Kari Nieminen - guitar maker to the stars
Hand-made instruments from Pitäjänmäki workshop find favour with The Rolling Stones, ZZ Top, and The Who
By Vesa Sirén
Ronnie Wood of The Rolling Stones has bought eight guitars from him, and Keith Richards has two.
There is a video clip on the Internet, in which Roger Daltrey, vocalist of The Who, shows his guitar to Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant, who praises the acoustic instrument profusely.
His guitars get good reviews in Guitar Player and other professional publications.
Not a bad achievement for 48-year-old Kari Nieminen, who makes only 40 guitars a year in his workshop in the Pitäjänmäki district of Helsinki.
The time is not right - at least not yet - for setting up an industrial production line.
“I would need more customers who spread the word. In addition to guitar players, my customers include collectors and bankers, who buy these as investments.”
An article on valuable guitars as investment targets appeared in the International Herald Tribune. The paper recently used Nieminen's guitars as an example of products that might attract an investor’s interest.
At the moment, Nieminen’s guitars cost anywhere from EUR 3,000 on upwards. The range is extensive. There are acoustic and electric guitars, baritone guitars, and instruments which are something between a guitar and a sitar.
“And for instance, there is a four-string electric mandolin with a tremolo arm for classical violinist Pekka Kuusisto”, he adds.
Nieminen built his first guitar at the age of 12. His first customer was his friend Riku Mattila from high school in Oulu.
“Riku is still one of my most important clients in Finland.”
Nieminen graduated from the University of Art and Design in 1989 as an industrial designer. It was not until spending seven years as a teacher at the institution that he set up the his company Versoul in 1994.
“In January 1995 I went to Los Angeles to the NAMM trade fair with my guitar and got a foothold in the United States. The key is to know one’s competitors, and what is really new, and what others do not have to offer.
Soon Roger Daltrey walked into a store in Santa Monica and became infatuated with Nieminen’s acoustic guitar.
“He was so excited that he let me use his name for free in marketing. He also spoke about my guitars to Alan Rogan, the guitar technician of The Rolling Stones.
Rogan recommended Nieminen’s guitars to Ronnie Wood.
“Ronnie later invited me to his home in Richmond. It was a hunting lodge of some former English king - that is to say, a castle. I gave him a guitar for his 60th birthday, because he was such a good customer.
Wood invited Nieminen and his family to a Rolling Stones gig at Helsinki’s Olympic Stadium in August last year.
“We spent 13 hours there, as the guitar technicians showed us their equipment before the concert.”
Keith Richard had the biggest back room.
“The big room was made into something like a home. There was a corner for the whole band to rehearse in, with small amplifiers, a Johnny Cash poster, an Elvis cardboard cutout, a Hank Williams recording playing, and a snooker table.”
Two ten-string guitars were commissioned for Richards.
“They are like 12-strings, with the lower two missing. He plays them with open tuning.”
Wood uses Nieminen’s Versoul guitars at concerts a great deal. There is no information on what guitars Richards uses on stage.
“There will soon be more publicity from the fact that I have made two guitars for Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, covered with gold leaf. They will be on display in Guitarist magazine”, he said.
“After buying the first, Gibbons ordered two more. He named them his "Versoul Raya Billy F. Gibbons Blue Light" special guitars.”
On the wall of his workshop Nieminen has an e-mail from Gibbons, as well as photographs in which Nieminen is locked in an embrace with Daltrey and Wood.
The ageing rockers have paid cash for the guitars, as did the guitar technician for The Who, who bought an acoustic instrument a year ago for Pete Townshend to rehearse on.
“Usually big name guitarists make endorsement contracts, under which they get the instruments for free; in exchange, the manufacturer is allowed to use the artist’s name in marketing. I also have artists like that, such as the jazz guitarist Kenny Burrell.”
Many of Nieminen’s big-name clients are already retired. Are guitars somehow especially pensioner-friendly?
“Quality and originality are the decisive factors. These guys already have every possible type of guitar, and they are looking for something new.”
Originality comes from the design, the mike positioning, and exceptional types of wood, such as aspen. Nieminen has innovations of his own for attaching the neck, tuning, and the design of the acoustics.
However, there are some basic matters that cannot be compromised on, no matter how much artistry and gold leaf is put into the design.
“My starting point is that an electric guitar has to sound good when held in the lap even without amplification. You have to feel the tone in your belly.”
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 31.5.2008
VESA SIRÉN / Helsingin Sanomat