SALT LAKE CITY — When seven jazz guitarists recently took the stage to wrap up the 22nd season of the Jazz at the Capitol Theatre concert series, the spotlight also fell on a Utah artisan whose handmade guitars are — not so quietly — gaining a national reputation.
Big-name jazzman Frank Vignola played all of his dazzling improvised solos on a guitar made in Logan by Ryan Thorell.
"I think his standing is way up there with the top builders of the day," Vignola said. A friend sent the guitar to Vignola eight years ago when guitar-builders around the country were trying to win Vignola's endorsement.
Plucking the strings during an interview, Vignola said, "Out of all the guitars that came, when this one came I knew immediately when I played it. I said, 'Yeahhhh! This is the one.'"
Working at his shop in downtown Logan, Thorell builds the instruments from scratch.
"I started building my first guitar when I was 14," Thorell said as a strip of wood hissed and popped from being pressed against a hot bending iron. "I really felt artistically fulfilled by it and challenged."
The challenge in the first phase of guitar-making is to get the right bend in the wood so it forms the sides of the guitar. If Thorell does it right, the piece of wood conforms to the familiar shape of a guitar. If he forces it too much, he winds up with something other than a guitar.
"A lot of, uh, broken (pieces)," Thorell said with a laugh. "A lot of firewood."
There are no crowds to watch or listen. The shop doesn't have Thorell's name in lights; there's not even a name on the outside of the building. But it is the venue where Thorell performs as a one-man-band in the guitar-making business.
He's constantly practicing his musical craft, bending, scraping, sanding, finishing, then tapping the wood or plucking the strings until he's satisfied with the sound of the guitar.
"Oh, yeah, it's just fun," he said, after squeezing out a few notes on a brand new instrument. "She's a sweety. Stiff and punchy. Every guitar I've made out of this batch of spruce has been so much fun."
At the Capitol Theatre for the Jazz SLC concert, Thorell had his guitars on display in the lobby.
"It's a work of art, this guitar," Vignola said, practicing before going on stage. Vignola figures he's played about 1,000 shows with his Thorell guitar and admires its warm, even, consistent tonal qualities. Vignola explained that, no matter where he goes, the guitar is always in tune with itself.
"I'll be in Utah today and Istanbul tomorrow," he said. "It travels real well, which is the sign of a well-made guitar."
It takes plenty of time to hand build a guitar. Thorell turns out just over one guitar a month, only 12 to 15 a year, which means they don't come cheap. "My guitars are typically selling in the range of $8,000 to $15,000," Thorell said.
Vignola doesn't think Thorell's price tag is unfairly high. "Building a guitar from taking the wood and carving the whole nine yards," Vignola said, "I bet it's less than minimum wage."
As he scrapes and planes the wood — and taps on it from time to time — Thorell is listening for what he calls subjective qualities. He said he tries to fit the guitar to the personality of the musician.
"I do feel like the end goal of this is to have the guitar be an expression of the musician," Thorell said. "That is paramount to me."
The next season for Jazz SLC at the Capitol Theatre will begin in September. Eight concerts are on the schedule.
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