Nowadays, New Era Guitars founder Tony Klassen is best known as a chief proponent and revivalist of old and under-appreciated acoustic guitar designs, a champion of the innovative Swedish brothers Carl and August Larson, Gibson’s undercover Kel Kroydon line, the Señorita made by acclaimed banjo makers Bacon & Day, and others. The Indiana-based luthier, who runs a one-man operation, produces impressive reproductions coveted by collectors and pros alike. Forty years ago, however, his life looked very different.
[Editor’s note: In December of 2022 Tony Klassen sadly passed away after being diagnosed with esophageal cancer.]
Klassen, who began studying graphic design in 1979, wound up in Chicago at one of the top design firms in the world. By the end of the ’80s, he was on the cutting edge of computer illustration and Photoshop, and work was so good that he no longer needed to commute an hour into Chicago from northwest Indiana. He had made it.
Underneath, however, another passion simmered. “Even back then, I always had this thing about guitars,” says Klassen, 59. “I started collecting when I was 18 years old—my first was a Gibson J-45 I got for $900.” During a short stint in Connecticut as a furniture builder, he taught himself how to make guitars, and when fast-advancing technology—as well as 9/11 and the dot-com bust—brought his graphic design career to a screeching halt, Klassen decided to repurpose the furniture shop he’d built in his house. The rest is history.
What happened when your graphic design career imploded?
I didn’t know what to do. I had collected a lot of nice vintage guitars, and I had to sell some of them to pay bills. I had filed for bankruptcy, so I just said, “Screw it. I’m going to start making guitars full-time and see what happens.”
How did you get started?
I put together three Larson models, and I knew the owners of the best vintage shops, so I knew I had some outlets. But before I showed them to a shop, I wanted to get the OK from my friend Bob Hartman, the grandson of Carl Larson. Well, Bob was really happy with what I’d done. Then I took them to Elderly Instruments, and they were blown away and wanted to consign them. That gave me a little kick-start, and then Dave Portman, a prominent Larson collector and friend who came up with the name New Era, began commissioning replicas of his vintage Larson guitars.
What drew you to Larson Brothers guitars?
They pioneered some of the first steel-string guitars—they got patents in the early 1900s—and they were laminating their braces, putting a center strip of rosewood and then two pieces of spruce sandwiched to that for a stronger brace. The Larsons also built their guitars with a slight arch to the top, more so than a Gibson, and much more than a Martin. They were putting steel rods in the body to help keep tension off the top so the guitars vibrated more. Their aesthetics were great, too—the big wide bands of pearl around the top and fancy inlays.
What else impressed you?
Most of the guitar shops of the day, especially the big ones like Martin and Gibson, were factories with lots of people. With the Larsons, it was just those two guys. These were truly handmade guitars, and I thought that was pretty exciting. Another thing was that nobody was making them. People were making copies of Martins and Gibsons, but nobody had carried on the Larson tradition.
Why weren’t more people making Larson-style instruments?
Because they’re rare. If you’re going to build a guitar in the vein of another maker and carry on what they’re doing, you really need to have one of their guitars. When I was making money doing graphic design, I was investing it in Larson Brothers guitars, which really gave me a feel for the instruments.
Is there a lot of variation among their instruments?
They’re all unique. If you looked at ten Martins, you probably couldn’t tell them apart, but not the Larsons. They’re wacky guitars, and the quality is pretty good.
What kind of adjustments have you made to the Larson template?
I felt the braces were just too heavy, so I’ve changed that, but I’m still building in their tradition. They have a unique voice, and I think I was able to capture that.
What about your Bacon & Day Señorita reproduction?
I knew there were other unique guitars out there that nobody was doing. I’ve been a huge fan of John Fahey for as long as I can remember. When I bought the  Requia album, he had this very cool guitar on it, and it was a Bacon & Day Señorita. We only know of two—John Fahey’s and another one, which came up for sale. I bought it and thought it was cool. When I started making a copy of that guitar, I got calls from Country Joe McDonald and Stefan Grossman. Back in the ’60s, Stefan had found the original and taken it to a guy in Berkeley, who voiced the braces and put a pickguard on it. Stefan sold it to John Fahey, who sold it to Country Joe McDonald, who sold it to a guy out in England.
I probably build more Señoritas than anything, and it has a lot to do with the Fahey connection. I built a couple for Stefan and he shows them off every now and then. That was the first non-Larson that I did.
You’ve done some Kel Kroydon copies, too.
Gibson made the Kel Kroydon line during the Depression, but they didn’t put their name on those guitars, which they sold through Montgomery Ward. They never wanted people to know that the Kel Kroydons were Gibson guitars. It was their way of trying to survive the Depression. Some really nice guitars came out of that era, around 1929, 1930.
