In the boutique guitar world, it’s hard to find anyone with bad things to say about Doug Kauer. Having founded Kauer Guitars in 2007, the Sacramento-based builder is a well-known commodity. Fans and musicians know that everything stamped with Kauer’s name is going to have a certain level of quality, personality and functionality wrapped into one (often sparkly) package.
But before Kauer was one of the biggest independent guitar names on the West Coast, he was just a kid messing around with his cabinet-making father’s CNC machine (a common, yet expensive tool manufacturing companies use for cutting and processing materials). He’d been working in his dad’s shop since he was a child — and both father and son enjoyed playing guitar — so it only seemed natural to use the manufacturing device for his hobby outside of the family business.
He decided to build one guitar, and then spent months perfecting it. Then one guitar turned into a few, and a few turned into a handful, and that turned into no longer working for his dad after Kauer started to make some connections at tradeshows and events.
These days, Kauer’s unique guitar models — like the Korona, the Banshee, and the Starliner among many others — occupy a niche in the market for those willing to shell out (roughly $3,500 to $6,500 depending on model and options) for hand-built and customizable quality generally not found from the big name brands. Since there are only so many guitar enthusiasts willing and wealthy enough to spend a mortgage payment (or several, depending on where you live) on a new axe, Kauer also launched one of the most practical solutions in the instrument world today.
DRS Racks is Kauer’s line of guitar storage racks that are clearly among the best answers for people whose spouses think they have too many guitars. While other options include everything from hacking IKEA closets to rows of wall hangers to multi-thousand-dollar display cabinets, DRS offers a handful of different solutions in various sizes that hold anywhere from 4 to 14 guitars — with the largest still costing just under a grand.
SPIN spoke with Kauer via Zoom to learn more about his journey into guitar manufacturing, what sets Kauer Guitars apart, and the functional beauty of his DRS racks.
SPIN: Do you remember what went through your head when you started making that first guitar back in the early 2000s?
Doug Kauer: Well, my dad was one of the first guys to own a CNC machine in our area, and it became my job to program it, since I took an AutoCAD class during my senior year of high school because it counted as a math class. So here was this $100,000 machine that basically became my Nintendo to play around with, and I made some comment to my dad like “Wouldn’t it be cool to build a guitar with this?” Then a piece of maple came in that I knew we could use for a guitar, and I mentioned it to my girlfriend at the time — my wife now — because her dad did some guitar repair work in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and he always worked on his own stuff. For my birthday, a bunch of guitar parts showed up, so I programmed a copy of a PRS body into the machine and just kept making mistakes and learning until I got it up and playing.
At what point did you realize that your hobby of making guitars on the CNC machine could be a full-time job?
I started to think about it a handful of years after that first one, because the [2007-2009] recession hit, so there was no cabinet work to do. I started spending more time building guitars, and then I went to NAMM as an attendee and got more serious about doing it for a living. I didn’t really know there was a boutique guitar market or anything before that. Six months later, I went to my first real guitar show as an exhibitor — Montreal in ‘09, probably — saw all the guys I met at NAMM, sold a guitar, and told my wife I wanted to do this full time.
When I think back to that first Montreal show, there were two halls. One was this big hall of acoustic and archtop guitars, and it was all fancy and beautiful and well-lit. Then there was the dark and dirty electric side, which was only begrudgingly allowed for the first time. They were the hoity-toity side, and we were the Hells Angels who made them change the “free booze” rule at the annual party.
How much have you seen the boutique guitar scene change in the last 14 years?
When I got into it, there were only a handful of companies that I knew of, and then it felt like there were a bunch of guys who all showed up around the same time as me. Now, I think it’s so easy to get started with social media. I’m not ragging on social media, because I did a lot of business on Facebook early on just by going on every morning and sending a “Thank you” message to any new followers — where 1 out of 100 might open a conversation and sell a guitar. But I think there’s a difference now in that somebody can make three guitars in their garage and call it a business, and they fall into this pitfall of thinking they can take $600 worth of parts, sell it for $1500 and be rich, but it doesn’t work that way. We tried to do things that way, but it’s really difficult to do that sustainably.
I always try to encourage people to build original work. A ton of people out there are building copies of Strats and Teles, but that only works until the next guy comes along. If you build original work, it’s going to suck in the short term. It’s always going to be hard. But if you can be dumb enough to stick with it for 15 years or so, your stuff is still going to be around while everyone who was ripping off other people is gone. If you make it unique enough, you can charge what you need to charge to survive long-term, and people will take you seriously… eventually.
Speaking of that uniqueness, what do you think sets Kauer Guitars apart from some of the other boutique builders out there?
