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Surgeon of the Six String

By Tami Vigness

A hobby is defined as: an activity done regularly in one’s leisure time. For many, it’s common things such as reading, gardening, or traveling. Others may gravitate toward playing music or creating things like new recipes, baked goods, pottery, and woodwork. And then, every so often, someone comes along that has managed to couple two interests into one hobby. This is a person like Kevin Muiderman, who has combined his love for music and woodworking into a craft that has transcended the traditional hobby – guitar making.

When he was about nine years old, Muiderman started playing the guitar himself. As a kid living in Holland, Michigan, Muiderman would spend his free time hanging around the local guitar store owned and operated by the highly regarded guitar maker – or luthier – Del Langejans. The store sold familiar factory-made brands such as Gibson and Martin, but Langejans also kept a shop in the back of the store where he made his own guitars by hand. Hearing the difference in the sound quality of the factory-built guitars versus those crafted by Langejans, Muiderman was intrigued. “I wanted to find out why the instruments he was hand-making sounded so much better than those that came from a factory,” Muiderman recalls. And so began his life-long journey of finding out “why.”

For 26 years, the recently retired plastic surgeon has devoted his free time to honing a skill few people possess or truly understand. Although for several years, Muiderman’s guitar-making took a backseat to medical school, work, and family, he never lost the deep-seated desire to build custom acoustic guitars. While most people would take vacations to the beach or the mountains during breaks from school, Muiderman would instead enroll in courses at Leeds Guitarmakers’ School in Northampton, Massachusetts. There, he learned to make steel string and classical guitars. While guitar-making and surgery are two vastly different things, manual dexterity is a skill set that Muiderman applies to both these facets of his life. And because of his medical training and naturally inquisitive mind, Muiderman likes to apply the scientific method to his craft. Starting with the question of why the handmade guitars he grew up hearing and watching being made sounded so much better, Muiderman researched the process of guitar-making and observed what others in the field were doing. He also listened to the different sounds coming from the instruments as they were being played. Over the years, the musician and luthier has experimented with models, designs, materials, and non-traditional bracing methods to develop a sound quality that is clear, bold, and rich.

The workshop attached to the Muiderman home is also a testament to his scientific mind. In fact, it is as much a lab as it is a workshop, but instead of the smell of formaldehyde and sterility, notes of cedar and wood glue permeate the air. Tools and equipment take up most of the space, drawers of notebooks filled with sketches and ideas line the drawers, and both finished and prototype guitars hang from hooks on the walls. Many of Muiderman’s guitars are fashioned out of exotic wood like Indian or Brazilian Rosewood, along with more familiar woods such as cedar and spruce, and each instrument features an inlaid “M” on the headstock, distinguishing it as a Muiderman guitar. Each of his custom-built guitars sounds as good as it looks.

The rest of the Muiderman home is just as special as the workshop. When Muiderman and his wife, Amy, moved to the Grand Forks area from Wisconsin, they knew they wanted to build a home that could also double as a small concert venue to host a variety of performances. The home was built with acoustics in mind and has very few parallel lines. Instead, high, vaulted ceilings are built at an angle. Near the back of the home, a concrete fireplace curves out from the wall and stretches from floor to ceiling; its convex shape helps to diffuse or reflect sound in many directions allowing for musical sounds to blend and reduction of unwanted noise. An abundant collection of artwork and décor hangs from the walls, softening the room and helping to absorb noise. An open kitchen with beautiful warm wood cabinetry and a large island opens itself onto the rest of the main floor and is the perfect place for Amy, a chef in her own right, to impress guests with delicious made-from-scratch hors d’oeuvres, meals, and desserts. Perhaps the most interesting feature of the Muiderman home is the stage. Just inside the front door, a raised floor positioned in front of tall windows, serves as a performance stage for visiting musicians. Wood beams flank the stage area and serve not only as a structural element that supports the home’s upper level, but also as an aesthetically pleasing way to hold the home’s built-in sound and lighting equipment. Muiderman’s brother, a sound engineer, lent his expertise to the final building plan, allowing Kevin and Amy’s dream of a home theater, to really come to life.

Over the years, the Muidermans have hosted numerous performances in their home on the outskirts of Thompson, North Dakota. The venue – dubbed The Muiderman Theater – is an intimate space, accommodating around 80 guests comfortably. But despite its size, the Muidermans have welcomed multiple world-renowned guitarists like Pierre Bensusan, Michael Chapdelaine, Willy Porter, and John Doyle to grace the stage at The Muiderman Theater. These artists may not be familiar to everyone, but remain legends in the guitar world with long lists of song titles, albums, and accolades behind their names. At the top of the list of artists that have performed at the theater is a personal favorite of Muiderman’s, Leo Kottke. Known for the finger-picking style that you might hear in folk, blues, and jazz music, Kottke is a famed acoustic guitarist and master of both the six-string and 12-string guitars. As you can imagine, there is probably no greater thrill than for a guitar maker to supply a custom, hand-built guitar for his idol. “I would bring prototypes to concerts and practically accost the performers,” Muiderman chuckles while remembering his first encounter with Kottke. Muiderman managed to get past security and approach Kottke.

After a brief conversation, Kottke told Muiderman to come to his next show with some models for him to try. “He [Kottke] was looking for a smaller guitar to travel through airports and tour with, but that would still have the same big sound as his traditional jumbo-sized guitar,” Muiderman explains. And though it took about 14 years and 12 models of guitars, Muiderman ended up building Kottke the perfect guitar. Through this experience, the two have become more than just guitarist and guitar maker, they have become friends.

With Muiderman guitars sold around the world, it’s safe to say that what started as a hobby has morphed into a passion that extends far beyond his little workshop in North Dakota. “I’ve sold acoustic guitars to customers in England, Australia, Scotland, and France…but not one in Grand Forks,” Muiderman jokes.

And while he may not operate in a hospital anymore, this retired surgeon will continue his practice in a different way: to “heal with steel.”

// To view the full story, check out the digital issue here

From Issue 1, 2023

PHOTOS SUBMITTED BY: Muiderman Guitars


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