In the quartet of midsize American custom-guitar manufacturers (which also includes Bourgeois, Collings, and Santa Cruz), Bend, Oregon-based Breedlove Guitars stands out as the youngest, most diverse, and boldest brand. Since it was founded 20 years ago, Breedlove has grown from a two-person shop to a company that offers a full line of guitars and mandolins made in two countries and at nearly every price point. It has also become an active player in its hometown’s artistic environment. Even though Breedlove’s history isn’t as long as some of the classic names in American guitar manufacturing, the company has capitalized on creative designs and fearless expansion to carve its own niche. Here’s a look at the journey the company has taken.
Breedlove has always been located in central Oregon, but the company was conceived in San Diego, California, where Breedlove founders Larry Breedlove and Steve Henderson met while working at Taylor Guitars and eventually hatched a plan to set out on their own. The two had seen Taylor grow from a relatively small manufacturer to one of the largest in the country and took note of the custom-guitar boom that was just beginning. The timing seemed right for a company that offered individually made instruments with innovative designs. Looking to escape the fast pace of life in Southern California, Breedlove and Henderson decided that central Oregon suited their desired lifestyle change.
Perhaps due to their goal of building highly original guitars with unique looks and tone, Breedlove and Henderson received their former employer’s full blessing. “You can’t tell the story of the early days of Breedlove without saying how great Bob [Taylor] was,” Henderson says. “He was just getting into CNC, and he made a lot of our fixtures and jigs. He and Larry and I would sit in his office after hours, and he helped make all our body molds. We probably set up 25 percent of our fixtures and jigs while still at Taylor; how many bosses would let you do that?”
Unusual Lines, Woods, and Construction
From the start, Breedlove was different. More interested in looking ahead than in copying vintage designs, Henderson and Breedlove created guitars with lines as far removed from prewar Martins as sleepy Tumalo, Oregon (the company’s location until 2008), was from bustling San Diego. Aiming for a dedicated fingerstyle guitar with excellent balance, a bass sound that wasn’t overpowered by the treble and midrange, and outstanding playability, Breedlove and Henderson used their artists’ eyes and adventurous sense of design to reevaluate every major part of the instrument. The result was the concert-size C1 [the slightly deeper C2 followed a short time later], which had a radical cutaway for excellent upper-fret access, an asymmetrical pinless bridge, a narrowly tapered headstock to ensure the straightest string path between the nut slots and the tuning pegs, and Breedlove’s secret weapon, the JLD bridge-truss system.
Originally designed as an aftermarket product to offer a fix for guitars with severely bellied tops, the bridge truss connects the bridge plate to the endpin with a pair of wooden dowels, transferring tension to the guitar’s sides and allowing the top to move with reduced stress. Few luthiers have integrated the bridge-truss system into the design of their instruments, but Breedlove did so with great success, and the system ultimately allowed Breedlove and Henderson to achieve their tonal goals. “We wanted a balanced sound, which we felt was missing from a lot of fingerstyle guitars,” Henderson says. “We wanted more bass response out of the guitar, and once we discovered the [JLD] bridge [system], we realized that we could use it to get that out of the guitars.”
At a time when most guitar makers still adhered to traditional tonewood options— mostly mahogany, rosewood, and maple for backs and sides and spruce for tops—Breedlove pioneered the use of more unusual species. Many guitarists were first introduced to exotic woods such as striped ebony, flamed koa, and ziricote when Breedlove started using these and other non-traditional woods on its custom guitars. It also began using cedar and redwood, because of their tonal significance, for the tops of steel-string guitars. And well before going green was in vogue, Breedlove began using North American—and in some cases, local Oregon—tonewoods such as walnut and myrtle for its instruments.
Growing the Shop
As anyone who has started a niche business knows, it helps to have a source of capital, and once again, Bob Taylor came to Breedlove’s aid. Overwhelmed with the amount of service and warranty work that the rapidly growing Taylor Guitars was faced with, he suggested that Breedlove and Henderson’s shop serve as Taylor’s warranty center. “Bob came to us and said, You guys are going to need some money while you get started, why don’t you take our warranty stuff?”’ Henderson says, “It was huge for us for a number of reasons, the biggest being that it gave us access to dealers and credibility.” The arrangement lasted a little longer than a year, and when Breedlove became too busy with its own production, Taylor reclaimed its warranty work.
By 1994, the gamble of starting a company based on a unique line of fingerstyle guitars appeared to be paying off. Henderson and Breedlove had a hired a couple of additional builders, and production was around 200 guitars annually. Innovative new models such as the asymmetrical, abstractly Kay Kraft–inspired CM model were added to the company’s line (CM stands for “Concert Meyer,” named for luthier Terry Meyer, who briefly joined his former Taylor colleagues before returning to Taylor, where he still works today), and Breedlove had begun showing its guitars at the annual NAMM show, resulting in a growing dealer network.
Around this time, Larry Breedlove’s brother Kim joined the company. With a background in art, Kim had worked on banjos and mandolins for banjo makers Greg Deering and Geoff Stelling. “I was doing custom banjo work for Geoff Stelling when I got the call that Breedlove needed help with the construction of their guitars and running the business,” says Kim, who moved from Virginia to Oregon just in time for his brother’s announcement that he was departing Breedlove to move back to San Diego and resume working for Taylor Guitars (he is currently one of the chief designers of the R. Taylor line). Today, Kim remains at Breedlove as the company’s master luthier.
