By Michael Eck
It’s been the hallmark of Breedlove Guitars since day one, a restless urge to perfect acoustic sound, to match that sound with effortless playability, and to craft a clean, modern aesthetic.
It’s what Breedlove does every day, so you will sound better, play better and play more.
In 1990, pioneering California luthiers Larry Breedlove and Steve Henderson pulled up San Diego County stakes, leaving gigs at Taylor Guitars for new, wide open digs. The duo landed in tiny Tumalo, Oregon, just northwest of Bend, opening shop in what was essentially an old barn.
But this was no simple mountain aerie. It was a laboratory and Breedlove and Henderson were bent on building better guitars by the most modern methods, developing advances like graduated tops, bridge trusses, asymmetrical headstocks and winged bridges which they employed in custom fingerstyle instruments like the soft cutaway C25 Northwest, which helped introduce Oregon myrtlewood to the guitar world.
In 1994, two years after the company officially launched their new designs, Larry’s brother Kim, with his own history of banjo making and marquetry behind him, relocated from the East Coast, joining as master luthier and eventually steering the brand through nearly 25 years of sonic metamorphosis, with breakthrough after breakthrough including everything from refinements of traditional assembly methods to radical new body shapes like the legendary, angular Master Class CM (designed by Terry Meyers).
Two Old Hippies, led by Tom Bedell, purchased Breedlove in November 2010, by which time the workshop had already moved to Bend, Oregon. A new, larger, facility was dedicated on the city’s American Loop in late 2012, becoming today’s home of USA-made Breedlove Guitars.
“Breedlove has continued, really, from the dreams of Larry and Steve,” Bedell says. “Everything we're doing today is still based on innovation and customization. Those are the themes that inspire us. We’re constantly learning. It's just this real passion to create the best sounding instruments possible.”
Breedlove HR Manager Terri Hensley was there not long after the start, in the Tumalo days.
“Many of our craftspeople,” Hensley says, “have been here for years. They’ll stop us as we walk through the workshop just to show us a remarkable piece of wood, almost giddy, saying, ‘I can’t wait to see and hear this when it’s done.’ They're just so excited, still, which I love, after so many years.”
Design meets science in Bend, just as it did at the beginning of Breedlove. As innovation demands, some of the founders’ concepts have been altered or left behind, with fresh ideas building on core principles.
“Every day,” says Bedell, “we’re continuing the tradition of looking forward that Breedlove started with back in 1990.”
Key to the Breedlove Difference today is the concept of Sound Optimization, which starts at the tree and carries through to your fingertips. It’s a carefully monitored process that takes into account the specific densities of discrete wood sets; top and back frequency separation; hand voicing; individual playing styles, revolutionary body shapes and so much more.
When chief product designer Angela Christensen (who apprenticed under Kim Breedlove) thinks about guitars, she is always thinking about Sound Optimization. She’s also thinking about the unique relationship between an instrument’s body shape and size and the dimension of the soundhole; and how those parameters will interact with different species of wood cut to carefully determined specifications.
“A big part of Breedlove’s history,” says Bedell, “has to do with redefining body shapes. We keep the very first Concert (which Bedell acquired from Larry Breedlove) ever made on display in the lobby!”
“Before we developed the Breedlove Concert, Concerto and Concertina, you had to compromise between volume, projection, overtones and complexity. We’ve worked really hard at giving you all of that in an instrument that feels natural and easy to play.”
The above-mentioned myrtlewood, for example, is another of many unique Breedlove advances. As it turns out, the myrtlewood sound is the ideal blend of rosewood, mahogany and maple.
“We can easily make the case,” Bedell says, “that myrtlewood has been a real breakthrough. Of all the tone woods that exist on earth, myrtlewood is one of the top two or three in terms of the sound it creates.”
“When we were introducing it in the '90s,” Hensley, an eager Breedlove historian, chuckles, “nobody knew what it was. It's a great tone wood and other builders weren’t using it. Half of our USA Breedlove guitars now feature it.”
Unlike many of the major American guitar makers, instruments crafted at the Breedlove USA workshop are still made largely by hand, with nearly three dozen craftspeople, many players themselves, putting their all into every guitar they touch.
“We're able to build 2,000 guitars a year here in Bend,” Bedell says, “and every one is uniquely dimensioned to whatever the characteristic of that wood is, and whatever we want that instrument to play like and sound like. We couldn't do that if we didn't hand build every guitar. It would be impossible.”