Made From Scratch

Luthier Jason Kostal on how his upbringing led him to create luxury guitars

BY MARTIN HINTZ

PHOTO BY DAVID SZYMANSKI


Hey, Jason Kostal, Mr. Guitar Man, play a tune for me. And while you are at it, how about crafting a luxury, handcrafted guitar?

 That’s no problem for Kostal, an internationally known luthier, or master guitar-maker, with a grin as wide as a 40-stringed instrument and a client list that boggles the musical mind.

A native of Louisville, Ky., Kostal and his family moved to Mequon when he was 5 years old and lived there until he was 18. He’s a proud grad of Marquette University High School (MUHS), where he played bass in the school orchestra. Kostal now calls the Phoenix area his home, with sister Ashley living nearby for an all-important local family connection.  

The rest of his clan still resides in Greater Milwaukee, giving him plenty of excuses for visiting. Plus, there’s Summerfest, the lakefront, the Historic Third Ward, new restaurants and an overall bustling cityscape for added incentive. “Milwaukee is truly a hidden gem of music, art and creativity that is hard to convey to someone who has not experienced it,” says Kostal. 

“My mother grew up on a farm and had an unrealized dream of being able to play the piano,” Kostal notes. From early on, his mom imparted the value of learning to play an instrument and learning a different language — two things she wished she had been able to do as a child, he adds. 

While the piano never really interested Kostal, he fell in love with the guitar when he was 4 years old after listening to Eric Clapton’s “Have You Ever Loved A Woman” on the radio. He attended his first concert, a production by The Beach Boys, in 1979, at the Riverside Theater. His parents bought him his first guitar, and Kostal has been at the fretboard ever since. 

Kostal began formally studying at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music when he was 12, taking rock and music theory under Paul Finley. The budding musician eventually fell in love with the American finger-style method and took lessons with the noted Dan Schwartz, who introduced Kostal to fellow instructors Ben Woolman and Matthew Schroeder. 

Both Woolman and Schroeder became prominent figures in the Milwaukee guitar scene at the time, with Kostal picking more intricacies of the technique through program director John Stropes, and alongside Michael Hedges, Billy McLaughlin, Leo Kottke and other nationally known stylists. It was at the conservatory where he met fellow Mequon native and lifelong pal Willy Porter. “(His) music continues to inspire me and guide me in my daily life,” Kostal says of Porter, adding that he is “forever grateful for the gifts that each of these musicians have given me.” 

“While I loved music and was studying a few hours every week formally, while also playing jazz in the MUHS jazz program under instructor Randy Skowronski and playing lead electric guitar in a band called Bonzai X-Press, I realized that my dream of becoming a world-renowned guitar player was probably a dream at best,” Kostal muses.    

Inspired by his grandfathers who served in World War II, Kostal decided to join the Army, even writing to the West Point admissions office at age 8. Kostal was drawn to the stories of the Army Rangers and their Vietnam legacy, and attended the U.S. Military Academy from 1994 to 1998. When he checked in to West Point, his admissions counselor dramatically pulled out a vanilla envelope that contained the original letter Kostal wrote to the Academy as a youngster.  

Ironically, Kostal never played in an Army band or did anything musical in an official military capacity because there was never a shortage of guitar players and guitars on deployments. However, he continued to play and perform at West Point and after his time there. He found coffee houses and bars that were the perfect venue for the styles of music he enjoyed.

“Many of my friends would come out on weekends to listen to me play, and they were some of my biggest fans. I didn’t have a lot of time to play or practice while deployed overseas, as free time was more of a luxury than anything, but there were opportunities,” he recalls. There always seemed to be a guitar around somewhere. “Soldiers enjoy moments that remind them of home, and nothing does that quite like food or music,” Kostal adds.