What do you think makes guitars from that era so good?
I don’t know, but my theory is that people were just so happy to have a job during those times that they were doing their best work. Those guitars were built a lot lighter, and they had gone up from 12-fret neck joints to 14-fret neck joints, so there was a lot of innovation. They switched from bar frets to T-frets, which made them better. As time went on, companies started making guitars heavy, and they just don’t sound like guitars did back in the 1930–1934 period.
‘Screw it. I’m going to start making guitars full-time and see what happens.’ —Tony Klassen
How does being a player influence you as a builder?
Being a player totally helps. I don’t know how you could fully understand a guitar if you can’t play it. I mean, you can make a beautiful guitar, but if it doesn’t play, then what’s the point?
I love the story of how you got your first Larson, a Euphonon, from George Gruhn in 1985.
Somehow I’d wound up with a Martin 000-28, but my goal was to get a pearl-trimmed guitar. George had a 00-45, so I called him up, told him I had a 000-28, and asked if he’d trade. He said he’d give me $2,500 for it. The 00-45 was $3,000. So, I made the trip down to Nashville, and George introduced me to a lot of guitars, but the one he was really excited about was this square-shouldered Euphonon by the Larson Brothers. I thought it was cool, but man, I really wanted that 00-45.
The next day he put me in a quiet room, and every time I’d play the Larson, he’d knock on the door, poke his head in, and say, “I can tell when you’re playing that one.” It was a loud guitar, much more powerful than the little 00-45. I was dabbling in Fahey, [Leo] Kottke, and [Peter] Lang, and the Larson just had the tone for that. Plus, the night before, when George had introduced the guitar to me, he had given me a book that Bob Hartman had written about his grandfather Carl Larson and his great uncle August. That book intrigued me, and pushed me in that direction, too. I ended up getting that Euphonon, and it changed the course of history for me.
George really wanted you to tell folks about the Larson Brothers.
Yes, he did. As I was leaving, he said, “Make sure you spread the word.” When I saw him 30-something years later, I told him he was responsible for me doing this, and he chuckled.
As a one-man shop, how do you find time to do everything it takes to run the business?
Well, you have to schedule time for everything. I work seven days a week, pretty much. This is my retirement. I love being in my shop, and it just goes smoothly. Also, if you’re going to make money at this, you have to be efficient. I’m always rearranging the shop, thinking about how I can do things a little better. The way the shop flows, what tools I have, where they are in the shop—I like being posed with those sorts of questions or problems.
You don’t want interns or an assistant?
If I had somebody in here, I don’t think I’d be able to work. I’ve been self-employed for the last 25 years, and I’m approaching 14 years making guitars. There’s a freedom to just being by myself. Sometimes I lock the door, shut the blinds, and don’t answer my phone. I live near hiking trails and a national park, so I can step out, dig nature for a little while, and then come back with a clear head.
You once said that in the process of building an instrument, you become one with the guitar.
Totally. I have a hero, George Nakashima, who made beautiful furniture in the Philadelphia area. He would sleep on his wood before he began a project. I was very inspired by him.
Do you have time to dream up original creations?
I don’t have time, but some day I might. Right now, I really like sticking to this tradition and doing these reproductions.
Does working this way give you insight into the old masters’ thought processes?
Oh, yeah. I’m self-taught, and I learned by looking at guitars. I’m still learning, and I’ll be learning until I’m not doing this anymore.
Who are your customers?
Guitarists who can’t afford a $50,000 Larson, so they have me make them one. A lot of my customers are repeat buyers; many of them have two of my guitars, and some even have six. They’re mostly baby boomers in their 60s. I’m 59 years old, and rarely do I make New Era guitars for anybody in their 50s.
Is it important to get your instruments into the hands of younger players?
My Crooked Star line of guitars is aimed at players in their 30s who can’t afford much but want a decent handmade guitar. The Crooked Star guitars have just a couple dots on the fingerboard for inlays; there’s no back binding, and the finish is just a semi-gloss, which can save me weeks. They’re beautiful.
Do you think about how your instruments will age?
I think about how after I’m long gone, these guitars will be out there with people playing them. The thing I love about vintage instruments is that they’re magical, and I just hope that’s what I’m giving to people. You take pieces of wood, you put them together, and they make music, so that’s pretty cool. Maybe I’ll be in a vintage guitar book 50 or 60 years from now. People might be researching me on the internet—who was this guy? I think about that kind of stuff.
What would you tell a luthier who wanted to follow in your footsteps?
Dig in and give it your best. If you can make a good-sounding guitar, you’re probably going to sell it.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.