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Bowl Backs with Bill the Boss - by Alex Pepiak circa 1994

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Mr. Ovation
Posted 2012-02-11 6:11 PM (#449987)
Subject: Bowl Backs with Bill the Boss - by Alex Pepiak circa 1994

December 2001
Posts: 7150

Location: The Great Pacific Northwest

Bowl Backs with Bill the Boss
by Alexander M. Pepiak
Published in Guitar Digest circa 1994

After my Ovation factory tour, the editors of Guitar Digest put their creative minds together and decided to dedicate an issue to the Ovation guitar. When they informed me of their intentions, I thought that an interview with Bill Kaman would be interesting. He guided the company into its mega status.

Determined, I called Kim Keller and asked his opinion on the idea, and requested Bill's phone number. Kim thought it was a great idea, gave me the direct extension, (this was too easy) and told me that he thought Bill and I would get along. It seems that he found we had similar personalities. What was impressive, was how he stressed that he was a nice guy. I know I can't say that about my employers.

I called and spoke with a secretary. Since Kim armed me with her name, I was able to comfortably ask Betty for an audience. She thought the idea of an issue devoted to Ovation was a wonderful idea, but decided that interviewing Bill had to be cleared with David Bergstrom. Betty slightly stumbled over my somewhat bizarre Slavic name, we laughed and she assured me that David would get back to me....

After about a week I was impatient. This time I called Kim and got David's direct extension. I called and left him a message. The next day I received a call from David telling me that Bill was out of town for the week, but would call me the following week for an interview.

Not knowing when to expect the call, I regularly checked my machine and readied questions. It is only my luck that while I am 25-30 feet in the air, hanging off a ladder, clearing leaves out of my gutters that I would hear the phone ring. No way... not now... that' s why I have an answering machine I rationalized. Of course when I checked the machine it was Bill Kaman. I returned his call only to find him gone for the day. (Maybe he had to clean his gutters too???. There are many trees in Connecticut.) A follow up call the next day was also to no avail.

After an especially grueling day at work that culminated in a long, boring, nonsensical, pathetic, shame of a faculty meeting, I decided to try my luck and call Bill. I dialed the number. The phone rang and a voice answered, "Hello Al, how are you?" This is too weird, I thought. "I'm fine, is this Bill?" I asked. "Yes," he responded. I had to ask, so in my ever-suspicious Scorpion-New Jerseyan manner I quipped, " May I ask how you knew it was me?" "I have caller I.D.", he reassured. (No telepathy here!)

Sure, how could I have been so foolish? Since they have not yet made caller id units with el-84's, I don't have one. Being as anti technology (not unlike the Unabomber when it concerns musical instruments,) as I am, it didn't occur to me that caller ID would give him this edge.

Bill was very pleasant over the phone. I could hear him quietly playing a guitar in the background. He was enthusiastic, but cautious, and fielded all questions graciously. I later found out that we are both Scorpios and probably there is some sort of cosmic connection. The interview that follows took place on a Monday afternoon and was not censored or altered in any way.

 Alexander M. Pepiak (AMP):  Where do you feel Ovations fit in a world of Martins, Guilds, Gibsons, and those types of guitars?  
Bill Kaman (BK):  I think there's room enough for them in the world.  

AMP:  In what respect?
BK:  In the way that acoustic guitars fit in the world today.  Everybody needs to be amplified today.  I think we were one of the first ones to do that.  That's helped us establish a place in acoustic guitar.  I think everyone's coming around to where everyone needs to plug in, because the unplugged phenomena, is far from unplugged, really.
AMP:  Very true.  How does the "unplugged" phenomena affect Ovation?
BK:  Well, I think it's helped us.  We've seen it in strong sales.  I think it should be said though, that the unplugged phenomenon has been good for all acoustic guitars.  Chris can tell you that Martin numbers have been up, Bob Taylor would tell you that he's enjoyed very good business over the last several years.  From our other side, which is Takamine, we have seen increased sales, so I think it's been good for all acoustic instruments.  Another place where you see it being very strong is in Acoustic Guitar magazine.   Look through there for these little guitar makers.  They make half a dozen or a dozen, or thirty guitars a year, there has to be ads in there for at least twenty or twenty-five of them (luthiers).  Five years ago, these guys were repairmen somewhere.  And so the fact that they can actually make a living selling these guitars and making these guitars is great.  

