Sometimes you have to follow your passions, no matter the cost. It will be scary. It will be hard. But the rewards are vast.
Rachel Rosenkrantz studied architecture and design in Paris and Rhode Island. But she still felt like her life was unfulfilled. Music was her passion. She played in bands after work and on the weekends, but that didn’t feel like enough. As time passed, Rosenkrantz longed for a way to combine her passion for design and creation with her love of music. She started investigating apprenticeships at local luthiers in Rhode Island and soon she was blazing a path towards becoming one of the world’s most unique guitar makers.
Atelier Rosenkrantz guitars, basses, and ukuleles are hand-crafted and uniquely designed instruments that are tailored to one person: You. Rosenkrantz prides herself on never repeating a design. She takes the time to dive deeply into your musical prowess and career to make an instrument that is unparalleled by design, by style, and by sound. Her creations are musical instruments and pieces of art.
We were lucky enough to sit down with Rosenkrantz to talk about following one’s passions in life and creating truly unique musical instruments. Oh, and, also about the joy of geeking out with guitars.
I was perusing your guitar portfolio and it reminded me a bit of Frank Gehry with the flow and the movements of the wood.
Thank you. I use everything I’ve learned in architecture, in design, and in furniture-making every day in my discipline. Design principles are universal, so they can definitely apply to this as well. The nature of design and architecture is to question the assumptions and luthiery is so traditional that most people go by the blueprints. Actually, I think that my design background is more an advantage. I’m also a musician. And, for a while, I thought, ‘should I be an artist? Or should I be a musician?’ Then I realized I don’t have to ask these questions. I can combine my passions.
What’s your favorite instrument to play?
It’s funny, even though I mostly build guitars, and the guitar is my first instrument, I mainly play upright bass now. I used to share a shop with an upright bass maker and he’s a drummer. And I used to share a guitar woodshop with a guitar maker who was also a bassist. I think we see guitars all day every day and then after work, we need to see another instrument.
I have to ask, how did you get from Paris to Providence, Rhode Island?
So, I studied in Paris and in my fourth year I did what a lot of European students do — a foreign exchange program. My school actually had an Erasmus exchange with the U.S. It sounded very fitting for me and I wanted to give it a try. As an exchange student, you get to study in the US for the price of a French school. That was great.
I studied at The Rhode Island School of Design in Providence. I spent eight months here. I did winter and spring semesters, and I spent a little bit of the summer working an internship before I moved back home. Two years later, the company I did the internship for called me back for a job in design and I took it. I can’t believe it has been over 12 years now and I’m still here. It’s home now.
When did you get the idea to set up a luthier shop?
I’d contemplated this idea when I was a student. At the time, I was living in Paris, in the 12th district. Every day on my way to school I walked past a luthier. Each day I could see the progress in their work and I started to think, ‘Well, maybe that’s something I could do.’ I looked to see if they needed apprentices or maybe they did summer internships, but they didn’t do that sort of thing. At that time design school was very demanding and I didn’t have time to play music. So, I kind of forgot about the idea.
What brought it back?
It was a decade later when I started to play music again. It all came back to me. I was an electronics industrial designer at the time. I was missing working with my hands. So I asked my boss if I could work part time while I started to learn how to build instruments. I found an old school apprenticeship with Dan Collins here in Rhode Island. That was it.
How long did it take before you had your own shop?
It took time to build my own shop.When I started I shared shops with different instrument makers before I was able to acquire all of the equipment. But I was good about saving money in my 20’s and that helped me in my 30’s to make this happen.
Handmade guitars are a pretty niche market and I mean that in a good way. Was it difficult finding a customer base?
I have to say I am very lucky that I started the business when the internet is a thing. Social media is definitely helping a lot.
If I did this 20 years ago, it would have been much harder. I do believe that social media is a tremendous helper when you work for yourself. You get the exposure that you would never have had otherwise.
Let’s get into the guitars a bit. Are there difficulties in sourcing wood for your guitars?
This is an interesting time. Particularly because a lot of species are going to be illegal soon. I have to say as a guitar maker we have more freedom than violin makers or orchestra instruments because I can use different types of species for the fingerboard. If you are a violin maker you have to use ebony. It would be very weird to use something else and hardly acceptable. But ebony is going to be forbidden soon.
