By Mandolin Cafe
December 7, 2014 - 5:30 pm
Steve Carlson is a legend in the acoustic stringed instrument world. In 1980 he launched the popular Flatiron Mandolin line, instruments still widely in use and sought out for their excellence. Their owners are to this day fiercely proud of them, and for good reason.
In 1987 after selling the company to Gibson he continued with them in various capacities until he left in 1993 to launch an engineering and production firm producing musical instrument parts and components and CNC Machines.
Now, 21 years after completing his last full musical instrument Steve is building again as the new owner of ZETA Violins. But the story doesn't end there and the Mandolin Cafe is not a violin site, so you might guess where this is headed.
ZETA Violins boasts some incredibly talented people that have been with Steve since his Flatiron days. Others, friends and colleagues that moved on to other music industry jobs, have returned to work for/with him.
I was struck by the man himself who until a few days ago I had never spoken to. To say Steve is passionate about his company, the people that work for him and the musical instruments he builds is an understatement.
While the story of a newly launched violin company is interesting — and we're going to let him talk freely about that — there's more. With Steve Carlson back in the instrument business be prepared for anything.
— Scott Tichenor
Mandolin Cafe: Tell us the events that led up to the purchase of ZETA Violins, a company known for progressive acoustic and electric violins.
Steve Carlson: Between 2001 and 2003 an engineering firm I founded called NC Solutions was under contract with ZETA to handle the CNC programming for all of their violins, violas, cellos and basses. We built a custom CNC machine and delivered all ZETA fixturing/programming and their CNC machine to them 2004, which turned out to be our company's last turn-key manufacturing cell produced.
The CNC that produces ZETA Violins.
I originally started NC Solutions with the sole purpose of doing exactly this kind of work for the industry. That process with ZETA took us two years. During the 90's the majority of musical instrument manufacturers were still using traditional shapers and routers for producing parts and many were interested in moving towards CNC technology. The list of guitar and mandolin manufacturers that we did OEM work for would be well known to your readers.
NOTE: OEM stands for Original Equipment Manufacturer, a term used when one company makes a part or subsystem that is used in another company's end product.
It was an easy sell for us, but delivery was somewhat problematic because you're never 'really' done. Products get added, changed, etc., making the definition of 'complete' very much a moving target. Consequently, we ended up switching to a business model where we would start with the product that represented at least 50% of their production and then start delivering those parts to them. At whatever point the customers product line was fully programmed/fixtured, they could then get the CNC machine as they were ready. One of our customers called me one day and said, "I just received our guitar necks from you, and they're better than we can build them here. Do I really need to buy the CNC? Can't you just sell us the parts we need?" I told them, "Well, you can get the machine any time you want but for now we'll just build your parts."
That was a revelation because I always enjoyed making parts. I had not considered that there was much of a market for making customer specific (OEM) parts, be it F-5, guitar, banjo parts, whatever. To me that was the fun part of the work. That phone call changed the nature and course of our business to where we moved towards just making OEM parts. Our very last fully engineered CNC manufacturing cell was for ZETA. In 2010 they went out of business following the 2nd leg of the economic downturn. A lot of companies like ZETA went under during that time as a result of their suppliers going out of business. ZETA's sales declined sharply and on top of that they had to take on new suppliers and related engineering costs to have parts and products built. It was too much. When they shut down we knew everything about their product line because we had built their manufacturing process. Prior to our involvement they made everything with routers (the old-fashioned way) like everyone did back in those days. But our company had totally tooled them to the hilt and their custom CNC machine was state of the art.
I loved that ZETA machine because it had all of the tooling and fixtures to build violins exactly like I had planned to do with Gibson, but circumstances at the time prevented. All of a sudden ZETA's out of business and now I'm thinking that machine and all that fixturing is sitting down there in some shop and I had no idea what was happening with it. A couple of years went by and I received a call regarding what the machine was worth, would we want to buy it back or what it would be worth if they sold it at auction. They told me someone was considering purchasing ZETA and having the violins built overseas. I kind of went berserk and asked, "why would you do THAT? All you need is the right guy. The company has a great name and if you take it overseas you'll ruin it." Following some research on their part, they came back and said, "well, it seems like you could be the guy to do it in the U.S. Would you be interested?" That led to "yea, I probably would," to later actually purchasing all the assets of ZETA Music Systems Corporation in 2012.
