Fairhaven guitarmaker Dake Traphagen’s classical instruments have a worldwide following, incredibly positive word-of-mouth reputation, and hefty price tags. While these are all well and good, they aren’t what keeps the fire burning for the craftsman, whose real focus remains the unending quest to build the perfect guitar.
Looking at the outside of guitar-maker Dake Traphagen’s workshop in Fairhaven, you wouldn’t know what’s inside. There is no sign hanging in front of the building; it looks more like a residence than the shop of a craftsman. But Traphagen’s hidden location isn’t something he worries about; he knows his customers can find him if they just listen for the music.
Melodies from Traphagen’s classical guitars have reached players around the world, and renowned professional musicians are among those visiting his shop or Web site to place orders.
In building his reputation, Traphagen has kept things simple. Thoughts of mass-producing guitars or mounting a widespread advertising campaign do not resonate with him. Instead, he controls Traphagen Guitars with his own two hands, maintains personal relationships with his customers, and continues his never-ending quest to build the best guitar possible. His business strategy, like his guitars, projects all the right notes to his customers.
Traphagen’s career began out of a box. After graduating from high school, his mother gave him a dulcimer kit as a Christmas gift one year. His first experience building an instrument sparked interest in the craft, and soon he was building folk instruments and, eventually, guitars.
With a couple years of instrument building behind him, Traphagen decided to do an apprenticeship with a violin maker in California. Traphagen said he eventually settled on making guitars, because violins don’t provide as much creative leeway for builders.
His interest in guitar building next took him to Holland, where he did another apprenticeship with a lute and guitar maker.
In 1978, after a few years in the trade, Traphagen decided to come to Bellingham because of the buzz surrounding the guitar program at Western Washington University. Although he plays guitar, as well as viola and piano, he wasn’t interested in enrolling in the program itself, just having a community of talented players around him.
David Feingold, guitar instructor and chair of the music department at Western Washington University, was also drawn to the classical guitar scene in Bellingham as a graduate student studying guitar.
“There was kind of a renaissance of classical guitar in the late 1970s up here,” said Feingold. The scene was built around two teachers at the university, Tom Patterson and Michael Lorimer, a protégé of master guitarist Andres Segovia. Feingold, who met Traphagen when they both settled in Bellingham, said Patterson and Lorimer attracted students from all over the country.
Getting in with the right people was helpful, but according to Traphagen, a guitarmaker’s reputation is only as good as the instruments they build. He said letting even one subpar instrument leave the workshop can distort the image customers have of him, especially since one guitar may last for more than 100 years and pass through the hands of many players.
The skills used to craft a quality guitar are constantly being refined, said Traphagen. “In this profession, you’re always a student, even though you consider yourself a professional,” he said. It is not necessarily the aesthetics and craftsmanship of the guitar that are difficult to master, he said, it is the creation of the right sound.
In 1976, Ron Rondello, owner of Harris Music and a classical guitar teacher, bought a guitar from Traphagen. At the time, he was quite impressed with the quality. Ten years later, Rondello said he purchased another Traphagen guitar, and claims it was twice as good as the first. He said he has always been impressed with the continual improvements Traphagen makes.
When customers place an order with Traphagen, they describe the sound they want. Traphagen said he requires customers to go through an interview, which will give him a better understanding of how they play, and what levels they aspire their playing to reach. He also said it is important for him to meet his customers, which doesn’t happen as often as he’d like. “The instrument is personal to the player, but it is also very personal to the builder,” he said.
The raw materials Traphagen uses for his guitars are the starting point in achieving the right sound. Finding the proper materials can be a difficult task, he said. In the office at his workshop, he has a book with pictures of trees, stumps and pieces of lumber from around the world he is looking to buy.
Brazilian rosewood, used for the back and sides of his guitars, is the most expensive material he buys, and it also takes the most time to acquire.
“Because it is an endangered species, you can’t cut it down,” he said. To find this essential material, he uses a friend in Brazil. The two search for scraps of wood from old houses, and seek out tree stumps. Traphagen recently bought some wood in Brazil from a beam of a house built in 1727. Brazilian rosewood for just one guitar can cost about $1,500, he said.
Also commonly used in his guitars are ebony, which he gets from Africa, and cedar, which he recently found a supply of at an Olympic Peninsula farm, where a tree had been chopped into wedges about 100 years ago.
Traphagen said he uses many traditional methods to build his guitars.
“I like being in contact with the wood as opposed to having a machine cut everything, because I get to feel how the wood is responding underneath the tool,” he said.
In addition to using many hand tools, Traphagen also uses animal-based glues instead of wood glue, and a hand-applied polish instead of spray-on lacquer. Both methods are superior for conducting sound, he said.
“You want everything to fit together as if it grew that way,” he said.
The finished instrument, which Traphagen said is built like an egg shell and vibrates to project sound when plucking the strings, takes more than 100 hours to make. He said he usually builds three guitars at a time, and finishes them in seven to eight weeks; a completed Traphagen guitar starts at $5,500.
“The more you do this, the more subtleties you realize there really are,” said Traphagen.
In a year, Traphagen usually produces around 18 guitars, although this year he has made about 24.
Traphagen strives for quality, not quantity, in his business, and said this focus is crucial to his marketing strategy.
“Word of mouth is the best advertising,” said Traphagen. A guitar is something you can’t just look at and buy, he said; a prospective buyer needs to hear the instrument and feel it in their hands.
Approaching his 35th year of making guitars, Traphagen’s reputation has reached guitar students, teachers, and professional musicians around the world. Each now make up a portion of his customers, and keep the orders coming in. Professional musicians and other high-end customers have an increasing demand for quality instruments, and guitar teachers and students are a never-ending word-of-mouth network, he said.
In addition, Traphagen goes to a few guitar expositions a year to display his instruments, and occasionally runs print advertising in some guitar publications. He also said his Web site, which contains customer testimonials from renowned classical guitarists such as Pepe Romero, helps to attract business.
Although he admits he has a steady flow of orders, keeping a healthy stream of customers is still something he is concerned with. “Nothing
is guaranteed,” said Traphagen.
According to Feingold, Traphagen’s business has never truly struggled but, regardless, Traphagen has always stayed intently focused on his craft.
“He continually tries to improve his work like no one I’ve ever seen,” said Feingold. “I’ve never seen him burn out.”
Traphagen said he is content with his business, because he’s been supporting himself for over 30 years doing what he loves. He also enjoys being self-employed — which he is quick to point out doesn’t mean he works less than other businesspeople. According to Traphagen, he usually works 10 hours a day, somewhere between five to six days a week, in his quest for guitar perfection.
“You’re always in pursuit of making the perfect instrument, or at least the one you hear in your head,” said Traphagen. He knows creating the perfect instrument will probably never happen.
“The challenge to me is a good thing, it’s not stressful,” he said. “If you had already built what you thought was the best instrument possible, what would be left to strive for?”