Reb was a founder of Novotny Bennett Nettesheim (NBN) guitars. His brother Andy also worked at NBN for many years.
What’s your background?
I was born in El Paso, Texas but from the age of seven I lived in Colorado Springs, CO. I graduated from the University of Colorado in Boulder with a degree in Russian language and a minor in German and Russian history. I pursued a Masters Degree at CU for a spell.
How did you get interested in instrument making and come to work at Ode Banjo?
While attending college I decided I needed a better guitar. I had little money, so I went to Norlin Library on campus and checked out a book on how to make a Spanish guitar. It was the start of a very interesting journey. I became burned out with school and could not see a future with my major. I dropped out and took a job at the local utility company in the gas department. I had almost completed my guitar which was a strange looking thing as I had no wood working tools and little experience with instrument building. At the gas company I met Bernie Nettesheim. Bernie worked part time at Ode Banjos in Boulder as their mill man and suggested I apply there after he found out I had great interest in instrument building. I went to work there just as the owner, Chuck Ogsbury, had completed the sale of the company to The Baldwin Piano Company. I met Monty Novotny there as he was the head craftsman at Ode. I apprenticed under Monty and after about a year Baldwin decided to move the banjo operation to Arkansas. They were going to automate the building process and machine make the banjos. They sent several necks up for Monty’s input and they were just awful. He took one of the first necks that was sent up and smashed it to pieces on the table saw in the mill room. The Baldwin manager about had a heart attack. That beautiful instrument that Chuck had developed and nurtured was going to be ruined. Thankfully, Chuck was able to start again after his non-compete agreement with Baldwin expired and the instrument lives on today as OME Banjos. Monty approached me about starting our own company. I related my interest was in guitars and not banjos. He assured me we could do both. Bernie also was interested and NBN was born in Bernie’s basement on Olde Stage Road in the foothills west of Boulder. Bernie had a well equipped wood shop in his basement.
How did the distinctive somewhat squared off lower bout design originate?
We spent a year and a half in developing the design and came up with a very unique and original instrument. My guitar was complete now and that process had given me some insight as to what makes the guitar sound like it does. I wanted a balanced sound, not the bass heavy sound being produced by the manufacturers of the day. I wanted clarity and great projection. I was convinced that a classical guitar strut pattern that was made strong enough to handle the pressure of steel strings was the way to go. My strange little first guitar I strung with silk and steel and it had the sound I was looking for. I had done a good deal of research by now on everything from the physics of a vibrating plate to the effects of volume displacement in violin making. We wanted the largest vibrating area possible around the bridge and settled on the pronounced waist leading to a “ hippy” lower bout to gain vibrating area.
What led to NBN features like bolt on necks, laminated necks and end pins, volutes, staggered bridge pins and inlay designs?
The inverse dovetail neck joint was pure Monty. He wanted the tightest joint possible and he wanted the neck to be easily removed, should that be necessary. He hand fit each neck and the bolt on was a carry over from the banjo background. With the woodworking skills which both Bernie and Monty possessed, we did dozens of things that made NBN’s very unique. Laminated necks were glued with the grain of the two sides opposing and the laminations added for stability. The volute was added for the esthetic but also it made what would have been the weakest part of the neck stronger. Monty designed a two way adjustable tension rod that was seated below the volute and that spot needed the reinforcement. The bolt on neck has become widely used in guitars today, but we were the first to incorporate it in the flat top acoustic guitar to my knowledge. The staggered bridge pin arrangement was an attempt to end the cracking of the bridge by doubling the space between the bridge pin holes. It worked! Andy joined us at around the 10th guitar and brought innovation and great woodworking skills to the table. He was responsible for many of the jigs that we used. They gave us accuracy and a uniform product. We were contacted early on by Stu Mossman who was setting up Mossman Guitars in Winfield, KS. He visited us and asked us to make his first necks as he loved the bolt on system and the adjustable rod. We complied and remained friends until his early death. Monty and I were responsible for the inlay patterns and we had the pearl cut in Germany. The exquisite heel carving was done by Art Franz of Boulder. The metal engraving on the banjo hardware and the beautiful engraving on Stephen Still’s National Steel dobro were the work of Al Gabriella of Marshall, CO.
