When you see someone scavenging a fallen barn or junk pile you probably wouldn’t think that they are gathering materials for intricate musical instruments. That is exactly the case for Sean Kochel who makes traditional instruments from reclaimed material in and around Potomac, Montana. His experience making custom guitars has now led to the fruits of his labor being taken around the globe by touring musicians.
Kochel’s journey started with great success while producing cigar box guitars. That success led to more demand for him to build different instruments. He now has moved into making stratocasters, resonators and even acoustic guitars. “I’m pretty backed up right now,” Kochel says, “I can only do so much by myself and I do everything by hand.” His meticulous work on his instruments can take up weeks of his time. There is a consistent demand for his guitars however because each instrument has a distinct vintage look and sound. He has taught himself how to craft them over the years, never ceasing to learn along the way. “I got these tools and I don’t have a whole lot of money so I’ll just figure it out and do it.” Kochel comments, “Everything I’ve done, I’ve taught myself.”
He uses discarded barn wood, used ammunition and even bones of animals to make some of the most visually striking instruments you will see. It isn’t all about the appearance of the guitars however; he also concentrates on making instruments that sound good. He finds a comfortable balance between form and function and the demand for his work speaks for itself. “You can only go so far with being rustic before you are compromising the instrument itself.” Kochel says. “The tricky part of balancing those things is making sure the wood is stable enough but still has the esthetic.” He explains that the wood he uses has a “sound” of its own. It could depend on how old and weathered it is or maybe even what direction it spent its life facing. From the hand made necks to brass ammunition fret markers to shotgun shell volume knobs to old metal pickguards, Kochel Guitars are among the most unique you will find.
The guitars end up being a living piece of history. “The whole point of my business is getting back to where it all started.” Kochel says speaking about the traditional nature of his work. The most appealing part of what he does may be that roots aspect. He gives new life to the materials he uses and preserves the past, the same way the musicians who play his instruments do with their music every night.
This piece was written on Kochel Guitars for the now defunct American Roots Magazine in early 2015.