Former Lake Oconee resident, Chee Ammen, isn’t a luthier himself, but he sure knows a lot of them. For the past seven years, he has been connecting buyers with some of the finest crafters of guitars and mandolins through his business, Naturally Acoustics.
What began as a hobby for Ammen, flipping guitars for resale, quickly became a professional passion. While selling some of his own guitars, he crossed paths with Chuck Morrison, a Colorado craftsman who has been building guitars since the 1970s. “I remember he asked me to sell some guitars for him so he didn’t have to ship them back to Colorado, and it just snowballed from there,” says Ammen. Within a year, others in the music community began calling on him to assist in selling or finding their instruments.
A handcrafted instrument is a special thing. Ammen still remembers the first time he picked one up. “I’d never heard a guitar sound that good,” he says, “and all I was doing was touching one string to tune it.” The sound quality is just one aspect of their appeal though; the level craftsmanship and time devoted to these instruments is apparent in every detail.
Smaller instruments, like mandolins, take about six months to construct, Ammen says. Most guitars take eight months to a year to build, depending on variables such as sourcing the wood, types of string, body style, and how custom the buyer would like the instrument. While many luthiers may work on batches of two to three guitars at a time, no two are ever the same.
The ability to get a truly unique piece of art opens a customer up to seemingly endless options when shopping for handcrafted instruments. Ammen works to pair a buyer with not only the right guitar but also the right builder. He encourages people to learn about the person that built the guitar and where it comes from as well as matching the passion and energy of buyer and creator.
Ammen says he loves bridging the gap between characteristically reclusive luthiers and customers. “It’s not necessarily about selling, but about sharing. I love watching people’s face light up when they see them. These guitars are made by someone you get to talk to, sit down and communicate with, and be a part of the process. It’s personalized.”
All of the builders Ammen represents are the sole craftsmen in their shops. Many travel with him throughout the region to various shows and festivals. They joined him last year at Crooked Pines Farm in Eatonton when he put on the first ever Naturally Acoustic Guitar Show. Aside from showing off their handiwork by picking a few chords, the luthiers are on-hand during festivals and shows to answer questions and meet their customers face to face. And, it’s not just musicians who are drawn to their booth. Many who visit are woodworkers themselves taking in the intricate construction of each instrument.
This educational element is not lost with Ammen, he enjoys enlightening visitors as to all the ways each instrument differs and while the logistics of traveling to show off these masterpieces can be tiring it seems to invigorate him as well. He describes the process as a “joyfully intense,” but worth it.
A passion for people, not just guitars, creates a unique experience for Ammen. “We look at people as friends. We want them to be lifelong customers, but more importantly lifelong friends.”
Today, Ammen lives in Duluth with his wife Sherry. He no longer sits on the governing board for the GRAMMY Awards or organizes large-scale music events across the country. His life is more “unplugged” now, resonating among the things he loves most.
“My whole life I’ve done the things I’ve wanted to do and I don’t think a lot of people get to say that.”
Written by Katie Emory
Photographed by Josiah Connelly