AMP:  I guess Ovation, at least in my eyes, has been primarily known for their amplified acoustic sound.  I guess this has put you ahead of strictly acoustic guitar makers.  
BK:  Yeah, we've always thought of ourselves as an acoustic guitar company.  We've always strived for the acoustic sound.  And in developing guitars and designing guitars, we look for the acoustic sound, we really don't examine how it sounds plugged in.  At least I don't, and I'm quite involved in the R and D, and the development of guitars.  It's how it sounds acoustically that's what's really important.  Marketing gets involved, and we do various pre-amps, so you always try to out-do the next guy, on what the pre-amps are going to be.  You know when we first came out, we had a pre-amp that lasted for close to ten years.  And then we came with the next version of it, and it seems like now, if you get a 3 year run out of these things, that's the most you can do, because you gotta change it, put on more bells and whistles, and EQ's, and lights, and bells and whistles, and all the rest of this stuff.  I keep telling our guys, "Why don't we have a pick-up, and run it straight out?"  You know, and put a box out there somewhere else, and put whatever you want in the box.  Let's just make the sound of the guitar good.  

AMP:  I know in the beginning, what I tend to call the Partridge Family era of Ovation, when it seems like there was the Ovation name on everything, and you guys made solid bodies, and there was the Ovation name on microphones...
BK:  (interrupting) Yeah, we made our own amps.  We made electric guitars.  

AMP:  Well, now it seems that everything is under the Kaman umbrella, the Hamers, the Trace Elliotts, all the things C. Bruno distributes, was that a conscious effort to  go with makers that were already established?  Or did that just sort of happen haphazardly?   
 BK:  No.  Ovation used to be a stand-alone company.  And the distribution companies were stand-alone.  After awhile it didn't make sense to have all these individual companies with their individual company structures and all.  We said let's roll it all together and make it one company.  And then when you do that, you can let each piece do what it does best.  Ovation was never successful with solid bodies.  And, it took us 3 or 4 tries to figure that out.  But, forget it, we can't do that, don't even try.  Then I think some of the other guys have learned that, I mean look around you know, Gibson, had electrics and to some degree acoustics, but nothing else.  Fender has solid bodies and amps, and some basses.  You know, Martin tried for years with solid bodies, but they didn't have too much luck either.  You tend to be known for one thing.  So our approach has been let each area be known for what it does best.  And, that makes sense that can grow.  You know, Ovation is acoustic guitars, Takamine is acoustic guitars.   Hamer is solid body guitars.  They are a solid body company and that's what it does.  Trace Elliott are amplifiers, and that's what they do.  We distribute a lot of other products, we distribute close to 13,000 products, and we're, outside of Zildjian themselves, we're the largest distributor of Zildjian cymbals.  There are six or seven others in this country, but we're the largest outside of the company itself.  You know, we sell tons of Shure SM 58 microphones, we sell all different types of strings.  So, we spread it around, let things do what they do best.  So, I guess it's very deliberate, to answer your question.  

AMP:  I just completed reading the history of Ovation and in there your father is represented as more or less of a taskmaster, as far as you were concerned in your involvement with the company How much of that is fact or how much of that is fiction?
BK:  Well, what do you mean by taskmaster?  

AMP:  For example, there's a picture of you, I believe sanding necks and that sort of thing...
BK:  Yeah, I started working at the factory at fourteen.  

AMP:  So, then, basically it's a correct representation...
BK:  Yeah, the book is very true.  Very straightforward...Walter Carter did a great job on it.  He went around and interviewed everybody and got it down pretty accurate as to how things were.  Charlie was quite involved in the early days, developing things, making sure that they sounded right, in getting the company launched.  He really has not been involved in the company in the last 11 years, 12 years, in '85 was when we pulled it all together and made it one company.  He was kind of involved in watching that happen, and then he kind of said well it's yours now, make it run.  

AMP:  I guess to ask a rather bold question...  how would you address someone that said, "Well, his father started the company, and he was going to get it anyway?"
BK:  (laughs) Oh, yeah, everyone's going to say that.  I guess the answer to that is to say yeah, that's true, but you can't stand on your own forever, if you can't stand.  He's not been involved in it, I was most involved in Ovation, and bringing Ovation along, in the development of the Adamas guitars, in the early seventies or mid-seventies, quite involved from a development and design point of view, and Charlie was still there and we worked together for a while, and then he phased out and went back to aerospace, and working on his helicopters and all.  For the last 10 years, it's kind of been my baby to run.  The thing I would add quickly onto that, is the reason we went from 40 million in sales up to  a 100 million in sales in the last 10 years, is that I have a crew of people that work for me that are just dynamite.  They made it happen.  I have a great team, great staff, and they're at all the factories that we have, the distribution locations, our sales force that we have on the road, there are 65 guys out on the road now and they're wonderful and they're all working hard, and in the same direction.  I guess if anything I did was make sure that they know which direction we're going, and that we're all pointed in the same direction, and then I got the hell out of the way and let them work.  You got a team working in the same direction, good things can happen, and we've seen that happen.  