The ZETA electric violin is synonymous with electric violins like Kleenex is with tissue. Under our ownership I look forward to adding a USA made acoustic bodied violin... ahh... fiddle, in the traditional sense.
Three different ZETA Violins models. Left to right: 5-String Fusion, Acoustic Pro, 4-String Modern.
Mandolin Cafe: So you've had the interest and expertise to build violins for some time.
Steve Carlson: I've always thought it would be very challenging and fun to build fiddles, but not necessarily electric violins and if you go way back to when I was employed at Gibson this is where I first considered it possible. Unlike many people that have worked for them I got along well with management. However, once the guitar plant was producing daily production that changed a bit as 'numbers' became the focus for management and we just didn't see eye to eye on this. I took on some other jobs with them, basically troubleshooting and fixing various problems at different divisions. I was president of Steinberger Sound for a period of time which led to position as CFO of Gibson for a little over a year. Still mostly working as a troubleshooter but ironically, 'numbers' focused. It came to a point where they wanted me to move to Nashville from Bozeman. That wasn't an option I was interested in so they asked me what I wanted to do. I knew in the Bozeman guitar plant that mandolins had become second fiddle (pun intended) to guitars. This was at a time when the majority of the skilled/talented people came from the mandolin side of the business because that's what they'd been doing for years.
When the guitars were off-schedule towards the end of the month they would pull all of the mandolin people out of the mandolin area of the building and float them to where they could be most productive helping the guitar production reach its monthly goal, because if they didn't make the guitar numbers it was... ahhh... problematic. My point is that production of mandolins had dropped substantially and I knew this because it was actually part of my job as CFO to know this. So one evening in Nashville, I was out for dinner with Henry (Juszkiewicz, Chairman and CEO) and he asked what I wanted to do going forward, (since I didn't want to move to Nashville). I said, "Well, I've been thinking about violins." He said, "Aw, that'd be great! You could take the mandolins out of the guitar plant and put them back in the red shop (reference to the original Flatiron building) and use that as your base to get violins started."
That occurred around 1990-91. We took the mandolin production which included Bruce (Weber) and some of the top notch original mandolin people back to the red shop and started to ramp up mandolins again understanding that building violins was part of our expansion plans. That seed for building violins got sewn way back then but it never happened.
Mandolin Cafe: Why didn't violins get into production with Gibson?
Steve Carlson: I function from energy spiraling up. Pulling the mandolins, both Gibson and Flatiron, out of the guitar plant and building production back up to meet sales demand, that process is energizing. After a year or so things got really crazy at Gibson. We used to get these faxes from corporate — we called them the faxes from hell — and at one point we actually placed the fax machine so it hung over a shredder. When that single continuous sheet of faxes came in they'd drop directly into the shredder (laughs). It was going to take a lot of my personal energy to focus and build a great fiddle and the whole thing at Gibson was constantly sucking that out of you. So I just tucked the idea away, thinking maybe things would change with Gibson or, maybe I'd get back to it someday, and here we are.
Mandolin Cafe: When you bought ZETA was there any doubt at some point you'd build mandolins again?
Steve Carlson: Let me provide some snippets of background. There's a meaningful musical instrument presence and history here in the Gallatin Valley that started with Flatiron. A lot of instruments including over 10,000 Flatiron and Gibson mandolins were made just in what we call the 'red shop'. And think about this, Helen Beausoleil who now works for us detailed about half of them! A few miles away is the Gibson Guitar plant and mandolins were built there as well, and guitars of course.
Here I am standing in a music store in Bozeman staring at an import mandolin with the name Flatiron on the peghead and the scroll stops before it even gets started. It's just this piece of wood or something made to resemble a mandolin, and this is in the town where 10,000 mandolins were meticulously crafted. It was a very disturbing experience.
