Custom Guitars With Flair

Luthier crafts unique guitars and mandolins to match each customer’s dream

By Craig Reed

Stephen Holst shapes the neck of a custom archtop guitar in his shop. Photo by Craig Reed

Stephen Holst began playing guitar at age 15. He played in a five-member band, The Backdoor, with school friends.

A year later, Stephen decided to build his own guitar because he wanted his own instrument.

“I was one of six kids in my family, so there wasn’t a lot of money for things like that,” he explains.

Stephen admits his first two or three finished guitars were hardly worth playing. There were issues with being out of tune or staying in tune, strings breaking and the wood pieces not fitting tightly. At first he used a hard maple wood, but eventually discovered it was too heavy.

He was persistent, revisiting his father’s wood shop in the family garage and starting over on another guitar. There was no internet in the mid-1980s to give him guidance. He just tried to copy what he could see when looking at a guitar.

The 1986 Sheldon High School graduate was finally somewhat pleased with his guitar building on his fourth or fifth effort.

“I knew I had it right when it would stay in tune,” Stephen says of a guitar made with alder and mahogany. “I liked playing in bands a lot, and it was too much fun to not keep trying.”

Those early efforts, his persistence, and a three-year part-time job at a Eugene business that made custom electric guitars and bass guitars led Stephen to decide to become a professional custom guitar maker. He decided to specialize in archtop guitars and later added mandolins.

“I didn’t play archtop guitars myself, but I thought they were the prettiest guitars,” he says.

The hollow, steel-stringed guitars have a distinctive arched top on the body and are popular with jazz players. Those musicians became Stephen’s customers.

Now 50, Stephen has sold 168 archtops and 45 mandolins. His instruments sell for an average of $5,000 depending on their wood type, ornamentation and trim. All are customized to the customer’s requests.

A finished mandolin. Photo courtesy of Stephen Holst

Like his father, Stephen’s home workshop is in half of the garage at his family home several miles east of Creswell. “I still take a lot of pride in what I do,”

he says. “What’s fun is when I put the strings on it, when I finish it, when I first play it, when I first listen to it. It never gets old.”

Stephen plays the new instrument for 30 minutes or so to check its tone and sound. Then it is placed in a pressed ply-wood case with padding and packed in a stout cardboard box with more packing material for its trip to its new owner.

“I never want to keep them because I want to get paid,” he says matter of factly. “But every once in a while, all the stars align and it turns out extra special. I’m happy to send those off, to know when the guy opens the box, it’ll be a wow moment.”

Stephen’s instruments can be found in the hands of professional musicians, many of them jazz players, throughout the world. In early November, he shipped his most recently finished archtop guitar to Australia.

“Throughout my career I’ve had the pleasure of making guitars for people from all over the world,” Stephen says. “One of the most important things I’ve learned through this experience is that every customer will have a totally unique set of needs and wishes for their instrument. One of my archtop guitars is a true collaboration with the result being a guitar that is as much my craft as it is a person’s vision and inspiration.”

Several years ago, Stephen built a mandolin for Jim Magill, a professional musician in North Carolina. Jim posted a review about the instrument on Stephen’s website.

“I find it to have an elegant, gratifying tone that is both exciting and familiar,” he wrote. “Tone is something you can’t do much about; an instrument either has it or it doesn’t. To my great satisfaction, this one has it, and I hear much potential in an instrument that I already find impressive, and have high hopes that it will become a truly outstanding mandolin.”

Because of the distance between the workshop and the customer, Stephen has extended conversations via phone and email to determine what musicians want in their instruments. He says decisions must be made on neck widths, body shapes, finish colors, choice of scale lengths and fingerboard radius, unique and personal inlay designs, wood types and the appropriate response, tone and feel of the instrument.

A finished archtop guitar. Photo courtesy of Stephen Holst

“Each guitar and mandolin I make reflects the unique needs and wishes of its owner,” Stephen says. “It’s my sincere desire to provide every customer with not only a beautifully crafted guitar or mandolin, but to furnish them with an instrument that will give them a lifetime of enjoyment.”

Stephen starts each order with a solid block of wood. He carves it out, stopping when he taps on the wood and hears the tone he wants.

“The wood and tone resonates, and it takes experience to know when to stop,” he explains. “Guitar builders are all different and all have a different interpretation of the tone and when to stop carving.”

Stephen says maple, because of its grain, is most popular for the back and sides of the instrument. Spruce is the traditional wood for the top because it is light yet strong and resonates well. The neck is generally mahogany and the fingerboard is ebony. Stephen buys wood from businesses that specialize in instrument wood and obtain them from forests around the world.

“I feel like I’ve done enough of these and I feel confident enough that if somebody comes to me who wants a certain sound, I can create it for them,” he says. “Every guitar is like a series of variables, and a builder can manipulate those variables to get the sound that a musician wants.”

Kathi Holst, Stephen’s wife and a middle school special education teacher in Creswell, says what her husband creates is amazing.

“He’s humble about it, but he makes beautiful art,” she says. “He makes dreams come true for those people who want a customized guitar or mandolin. He spends hours talking to them about what they want and then creates an instrument they like.”

At the couple’s 1994 wedding, Stephen played an archtop guitar he made and sang the Beatles’ “In My Life” and Eric Clapton’s “We’re All the Way.”

That guitar has a special story, and Stephen is hopeful all the others he has made have also created special memories for their owners.

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