Honestly, people shop with their eyes first. I always have to remind people in the shop that no matter how good a guitar is, we get graded on what it looks like before anyone hears or plays it. As frustrating as that is when you’re struggling to pick all of the lint out of a white finish, it’s the truth. One of the interesting things about doing guitar shows is that I see a lot of what other people are drawn to. When we go to guitar shows, I can watch people walk past the guitars on tables next to us and stop at ours, or walk past me and look at the next guy’s. Arbitrarily, they’re not that different, but there’s just something that either clicks with you personally or it doesn’t, and that’s a big thing. You have all these popular guitars — and sometimes they’re in my wheelhouse and sometimes they don’t click for me — but if people are buying them, what the hell do I know? We recently had this conversation about the Electroliner, because the newest guy at the shop really loves it, but it took me a long time to get that one where I wanted it. But if I had a dollar for every time we did a guitar that I thought was a slam dunk, and then ended up on the shelf of shame, I’d probably make more money that way.
Changing gears, what made you decide to launch DRS? It seems like there are so few companies making decent, somewhat affordable racks right now.
Well, the first one I made was just because I was running out of places to put the guitars I was building, so I made something for home. With my cabinetmaker background, I didn’t want to make some ugly frame thing, so I made something nice. But also, a lot of guitar guys make ends meet by doing repair work, but I hate doing repair work, so I started making racks for other people just to plug the gaps money-wise between guitar sales. The problem was that I made too many versions and sizes and colors and a whole bunch of things that just weren’t quite ready at the time. The first version were plywood cores with a veneer or a traditional material over the top, but I just never loved the look of that. Then we did some solid wood ones, but they’re outrageous money, and when you take solid wood, glue it up like that, and then route half of it away, it’s not super stable. We also didn’t have a good option for the bottoms, so my mom was sewing padding on each one of them. It was a pain in the ass. Eventually, the guitars got busy enough, so we stopped doing it.
A few years later, we were in the doldrums of an election cycle — which always makes everything slow down — and I realized that bamboo had become a thing. it was kind of a realization of like that by that time, bamboo became a thing. It’s a little more expensive than the plywood core, but it has the appearance of solid wood and it’s environmentally sustainable, so that really opened up some new options for us.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but it also seems like kind of a no-brainer accessory considering you already have the woodworking tools and CNC machine for guitars.
Right. We only created 250 guitars in 2022, which is the biggest number we’ve had in a year. That’s not a lot of time for the CNC, so if the CNC is just sitting dormant half of the time, that’s a lot of downtime it can be making racks while we’re waiting on whatever else. The biggest issue has been when shipping them, I don’t want to have multiple boxes. So whatever we design has to either fit the small box or the big box we have, but cannot exceed those dimensions. In the last few years, I’ve learned more about cardboard than I ever wanted to.
Guitars have been a lot busier than average for the last two years or so, but racks are still around half of our sales every year. We sell a lot of racks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and it’s the only time I do any paid advertising for anything. I learned years ago that if you [target the ads] at male guitarists, it would just be a bunch of comments of dudes bitching about the price. But if you run an ad targeted specifically at women or people looking for interior design, it would be the exact opposite experience. I’ve also considered making just a single guitar stand, but it’s not worth the time and effort considering that you can buy a very nice-looking wood guitar stand for way cheaper than I could make it. Instead, I’m working on an amp rack, and I think that’ll be neat for stacking head units and stuff.
Does it seem as crazy to you as it does to me that the only other answers for multi-guitar stands seem to be either DIY IKEA hacks, super industrial studio-type storage, or super fancy humidity-controlled chambers that cost a fortune?
Yeah, it’s this weird space within the industry where there are just not many options. I was literally just looking at a forum page about DIY stacked guitar racks, and it’s a bunch of people doing janky versions of mine — which is fine. Ironically, I honestly think that had I not started building guitars, I probably would have ended up designing some DIY thing that falls into the same kind of traps as what I see online. Instead, I spend my break between Christmas and New Year’s every year just dreading the wave of complaining emails about the racks. One this year was complaining that the stands don’t sit flush against the wall, but it’s like “Firstly, you can’t put them flush a lot of the time anyway because most houses have baseboards…” The other problem with that is that a lot of the racks out there hold the guitars vertically, which works great if you have Telecasters, Strats and Les Pauls. But that does not work if you have Jazzmasters, Firebirds, Flying Vs, or anything else like that. Because we make so many offset guitars, we designed it to hold them where they fell naturally. It makes them way more stable and fits a lot more different things that way.
Also, fun trivia bit, DRS is just Doug’s Rack System because I’m very creative. We never even had a name for them other than that. It was just a dumb Simpsons joke [based on “Homer’s Anti-smoke System”] and we just never came up with a better name. We said it out loud so many times that it just became the name. For a while, we were like “We gotta come up with a better name. It can’t be Doug’s Rack System. That’s too stupid.” But it worked. I’ve kind of ass-backwards’d my way into a lot of success with this business, despite my best intentions.