We were blessed with workers who were skilled and dedicated and shared our desire to do something special in the guitar world.
I would like to mention the names of some of the employees that made NBN special: Peter Remmen, Reed Munns, Lester Santos, Steve Shupe, Mike Hughes, John Cowan, Kat Bennett Bradley, Gina Etra, Barney Stucker. I consider Andy more than an employee as he was such an important part of the development of the product. I hope this sheds a little light on our history and answers some of the inquiries about the guitar.
Reb with his NBNs: R-2, Limited Edition 12 string, and Classical
Submitted by Russell Westmoreland
In 1970 when I was 12 years old, my Dad took me to the old school house to see his guitar being built. Earlier, Monty Novotny dropped by my Dad’s machine shop and asked my Dad to machine some sort of jig or fixture that would be used in the guitar manufacturing process. My Dad did this in exchange for a guitar, an R-2 #65.
I started playing it when I was 14. My Dad gave it to me when I turned 18. It is the only guitar I have ever owned (some might say I am a little spoiled).
After 40 years of late night guitar playing in Austin and Longmont it was showing its age. The lacquer finish had some crazing and there were some belt buckle and shirt button scratches on the back. Around 2005, the edge binding started to fail. It bummed me out to see little pieces fall off when I picked it up. I showed it to a few luthiers but none of them impressed me enough to leave it with them.
Thanks to this website, I found Andy Bennett. Obviously he was the right man for the job. It was cool to see his signature that he wrote inside the guitar 48 years ago. If I wasn’t impressed enough already, he gave me a copy of the current Guitar Maker magazine which features him on the cover! He brought the guitar back to me a few months ago. Wow! It is beautiful again. I got my old friend back. Now I can proudly play it again.
Andy told me there were some binding issues on models 40 something to 120 something. I am sure other owners will find this information interesting. The binding and the new lacquer was expertly done. I am glad I was patient and picky enough to wait for the right luthier.
Andy is pretty modest, but he is okay with me tooting his horn.
Attached are before/during/after pictures.
Submitted by David Hanna
Just received an R-1 purchased from an online listing. As expected, the guitar is in very bad shape, so I am planning a complete restoration. This article mostly expresses my observations on the design qualities of this remarkable instrument.
Condition wise, it is a mess. There is pretty severe top bulge below the bridge. There are many brace caused cracks. Two of the very narrow fan braces are causing long bulges down the top. As you can see from the attached images, there are lots of nasty little patches and glue mess on the top due to previous repair attempts. See the wood chunks? There are lots of cracks you can’t see from these images, but they all need repair. So, I plan to re-brace the top completely, except for the cross brace above the sound hole, replace the back, reset the neck, install a new ebony bridge matching the original which was severely cut down, and establish accurate intonation with a new saddle slot location. I may even remove that extra block glued to the neck block. Gibson, Guild, and Mossman tried that narrow block structure and it never works very well long term. Many of those guitars need a neck reset after 20 or so years. Martin built their guitars correctly by installing a stout cross brace and another cross brace just below the fret board extension. No wonder older Martins sell for such high prices. That little block under the fret board on this R-1 relies completely on the long wise grain strength of the top. Spruce is very strong parallel to the grain and not at all along the grain. From an engineering and wood working perspective, this neck block structure is just bad design. Sorry NBN.
NBN and company installed quite an unusual brace structure. The online listing described this pattern as “modified fan”. I would say it is better described as modified ladder bracing. The two cross braces are responsible for most of the support required for steel string tension. I don’t much care for this design so I will most likely use a V-brace pattern similar to that used by Taylor on their top of the line guitars.
A big problem is that tiny little bridge plate (AKA reinforcing plate). The poor bridge was just peeling off the top I think because string tension caused that plate to bulge up. Gibson tried the same thing with their older guitars. They also used a tiny bridge plate possibly thinking less wood means a louder guitar. It ain’t necessarily so.