The years following Larry Breedlove’s departure were marked by creative and artistic success but financial difficulties. The company expanded its line by developing successful instruments such as the Ed Gerhard signature model guitar, a crossover nylon-string, and a line of original mandolin designs. But even though Breedlove received the blessings of top players and garnered positive reviews in magazines, as well as support from dealers, its radical designs, along with growing competition in the high-end steel-string guitar market, made it difficult to grow the business. In 1999, a financial crisis hit the company when it was discovered that a faulty batch of finish had been used on more than 200 instruments in 1995, requiring extensive warranty repair work.
A New Era Begins
To survive its financial troubles and reach the next step in its growth and development, Breedlove started looking for investors. This search led to the hiring of Breedlove’s current president, Peter Newport. A former consultant with Pepsi (where he developed bottled water and juice brands), Newport had been searching for an opportunity to combine his business interests with his love of music. He had grown up with musician parents and undertaken serious vocal studies, participating in competitions from grade school through college. With the help of a pair of partners from his Pepsi days, Newport invested in Breedlove and became president of the company in 1999.
“The company was going through quality-control issues, and it had a limited niche market,” says Newport, who set up a 20-year plan to expand Breedlove into new areas without alienating the core customers that had put the brand on the map. The cash provided by investors helped solve the company’s immediate problems. But to make the business viable in the long run, Newport’s plan was to not only reach out to customers who hadn’t previously been served by Breedlove but also to involve the local community of Bend, Oregon. Eventually, Newport and Henderson disagreed about Breedlove’s direction and Henderson left the company in 2001. (Henderson currently runs a custom furniture business, steve-hendersonwoodworking.com [note: dead link], in central Oregon).
Working closely with Kim Breedlove and the company’s team of resident luthiers—particularly Jayson Bowerman and Chris Lindquist, both of whom are integral parts of Breedlove’s research and development—Newport set out to not only tweak existing models, but to create two new lines.
Introduced in 2003, the company’s Atlas series started out as an affordable line that closely resembled Breedlove’s original designs, albeit with some modifications, including a different bridge shape and dovetail neck joint. Designed under Kim Breedlove’s leadership and manufactured in Korea, the series has expanded to include a variety of instruments, including acoustic-electrics, travel guitars, and the traditional-design Retro line.
Breedlove’s other new series, the Revival, debuted in 2004 and broke from Breedlove’s history of relatively radical designs, resembling vintage Martin guitars (see “Seven Dreadnoughts” in the September 2008 issue of Acoustic Guitar for a review of the D-M model). “I came from a bluegrass background, and I objected to there just being fingerstyle guitars,” Kim Breedlove says about the development of the Revival series, which was also developed in response to customer requests for a more traditional instrument. Although the Revival guitars follow standard Martin-style dreadnought, OM, and 000 12-fret designs and don’t use the bridge-truss system of Breedlove’s original models, they do share elements such as bolt-on necks and the company’s geometry, which includes a fairly steep neck angle combined with a high saddle. “We used our voicing techniques and playability standards,” says Newport, adding that the line now makes up about 50 percent of Breedlove’s U.S. production. Newport describes the bridge truss-equipped original Breedlove designs as having “more sustain and complexity,” while the Revivals are “more powerful, with more note clarity.”
A New Shop
It was only a matter of time before Breedlove outgrew the tiny industrial compound that was home to the company’s first shop back in 1990, so in 2008, Breedlove moved into a brand-new building in Bend that is as custom-made as one of its Master Class instruments. The 20,000-square-foot facility is where U.S.-made Breedloves are built and where each Atlas series guitar gets its final setup and inspection. In fact, inside the shop, there’s little separation between the various lines of guitars, “Atlas people work side by side with custom-shop people,” says Newport, who adds that between 1,000 and 1,500 Atlas instruments move through the shop—which has almost 50 employees—each month.
But Breedlove’s creative center remains the 80 or so instruments it builds entirely in Bend each week. As in most midsize shops, hand and machine labor exist side by side at Breedlove, which uses four Fadal CNC machines and a couple more small CNCs dedicated to inlay work. But one strum of any custom-shop or Private Reserve-level Breedlove makes it clear that this type of detail and tonal voicing is only possible through skilled hand craftsmanship at the core of the building process.
Twenty years into an ongoing journey, and with several established lines of instruments under its belt, Breedlove remains a creative force. Kim Breedlove’s affinity for elaborate inlay work continues to yield outstanding custom designs that substitute guitars for the canvases he transformed into art earlier in his life. But while Breedlove guitars often come dressed to the nines, there has been no slowdown in design innovation either. The fact that Breedlove’s more-corporate-than-hippie business plan hasn’t hampered its luthiers’ freedom to experiment is illustrated by instruments such as Jayson Bowerman’s J. Weissenborn-style lap steels, which take an instrument type that was originally designed in the early 1920s to a new level of precision. Similarly, under the direction of Chris Lindquist, the company has been refining the integration of RMC’s hexaphonic pickups for use with Roland’s Virtual Guitar and synthesizer systems. Several Atlas models now include soundports in the guitar’s side, bringing a feature that’s typically only found on expensive custom guitars to very affordable realms.
Without a doubt, Breedlove’s story is one of innovative designs, entrepreneurial spirit, and visionary business planning. Besides a commitment to keep developing new instruments and to further improve existing models, Breedlove also plans to expand its support for Bend’s role as a cultural hub. “We want to help make central Oregon an art-based economy,” says Newport, who envisions an expansion of the Breedlove Extraordinary Experience and Festival as well as increased work for local venues and collaborations for the local tourist industry.
It’s not easy to create a signature voice, have your guitars played by such artists as Ed Gerhard, Jeff Tweedy, Chris Hillman, and Trace Bundy, and also enjoy success at the bottom line. Breedlove has managed to score on all three counts and then some.
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