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Chasing the 'Vibe'

Ulster Magazine
May/June 2012
by Jason Upchurch, photos by Michael Bloom

MARTIN KEITH'S WORKSHOP IS RIGHT between the artistically charged downtowns of Woodstock and Saugerties. He's also not far from the trails of Indian Head, and that rolling topography, the foliage encroaching on the roads to make you feel farther afield than you are. The modern and progressive place just down the hill rests so nicely here in what's natural and abiding; you can see that lovely balance in Keith's designs.

The modern attributes of Keith's guitars reside virtually undetected in their timeless aesthetics, especially in the singlecut design of his Elfin electric basses. Long, gently curved lines are as playful and graceful as the name suggests. The similarly shaped Sylph model shares the Elfin's comfortable feel in any playing position. Both are complemented by innovative electronics for amazing tones and versatility. His guitar models include the Elfin Hollowbody — a single cut electric/acoustic that experiments with the traditional concept of sound holes — and his newest model, the dreadnaught-styled Auriole.

While model names and basic body styles remain the same, each Martin Keith instrument is a new departure toward the tonal holy grail that players refer to as "vibe." As Keith puts it: "It is important to me to consider each instrument as a whole entity, and not a collection of parts." And it is vibe that's afoot when the whole entity is realized - when a build comes together just like those hills and towns to create something you just wouldn't find in another place or another instrument.

WHAT DO YOU do with a BA in English? You build guitars. Keith was an active player on the local music scene straight out of Marist and says he had "a habit of acquiring cheap or damaged instruments." But not only did he play them, he fixed them. He honed the basic skills that would lead him to join the shop of fellow builder Joe Veillette in 2000. He's been learning by doing ever since.

PLAYING MANY GREAT (and afore-mentioned not-so-qreat) instruments on gigs has informed Keith's concept of what makes an instrument feel good; what makes it at once comfortable and inspiring. He says: "I've experienced the feeling of playing an instrument that truly just feels like home and allows the player to disconnect from the process of mechanically playing, and just 'think out loud' - my hope is to build instruments that give the player that kind of freedom."

KEITH'S ELFIN BASSES are as close to a flagship model as he will pinpoint. Their ergonomics, musical versatility and striking appearance have made them his most popular model. But here comes treble in 2012. Keith's new Auriole line of acoustics are hybrid guitars designed to hit the sweet spot between flat top and archtop guitars. Keith is excited to unveil the "number of unusual features" that the guitars will provide players. The Auriole will be Keith's primary focus over the next few years.

ONE OF KEITH'S Elfin basses was on the "Tonight" show. Bass player Nicholas D'Amato grooved on his jet black Elfin, supporting jazz vocalist Lizz Wright on the show and her tour last year. Keith's basses turn up in the hands of many fine touring and studio players an over the place. Popular local multi-instrumentalist T. xiques of the award-winning band WeMustBe used an Elfin bass to dig deep grooves on that band's eponymous release.

BORN AND RAISED in Woodstock, Keith says he couldn't imagine being any place without trees and greenery outside his door. It's true. When you visit his shop, you almost literally step straight out of his vegetable garden. Keith digs the town's creative energy, the people and the scenery. When he can, he chooses local materials for his builds to put a little Woodstock into his guitars.

Keith, who was born and raised in Woodstock, says he can't imagine being in a place without trees and greenery outside his door.

WHEN HE'S AWAY from the workbench, you'll find Keith playing with a number of regional groups. One of his "hot" gigs is as the upright bass player for local Gypsy jazz masters the Metropolitan Hot Club. Or, for the young and young at heart, check him out with children's music act Uncle Rock.

AS A LISTENER, it's '60s and '70s Brazilian pop between the sounds of saws and sandpaper at the shop right now. Keith suggests the music of the Brazilian masters: Lo Borges, Milton Nascimento, Gilberta Gil, et al. There's plenty of requisite Django Reinhardt, and a bit of Charlie Hunter's funk, too.

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