But back to ladder bracing. That is a flat out terrible design. Over time the steel string bridge wants to rotate towards the sound hole due to string tension. But if you put a cross brace above the bridge plate on the sound hold side, the whole top in that area wants to bulge and rotate towards the sound hole. In the case of my guitar, the fan braces are a nylon string structure applied to steel string tension requirements. Between ladder bracing and weak fan bracing this guitar was bound for trouble. Of course, any bracing design will fail if exposed to excessive heat.
Which raises another question: What kind of testing did they do on their bracing design? Did they leave a ladder/fan braced guitar in a hot car on a Texas pan handle dirt road? I am very curious as to what design process they went through because this brace pattern is unlike any I have ever seen on a steel string guitar. Well, I suppose the Gibson Mark Series brace pattern is somewhat similar.
Well, too much bad mouthing an exceptionally beautiful guitar. My NBN is just a plain old R-1. But this thing is elegance through and through. The neck is a multi-layered work of art. I am just astounded at how much work and perfection went into it. In terms of wood working brilliance the body is a work of luthiery perfection. Like most 40’s and 50’s Martin guitars, the inside is finished like a fine piece of furniture. They put real effort into construction excellence throughout. It is a wonder they stayed in business as long as they did considering all the extra work it took to build this thing. Very impressive.
But what’s up with the very fine lined signatures on the tail block? Was someone supposed to read those someday like we are now? Why not sign a nice paper label and stick it to the back through the sound hole, like the Mossman crew did? Even better, print and hand write your label in all backwards text so owners can read it on the tail block with a flash light and inspection mirror. That is what we do. Way cool I say!
Paul Simon's NBN
Submitted by Reb Bennett
After Ed Simon (Paul's brother) picked up the guitar and we were informed Paul had used it on the There Goes Rhymin' Simon album he was recording we didn’t hear from Paul for about 6 months and then I got a call from his attorney. He informed me that the guitar had been stolen and asked for pictures, serial number and any documentation I might have to assist in its recovery. I complied and sent all the info. Never heard a word for about another 6 months and then I got a call from a sound engineer in a recording studio in New Jersey. He was raving about this NBN 12-string that this guy had brought to the studio to record on and after his description and comments, I knew it was Simon’s and I took down all of the info on the musician and sent it to Simon’s attorney. Never heard back from them. Fast forward 35 years and I get a call from a collector in Boulder that had purchased an NBN 12 string Ltd. Edition guitar, and was wondering if I had info on the guitar. I can’t be sure as all of my documentation was lost when Monty died and my listing of original owners disappeared but my suspicion is that this was that stolen guitar. It is a beauty!! That’s my Paul Simon tale!
Paul Simon - Loves Me Like A Rock
Dear owners and friends of NBN-Acoustics. I'm Werner May, second owner of NBN Ltd. Edition 0186, see photos and article of Tim Snyder who was the original owner. For further information: this fantastic instrument came to Germany in 2000 and got a second neck reset at Munich Repair Shop. Mr. Zimbauer and his staff did a really fine job. Today, my guitar is in a very good condition and the playability is excellent. Sorry, Mr. Gall I couldn't sell my NBN to you when we met some time ago, because my love for this Beauty has re-flamed again. Many, many years I was looking, searching, haunting and dreaming for a NBN like this. So, this is my regard to a very remarkable brandname! Yippiee I'm in love again!
I discovered this website and made an entry in the Guestbook, then found my guitar #186 in the photo gallery; all this just about the time someone was looking at purchasing it from its second owner. So here are some of my thoughts and recollections to answer Michael's questions.
The top as seen in photo #34 is the natural color with a brighter stripe down the middle. The lacquer finish on NBN guitars was always sensitive to cold temperatures. Of the few that I have seen, all had this finish checking on the top to some degree. The Magic Music guys kept theirs in the back of a pickup truck and you should have seen theirs! There were no wood cracks on the guitar when I had it. The heat was apparently turned off in the building when I left for Christmas break, '76, and the top finish was checked when I got back 2 weeks later. The finish on the rest of the guitar was fine. Later I considered having the top refinished but when I heard of Monty's passing I left it as it was. There were no dings in the top when I had it.
