand on one guitar at a time?

No, I really haven’t. These particular models are designed for production; they’re meant to be sold around the world. So the idea is to make this the most artistic piece of inlay work that can be done in a production scenario.

If you look at some of these designs, you’ll see that they are incredibly complicated. On the current model, the LTD 2004, I counted 134 pieces in the rosette alone. That means that in every single guitar they had to inlay 134 pieces by hand. They do cut them out precisely with the use of a CAD program, but it all gets hand assembled. As you can imagine, that’s an incredible amount of work and it’s amazing when you see it.

Are there any other inlay artists you admire?

When we first started doing this, there was really nothing going on in production inlay outside of just a couple of vines up the fretboard or something like that, so I didn’t really follow what was going on there. I’d like to think that we pushed things a little bit because all of a sudden everybody’s doing fancy, artsy inlay.

Do you feel any more pressure now to create something even more crazy and unique because of the added competition?

No. From what I’ve seen of what’s out there, I think that I’m already a couple of steps ahead. I don’t want to sound cocky or anything, but I feel like I’ve already tried things and made most of the mistakes that you can make along the way. I’ve got some pretty strict rules and guidelines for myself when I’m designing things, even though each one will look entirely different.

What are those rules?

It’s just basically respecting where the design is going. What’s very common these days is that almost anything is put on just about every part of the guitar. As much as you can appreciate it if you were holding it in your hand, a little plastic sticker would probably look the same on there, because the inlay doesn’t flow with the guitar itself. I think that’s the big difference in what I’ve been doing with these LTD designs. There’s an overall sensitivity to where the inlay is being applied and that’s what makes the difference.

Do you have any favorite materials?

I try to stay with the natural materials as much as possible. But I’m also an environmentalist to the degree that if something is endangered, I wouldn’t load up a rosette full of it.

Do you have creative control, or does the company dictate the style of the inlay?

In the beginning I would submit a lot of ideas from all sorts of places, with no real theme in mind. Takamine and I would then go through them and find the ones that worked. As the years went on, some things got tied in, like having the guitars benefit the Jacques Cousteau Society. So the designs would begin to reflect that.

You like to include motion in your fretboard inlays. What is the thought process behind that?

I use it to tie the guitar together. The rosette sets the theme for the guitar. Once the theme is anchored, you have the ability to use the fretboard. I look at each fret as a comic book frame. I don’t always do fretboard animation, but when I can, it’s a really fun thing to do. I’ve had the sun set down the neck, a whale breaching. It’s a fun effect.

Tell us about this year’s model.

This year we were given the nod to go completely off the rosette. I came up with an idea to have cattails blowing in the breeze, and the little seed heads are being blown across the fretboard. That was a lot of fun, and it takes things in a whole different direction.

Where do you think the art of inlay is heading?

Inlay will always be a seller in acoustic instruments if it’s artistic and done well. The danger is when you go too over the top with it. I know I’m going to be involved with inlay, because I’m having so much fun challenging myself and challenging what we do to come up with new avenues for it. As long as it keeps going in an artistic direction, people will always appreciate it. •

More of Crelin’s work can be found at and