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Random quote: "Ovation Guitars really don't get the respect they deserve!" - Alex Pepiak

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The Kaman Caper - by Alexander M. Pepiak Published in Guitar Digest circa 1994

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Mr. Ovation
Posted 2012-02-11 5:04 PM (#449983)
Subject: The Kaman Caper - by Alexander M. Pepiak Published in Guitar Digest circa 1994

December 2001
Posts: 7150

Location: The Great Pacific Northwest

The Kaman Caper - by Alexander M. Pepiak
Published in Guitar Digest circa 1994

All it took was a phone call from a good friend from the Ohio Guitar Show (Kim Keller), and I was off in the car for another adventure. Kim is now employed for Kaman Corporation in the Ovation Guitars Service department, and thought I might want to cruise up to Connecticut, tour the Factory and hang out.

Once again I found myself on the Jersey turnpike going north, heading to Connecticut. The first thing you notice is that Connecticut has a whole different feel than the New York city area. It is rather picturesque and definitely gives you the feel of New England . At the end of the four plus hour sojourn I arrived at the factory. 

      My initial reaction about the factory is that it is ancient. The building was actually a 150 year old textile mill that is set next to a river for water power. I couldn't help but wonder if any of the employees tried their luck at fishing on their lunch hour. (Apparently this is done, but the river is stocked by the state and all fish caught must be released.) The building is huge and was shared with two other companies. This traditional setting is not exactly what one would expect for a company that uses spaceage design and materials in the construction of guitars.
       Upon entering the building, I immediately spotted Kim Keller who told me they were straightening up the office a bit since they don't usually get too many visitors. After we exchanged well wishes, Kim introduced me to John Budny who is the customer service manager and the individual who would give me a guided tour of the factory.
       Since the building is old and the factory is spread out over five floors, there were countless steps to climb. John took them two at a time having over 20 years of experience in the company; I, not so sure footed, was more careful. He explained that a freight elevator was installed only last year but everyone still takes the steps. I guess it's part of the Ovation fitness program.
       John asked me if I was familiar with their product line. I replied with, "Sure I've seen the Partridge Family-show you guys make everything....amps, mics, acoustic, semihollow and solid body guitars, P.A. systems, etc." John thought that I might be surprised since the product line has changed since then, and off we were to explore how Ovations come to life.
       First, we saw where the bodies were prepared. They are no longer made in house but by an outside contractor. They now come in three depths and are essentially the backbone of the Ovation design. It is this bowl back design that Charlie Kaman developed from the structural arch that makes the guitars respond the way that they do.
       We were then off to the wood storage area. The beautiful woods used for the tops are magnificent. Ovation will also custom make a top with rare and exotic woods. They keep a very large stock of many exotic woods.
       It was very interesting to see how the necks were made. I was surprised at the amount of hand work involved. John quipped that many people when touring the factory, think that you stick a block of wood on a conveyor belt and out the other end comes a guitar. I would only guess that the spaceage image of Ovation has many myths to explode.
       As we continued the tour, it was interesting to note the mix of traditional and high tech machinery. When John asked a few of the workers to demonstrate some of the new high tech stuff, they didn't perform correctly. That's understandable-your new dog will never do tricks when you have company in your house. The employees seemed pleasant and cordial for the most part. I know how it is to have someone come and observe you do your job. You get the feeling that you are in the zoo.
       One thing that was ever present in the factory is the odor of the binary resin. ( Epoxy is a brand name that dries hard and brittle and is not used in their guitar building. The Ovation derivative stays pliable when it is dry.) Ovations are constructed so they never will come apart and need little to no user adjustments. At times the odor bordered on overpowering, perhaps that's why there are so many happy employees!!!!!
       Although inlays are now being cut by a laser, they are glued into the fingerboard and attached to the neck blank in a traditional manner. I marveled at how the frets were still pounded in by hand at the factory. John explained that they will probably go to a press method but that this is the way it is done for now.