AMP:  I understand that you yourself have a rather large guitar collection?
BK:  I've got a few.  

AMP:  How many?
BK:  2-3 hundred.  Do you want to count the Hamers?  Do you want to count the Ovations?
I tend not to count them... I guess around 250.  

AMP:  I understand that you and I also share an affinity for Travis Beans.  
BK:  Yes.

AMP:  How many of those do you have?
BK:  60.  

AMP:  I'm impressed.  What draws you to the Travis Bean guitar?  
 BK:  When I first got out of school, we were working on the Applause guitar, that was '74, '75, '76 developing the Applause guitar with the aluminum neck, and about the same time Travis started in '74 also, and so that's when he started and we were both doing aluminum at the same time, in just different directions.  I guess it was at the NAMM show in '75.  It was the first time I saw Travis, and I said God, this thing is neat, look at this!  The thing that got me about them... the first time I ever saw...  the first catalog he had.   That had the guitar made into an airplane..... and I'm thinking ....this has got to be the coolest thing I have ever seen.  That piece of literature.  I took a read through and I actually saw one of the guitars, and the craftsmanship was actually unbelievable, and so I bought one in '76.  I still have it, that was my first one.  I just have gone on from there.  I got a bit over the top on them, I've been selling a few, though.  I've got my list in front of me, I'm down to 54.  Only have 54 now.  How many do you have?

AMP:  Only one.  For my day gig, I'm only a lowly teacher.  (Both laugh.)
BK:  You can pick them up pretty cheap, although they've kind of gone up.  The first one I bought was 1043.  They were real narrow necks.  So I've got some different ones, a bunch of the wedges and all that.  

AMP:  Your personal collection:  Does it focus mostly on electrics or acoustics?
BK:  Mostly electrics, you know I've got 60 Travis Beans, a dozen Fenders, a few more Gibsons, they're all pre- Henry Gibsons, of course, other guitars I have about twenty of them, a bunch of Warwick basses left over from when we were a Warwick distributor, and they're pretty cool.  About 20 other basses, and about 20 some odd acoustics.  

AMP:  Would you consider yourself mainly an electric player or an acoustic player?
BK:  Mostly electric.

AMP:  How do you feel about the Ovation Breadwinners and Deacons not taking off with the general public?
BK:  Well I think they didn't take off... they were not quite the's funny, you see them now, though, and I was going through the most recent copy of Vintage Bulletin, and there's six of them in there.  And they're ranging anywhere from $400 to $1000.  So, they're coming around.  There was also an old Magnum bass in there, which I scarfed up immediately.  Because I don't have a red Magnum left over.  It's kind of neat seeing them come back.  Vipers have been around for a while, and you know they weren't quite right at the time.  Maybe 80 percent there, but you know when you're 80 percent there, it means you're 20 percent short.  

AMP:  Could you give me an idea of a guitar that you would like to have that you don't have in your collection?
BK:  (long pause) No, I can't think of one.  I've been into it for maybe 25 years now, and then I stopped for a while.  Because it kind of got to where when you have two of everything you've ever dreamed about, it's not fun anymore.  So I kind of lost a lot of enthusiasm, but I really didn't do anything for a ten-year period, but then I kind of got back into it again, probably seven years ago.  That was probably when I started going crazy with Travis Beans, because you could pick them up for $200-$300.  So I was calling all over the country.  I found one guy in Colorado, where I bought all three for a grand.  

AMP:  Yeah, that's about when I got mine--actually, I got mine about 10 years came in with a trade, and I looked at it and said "Aluminum neck--Sacrilege!"  So it stayed in the case.  Then, I was playing with a bunch of people, and they didn't like the sound  of the Strat I was using, so I was taking a different guitar, every rehearsal.  The day I brought the Travis Bean, plugged it in, hit a few chords, they said," That's it, that's the guitar you've gotta play."  And that's the guitar I've been playing for ten years.  My main guitar, anyway.
BK:  (enthusiastically and loudly) They sound so good!
AMP:  I know, and the sustain is just fantastic.  My opinion is that if you can handle the weight of a Les Paul, you can handle the weight of a Travis Bean.  
BK:  Oh, sure.  Part of the fun is getting into Travis Beans and then learning about them, and I tracked him down and he's out in California, I've talked to him a bunch of times.  This one guy that worked for him, I got a lot of the history of the company from him, and the serial numbers, and was able to come up with a dating chart, and track all that stuff down, and I tracked them down  (guitars) and got the first proto-type--not the very first guitar, although I know where that one is,  but the first one that has the T headstock on it,  and all the rest of that.  You get the early ones and track them down and it's kind of interesting.  

