Issue 10.2: April / May 2007

The Well-Tempered Luthier

story by Michael Shapiro
photo by Rollo Scheurenbrand

It’s a rainy morning in Kailua, where slack key guitarist Harry Koizumi picks out a sweet little Hawaiian melody. It's the ideal musical accompaniment for the setting: languid breezes ruffle the palms, fine rain mists a red hibiscus, crystalline notes ring across the lanai. Beside Harry, wearing a smile of the purest satisfaction, sits Rollo Scheurenbrand, the man who built Harry’s guitar. Hand-crafted from richly figured koa wood and detailed with blue abalone inlays shaped like koa leaves, this guitar is no mere musical instrument. It’s a masterpiece.

Though relatively new to luthiery and mostly self-taught, Rollo is beginning to catch the eyes (and ears) of Hawai‘i musicians. Originally from South Dakota, Rollo took up carpentry in the ’70s. Always seeking new challenges (and new headaches), he moved on to trimwork, then cabinetry, then furniture-making, until he “caught the bug” in 2000 and built his first guitar. “When I finished, I was in tears. It moved me that I was capable of building an instrument; it’s an amazing accomplishment.”

Last July, Harry commissioned his guitar; 300 hours of loving labor later, Rollo handed Harry the guitar of his dreams. “It’s an incredible instrument. I thought, ‘Oh man, I’m going to have a big responsibility—I have to write songs to do it justice!’’’ Harry’s all-koa guitar, though only the tenth Rollo has built, earned high honors in the Hawai‘i Forest Industry Association’s 2006 Woodshow.

Some argue that koa, while beautiful, lacks the sonic character of more traditional tonewoods. But Harry’s guitar resonates; chocolatey bass tones anchor its glittering trebles—the whole sound is as warm and full-bodied as a glass of cognac. For Rollo, the instrument represents a great leap forward. “Everything he builds is so clean, so immaculate,” Harry says, leafing through his “baby book,” a series of photographs Rollo takes to document the process of birthing a new guitar. One picture shows Rollo painstakingly crafting the fretboard inlays. “Everything is a work of art. You can tell … it’s Rollo.”

Rollo Scheurenbrand