The schoolyard rule states that any possession is up for grabs if it doesn’t bear its owner’s name. Conversely, Kenny Sultan has his name on a guitar made especially for him, yet he wants you to own it. Proficiency with a guitar, it seems, allows a guy to break social norms.
When representatives from C.F. Martin & Company-debatably the foremost acoustic guitar manufacturer in the world – approached bluesman and longtime Santa Barbara resident Kenny Sultan with the prospect of issuing a line of guitars bearing his signature, Sultan’s initial reaction was polite disbelief. But by the arrival of the 2007 NAMM show in Anaheim this past January -the convention of the International Music Products Association-Sultan stood in a Martin- sponsored booth, playing songs to a crowd of convention attendees interesting in buying the 000-18 Kenny Sultan Sunburst Custom Edition. True to their word, C.F. Martin representatives gave Sultan the go-ahead to design the 1930s-styled guitar that now sells for $4,899.
“I love their guitars,” Sultan said of Martin. “I always have. I’ve collected them for 25 years.” Sultan had performed on several records for the Seal Beach-based Solid Air label and became familiar with the company president, who put in a good word for Sultan to the folks at Martin. At the time, the company was looking for a “blue-collar, working musician” type to promote with a series of custom-made, signature guitars and Sultan was a perfect fit. But rumors swirled that the line would bear the name of Neil Young, and Sultan wasn’t getting his hopes up until Martin reps summoned him to the 2006 NAMM show to discuss the possibility.
“It was a 15-minute meeting, but I guess it took 30 years to get there,” Sultan explained, noting the amount of face time he had to spend convincing Martin management that the official “Kenny Sultan” brand of guitar was the way to go. In the end, Sultan found himself holding four pages of blank paper requiring his specifications for what “his” instrument should look like, with the instruction from Martin that the design should include “anything you want.”
Despite the fact that the creation of the Kenny Sultan guitar places him among the ranks of previous Martin honorees such as Sting, Jimmy Buffett, Joan Baez, and Paul Simon, Sultan remained modest, declining to put his signature on the fingerboard. Instead, a smaller signature occupies a less conspicuous spot on a label inside the frame. Even Sultan’s design speaks more to his affinity for Martins then any sort of self-satisfaction with his own fame. He modeled the 000-18 Kenny Sultan after his favorite Martin, the 1936 model that he purchased from Norm’s Rare Guitars in Los Angeles more than 20 years ago. Sultan even shied away from the label of “California’s premiere bluesman,” which official Martin literature on the guitar promotes him as. “I don’t want B.B. King to come over and bitch-slap me,” he said of the alleged title.
Modesty aside, Sultan admitted he’s responsible for roughly 90 percent of the end product’s design. The guitar itself is a marvel to behold, even for the amateur music fan. The instrument is framed with what Martin’s official press literature describes as “solid premium tonewoods : of rare fiddleback mahogany, a top of Adirondack spruce, and a neck carved from genuine mahogany.” The instrument also features a shorter scale length, which is better suited to the fingering that blues guitarists are likely to employ. Martin’s description goes on to tout a “black ebony fingerboard and belly bridge,” “butterbean knobs,” and “a beveled acetate nitrate laminate vintage-style pickguard.” Perhaps Sultan translates it all best into layman’s terms when he calls it “traditional, but with some extra bling added.”
With orders for 50 guitars already placed, the Kenny Sultan edition looks to have the makings of a success. “It went great, and it drew a big show,” said Chris Thomas, Martin artist relations representative, of the instrument’s debut at the NAMM show. Thomas credited the appeal to Sultan’s statewide renown. “I think it’s Kenny-his talent and personality,” Thomas said. “A lot of the orders came from California : [and we’ve] heard him called ‘The California Bluesman.'”
A graduate of UCSB’s music and ethnomusicology programs, Sultan hopes the guitar will further establish his preeminence as a performer and lover of the blues music tradition. Sultan made a name for himself long ago, performing with his longtime partner Tom Ball, whose harmonica complements Sultan’s guitar so well that the duo has become a staple of the Santa Barbara live music scene, especially out at the Cold Spring Tavern. Ball himself said he couldn’t be happier to see his partner’s name on such a top-quality instrument. “We’ve played together now for 27 years and Kenny played before that, so he’s certainly paid his dues,” Ball said. “And Kenny did a good job working with the Martin people to make a guitar [that has features] like scalloped braces and a lot of other things that Martin doesn’t really do too often but that help make the instrument sound really good.”
Though Sultan is currently working on the sixth book of his guitar instruction series, he said release of his signature instrument will do nothing to hold back his continued work with Ball. “Our duo will last forever,” Sultan said, noting that nothing would make him happier than seeing the release of a signature Tom Ball harmonica. “This helps both of us. Whatever publicity this brings can help both me and Tom,” Sultan added.
These days, Sultan’s own collection of Martins now numbers 13. And there’s little doubt which instrument he’ll be using for his appearance on the upcoming release My Favorite Martin, which will feature Sultan alongside other guitar greats like Steve Miller and Arlo Guthrie. “I sort of eat, sleep, and drink Martins,” Sultan said of his habit. That diet must pay off in the long run, as it’s gotten Sultan this far and helped to broaden his horizons for the future
Kenny Sultan and Tom Ball play the Cold Spring Tavern this Sunday, March 18 at 2 p.m. For more information on Sultan, visit tomballkennysultan.com. For info on the 000-18 Kenny Sultan Sunburst Custom Edition, visit martinguitar.com.