“Intuition.” That’s Kari Nieminen’s one-word answer to a question about what’s behind his uniquely designed, superb sounding Versoul guitars.  Recently Kari was front and center at a love-in at Westwood Music in Los Angeles for Versoul, a one-man company based in Helsinki, Finland.  Kari’s exceptional craftsmanship and sometimes flamboyant designs, rife with gold leaf and laser lights, has made him a favorite of Rolling Stone Ron Wood, Z.Z. Top’s Billy Gibbons, and the Who’s Pete Townshend, among others.  Despite his flair for wildly ostentatious instruments and rock star clients, Kari is soft spoken, a stereotypic taciturn Finn: the attention heaped on him by Westwood owner Nigel Sinclair, who frequently referred to Kari as a genius, made him just a tad sweaty. (“I’m not used to this,” the solitary luthier said
of the attention.)

Practically every Versoul owner in California turned out, many hauling their guitars into `meet Daddy.’  They had all found new homes thanks to Westwood Music and specifically prior owner Fred Walecki’s eye and ear for exceptional quality, traits which brought Kari’s guitars to L.A. in the early 2000s.  It was Fred’s insight (and connections) that led to Roger Daltry buying a Versoul, which introduced Kari’s instruments to the rock star world.

At the Westwood event, he recalled how a pair of the very first rock stars deeply influenced his work: “I fell in love with the sound of the guitars of the Everly Brothers,” he said.  But when he finally got to play a Gibson J-200 in Helsinki, he was taken aback at the “booming bass,” and made it his mission to craft a similar guitar with a “balanced sound.”  After much experimentation, the result was the model Kari christened his Versoul Buxom.

Before that, Kari studied industrial design, which gave him a unique perspective on guitars: “They’re tools,” he says.  Kari brings a keen understanding of ergonomics to the making of instruments that feel as good as they sound and look.

Several of Kari’s guitars were displayed at Westwood and demoed by guitarist Cuni Besic.  These included a new electric adorned with Arctic salmon skin played through a prototype Versoul combo amp, likewise covered in salmon skin!  Amps are a fairly recent addition to the Versoul line.  Pop producer Rhett Lawrence (Mariah Carey is on his list of `hits produced for…’) is also a gear collector and bought the first Versoul amp ever sold in America.  “I’ve got over 200 amps,” he told Kari.  “Yours is the best.” Kari was smothered in love at the first such American gathering celebrating Versoul instruments (and amps).  Given the enthusiasm of the attendees and the exceptional quality of Kari’s work, combining a respect for tradition with a restless need to innovate, it surely won’t be the last.

About Mark Humphrey

Join Mark Humphrey the 4th Saturday of most months for a mix of music on KPFK’s Roots Music & Beyond, Saturdays 6-8 a.m. 90.7 fm. The show is archived for two weeks after broadcast at KPFK’s website.

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