Spotlight: Guitar Maker Kent Viles

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Photo by Jeff Nelson

Kent Viles didn’t set out to win fame or fortune when he invented the Dobrato, a resophonic guitar for which the multi-instrumentalist and his Gunnison music shop, Castle Creek Guitar Company, have become known. He was simply tinkering in his garage, he says, trying to build something cool. But with Jimmy Buffet, Phish and Jason Isbell (who won two Grammys this year for his work involving a Dobrato) now strumming Viles’s original design, the 64-year-old inventor and lifelong guitar fanatic concedes—with modest amusement—that he must have succeeded.

The Dobrato is a composite of three entries in the annals of guitar design: the round-necked resophonic guitar, the Bigsby vibrato tailpiece and the B-Bender.

Anyone familiar with blues, country or bluegrass would instantly recognize the components of the Dobrato’s sound: the heady warble and bended tones of a pedal steel guitar and the crisp twang of the resophonic guitar. We sat with Viles at his shop to ask about his inspiration, the process of hand-assembling each guitar and the joy of sharing this instrument with the world.

Talk us through the Dobrato’s inspiration.
It was literally developed in the garage in 2007. I had been playing my resophonic guitar and looking for a voice that could mimic slide play. I thought, “I wonder if I could mount a vibrato on this thing.” So I started tinkering. I tore apart an old resophonic guitar, and from there it was a question of how to mount a vibrato system onto an acoustic instrument without destroying the design or sound of the original. Through trial and error, I came up with a good way to mount the vibrato, and then I played it for a year. I kept really good measurements and found that the vibrato had no effect on the integrity of the instrument. So I knew it could work.

How did you spread the word?
A well-respected shop in Nashville called Corner Music heard what I was doing and asked me to send them a metal-body Dobrato; they ended up selling it the day they received it. They called back and said, “Can you send two this time?” … For two years, I sold the bulk of my production through Corner Music. Otherwise, appreciation for the instrument has spread very organically. Jason Isbell uses one, and at a recent concert he did with Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson, they all passed the instrument around backstage. They couldn’t believe how unique it was.

How long does it take to build?
It takes about a week to assemble one by hand; then I let it sit for a month. Then I come back and revisit it … You put it together and take it apart probably 15 times in the course of completing one. I’m particularly picky about the playability of the instrument. That’s what I spend most of my time on. I don’t care how cool an instrument looks—if it’s not comfortable to play, it will wind up in the closet.

What music is the Dobrato best suited to?
I hate to pigeonhole it. I’ve got guys like Jimmy Buffet strumming this thing and singing about margaritas, while someone like Mike Campbell from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers or Mike Gordon from Phish is goingto use it in a different way… In the shop, I demonstrate it to accomplished players almost every day. Seeing their reactions when I do that—it gives me shivers. You can watch the wheels turning in their heads as they imagine all the new sounds they can create, a whole uncharted vista of experimentation opening before them. To be able to give that gift to someone, it’s a magical feeling.

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