We have leeway as guitar makers. But, take Redwood. I found out that it’s disrupting the west coast frog and toad ecosystem. It’s really detrimental. We can’t use that all the time anymore. It has been over-exploited, but there are other woods. Rosewood is another example. Brazilwood is forbidden. So I get mine from India. And India is a bit smarter managing their forest because they actually have sections that are dedicated for woodworking and other trades. And because it is a traditional discipline, there are so many woods we haven’t even explored. Maybe there are other woods that will be the next mahogany. We should explore more and try what we haven’t looked at yet.
Wow, this goes a lot deeper than I ever really contemplated. What woods do you use?
Yeah, wood is interesting. I try to use as much domestic wood as I can. My Sitka Spruce is from Alaska. My cedar is from California. Being in New England, it isn’t that hard to get good mahogany because there are so many boat builders with great quality and it’s not very expensive. It takes a while to find a good source. You have to speak in person and sometimes you can’t. So you have to trust the buyers online and just hope for a good batch.
I’ve always wanted to ask a luthier this: Can you break down the parts of the guitar, what they do, and why a soft or hard wood is important for certain components?
The front is called the soundboard. That is what the strings are connected to. That is soft wood because it will absorb the sound wave and help carry the sound through the body of the instrument. The sides and back are a hardwood and will actually project the sounds out, almost like an amplifier.
The front has the bracing, which is the invisible part of the structure that is inside the instrument. It’s attached to each of the fronts. These guide the sound and give it a quality in addition to the species of wood.
The wood species gives you tone. So if you go cedar, it will be more hot cocoa, like warm, very intimate. If you do that same build with spruce the tone will change. That guitar would be great for blues. It will be more like sunshine, very bright.
Now the bracing in the back helps guide your sound. Back bracing is your EQ. As an example, you can add more bass sound by removing some bracing on the lower bout. That’s pretty much the system of composing a body of an acoustic instrument. You have the front that is soft, the back and sides are hard. Combine that with some structure and you really can tailor the sound for a specific player.
So how do you create an instrument specifically for that one person?
The instrument should morph to the player. First, I get familiar with their music and their habits. Are they traveling a lot or not? If so, maybe we should consider a smaller size guitar. Are they playing inside or not? If they’re not, like in an orchestra setting, classical guitars tend to not be amplified. So I think about an instrument that will naturally already project a lot of sound.
Species of wood will depend on the playing of my customer. There are a lot of parameters. If they play different kinds of music, I figure out what kind of species of wood will be great for folk music or for blues music. Also, if they play standing up or if they play sitting down. That helps. I will never put a maple neck on somebody’s guitar who has to stand up. It is very heavy. Especially if it’s a musician who plays long gigs. If you stand up for three hours on stage, you want a very light instrument that won’t butcher your shoulder after half-an-hour.
It feels like there’s never going to be an end of the road because everybody is so different. There’s always going to be a new and different guitar to build.
Yeah, I don’t get to get bored. I would rather not have any inventory and just make what people want as they want it. That keeps my interest. It is a win, win.
Say we sat down today and started talking about an instrument, how long would it take to deliver?
I can compress it to 120 hours for a simple design. 200 hours for a more complex design. Inlays do take a lot of time and a lot of precision. There are some aspects that you cannot rush. Usually, I work on three instruments at a time. I will say give it three to six months lead time. If you have a simple parlor folk guitar — like a Martin style from the early ’20s which is very simple — that would be about 120 hours, but it will take at least three months for me to hand it to you because some steps cannot be rushed. Oh, and, I have an 18-month waiting list right now. So take that into consideration.
What’s the oddest or craziest request you have ever had?
I am currently working on one that has two necks, but not side by side. They are two necks in opposite directions. I call it the ‘push me, pull you.’ One side is bass. One side is guitar. Both sides are electro-acoustic. And it is using the body of a cigar humidor made from mahogany. I found this on Ebay. It is from the ’20s and the wood is impeccable. I’ve tried to inlay glass and stone this time, just for a change. Usually, it’s always mother of pearl or another wood. I wanted a change. Now I know why people don’t use glass and stone! It really, really did some damage on my tools. But it’s worth it. It was pretty fun to work with ambers and glass for the first time.
Um, so, how do you play it?
So the necklines are in the opposite direction and the pickups are across. So it’s picking up both necks at the same time. It’s open tuning, so if you strum one with the other, they will still be simpatico.
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This lady is the ultimate Rockstar. She makes incredibly beautiful handcrafted guitars and there is nothing she doesn't understand about the inner workings of this instrument. A talent and a true master of her craft. It was an honour to share the stage with you! @atelier_rosenkrantz @anthonybourdain #rawcraft2016 #balvenie #singlemalt #anthonybourdain