Makers & Shakers: A Chat with Nylon-String Luthier Stephan Connor

Cape Cod, Massachusetts–based luthier Stephan Connor has built a world-class reputation by taking a fresh approach to what may be the most traditional branch of guitar building.
Guitarmaker Stephan Connor

From the January/February 2020 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY EMILE MENASCHÉ

Though they’re visually stunning, Connor’s instruments are even better known for their sonic complexity, projection, and the way they reward dynamic playing—qualities he prizes as a guitarist himself. “If you want to become a luthier, my advice is to learn to play,” says Connor, whose commitment to the nylon-string began when he was studying guitar as a college music major. College also gave him an opportunity to learn woodworking, and the two passions later came together at a guitar-making program. “I was the only one at the course building a nylon-string guitar,” he recalls. “I had my personal instrument, a beautifully made guitar by Manuel Velazquez, as a reference.”

More than 25 years later, Connor’s reference points are his own sense of tone and the deep-dive consultation he does with his many clients. As I learned during a virtual tour, his light and airy workspace seems more like an artist’s studio than a woodworking shop. Sharing the space with stacks of materials and racks of tools were pieces or art; objects from nature, including a few bird and fish bones (“I learn from them—nature is the best engineer,” he says); a series of guitars he’s building as a gift to his young son; and colorful crystals, which Connor himself makes just outside his workshop door.

Over the course of several conversations, Connor discussed his evolution as a builder, his approach to guitar design, and the one-on-one connection he feels with the players who use his instruments. “I fell in love with that process and the love has grown stronger,” he says. “I would be building guitars even if I won the lottery.”

The custom rosette on a Portrait series model made for guitarist Chloe Kang.
The custom rosette on a Portrait series model made for guitarist Chloe Kang.

How did you get started making classical guitars?
I have been building for 25 years. I graduated from the College of Wooster [in Ohio] in 1994 and immediately went to a guitar-making school in Saskatchewan, Canada, called Timeless Instruments. I learned some of the basics of designing and building a guitar at the course. It was a wonderful experience—it seemed like magic when you take raw boards of wood, watch your hands transform and refine the wood into an instrument, and quite quickly you’re playing music on it.

After attending the intensive two-month course, I built a mobile workshop—a small workbench with hand tools—and built guitars in North Carolina, Cape Cod, and then Boston. 

I opened my own shop in Boston in 2000, but soon moved back to Cape Cod. 


What inspired you to get into building guitars?
It combined all my interests. I love music. I started on piano, but one day I found my mother’s old Martin—a 1957 00-18 that I still have—in the back of a closet. I pulled it out and really liked the feel of holding a guitar and playing it. 

But not many people make the leap from player to builder, much less master craftsman.
I was always interested in art—in making things and trying to understand how things work. As a kid, I would take everything apart. My parents were academics, and they had a huge influence on my path in life. My mother encouraged doing what you love; my dad taught me to be my own teacher. They brought me all over the world as a kid and that opened my sense of wonder. The workmanship and visual impact of churches such as the Blue Mosque in Istanbul and Notre Dame in Paris made a lasting impression. 

I majored in music in college. My junior semester abroad to Paris was transformative: I got to study with an excellent classical guitarist, Tania Chagnot, and was inspired by the experience.

What made you land on classical guitar as both a player and maker
When I started playing guitar with my mother’s Martin, I would listen to Led Zeppelin, the Police, and the Clash, but when I discovered some recordings of Andrés Segovia playing the music of Bach, I found it to be transcendent. This music felt like it was a universe of wisdom and beauty! I didn’t understand it, but was fascinated by it. So when I went to college, I was pleased there was a guitar teacher and expressed my interest in playing Bach in the style of Segovia. He chuckled and said, “Let’s get to work. But you’ll need a different guitar!”

Later in college, I got a high-quality nylon-string. Its elegant sound—with many tone colors to explore—and stunning craftsmanship won me over. I still appreciate lots of steel-string playing, especially Michael Hedges, who was influenced by classical. But my focus was on learning to play Bach, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Agustín Barrios, and other pillars of classical guitar. By the way, “classical guitar” is a misnomer. There isn’t much music from the Classical era played on the guitar. It’s more from the Baroque and Romantic traditions, and from world music.  

Why did you choose to go out on your own—with a mobile shop no less—rather than find a job with an established manufacturer?
I heard that the best classical guitars are built by individuals rather than factories, so I was curious: Why would that be? Factories sure do a great job making steel-string guitars. So I was fascinated to try it. Then I found it combines a bit of everything: art in aesthetics, physics and engineering in how it functions as a system, biology in the materials, chemistry in the adhesives and finishes, and the exciting challenge of starting your own business.

Did you ever build steel-string guitars?
A couple years ago, I came full circle and decided to begin building a series of steel-string guitars. It was fun to come back to what I first fell in love with. I felt unleashed—that I could do whatever I would like with the design. This was a personal journey. I make these instruments for my son. This artistic freedom led to some of my most inspired instruments. 

Did the steel-string instruments influence your nylon-string designs
Yes. I’ve found that the same type of artistic freedom can be applied to classical guitar. I started a new project in which I could continue to use the guitar to explore my creativity—my Portrait guitars, many of which are shown on my Instagram account [@connorguitars]. Building them has been one of the most rewarding challenges of my career. I use the guitar as a canvas to reflect the spirit, style, and soul of the player. I make a one-of-a-kind design for the rosette, custom headstock, use inlays in the back… every part of the guitar is reconsidered to possibly use in a creative way. The response has been amazing. Now I’m getting so many orders from people who’d like me to make their Portrait! 