I placed the order for the guitar in early '73, and the top was the first material choice I got to make. Reb said they got three 50 year old tops from a supplier in Germany and did I want one. Of course I said yes. Several weeks later I showed up to look at rosewood for the body. They had been hoping for some Brazilian rosewood to show up but in '73 that was hopeless. So Reb pulled out some Indian rosewood they had been holding back for a series #3 or Ltd., nicely straight grained and a little more colorful than usual. You can see it in photo #34 and clearly in #37. Notice in #34 there is a faint white smudge on the lower bout of the back near the center. This is just under the finish and was there from the beginning. It might have been a mineral deposit that didn't show up until finished or maybe a bit of moisture in the spray. It never faded. I liked it. It?s like having a girlfriend who has a cafe au lait spot on her hip that few people get to notice.
Finally, I showed up one Saturday and Monty said they were going to call me about something. But they knew I'd be back unannounced soon so they waited to give me the bad news in person. Series 3/Ltd necks were rosewood but they had one come back twisted. They had to scrap it and build a new one so they weren't going to offer rosewood necks anymore. They would use mahogany or did I want to cancel the order? Well, mahogany is fine stuff and I liked the way they stained it to match the rosewood bodies. So of course that was fine and this was the first Series 3/Ltd made with a mahogany neck. You can see the neck color and carving nicely in photo #37.
Photo #35 of the peghead shows where the binding pulled away on the top right. This happened in the first year. By '76 the top had bellied a bit and they reset the neck. They offered to reglue the binding but I left it as it was. The action was always a little high for me even after the reset. Necks usually need resetting at some point they told me and that's one reason why they developed their bolt on joint instead of a dovetail.
Series 3/Ltd pegheads had scalloped sides which were more labor intensive. I preferred the straight sides of the Series 1/2. I smiled when Reb wrote up the invoice, "Series 2 peghead...no extra charge." The NBN logo was originally done in abalone and gold wire on the Simon 12 string. Ever since I saw that in the large photo of that guitar I had to have it. The last time I spoke to them in '76 Reb said they had done that logo two more times, once with gold wire and abalone and once in abalone alone. So four guitars total. Of course it didn't help me play or compose like Paul Simon.
They were using Schaller tuners which were better quality and less expensive than Grovers. But with as many Kingston Trio records as I had - actually only three - I had to have Grovers. Funny how people are! Anyway, I would wrap the low and high E strings around the outside of the post as you can see in photo 35 which gave a lesser break angle over the nut. It was easy to get used to and would confuse other people trying to tune it. (BTW, one of which was Vic Saracini, pilot of united flight 175, 9/11, second tower)
Photos 34 and 36 give a good idea of the inlay patterns they developed. It was a big difference from the plain Gibson blocks and Martin hexagons. And much different than the vines and such of antique guitars and banjos. I don't know when or who was responsible for the design but for an ornate guitar, it was and still is original and gorgeous. Wow.
Their mahogany bodies had much more bass, the rosewood much less. It was good for rhythm and solo, though a solo player would have wanted the action lower than it was then. It would really ring using D' Angelico strings but they would fade in a week or two. Martin strings would sound almost as good and last longer.
I bought the heavy fiberglass case from the Justin Case Company (does anyone remember, "just in case we need a name"?) from down the road. I bought the shell only, cheaper that way, and finished the inside myself with some plush upholstery fabric, cheap in a color that wasn't selling. Monty sold me a scrap piece of Brazilian rosewood for $5 for a string compartment door. It was a really nice piece and anyone who has worked Brazilian rosewood knows what a thrill that is.
A girl from the music school in Greeley went with me on one of my many trips to Longmont and bought an M-1. My college roommate bought a really nice R-2 but he was always a trader and sold it about 10 years later. My girlfriend's younger brother bought an M-1. He had his choice of #205 or #207 which were both ready. His choice was the one with a small bookmatched solid knot in the side near the endpin. I get to hear and play it when I see their family. Family and guitar, fine old friends.
