In last month’s “Approved Gear,” VG reviewed the Iris Guitar Company DE-11. If you missed it, I’d suggest you grab the issue and check it out. This month, I’ll take you on a “tour” of the guitar, which I designed with Adam Buchwald, inspired by one of my all-time favorite instruments – a 1937 Kalamazoo KG-11.
The KG-11 has been a favorite since I first played one 20 years ago, after I started to experience shoulder pain from hunching over my Gibson J-35 and other dreadnoughts; also, my right hand would go numb and I’d have to rest after just 15 minutes. A physical therapist convinced me to try something smaller. Almost like magic, the KG-11 came into the shop for sale and, after playing it, I loved it so much I bought two more!
Kalamazoo was Gibson’s budget brand, produced for five years beginning in 1937. They were given the same woods as their Gibson siblings – Honduras mahogany for the back, sides, and neck, Adirondack (“red”) spruce top, Brazilian rosewood fretboard and bridge, and an ebony nut – and the neck, sides, and back were finished in the same dark walnut (sometimes cordovan) lacquer, with a gorgeous dark-sunburst top very much like the J-35 and others. They even had the same fire-stripe pickguard.
The DE-11 wouldn’t exist were it not for Steve Miller, who apprenticed in my shop for two years before scoring a job with Iris, where he told Adam how much he loved my Kalamazoo’s built-in capo. Adam then asked if I’d be interested in helping Iris create a guitar with something similar. I was thrilled, and sent my beloved Kazoo off for study. Here’s how it came about.
1) Ladder-bracing is a simpler design, but not lower-quality. I situated braces to illustrate the ladder bracing on all Kalamazoos; there’s one spanning the shoulders under the fretboard, two between the sound hole and bridge (with ends closer together on the bass side), and a long one spanning the lower bout.
2) Here’s Nick Durkee doing careful handwork on the very first production DE-11.
3) The KG-11 was given a simple spruce bridge reinforcement running almost edge to edge on the top. Notice how the bridge-pin holes are split and torn, probably from being drilled without a backboard being placed against the soft spruce. Both of my backup Kazoos were like this and had to be fixed.
4) Rather than sound hole purfling, binding material (white/black/white or single-ply white) was glued to the inner edge of the sound hole of the KG-11 – another cost-saving measure. Iris surprised me with checkerboard sound hole binding on the DE-11, and I love it.
5) Before getting the KG-11, I’d been thinking of how to design a capo that wasn’t so clunky and in the way of my hand. I also thought about how to make one that fastened to the neck and extended to press on strings a few frets toward the nut. With the DE-11, that became a reality. Some of my contraptions along the way were hilarious, but they worked.
6) Over the course of a year, I made a number of capos from different woods, aluminum, and brass before settling on the version I use today. These are made from a wood called Katalox, and they fasten to the fretboard using a top-mounted thumb screw with a 6-32 machine thread or a round-head 6-32 Torx drive machine screw that rests below the surface of the capo body. Not pictured is a second four-string capo that’s slightly wider, made for going up the neck in tandem with the full-size capo as strings become further apart.
7) Before the DE-11’s fretboard is glued to the neck, the capo screws are mounted from underneath into 6-32 threaded stainless-steel anchors. Small holes allow the screws to reach the anchors at the first seven frets – three, five, and seven have ivoroid dot inlays with the hole through them.
8) We gave the DE-11 an extended neck because I’ve always felt cramped and uncomfortable while fingering chords at the nut and first fret – it’s hard on my wrist. To test this, I took a rasp to the neck of my The Loar L-00 and removed as much wood as I could before running into the tuning machines. The added comfort and ease of playing chords like E, B7, F, and others convinced me it’d be worth extending the neck on the DE-11. Adam agreed to try it, completing our modern take and making the guitar just as I’d hoped.
9) My only criticism of the KG-11 is that the tuners are worn – no surprise after more than 80 years. Even when new, they weren’t the best, and now they’re very stiff; some won’t tune to pitch. I’d installed Rickard Cyclone high-ratio tuners on my first KG-11 and the J-35, and they became my favorite, so we used them on the DE-11. They’re the most-accurate tuners I’ve ever used, and they look cool.
10) When it came to the finish, I knew Iris would nail a vintage sunburst. Like some other modern makers, they apply a very thin, satiny finish that I like a lot. It’s close to the wood, which means the guitar sounds more broken-in.
Dan Erlewine has been repairing guitars for more than 50 years. He is the author of three books, dozens of magazine articles, and has produced instructional videotapes and DVDs on guitar repair. From 1986 through his retirement in late 2019, Erlewine was part of the R&D team for Stewart-MacDonald’s Guitar Shop Supply; today he remains involved with the company, offering advice to the department and shooting video for the company’s website and social media. This column has appeared in VG since March, 2004. You can contact Dan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared in VG’s January 2022 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.