A good musical instrument is an invitation.  


A great instrument invokes artistry.


        I propped a foot up on the seat of my tricycle.  Under a red cowboy hat and aided by a guitar whose upper bout formed two, round Mickey Mouse ears, I let wail a passionate, four-year-old's rendition of Home On The Range.


        That was 1958. By 1978, high school had come and gone — as had marching band, jazz band, Woodstock, rock bands, folk bands, college, the counter culture, long hair, James Taylor, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Julian Bream, John Williams, Joan Baez, Vietnam, Pete Seeger, Ornette Coleman, Mingus, Miles, Milton Babbitt, the death of Stravinsky, Shostakovitch, and the militant urge to change the world. 


        I joined the establishment and found myself studying conducting and composition at conservatory in Vienna, Austria. It was a place where a missed F# could land you in purgatory, and where some of the world’s greatest musicians walked the halls, Zubin Mehta, Eric Leinsdorf, Hans Zwarofsky, Friederich Cerha, Johann Sonnleitner, Nicolas Harnoncourt, Joesph Mertin.  There I caught the Early Music bug, added harpsichord to conducting and composition and began a 5-year apprenticeship with Peter Kukelka. He was the head conservator of musical instruments at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, and like so many others, he became a life-long source of inspiration. It was a heady time, as humbling as it was immeasurably enriching. It was also where I cut my teeth — and fingers! — as an instrument maker. 


        After nearly 8 years in that magical city and with a pocketful of diplomas, orders for three clavichords, one young daughter in tow and another on the way, I returned to the States and opened shop.


        I made mostly clavichords, harpsichords, but also the occasional medieval Vielle, and even a reproduction 18th-cent English Guitar.  For ten years I also worked for Thomas and Barbara Wolf, two of the finest craftsmen I’ve ever been privileged to know. From there I became a conservator of musical instruments and wooden objects at the Smithsonian, earned a Ph.D. in Musicology (Organology, really), made instruments, taught school, freelanced, and wrote lots of music. 


        Despite all that, I never completely forgot my first love. I once traded two years of tuning a client’s harpsichord every six weeks for a really cool 50s-era Gibson dreadnought. Then I re-fretted my beloved Yamaha classical guitar, reset its bridge, added decent tuners and an arm rest. At one point, when college for my daughters was pretty much paid for, I sprang for a high-end Martin.  That was really cool too, and it sounded great, especially for Bluegrass, but it seemed a little over-built and in a moment of incurable naive confidence, I thought I might make some improvements, maybe even customize it a little. Ha!


        So I jumped on yet another learning curve. I began to take my own guitar playing seriously and began making guitars. It was great, because after decades of confinement within the necessary strictures of conservation and historical practice, the design freedom of modern guitar-making was thoroughly invigorating. It was like spring after a harsh winter.

        Now on a small farm in Virginia I'm making artisan guitars and smaller keyboard instruments and playing concerts, having come full circle.  

        Please visit these pages and get in touch!  I'd love to hear from you!

Michael Kent O'Brien