I don't play a lot and have a beater that serves me just fine. Never had real talent anyway so I decided to offer it hopefully to a good home. I don't remember the sale price. With R-2's on this site for $2500, his price would seem reasonable. If in good shape and you like it, it?s much less expensive than an ornate Martin/Taylor, though of course a much smaller market. I included a catalog and the original invoice with the guitar which I think was about $1700. (Family loans took a lot of my paychecks for a couple of years.)
I hope it?s in good shape and gets a lot of attention and playing. It is truly a unique guitar.
One more story I could tell. I was originally interested in a long neck banjo. This was Fall, 1970. The local music store heard of a builder in Longmont. So I headed to Longmont in my VW bug. The Longmont music store pointed me East somewhere. So driving around the countryside I came across this old schoolhouse and an NBN sign. It was Saturday afternoon by then and nobody was home. The next Saturday I was there first thing in the morning, and Monty gave me one of the most memorable thrills of my lifetime. Now in my experience, Monty was a man of few words and never worried about moving too fast. The thrill was seeing what he and Reb had set up. It was refreshing and reassuring - here, in an old schoolhouse, things were right with the world. Coming out of the 60's and into the 70's, you know what I mean. The banjo in the photos on the wall - photos #1, 8, &9, in the photo gallery - that went to Steven Stills, was an inspiration but of course beyond my meager means and ability. Monty offered to build one of my choice of walnut or mahogany for $300. I thought about it for a couple of weeks and went back with a deposit to place the order. Monty surprised me by turning me down. They were having trouble getting good quality metal parts for reasonable prices and decided not to take any more orders for banjos. I was really disappointed because this "day late" scenario seemed to be the story of my life. But before I could pester him with "can't you make just one more..." or something like that he added, "and if I took your money and promised you a banjo, well, then I'd be a shyster".......That was Monty.
So I didn't get their last banjo, but I did get to know Monty, Reb, and Andy. And one of my minor contributions to this world was being a part of creating a work of art.
Good luck. Good or bad, let us know how an old friend is doing.
As far as stories, one of the best involved a trip to a Bluegrass festival in Disney, OK - probably summer of '72. They were giving away one of our guitars as first prize in a flat picking contest. All of us pictured plus a banjo player named John went along. We used to sit around and play music during lunch, which is why I'm playing mandolin - not my usual instrument. We decided what the hell and entered some part of the festival for locals/non-professionals. That night on one of the local TV stations they had a segment on the festival with this bunch of Boulder hippies playing "Friend of the Devil" by the Grateful Dead. That always made me chuckle.
Top: Reed Munns, Monty Novotny, Barney Stucker
Bottom: Andy Bennett, Reb Bennett
Monty's bass appears to be Ode-related
Submitted by Carl Coerdt
When I was a sophomore at the University of Colorado a friend introduced me to John Fahey and his guitar style, which has been described as American primitive guitar, incorporating blues and folk elements into solo guitar. Right about that time my Martin 6 string had developed some serious problems so I was glad to learn about NBN through a friend. When I visited the NBN shop and saw those guitars I knew that I found the guitars of my dreams! I love the NBN fretboard; it is just the right width for instrumental guitar. The 6 and 12 string NBN guitars are perfect for playing both John Fahey and Leo Kottke's instrumental guitar solos. I remember visiting Reb twice a month in late ’72 to drop off money towards the purchase of these guitars (I was cleaning a movie theater (yuck, think sticky popcorn and spilled coke, the big movie then was Jaws) during college to finance the purchase!).
Monty Novotny and his brother Lonny had invented a guitar case specifically for the NBN guitars. The cases had a vacuum formed inner shell which provided superb insulation, surrounded by a fiberglass coating. John Cowan made a good number of these for NBN, and then decided to sell the business to me. I ended up making 57 of these guitar cases for NBN, and it was a fun endeavor after college. Each case sold for $160.00.
John Cowan lived on the Nebula Farm which was about a mile down the road from NBN. The farmhouse itself was beautiful inside, on a great piece of land with a big old barn where John made the cases. I wish I'd taken a picture of the Nebula Farm and the sign at the entrance to the farm. John had named the company The Justin Case Company. It was fun working with John, and he taught me the whole (sometimes messy) process. Steve Shupe also had made some of these guitar cases before John.