— Steve Carlson
If you go back to one of my early Flatiron brochures which embodied my own ideals of building instruments I reference the imported F-5 mandolins of that time with scrolls that were not even close to correct. I talked about the artistry of the F-5 scroll as it relates to the Fibonacci spiral and those intriguing aspects common to all great instruments that are aesthetically pleasing to our eye because they reflect the core design components of nature, ie. the building blocks of our universe.
I derogatorily mentioned in my brochure how these import mandolins took this beautiful scroll and its elegance and stopped before it ever got started due to poor shaping and poor binding. This is circa 1985. Now fast forward to Gibson eventually pulling Flatiron out of Bozeman and sending it to Nashville which led to the start of Weber Mandolins. Half of that Flatiron crew went with Weber and the other half that went with me still works with me at NC Solutions and now ZETA Violins here in the Bozeman area.
It was only two years ago I happened to see a brand new Flatiron. Here I am standing in a music store in Bozeman staring at an import mandolin with the name Flatiron on the peghead and the scroll stops before it even gets started. It's just this piece of wood or something made to resemble a mandolin, and this is in the town where 10,000 mandolins were meticulously crafted. It was a very disturbing experience.
During these past 21 years I've been making parts for musical instruments and the last thing I would have done was step on Bruce Weber's toes because he carried on that tradition in the Gallatin Valley. But all of a sudden, as of about two years ago, that's no longer true with Weber Mandolins now built elsewhere. Bruce is a very good friend, but 34 years of mandolin building in the Gallatin Valley is gone. That creates a void in me. I guess I no longer have that allegiance to a crew and tradition that is no more. As long as they were here I didn't even think about mandolins, I previously wouldn't have considered it.
Our background allows us to create a great sounding acoustic mandolin and ZETA's pickup technology facilitates fitting that great sounding mandolin into the ZETA line as an acoustic-electric instrument. ZETA Violins has both acoustic-electric models (a violin with ZETA's EV bridge pickup), and the majority of ZETA's which are electric violins with high tech bridge pickups and internal electronics. Because of the technology we'll offer a ZETA acoustic-electric mandolin but with internal pickup placement, and that's our plan. I like making great stuff and if I can find a way to make it better why not do it?
Mandolin Cafe: What type of mandolin shape are we talking and when will we see those on the market?
Steve Carlson: It will be an acoustic-electric A model with F-holes because initially we're looking at price point. I would think that every model will have built-in amplification.
Mandolin Cafe: What about an oval hole A model?
Steve Carlson: I haven't really thought about an oval hole but I don't know why that couldn't happen. We simply decided to go with F-holes first. It'll be all solid wood, a beautiful A model shape. It's funny, now you have me thinking about oval holes. Bruce was very good, prolific actually, about offering a wide variety of models but I'd never gotten to that point with Flatiron carved top models.
Mandolin Cafe: Can we see a prototype?
Steve Carlson: You'd like that wouldn't you? They're in the other room but I'm not going to show them to you (laughs)! I promise you'll be the first one to see it! The prototypes sound excellent and we're working on making them sound even better and of course the amplification is wonderful. I'm pretty stoked about this.
Mandolin Cafe: What kind of time frame are we talking about for market?
Steve Carlson: I'd say six to eight months.
Mandolin Cafe: Can we expect to see one at the Nashville Summer NAMM Show next July?
Steve Carlson: Hopefully. Next month I'm headed to the Winter NAMM Show in Anaheim for the first time since I stopped going many years ago. I attended like 30 shows in a row and anyone that's been to one can tell you it's pretty nice to not go. Haven't been back since but I am going in January to just walk around, meet up with friends, (maybe former friends), and check things out, but we won't be displaying any products or have a floor space.
Mandolin Cafe: Four people working for you have between 20 and 30 years of experience in your employ dating back to Flatiron. You have key talent in place and the ability. What's to stop you from building traditional acoustic A and F model mandolin family instruments without pickups?
Steve Carlson: Well, it seems like that could possibly be a natural course of events wouldn't it (laughs)? I guess we'll just have to wait and see where the current spiral leads!
From the March 1985 issue of FRETS Magazine. Courtesy of Bradley Laird's Early Flatiron Mandolin Advertisements page. See also: his follow-up Flatiron Mandolins 1985 Eye Candy page.
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