What’s involved in designing a Portrait guitar?
The process involves working very closely with the guitarists—knowing their favorite music, art, places in nature, personality, everything. It’s a unique bonding experience, and a way to celebrate them as musicians. I document the process, so the story for each of these special guitars can be told. It takes about six months from start to delivery. 

Do players come to the studio or do you consult online?
Both. I like it when people come here to hear the instruments. It’s important to connect on an emotional level. One example is an instrument I’m making for Ukrainian guitarist Nadia Kossinskaja. It has a unique cutaway what was challenging to design and build. The goal was to give her upper-fret access without taking away too much box volume. The inlays have an M.C. Escher–inspired hearts motif. I always keep the players posted with updates on the progress of their guitars. Her dad is in the hospital, and she says the updates have helped her deal with the stress. 


The Chloe Kang guitar sports pearl inlays on the center strip of its Brazilian rosewood and maple back.
The Chloe Kang guitar sports pearl inlays on the center strip of its Brazilian rosewood and maple back.

During the virtual tour, you showed a guitar you built for Chloe Kang. What inspired the design?
Chloe is from South Korea and is studying with Eliot Fisk at the New England Conservatory. She told me that she felt homesick. I asked her what she missed most, and she said she loved to go outside and look at the stars with her dad. So I created a star-shaped side portal and put a star inlay pattern on the back. Nestled among the stars is a crescent moon, which looks like a C for Chloe. When she saw it, she told me it reminded her of a necklace her mother had given her. 

Moving from the Portrait guitars to your general approach, what are your design goals?
I want an exciting instrument to play. It should be responsive, have good projection, and excellent playability. I put a small amount of radius into my fingerboards and spend a lot of time working the action. But most important to me is a singing quality to the trebles. 

Is that a challenge for nylon-strings?
Steel-string guitars are easier to build. The strings inherently have sustain. But nylon-string guitars are a trickier equation to get a great sound. Perhaps that’s why almost all concert classical guitarists play instruments built by individual luthiers. Lately, I want more than a great projecting instrument; I want complexity in the voice, so the player is drawn to the instrument to explore new ways of phrasing and expressing themselves. I also want the guitars to be built with love and individual care. It shows when something is made with love. The player feeds off that and appreciates it no matter what type of guitar—steel-string, nylon-string, or archtop.

What are your favorite materials?
In general, I prefer spruce because it has the most tone colors as you move the right hand from the bridge up toward the fretboard. I have developed my own bracing patterns, influenced by biomimicry [the design and production of materials, structures, and systems that are modeled on biological entities and processes] using the principle of bones—light and strong—to carve away the inessential.

The quality of the soundboard, bracing, and craftsmanship are really important. I travel to Europe to select the best soundboard for my recipe. I don’t like the soundboard too tight and heavy for my design. I want the guitar to have a friendly, open sound. Medium-density wood gives more of that round, sweet sound. 

Do the soundboard and top define the tone?
Every part of the guitar plays a part in the voicing—the weight and type of wood of the bridge, resonance of the soundbox, the finish. I can customize the sound for the individual to match his or her musical voice. 

The depth of the box can affect the speed of the response of the guitar. Looser edges on the soundboard can give more bass and a warmer sound. The shape of the soundboard braces can directly resemble the shape of the musical notes. Low and wide is warmer and rounder; tall and narrow is clearer and brighter, etc.


Watching you walk through your studio, you seem almost spiritually connected to your materials.
Oh man, I love wood! It’s such a beautiful substance—warm, so many different colors, the feel of it, the smell. I love the sound of a sharp plane, using a chisel. . . . It’s fun! I’ve stocked up on woods over the years. I prefer hand-selecting and have gone to Hawaii for koa, Switzerland for FSC-certifed spruce, and California for rosewood. I was able to buy an old stash of Brazilian [rosewood] from a retired maker. I’m always trying to acquire more—always responsibly. I’m also having great luck with sustainable woods such as walnut and maple. 

Tone and playability are the most important, but I also want my guitars to have an artistic impact. And I think about the way they feel in the hands—the curves, how things are rounded. Often the edges on guitars aren’t rounded enough. Even how they smell: I always work some Spanish cedar into the guitar for its intoxicating scent. I have been using Spanish cedar to reinforce my sound portal, and I also can use linings and back braces from this wood. I want the guitar to be a delight to each of the senses.

Some of your designs definitely break with tradition, but what about your working method?
Early on, I put myself through the old-school challenge of building guitars with just hand tools, but recently have been having a great time exploring modern tools. With connections at M.I.T., I’ve not only learned about how the guitar functions, but I can pull off artistic design I couldn’t have possibly before, using their laser and CNC cutters. 

Early on, I pioneered the sound portal in classical guitars—the hole in the side facing the player—and now I’m trying to take the visual aspect of classical guitars into a new dimension. The response has been great. I think of classical as a concept of showing an elegant restraint. And you can still go to a visually sumptuous feast while holding onto some restraint and not going over the top. I’m exploring different shapes of the soundhole rosette, sound portal, and fretboard inlays. 

Considering that you build guitars for elite players, it’s interesting to see you’ve made Portrait instruments for up-and-comers, too.
I have many famous clients, but I get really excited when working with young talents and trying to offer them growing experiences. It’s fun to see the Portrait guitars next to the players. Two of the most stunning guitars I’ve built were inspired by the portrait process with Anabel Montesinos and Norwegian guitarist Christina Sandsengen. It keeps stretching my creativity and craftsmanship.


Below: Celil Refik Kaya plays Barrios’ Mazurka Appassionata on a Connor guitar named “Trance.”

AG 320 JAN/FEB 2020 - Molly Tuttle

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2020 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

Emile Menasché
Emile Menasché

Guitarist, composer, writer.

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