Jonas Ceelen has been building guitars for 15 years and teaching others to do the same for seven. It’s been a quiet, mellow existence, but the business is poised to get a lot bigger as the shop brings to life a totally new guitar design.
Jonas Guitars sits just past 75th Street on Arapahoe Avenue, but there’s no sign to mark its existence. The only distinguishing landmarks are some horses and a spiral-shaped sculpture by the road. Down a short gravel-and-dirt driveway, inside a small barn, is where Jonas lives and works.
A lofted area where he lives is barely noticeable — most of the space serves as the workshop. Guitars hang on the walls in varying states of production, a wood-burning stove keeps the room just warm enough, a small black dog wanders around or naps on the couch, and the whole place smells like sawdust. A handwritten sign lists the shop rules, the most important of which is “Jonas knows. Pay close attention to his instruction.”
On a Tuesday morning in February, that’s just what 23-year-old Stewart Brooks is doing. As one of Jonas’ four current students, Brooks comes in for a few hours every week to work on his guitar. He’s been working at it for about two weeks, and today, Jonas is showing him how to sand down the bracing that goes inside.
Half of a guitar body sits on a work table, clamped into place while the wood settles into shape. Jonas and Brooks are standing at a large electric sander in a small side room, while Jonas demonstrates how to shape the bracing, rocking the piece carefully back and forth to get an arched shape.
The basic lesson costs $1,700, and building a guitar takes about 24 sessions of four hours each. The price seems steep, but it’s not bad considering that Jonas provides the materials and tools, plus students walk away with a one-of-a-kind guitar and hopefully a working knowledge of lutherie.
His students come with different degrees of experience in woodworking, but Jonas starts from the beginning — using the tools properly and safely. He’s usually working on a guitar himself at the same time, which gives the students an example to follow and gives him another guitar he can sell. For the most part, all the guitars built are his designs.
“I worked with original Gibsons and stuff like that, but I started drifting off and making my own,” Ceelen said. “I use their basic measurements, but from there I change things around. It’s a lot of fun to get creative with these things and make the guitar sound better and more personal.”
It was a student who came up with the unique guitar design Jonas Guitars will soon be selling. Robert Whelton came to Jonas in May 2011 to build guitars with his 15-year-old son. They first met through a friend at Caffe Sole in Boulder, and when Whelton explained his idea, Jonas asked him to come to the shop.
“Essentially what I wanted when I met Jonas is a profile like an electric guitar and a faster neck like an electric guitar, but an electrified nylon string,” Whelton said.
They’re calling the finished design a Wheltone. The best technical term to describe it is a “hollow neck through body,” but unlike other guitars that fit this description, the neck of the guitar has been cut out of the hollowed body. The immediately noticeable benefit of the design is that it’s very lightweight, but the alteration affects the sound as well.
“It gives it both the benefit of having … a solid neck all the way through, while still having the resonant qualities of having a truly acoustic instrument,” Whelton said.
For a guitar player, it means versatility. For non-players, well, it’s a nice sound, as well as work of art.
“We’ve talked to some guitar techs and one guy said there’s been nothing close to this since the Chet Atkins guitar, which they don’t make anymore,” Whelton said. “A model with nylon strings is something that anyone who has classical training or studied classical guitar, I think, would find very exciting to be able to play if they also like electric, because we can run this out to a pre-amp that’s also a MIDI converter.”
The converter isn’t anything new, but it basically means the player can create different sounds, whether that’s heavy metal electric or a pipe organ.
They’ve just started work on 12 Wheltones, which will cost between $4,000 and $5,000 depending on details — like the type of wood and the inlays. The first batch, however, will probably be sold at a promotional discount.
The price tag is daunting, but building the guitars is time-consuming and expensive. Whelton has already invested approximately $10,000 in the project, and they carefully select the wood they use from local sources. Plus, the guitars are carefully crafted by Jonas and Whelton, and each one will be a little different from the other. It’s totally new technology paired with one-of-a-kind novelty.
“We think we’re starting to show some traction,” Whelton said. “We think we have a unique and high-quality product to be able to offer and we could use some investment to expand. It’s a local business. Our initial target is the low-end boutique market.”
Boulder, it turns out, is a great place for that. There are others making their own guitars, but the market isn’t overwhelmed. There’s Ron Oates, in north Boulder, who inspired Jonas to start building guitars. His Rono Strings mandolins have been used by Leftover Salmon’s Drew Emmitt and String Cheese Incident’s Michael Kang. There’s also Conery Guitars, where Chris Conery turns out about three classical guitars a year built to customer specifications.
The next step will be to hire more people to build guitars, and then get those guitars into the hands of local musicians and guitar magazines.
“When it comes to marketing, I’m doing it ‘no money down,’ as they say,” said Jay Wyshak, who’s doing the marketing for Jonas. “My next trick will be, get this new Wheltone in front of the right people.”
Business plans and unique products aside, the future of Jonas Guitars looks promising because of the enthusiasm of everyone involved. When they talk about plans, there’s wide-eyed excitement and high-fiving.
“I said I’m gonna do this full-time and I made up my mind,” Jonas said. “I didn’t look for another job. I’d rather eat spaghetti for a week. I’m gonna do this full-time, going after it every day. I wasn’t distracted and I made guitars and I paid my dues. It’s a dedication to our dreams, is what it is.
“You gotta believe it, and wanna do it, and take the risk.”