AMP:  What role do you feel that Ovations will have in the collector's market, now that they're approaching 30 years old or better?
BK:  Well, I think people will start looking at them, and I've seen that people will want the shiny bowls.   The Josh White's and the early balladeers, there's interest in those.  Mostly because the shiny back was quite different from anything else that we did.  So there's some interest in those, and I guess any of the Glen Campbell models that come out.  It's hard to say what the public is going to want--it's influenced by who knows what.  By whatever somebody's doing.  The Slash--ten years from now, whoever he may be, will influence those guys and that's what they will want.  The thing that I think that we've done that has helped things, is that our guitars have always been aimed at the working guy, the working musician, the guy doing Holiday Inn gigs.  And they've always been very stable, and we wanted to make sure that they were good guitars, and they would hold up to the rigors of the road, and they would give the guy a faithful reproduction of acoustic sound when he plugged it in, whether he plugged it in at a little Holiday Inn bar, or if he was in a bigger concert hall, or if he was doing a wedding gig at a country club, or whatever.  He could plug in, and he could get that same acoustic sound.  That's one less thing he's got to worry about, because he's got enough to worry about just doing the gig.  So, it's a reliable guitar, and it was always there for him.  And that's where a lot of our success comes from.  It's a good working man's guitar, and faithfully reproduces the acoustic sound, usually in unfriendly conditions, and a lot of success has grown from there.  The guitars work very well in a recording situation.  They tend to have a very uniform response.  And that records very well.  Some people won't like that, because you know, "well, I like my Taylor because it has a more delicate sound," or whatever, and part of why it's delicate is because the highs are accented and there's less mid-range, and it's a different type of sound.  You can get that on a mixing board, if you want to mix the sound, you can do that.  If you start with something flat, you can change it, you have a much wider range in terms of what you can do, after it's been recorded.  Whereas other guitars, which may have a certain sound signature, which is very nice and very appealing, but starts with that signature, then if you want to go further from that, or expand upon it, you have a limited range you can go, because you're not starting from a flat spot.  
AMP:  The space-age image of Ovation, with the round bowl, and use of alternative materials, do you feel that the space-age moniker is a hindrance or a help?
BK:  I think it's a help.  I think people these days are looking for more options.  They're looking for more variety.  When we started out, you just didn't do things out of fiberglass.  You didn't do anything but Brazilian (rosewood), or if you wanted to do something other than that, you did mahogany, because it was cheap.  Now, there's all kinds of things out there.  People are using all types of things.  Look at what Bob Taylor did with that pallet--that's great, that's one of the coolest things ever done, that's saying  "here you can make a guitar that sounds good out of complete **** wood.  "  And it just flies in the face that you don't have to have all of this stuff--to make good sound, you can make it with many varieties of different things.  I think there also is a scarceness issue that all makers have to deal with, that natural resources are limited.  So we need to deal with that.  Another issue here too is that synthetics give you alternatives that aren't available in nature.  And so let's take those alternatives and what can you do with them.  How far can you go, and how far can you push this envelope, and get acoustic sound out of it?  We've been doing the Adamas guitar with the carbon graphite soundboard for twenty years, and we've had some pretty good response to that.  

AMP:  When I was at the factory, they showed me the Mandocello, which I wasn't aware that you were building...and they showed me the mandolin, and also a Koa uke, and Kim told me that it's's going to go into production...Any future plans on production?
BK:  We're pretty much set...I don't know what we're going to do with the ukes...if there's enough demand for's interesting, when we first started in '66, it was difficult to get people to accept this guitar, they didn't want to look at it, it looked funny, it was fiberglass.  Or, actually, they didn't say that, they said it was (changes his voice to a nasal high pitched sarcastic tone) "plastic".

AMP:  I guess they remembered the Maccaferri...
BK:  A lot of them didn't, though, all they knew was that it was not a Martin, it was a piece of ****, it's plastic, I don't want to know about that...and eventually they would listen to it , but it took about 3 or 4 years to get over that.  We bring the mandolin out.  Now, you would think that guitar players would be a little more open-minded than mandolinists, who have had the Lloyd Loar's and all of the rest of this, so we felt that this would be a hell of a hurdle to get over.  We sent the mandolin out to a lot of mandolin orchestras, and they showed it to these guys, and they loved it right off the bat.  And they liked it acoustically, too, which floored me because I thought they would like it because they could plug it in.  But they liked the acoustic sound of it, it's right between an A and an F, it's perfect, it's wonderful, it's great, oh you can plug it in, too--how do you plug it in?  What do you mean plug it in? (laughs)

AMP:  Obviously, you're aware of the Dobro made by your R and D department.  I played that when I was in the factory, and I really loved that guitar, and I said to myself, this thing has to be one of the greatest guitars I ever played.  I can't imagine why you guys wouldn't put something like that into production.  Not a demand...?
BK:  We still might.  

