Ken Lelen

Ken Lelen
Ken Lelen sings great American ragtime, jazz & swing and performs with vintage acoustic guitars for an authentic, back-in-the day sound.

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Planning Post-Covid Concerts

     I hope you are safe and well and busy.


Covid-19 has been tough on all of us. But now, with more people vaccinated, folks are establishing new routines for home, work and leisure. We have been inspired by the community groups, local facilities and private clubs that are scaling up for post-pandemic programs, services and events.  


In March, 2020, when we halted Vintage Music Concerts, we did not know if we could resume our performances. We now think it may be safe to plan new concerts for late 2021 and early 2022.


     I hope you will join us.


Vintage Music Concerts offers upbeat shows with musical, romantic

and historic themes. Since 1999 we’ve charmed audiences at public libraries, arts councils, bookstores, retirement communities, antique stores, fraternal groups, restaurants, house concerts, senior centers, music clubs, museums and churches.


     Folks find our shows “entertaining & educational.

     Hosts report these events are "easy to promote.”


Please contact me to discuss your proposed dates, budget, program, publicity and safety protocols. Together, we'll create exciting events for your community.


     I hope to hear from you.

     Until then, take care.


         Ken .


      Ken Lelen



                                                           © 2021 by Kenneth Lelen — All Rights Reserved


Friday, May 7, 2021

Rebuilding and conversion to x-bracing

update pair of vintage Harmony guitars

              Alabama luthier James Burkett is restoring and rebuilding vintage Harmony

              guitars for a new generation of guitar players.  This work affirms the design

              superiority, material integrity & sonic distinction of 20th C. American guitars.


                                       © 2021 by Kenneth Lelen — All Rights Reserved


                   See also:    Vintage Guitar Conversions Proliferate   —   posted Saturday, Feb 7, 2015

                                             Gene Autry Round-up Guitar Restored    —    posted Friday, July 29, 2016


Alabama luthier James Burkett recently rebuilt and converted to X bracing a pair of small jumbo acoustic guitars built by Harmony of Chicago in 1939-40. His Biltmore Ritz (1430 139) and Round-up (4728 244) restorations are the latest examples of a two-decade effort to revitalize vintage acoustics for contemporary players.



This pair of small jumbos — Biltmore Ritz (left) and Gene Autry Round-up (right) — was rebuilt and converted by luthier James Burkett. The back on each was temporarily removed so he could replace original ladder bracing with a spruce X brace, spruce top bracing and maple bridge plate. He also reglued body bracing, replaced a pinless bridge with a straight rosewood bridge, repaired top cracks, replaced back binding, reglued the original celluloid pickguard, and replaced failing metal strip tuners with modern replicas. 


Originally called "auditorium" because "jumbo" was applied to a larger model in its catalog, these small jumbo guitars were built by Harmony of Chicago between the late 1930s and mid-1940. Each has a 14-3/4 in. lower bout width, 25-3/8 in. scale length, 3-3/4 in. body depth and 1-11/16 in. nut width. Biltmore Ritz (left), with mahogany body, spruce top and mahogany neck, retailed for $16.50, while Gene Autry Round-up (right), with birch body, spruce top and poplar neck, cost $9.95 postpaid in Sears Roebuck's mail-order catalog.

Burkett's work confirms the design superiority, material integrity and sonic distinction of American guitars built in the first half of the 20th Century. Likewise, his success reflects a desire by today's musicians to use instruments based on older shapes and sounds and not bust anyone's budget.


"They see value in playing a converted vintage guitar," Burkett said. "There's never any negotiation on price. They are not looking at price points. They just want the sound."


Conversions start with good old guitars

Burkett said guitar conversion and restoration jobs start with "good ladder-braced guitars and really good X-braced guitars." Most were built with a solid wood body, not ply or laminate, and Adirondack top. The combo offers a solid working surface for many of the steps he'll take to rebuild and convert a vintage guitar.


For instance, it takes no small amount of time to study the existing issues and plan steps that will be sound for a guitar as well as for a luthier's labor and material budget. Likewise, decisions and choices by a luthier may or may not jive with the decisions and choices of a woodworker.


After installing a spruce X brace, maple bridge plate and new bracing inside a spruce top, Burkett may take the time needed to replace and repair any missing, damaged or loose kerfing. Cracks to the back and top may need cleaning, repair, cleating and glue as well.


Burkett will often plane and refret a vintage fingerboard. But dyed maple or pearwood fingerboards, which dry out and splinter, may need full replacement, not just new frets.


