By Dave Eichenberger
Walla Walla, Washington is a town with a funny name known for its wine industry and sweet onion production. However, this funny-sounding town also happens to be home to the Walla Walla Guitar Company. They feature unique twists on classic designs using a variety of vintage and upcycled woods, as well as custom instruments using materials never used before in guitar building. With a combined 75 years of guitar playing and building experience, Terry Martin and Ken Melhus can collaborate with you to make your guitar a one-of-a-kind, funky instrument that tells a story as unique as you are. This article will feature some of their custom designs, lots of pictures, and an interview with Ken explaining what makes Walla Walla Guitars stand out in a crowded custom guitar market.
Their T-Top (or Tone-Top) models might have a familiar silhouette, but add to the classic design by featuring a lightweight basswood solid, chambered, or hollow body, your choice of Seymour Duncan pickups, and a soft V-profile Canadian maple neck. The basswood makes a lightweight, resonant body that is easy on your back. The maple neck, like the body, is treated with Tru-Oil, so you can feel the wood vibrate under your hand. The exciting feature about these T-Top guitars is the dizzying array of options available for the body’s top. While Walla Walla guitars can use exotic woods, they can also cover the top with such items as denim or cow skin. They have also come up with a process that allows the customer order several graphic tops and replace them at will.
T-Top Vintage Wood
The Vintage Wood series uses old, reclaimed woods to give each top a one-of-a-kind story, that in some cases, is over 100 years old. You can talk with the Walla Walla Guitar Company to see what wood is on hand, as Terry and Ken continually hunt for interesting vintage woods.
Terry and Ken use a laser to etch a piece of flame or curly maple into intricate repeating patterns. Whether it is paisleys or skulls, the designs allow the beauty of the stained wood to shine through.
The maple adds snap to the basswood body, and it can be stained any color.
Want actual objects like playing cards, gears, photos, coins and keys inlaid into the top? Walla Walla Guitars has come up with a process that imbeds these items inside a polymer top. Have a bunch of items that tell your story? Talk with Terry or Ken and make them part of your dream guitar.
We recently had a chance to talk to the folks at Walla Walla guitars about their unique visions.
You seem to come up with some cool, funky designs. What is the inspiration behind Walla Walla guitar designs?
Our main goal is to create guitars that look extremely unique and to make them feel and sound so great you don’t want to set them down. We strive to use materials and ideas that are not usually associated with guitars, including 100 year old crate wood, custom designed laser graphics, exotic hides, antique parts in crystal poly and other original designs. Our guitars are all one of a kind and made in the USA.
Terry Martin and Ken Melhus have been working together and creating music for over 30 years.
Terry, the owner of Walla Walla Guitar Company, has played guitar for over 50 years and was awarded over 20 patents in the sporting goods field. He also has created several hundred products and now is focused on designing and making great playing and distinctive guitars.
Ken has played, built, customized, and deconstructed guitars for over 40 years. His collection of 150+ guitars has allowed him the chance to study, experiment with, and absorb guitars. Being a computer nerd, graphic artist and guitar building for over 25 years has given him the ability to take designs from thoughts to reality.
Nate Baker handles the custom hand-rubbed neck and body finish, giving them the feel that players dream of.
Your Artifax guitars have a really unique design featuring hollow bodies with vintage wood-panel tops. How does the hollow body contribute to the tone?
Our guitars are all about vibrations and vibe. The Artifax and T-Top guitars incorporate an internal frame with a thin top to maximize the vibrations of the woods or other material it’s made from. Most of our guitars are chambered and also include a Sound Tunnel port into the hollowed part of the body. This port focuses sound from inside the body towards the player’s ears. The top, back, chamber and Sound Tunnel port make our guitars extremely resonant and acoustically loud for an electric. You can play at a comfortable volume without plugging them in. All of this vibration adds to the electronic tone of the guitar as well.
Your T-Top guitars can use materials for the guitar’s top such as denim, cow skin or vintage, reclaimed woods. Do you notice if the material used for the guitar’s top affects the tone of the guitar?
Yes. More than most builders, we can attest to the how different materials and woods can alter the overall sound of a guitar since we incorporate so many unusual components. The basic concept is still this: harder=brighter and softer=darker to varying degrees. If you put an eel hide on a hard maple top the two components work with each other to create unique tone. The best part of all these possibilities is there is no right or wrong since every guitar player has an individual idea of what suits them best. In the end, a guitar’s pickups make the single biggest difference to its sound. Let’s say you put a long hair cowhide on a guitar, this dampens the sound, but you can always find a pickup that can brighten it up to your heart’s desire.
You use Tru-Oil as the finish on your guitars. Why chose this over traditional nitro or poly finishes?
After a lot of experimenting, we chose Tru-Oil for two primary reasons. First, it lets our guitars breathe and resonate like no other finish. This lets our guitars wood vibrate at its full potential, which adds to the acoustic volume and tone. Second, we love how it looks, feels and ages. Tru-Oil is soft even when fully cured. Our finish is textured with a natural aged look and feel. Another great attribute of Tru-Oil is if it gets bumped it dents but usually doesn’t chip. The process to apply the finish by hand on the neck and body is labor intensive, but we think it’s worth it.
What does the addition of Seymour Duncan pickups add to your designs?
The pickup is the heart of a guitar’s sound. We believe pickups are responsible for 80% or more of a guitar’s overall tone, especially when distortion is applied. Since we incorporate such unique components into our guitars, we need a pickup line that has a huge amount of options to get each guitar we build to sound its best. Who has a bigger selection and better track record than Seymour Duncan?
Walla Walla Guitars is a custom guitar company, and works with customers to come up the perfect guitar that tells their own personal story. You can contact them directly if you have questio
ns about their designs, or if you are ready to build your dream guitar.