From the April 2006 issue of Acoustic Guitar | By Teja Gerken
[Editor’s Note: Two Langejans guitars are offered in the May 21, 2021 Acoustic Guitar Auction. For those unfamiliar with the Langejans brand, which ceased operation in 2013, we are republishing this article.]
Drawing on three decades of experience building guitars for stars and students, Del Langejans’ small outfit near Lake Michigan has developed a signature sound by using thick, rigid sides and rosewood necks.
Having honed his craft for more than three decades, luthier Del Langejans has a long-standing reputation for his steel- and nylon-string guitars, as well as such unusual custom-made creations as the harp guitar he designed for Muriel Anderson and the double-neck Dualette he built for Thom Bresh. Langejans got his start in the musical-instrument business as an electronics repair technician in the late 1960s and soon broadened his services to include guitar repairs. In 1970, he bought a music store, named it Del’s Guitar Gallery, and became a dealer for Gibson, Guild, Martin, and others. Like many luthiers of his generation, Langejans built his first guitar after reading Irving Sloane’s Classic Guitar Construction. “I said, ‘Hey, this is fun. I like this,’” he recalls 35 years later. In the ensuing 15 years, Langejans was busy: “I built about 500 guitars, and most of them sold for under $500. They were good, strong guitars, and that got me going—it got my name around.”
Eventually, running a retail shop and building instruments became too much, and in 1998, he sold the retail business, keeping his guitar-building shop in the back of the original store, which continues to be one of his four dealers. Although he has had a few apprentices over the years, Langejans currently builds 50 guitars a year by himself. This staggering output (most luthiers working alone average 12–20 guitars annually) puts his total production over the 1,200 mark.
Rosewood Backs, Sides, and Necks
Langejans used to split his work fairly evenly between classical and steel-string guitars, but today he estimates the ratio is about six-to-one in favor of steel-strings. Available in dreadnought (M-6 and R-6) and grand concert (MGC-6 or RGC-6) sizes, his guitars come with myriad options for custom modifications, including cutaways, a choice of 12- or 14-fret necks, 12-string configurations, and more. Although Langejans is open to using other woods if a customer requests them, he prefers rosewood for the backs and sides of his guitars. “Brazilian rosewood is just the best,” he proclaims. “I haven’t found anything better than that.” But to keep some relatively affordable guitars in his line, Langejans also builds with Indian rosewood. “The main guitars I sell are the Indian rosewood guitars, which sell for $3,000–$5,000.” The tops of most Langejans guitars are made of spruce, usually Sitka or Engelmann.
The most unusual feature of a Langejans steel-string may be its solid Indian rosewood neck. Fitted with a double-acting truss rod and an ebony fretboard, the neck is incredibly strong. “I’ve never had one break, never had a headstock break, never had to reset one,” he says. Langejans uses dovetail neck joints on all his steel-strings and most of his nylon-strings (some are built with the traditional Spanish heel). Another distinguishing feature of Langejans guitars is that they’re built with thicker sides (almost 1/8 of an inch) than many guitars. “You pick it up, and it feels kind of heavy,” he says. “It’s not because the tops or backs are thick. The sides are. And that makes for a tremendously rigid instrument.”
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So what do they sound like? “I like a good, full bass and crystal-clear highs—like a grand piano,” he says. “When you hit some notes, like up on the 12th fret on the high strings, they just keep on ringing: you hear the guitar ring like a brass bell. I work for that.” Langejans steel-strings are known for their bass response. “That’s what got me into the country market,” he says. “Travis pickers like Thom Bresh and Jerry Reed say, ‘I use that thumb all the time, and I need that bottom end that beats against my chest when I play.’”
Signature and Student Instruments
Langejans distinctive approach has resulted in the opportunity to build a few unique guitars for several distinguished artists. Installing a pickup in a nylon-string owned by jazz great Earl Klugh led to an order that eventually became a signature model (starting at $3,995). “Earl said, ‘I always wanted to design my own guitar,’” recalls Langejans. Working together, Klugh and Langejans came up with a unique cutaway shape, a headstock that uses steel-string guitar tuners, and an oval soundhole without a rosette. Meeting Muriel Anderson led to a custom-made harp guitar (which has also become a regular Langejans model) that uses a modified version of a grand concert body. Perhaps Langejans’ biggest challenge, however, was a guitar designed for Thom Bresh: the Dualette has two necks and can be flipped over to be played on either side, essentially offering two guitars in one. While the first model had one steel-string and one nylon-string neck, Langejans also makes them with two steel-string necks (for different tunings) and even with one guitar and one banjo neck.
Although he has famous clients, Langejans also appreciates the support he has received from his local music community. Requests from guitar professors at the local Hope College to build an affordable classical guitar resulted in a stripped-down version (using plain-looking woods and simple appointments) of his mahogany MC-6, which he sells for $1,995. “It doesn’t have the brilliance of a Brazilian-rosewood classical,” he says, “but you strum a chord on it and say, ‘Wow, that sounds good.’” Offering guitars at prices on the lower end of the custom guitar spectrum goes with Langejans’ basic business philosophy: make a good product and sell it for as little as you can, while still making a profit.