Kostal left the Army in 2005, earning his MBA while still on active duty. He decided it was time to get that “successful job wearing a suit” — something his parents had always hoped he would have. “I went to work as an executive for The Home Depot. While I learned a lot from the experience, it was not a good fit for me,” he says, deciding that it was time to part ways after less than two years. 

While in grad school, Kostal had learned how to build guitars from Kent Everett, an accomplished luthier in Atlanta at that time. Although Kostal had no previous woodworking experience other than making a pinewood derby car in the Cub Scouts, he was immediately bitten by the guitar-making bug.

“The honest truth was that I really had no business doing so. I wasn’t very good at it, and honestly I had no real plan to make it all work, which is very unlike me,” he adds. Yet he quit his job, put his house up for sale, and declared himself a guitar-builder. To hone his craft, Kostal relocated to Phoenix to enroll in the noted Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery under a Veterans Administration vocational rehab program.   

His intent was to immerse himself in the program and build full time. “I rationalized with myself that if, after five months of doing this every day I still love it, I was probably on the right path,” he adds. And it was, of course.

After graduating, Kostal stayed on as an instructor in the acoustic guitar program and rented a commercial building for his shop. He taught on the weekdays and practiced his luthier techniques at night, sometimes working until the wee hours of the morning. Soon he snared an unpaid internship in San Francisco with Ervin Somogyi, who is considered one of the world’s finest guitar makers. 

“Listening and learning from someone else drastically reduces the mistakes that I could make and helps me find a path full of growth, while not causing me a lot of grief and heartache along the way,” Kostal says of his many mentors. 

But he also wanted a name for himself. “I realized at that time that I needed to create my own voice and my own brand. I wanted people to contact me because they wanted a Kostal, not a less expensive version of my mentor’s guitars,” he explains. “I immediately set out to define what made a good sounding guitar in my opinion and began working to create that sound in my guitars.”

The result was a guitar that is uniquely a Kostal with its own voice, aesthetic and feel. “People like that and are drawn to it,” Kostal says of his ever-expanding fan base of buyers who appreciate his instruments’ sound and playability. He knew he “had arrived” in the business when his guitars passed the $10,000 threshold. Kostal has now been building guitars for about 12 years, moving up from having no woodworking experience and selling to mostly friends and friends of friends, to where he is now. 

Kostal currently fabricates between 35 to 40 guitars per year at an average cost of $25,000 apiece, with a seven-year wait list. He is represented by dealers in the U.S., Europe, Japan, Korea, China and Singapore. He loves interacting with clients, indicating that while constructing guitars is great, the relationships that he builds are what makes this endeavor so much fun. 

Photo by Ryan Nelson of RYN Photography

The average guitar takes about four months to build from start to finish, which includes two and a half months of working with exotica such as Madagascar rosewood and German spruce, followed by a month of lacquering. After another 10 days or so for final touches, the guitar is ready to ship. Kostal works on four to six guitars at a time, with many more in various stages of production. An undergrad degree in systems engineering and process management helps him maintain a well-managed process and keeps him organized.

“I don’t do rush jobs. What I am building is something of quality, made by hand, and there is no way for me to rush it,” he asserts. “I also don’t give preferential treatment to big name musicians. They buy their guitars like everyone else, and they wait in the queue.”

There are special moments for Kostal when building a guitar. The first is when the sets of wood are chosen and he can already start to see how that guitar will look and even imagine the sound. “When the body of the guitar is finally put together, there is a magical moment when it begins to look like a guitar.  I get excited because I am nearing completion and cannot wait to hear it make its first note,” he enthuses.

“When the guitar is completed, and strings go on for the first time, there is a moment of reverence when you realize that you have given a tree a voice once again, and you want to sit and enjoy it and listen to it. The final moment is that moment when a client sees the guitar and hears it for the very first time,” he says.

With building guitars, Kostal emphasizes that he is creating from the heart and then placing it out into the world for others to evaluate and critique. “When someone loves it, we feel like we are on top of the world,” he says happily. 

 

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