AMP:  There's enough nutcases like me that would buy it.  
BK:  I think I'm well ahead of you...that's what's fun.

AMP:  If there was one thing I wanted to take out of the factory that day, it was that.  
BK:  Was that the turquoise one or the silver one?

AMP:  I played both.  I just thought whoa, the resonator, it rings, and Ovations are kind of on the trebly side to begin with, and it's like man, this thing is just cool...and you can plug it in?  Whoa.
  I don't know how much demand there would be for it, and it's one of those ones, that if we did it, we would wind up doing 20 or 30 of them a year.  There's something to be said for doing 20 or 30 of them, on the other hand, the factory is running flat out doing everything that they can do and there are a list of priorities, I think that 20 or 30 of anything doesn't usually make the list of priorities.  So I have them make 3 or 4 for me and we let it go at that.  They sit around, and people like you see it when you come around, and maybe they'll catch on at some point in time.  The other thing too, is that we got the resonators from National Resophonic, Macgregor Gaines and Don Young, that owns the company out there--they are nice guys...they're making me a tricone.  I guess if there was any guitar that I would want was this one, but they're making it for me.  I sent them pictures of my '59 Caddy.  That's what it's modeled after.  
AMP:  (Slowly and deliberately) You own a '59 Caddy?!
BK:  Coupe de Ville--white with turquoise interior.  Now the grilles on the tricone, you know how they have the mesh?  Well, it's not mesh, they did a replica of a grill of a '59 Caddy,. with the bars and the bullets, and that's what it is.   The car is white so the whole body they painted white, and I don't know what they're doing with the fingerboard, I said guys just go nuts with this guitar, go completely over the top, and they're doing it, and they've been working on it for over a year now.  So that's going to be cool when it gets done, I said, let this be one that you exhibit at the NAMM show, showing what you can do.  They've got Caddy engravings all over it, body by Fisher, and all that stuff, completely off the wall.  

  I logged on the website, actually a while ago.
BK:  So you saw my other Caddy there then?

  I really like the way it was set up and laid out... How do you feel the web will play a part in guitar sales and promotion of your products?  
BK:  Well, I don't know about sales.  I don't know how that's going to work.  And frankly, we're not addressing that side of it.  I've got six thousand dealers across the US, now they don't all do Ovation obviously, but they do all the various things that we sell, and I view the website for where people can get information, they want to find out things and they want to discover things on their own, and that's a great avenue to do it.  So, what we do on our website is let them discover things.  And provide information, that's the most important thing about it, and it's going to get bigger, and you know there's going to be more and more of it...I don't know about people buying stuff from a website, not from a manufacturer, not new stuff.  I can see somebody calling up trying to find vintage stuff, and you find a vintage listing, and you see some guy has two Travis Beans, BAM, I'm going to take one.  Because you know what you're getting, and plus it's a limited market.  But we're talking new guitars here, and I just don't see it happening.  

  The biggest discovery for me was all the different product lines that Kaman has its hands in.
BK:  Well, I told you, 13000...

  Have you ever went fishing in the creek behind the factory...?
BK:  No...I understand it's nice though.

  That's what I was told, too.  Sounds great, anything you want to add?
BK:  Just that we have fun in the music business--our philosophy has been, and I've told this to a couple of our endorsees, and I think it's a little bit corny, but our goal is to create tools that allow them to go further in what they do.  That allow them to break the boundaries of things that are facing them.  That's really what we're out to do.  Creating guitars and creating instruments.  Let our endorsees go further than they thought in their music.  You know, when we do that, we're successful, and we have some pretty good examples.  DiMeola's talking about the Ovation that he uses, and that if it hadn't been an Ovation, he can't play a normal acoustic guitar the way he does, but he wouldn't have been able to develop his acoustic style.  Certainly look at Glen Campbell over the years, or at Melissa Etheridge now, the way she plays  both the front and the back of her guitar in concert.  There's lots of them, Nancy Wilson in Heart, a lot of these guys over the years.  That's where it's at, that's where the fun is, watching these guys take your instruments into places that you never thought they could go.

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