He has to decide which wood — ebony or rosewood — to install for the new fingerboard. Will it match or contrast with the bridge? Is it economical to do this? How much time will this add to the job?


Replacing old tuners and adding neck reinforment

On the other hand, it makes sense to replace old and broken tuners, he said, with modern replicas with a 15:1 worm to gear ratio. Guitar players realize new ones are not costly and can eliminate time spent fussing with old, rusty or balky tuning machines. 


Not infrequently, Burkett will bury a reinforment rod (metal, ebony or graphite) in a neck beneath a vintage fretboard. It adds strength and mass to the guitar at minimal cost and weight — 2 oz. to 3 oz.


But the neck may be too old, too narrow or too fragile for any such improvement. So, his decision to add reinforcement — or not — may be an educated guess or a shot in the dark.


No longer second-tier models 

But once he converts and rebuilds his vintage acoustics, they're no longer second-tier models. "They're $2500 guitars," Burkett said. "Still, you can't hardly get [that kind of] money for them today."


Burkett researched competitor listings on Reverb to ascertain asking prices on guitar conversions. Prices topped out at $1,800, he said.


"Most [candidate guitars] I buy for $200 to $300, then convert and sell them for $1,000 to $1,200 or a little more," he said. "It can take a lot of time to clear $500 after I spend a month [working] on it. I guess I've not run this [work] as a money-making thing for profit." 


Burkett began building and restoring guitars as a part-time venture in the mid-1990s. His first work came about after he bought several unfinished project guitars from a luthier who had retired. 


No shortage of candidate guitars

"Since then, there's been no shortage of candidate guitars or beat-up ladder-braced shipwrecks that benefit from conversion to X bracing and full restoration," said Burkett, who retired in 2012 from a full-time job in commercial construction, work he said he does not miss.


Burkett has also built 38 new acoustic guitars with maple, mahogany and rosewood bodies. Most were dreadnoughts and a few were grand concert models. He exhibits no shortage of pride about these guitars.


Still, the hot-rod side of his work — rebuilding and rebracing old ladder-braced instruments — sped through all the stop lights in town after he revived a Harmony H1260 jumbo for a musician in Nashville. Burkett soon received seven orders for similar Harmony conversions from folks who called and said, "Do you have one like his?"


He has never counted the number of vintage guitars he has rebuilt or converted over the years. "My work got heavy in the last two or three years once I [stopped doing] most of my own finish work," he said. "I hate finish work [due to preparation, mess and smell] and I've not found anyone to send it to who will do it to my likes."


With insufficient shop space for finish work, Burkett set up a finishing booth in a backyard tool shed. "I can now get a consistent sunburst finish I like," he said, "even though I'm not looking for something with a brand-new shining finish."


Like many luthiers, Burkett has more guitar projects than time. "At my age I have only so many restorations in me and not a lot of time for guitars I'm not already working on," he said. "It's just me in this little shop in my backyard."


Rebuilding and converting the Biltmore Ritz

Burkett took numerous photographs while he disassembled, cleaned, rebraced, repaired and rebuilt the Biltmore Ritz. His work began by pulling the guitar's neck and temporarily removing the mahogany back and its binding from the body.


With the back off, he had access to the original ladder bracing for its removal as well as to the neck and tail blocks, rims and kerfing for repair, trimming and cleaning. He also found and reglued the tips of loose braces on the back.


Following are some of his images and descriptions of the conversion and rebuilding process.


Left – Spruce top with original ladder bracing, mahogany rim, kerfing and blocking.

Right — Mahogany back and its original parallel bracing after separation from body.

Ladder bracing was removed from the

top and interior surfaces were cleaned.  

X brace, bridge plate and support

bracing were installed on the top.

Mahogany back was reinstalled with glue and clamps.

New edge binding was installed on the mahogany back.

New binding along the back edge was glued and secured with tape.
With completion of the top rebracing and re-installation of the guitar back, the mahogany neck was reset. The rosewood fingerboard was then planed and refretted. This photo shows the rebuilt guitar prior to installation of a new straight rosewood bridge and white side dots. The original celluloid pickguard was also reglued at this time.

White side dots were installed at the 3rd, 5th, 7th, 9th and 12th frets.

Built in 1940 with ladder-braced spruce top by Harmony Co.,

this Biltmore Ritz was disassembled, converted to X bracing

and rebuilt by Alabama luthier James Burkett in early 2021.

 © 2021 by Kenneth Lelen — All Rights Reserved