       Each type of Guitar: Adamas, Elite, Legend, Balladeer, etc, has a separate area for final completion and assembly. This insures that these instruments receive the needed care for assembly and keeps parts and people organized. The Ovation company only concentrates on the acoustic instruments now and doesn't (to my knowledge) produce any others.
       I found it interesting that Ovation is now offering a mandolin, mandocello, longneck guitar and acoustic bass. It's sure come a long way since the days of sponsoring the Partridge Family!! To demo the guitars electrically they use Trace Elliot amps, although I did still see a few of those Ovation solid state wonders from the seventies along with a silver panel Fender Princeton Reverb.
       The Ovation finish department is top notch. The guitars are absolutely stunning. Along with the normal clear finishes, they have about four different cherry sunburst finishes and a Cadillac green (Pay attention Gretsch freaks.) Custom finishing is available, but it almost seems a waste to finish these tops in anything but natural. The overall quality of the top wood is exquisite.
       Ovation has an inhouse machine shop which designs and makes special tools and jigs that are proprietary to the factory operation. I'm sure that this facility works hand in hand with the research and Development department, our next stop.
       John explained that R&D has been downsized but they are still very active in completing custom instruments and developing new products. It was here that I met Willie Vassilopoulos and it was worth the price of admission right there. Willie showed me some of the things that he was working on, including a custom guitar with golf inlays, (yes you read that right, golf) a special order magnificent koa top electric ukelele, ( yes you read that right, uke. Apparently Ovation guitars are popular in Hawaii because of the climate conditions.) and a double neck. Hidden in the corner was a Ovation dobro, which had a fantastic tone. The resonator combined with the bowl back design made this a LOUD guitar, arm it with an internal pickup system, and I'm sure they have another winner and standard model for their catalog. ( I was later told that since their market research was not positive this guitar will not go into production.) Equally impressive was a solid graphite guitar. Having just purchased a Bond I was very interested in this instrument and it had a very nice feel to the neck. I spend much time here examining these one of a kind wonders and even thought about how I could sneak one out of the factory.
       As the factory tour came to a close, I couldn't help but reflect upon my thoughts on the Ovation company. I remember first seeing an Ovation played by Glen Campbell on his show in the late sixties and wondering about it. Plastic guitars, sacrilege I thought. Sure, I had a plastic Maccaferri that my father "El Kabonged" over my posterior when I annoyed him one day, but I couldn't really get past the bowl back design that reminded me of the mandolins that the old Italian men would play in my neighborhood when I was growing up.
       I must admit that I have owned about a half dozen Ovations through the years. They were for the most part lower end models, but good instruments just the same. I remembered one Matrix I sent back to the factory when the aluminum fingerboard warped. They straightened the neck, replaced the broken rosette, buffed out some finish checks, and even touched up the back. All for about $35. You can't beat that for service, and that always impressed me. The guitars have a lifetime warranty and although I was told my situation was a little extraordinary, the service department goes over each instrument that comes back and does what ever it can to bring the condition of the instrument back to factory specs.
       As we made our way to the final assembly and storage, (the factory produces 78 instruments a day) I had to admit out loud that Ovations were worth a second, third , and fourth look . You can no longer be a guitar snob and discount these instruments. All you need to do is turn on MTV, VH1 or TNN and you will find an Ovation instrument. The new industry standard for the acoustic electric guitar. Ovation has been unplugged for years and they are damn good at it. Over the years, Ovation has finely honed their product line to a really impressive lineup of instruments.
       As we passed the last storage area, there was a dimly lit room. "What's in there?", I asked. I was told that it was where they keep spare parts and a reference of bodies and necks. I asked to see it and was led in. Inside this bank vault sized room was a rack of old solidbodies that are no longer produced on the Ovation line. After finding an Ovation Deacon (or was it a Breadwinner, I could never tell these apart) body (the one that is sort of shaped like an axe) that was almost complete with electronics. I talked my way into buying it. Nearby was a rack of necks and I picked out a rather fancy ebony board with triangle inlays. This will truly be my prize for coming to the factory! It didn't take too much persuading but I bought the guitar and assembled it at home. Now I will always have a reminder of my trip to Ovation. 

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