I remember John playing Scott Joplin's “Maple Leaf Rag” flawlessly on the piano in the farmhouse one day. That inspired me to learn several of Joplin's rags in later years. There was a guy around named Tim Goodman who used a very unusual tuning, DGDGAD (check out Wikipedia for guitar tunings - there are tons of them!). It was hard to get hold of anybody who lived on Nebula Farm unless you actually went there. They had decided that the best use for their red rotary dial phone was to make a sculpture out of it, baking it in the oven at 350° for five minutes!
I think I stopped by the NBN shop so often because it was interesting to watch the guitar making process. On one occasion, Reb took me into the room where they kept the raw wood for the tops and sides. Some of the pieces of Sitka spruce, which were used for the top resonating piece, had special markings on them where Reb had examined them and determined that they were most resonant or were harmonious with a certain note. He showed me the forms that were used to bend the sides, and the spraying room where they were painted. Reb pointed out that the finish was applied in such a way that the sound could come through easily - NBNs were never over-sprayed like many production guitars where the sound would get trapped behind too much lacquer. Andy Bennett was always busy in the back area - I think he was working on some guitar sides/necks when I met him. And yes, Monty was always hard at work with his intricate inlays of abalone and mother-of-pearl. These guys really were passionate about their work!
Having been an NBN fan for over 30 years I'd thought often about starting a website like this. NBNs are largely unknown but as you know if you own one they are something special. This site attempts to pay homage to these outstanding instruments and the wonderful folks involved in their making.
I sort of came into my own as a guitar player in the early 70s while attending CU in Boulder. Anyone in the Denver/Boulder area at that time really interested in acoustic guitars came to know NBN. I made the trek to their shop a few times and of course was entranced by their guitars which I certainly couldn't afford. I was strictly a 12 string player at the time and sampling their models compared to my Guild F-112 was pretty startling. The wonderful atmosphere there and the friendly manner of Monty, Reb, Andy and others left you knowing you had experienced a very unique place. I remember Monty in the zone working on some inlay, and Reb throwing away a neck he had been sanding all day that was not quite right. The was no doubt that they were seriously in pursuit of perfection.
After I graduated from college and started making a little money I soon ordered the M-2-12 that I still own. When choosing a guitar Monty related to me that his personal preference for 12 strings was mahogany as the somewhat brighter and punchier tone worked better in many ways than rosewood with all those strings. As it turned out NBN was going out of business and I was luckily buying one of the last guitars they made. Monty stated in the effort of getting the last orders out they used a prime spruce top on it that was being saved for a Limited Edition. A happy ending for me anyway - the 12 is an absolute cannon.
A few years later my 12 string was knocked over and the neck cracked just below the volute/nut. I took it to Monty who had his shop on Terry Street to get a new neck made. It was during this time that Monty was fighting leukemia and he ended up having an apprentice (Mike Belmont?) complete the neck.
During the 90s I moved away from strictly playing 12 string to also enjoying 6 string. Most of this time I had a Guild D-50 which was a good guitar but dreamed of owning another NBN. In the late 90s I purchased an R-2 from Elderly Instruments. It was well worn and sounded fantastic. It was my main axe and recorded beautifully. A few years later I happened onto a small body CT (Concert) R-2 model on eBay and bought it. It was a beauty with Brazilian rosewood and sounded much different than my R-2; not as much bass of course but even greater sustain, balance and delicacy. I actually prefered it to the R-2 when playing rhythm. This guitar was largely unplayed when I bought it so I really enjoyied listening to its changes as I played it and kept it out of its case. Many thanks to the late Paul Hostetter for great setup work and bringing out it's voice.
[Update: was fortunate to buy a Limited Edition in 2019, my Holy Grail guitar for 45 years. Well worth the wait! Sold the CT R-2 and R-2 for funding.]
Owning NBNs has taught me a real reverence for fine craftsmanship, and I will cherish these instruments my entire life. I am very fortunate to own them.
Here's some songs I've recorded at home (on a Martin acoustic-electric).
My original brace of NBNs: R-2, M-2-12, CT R-2