For Steve Sorensen, an Instrument Isn’t a Tool -- It’s a Voice
by Kara Martinez Bachman
Steve Sorensen — the sole member of the one-man shop that comprises the Sorensen Mandolin & Guitar Co. out of Santa Clarita, California — admits that he’s a better luthier than he is a player. That’s okay; his gift is much appreciated by musicians including Danny Roberts of The Grascals, who has plucked a Sorensen VX mandolin since 2016. Or, by the likes of Don Rigsby or Kelsi Harrigill, who also chose a customized Sorensen.
Before becoming an instrument-maker, Sorensen was, among other things, in the film business. Building instruments was just a hobby. Eventually, a mentor suggested it might be wise to turn his hobby into a full-time business. He’s been doing just that since about 2011, and today, he makes about 12 to 15 highly customized handcrafted instruments per year.
“The thing I’ve realized over the time that I’ve worked with lifetime and professional players is that the instrument is their voice, and is the way they express themselves,” Sorensen explained, about why what he does is important. “Musical instruments are more than tools…they’re a means of expression.”
Sorensen said when he first started, he’d build instruments in ways that he thought “were cool” or that “sounded good.” Then, something finally dawned on him.
“I realized it really didn’t matter what I thought,” he said.
This idea — a philosophy he calls “player first” — is about providing musicians with exactly what they need. Every new instrument is preceded by a “consultation discussion,” held in-person or via phone or email. Sorensen then creates ultra-customized instrument specs for each customer. This customer-focused approach is why it often takes an entire year from the first contact to receiving the completed instrument. Bottom line: Quality takes time, and it sounds as if Sorensen focuses extensive energy on discovering the unique needs of each customer.
He’ll find out how the person plays, what he or she plays, and how the mandolin or guitar will be used.
Bluegrass players play really hard,” Sorensen said. These are the types of issues that may be considered in a custom design.
Over the years, he’s learned more about the variations that come with using different woods, or with the shaping of the neck, or with the comfort of the frets. He said focusing on the customization of these little details is all about making the instrument’s connection with the player “as extraordinary as possible.”
I’m pretty confident I can translate what the person is telling me into an instrument that comes pretty close to what they’re describing,” he said.
Although he recently built a mandolin for a first-time player, he dedicates time to creating custom guitars and mandolins for “people who have been playing many years.” He said they usually know exactly what they like and don’t like, and he listens closely to their descriptions of the pros and cons of what they’d previously played. If he’s at a trade show — perhaps someplace such as IBMA, where he usually has a booth — he lets them play a few of his instruments, to again discern exactly what features they do and do not like. He puts this all together and creates an ultra-customized instrument. It’s simply that “player first” concept in action.
His website describes what he’s about. He strives “to build fine custom archtop mandolins and guitars which have the fit, finish, and attention to detail that will excite your passion in making music.” Many professionals are choosing him, so he’s doing an exceptional job of getting people excited to make music.
“My goal here is to build something where when a stranger sits down and starts playing it, they can’t stop,” he explained. “Eventually, the goal is that it gives them new voices they hadn’t thought about…new ways of expressing themselves.”