Strumming to a different tune

Jeff Strametz, Chief Executive Officer of Boulder Music Group, shows a side view of a guitar with hole and it's what makes Boulder Creek Guitars so unique.

The design of the guitar is iconic: Similar to a good song and familiar to everyone. So when Morgan-Hill based Boulder Creek Guitars introduced in 2006 a new design featuring the hole on the side of the guitar instead of the front, initial reaction from consumers was a little skeptical.

At first glance, guitars from the company’s new “Solitaire” series are a little bizarre – almost resembling a blank human face, CEO Jeff Strametz jokes. But assuming the hole must be on the front is actually a common misconception, he adds.

“The wood behind the strings is what produces the sounds, similar to how the plastic head on a drum produces the sound – not the wood shell,” said the 50-year-old Morgan Hill native and professional musician who loves to play guitar and drums when he’s not working. “You don’t cut a hole in the center of a drumhead to get the sound out of a drum.”

But in the music world, melody trumps appearance. Strange-looking as these unique guitars are, their distinct sound does all the talking.

The “Solitaire,” as the model is called, “was designed for the player, not the audience,” Boulder’s website explains. “Rather than a front port to project the sound outward, the Solitaire features a port on the top side of the guitar to direct the sound to the player.”

It makes sense, given that guitar players spend more than 90 percent of the time playing with just themselves, the website states.

But you don’t have to take the company’s word for it.

The long list of celebrity endorsements can be found on the business’s website, bouldercreekguitars.com. Neale Haywood from Fleetwood Mac, Grant Mickelson (a guitarist for pop/country singer Taylor Swift) and Greg Kihn from the Greg Kihn Band are among the names.

The secret behind the product lies with Boulder Creek’s patented bracing system, which is unique in the industry.

When a guitar is strung and tuned, the process produces 180 pounds of pressure that could literally rip the wood apart. If there’s nothing to brace it, the instrument could collapse under the stress. Because of this, guitar makers have always placed the bracing around the sound hole – but that comes with a price: The bracing deadens the soundboard, thus restricting the guitar’s ability to resonate and create an even, clear tone, Strametz explains.

Morgan Hill resident Mike Shellhammer, founder of Boulder Creek Guitars, designed a way around these limitations by inventing the Suspended Bracing System (SBS). This entails a pair of tubular aluminum braces that are suspended under, but not touching, the face of the guitar. Everything is anchored with Delrin plastic, a material which Strametz says “transmits the strings’ energy to the aluminum bars, which then distributes the strings’ energy throughout the entire body of the guitar.”

With this design, the familiar sound hole can be re-positioned to the side of the guitar.

Because of the way they’re constructed, Boulder Creek Guitars offer a clarity of sound that Strametz has been told by his customers is the “best of the brands they would have bought before.”

Strametz describes the instruments as the most balanced guitars on the market. For $329 to $800, he says anyone can play what sounds like a $3,000 guitar.

But the quality of sound is only part of the story: Durability of this particular design is also a major selling point.

Strametz shared a story about Travis Toy, the guitarist from the country band Rascal Flatts. When all of Toy’s equipment was destroyed by a flood in 2010 in Nashville, Tenn., only his Boulder Creek guitar survived the deluge. And not only did it survive – it’s still thriving, musically speaking. Toy says it’s the same guitar he currently is touring with.

Originally called Morgan Hill Music Company, Boulder Creek Guitars began modestly in 2006 and was founded by Shellhammer (the creative genius behind SBS) and partners Jim Camp and Gilroy resident Randy Medina of Morgan Hill-based Probe Specialists, Inc. The name “Boulder Creek Guitars” was chosen for its geographic relevance, Strametz explained.

“[Shellhammer] decided that ‘Boulder Creek’ had a good, earthy name and it was representative of this area, being just right over the hill,” he said, referring to Boulder Creek on Highway 9 in Santa Cruz County, a little more than an hour northwest of Morgan Hill.

Strametz started out one of Boulder’s original four employees, working as a sales specialist and musical consultant. He was given control of the company in January of this year, when Shellhammer retired.

The company may have lost it’s original designer, but it has gained a new type of visionary in Strametz. Every single year since the inception, the orders have grown: Today, roughly 1,200 to 1,800 guitars are shipped every year. The company has since expanded from four employees to nine and now occupies an entire warehouse, a space where Strametz hopes to one day give educational tours to local students and visitors.

“I would love to expand the horizons of children, especially in this area because I grew up in music, in Morgan Hill,” he stated.

Strametz feels that music, his life and the town are all linked. In the early ’80s he was part of the Live Oak Emerald Regime, the local high school marching band that has won regional and national awards. Coming full circle and running a business in his hometown is “a neat feeling,” he said. Strametz praises Morgan Hill as being a “strong community” with “pride for people who were born and raised here.”

“It was always my hope to develop something that could grow and provide for the community in some way or other jobs or education – that would be a neat way to give back,” he said. “I’m hoping I can grow this business from where it’s come to where it will have a larger impact on Morgan Hill.”

He also has plans for an American-made product line. Currently all of Boulder’s guitars are produced overseas in China. Strametz revealed a few details, which involve plans for two stages.

“The first stage is yet to be named, but it will be a very high-level, very limited production series made by a local guitar builder in the Gilroy area,” he said. “Right behind that, we will have a USA series of guitars that are standard production. ”

He expects those to be coming in January 2014.

He also outlined ideas for a historic wall inside the warehouse that documents the progression of the company, as well as a private performance studio to give musicians a chance to test out the guitars and showcase their own style to others.

As the company continues to bequeath musicians with high-quality instruments that enrich the world with euphonious sound, Strametz highlights one of the biggest rewards as marrying passion with business.

“It’s an incredible feeling – I think everybody has a calling,” said Strametz, who stylistically is attracted to the sounds of Simon & Garfunkel, Jim Croce and James Taylor. “I think most people would say that they are doing what they do to make a living – not doing what they love to do. I’m very fortunate at this time in my life to be able to have the opportunity to do that. I’ve always been a musician my whole life. I’ve been playing music since I was a little kid. People see it with my work. It’s just who I am. It’s neat to do what I’m meant to do.”

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