((Left) Scott Seelye, co-founder and owner of Outdoor Ukulele | Photo by Ashley Seelye (Middle) The Preston Thompson crew | Photo courtesy of Preston Thompson Guitars (Right) Ken Czepelka, owner of Sound Sculpture LLC)
With all the creative juices flowing in Central Oregon, it’s no wonder that music-related businesses have a significant presence here. From custom-made instruments to products that assist touring musicians, the region is home to a number of companies that support the music industry. Here is a sampling.
Scott Seelye, co-founder and owner of Outdoor Ukulele, manufactures instruments that have seen more epic adventures than most humans. His instruments have been played by their owners while paddling the Amazon River, hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro and on the Arctic Ocean. Made from a composite polycarbonate, Seelye’s instruments are rugged and suitable for backpacking, camping and traveling the world.
“We started with an injection-molded all-weather ukulele around six years ago, and today we make a carbon-fiber polycarbonate soprano ukulele, tenor ukulele, banjolele and a travel guitar,” says Seelye. Prior to starting Outdoor Ukulele, Seelye says he and his wife, Jennifer, owned a different company, and one morning he was watching CNBC. “I saw a program about Ukuleles and how they were outselling guitars, but over 90 percent were being made overseas,” he says. “I had an ‘aha moment,’ and l loved the idea of making something like that here in the U.S.”
Originally, Seelye set up a wood shop, and went to Hawaii for two months to learn how to make wooden instruments. “But it just didn’t make sense. Wood for instruments is difficult to get and expensive,” he says. Born and raised in Corvallis, Seelye and his wife and 25-year-old daughter, Ashley, have lived in Bend for 20 years. He had previously worked as an industrial designer developing products for consumer and aerospace, and thought he could find a better way to make the instruments. “In the 1950s, millions of plastic Ukuleles were made; it’s actually how Barbie dolls got started. The person who created Barbie had made ukuleles before. But the quality and sound were not good. I wanted to improve upon that.”
That was in 2015, and since then, Outdoor Ukulele has sold more than 20,000 instruments. “I love going into the outdoors, and we wanted to make an instrument to fill this niche,” he says. “Customers send us videos and photos of all these adventures and fun stories. One guy sent us a video of him paddling the Amazon with one of the ukuleles. We get lots of photos of people hiking mountains, like Kilimanjaro, with them.”
Seelye says business is good, with current sales at about 2,500 instruments per year, and at this point, he has just one other employee besides himself. “Over 90 percent of our sales are direct and word of mouth. We don’t really have an interest in selling more. It’s nice having a smaller operation, and we aren’t certain we want to change that,” he says. However, Seelye says he is currently considering growing the company, exploring expanding the retail side of business. “In considering retail, off and on we have had 20 retailers worldwide, including some from France, China, Japan and Holland, but we could not meet the demand. We greatly reduced what the Chinese retailers wanted because there was no way to meet their demand,” he says. “We are in talks about growing retail. REI was interested in 2,500 instruments about five years ago, but at that time, it was too much for us, and we only had two instruments in the lineup.” Seelye says that up until now, he would introduce a new instrument every year and a half, leading up to having a guitar in the line. “Now that we do, it is a good time to think about retail. This is a big goal, because I don’t have experience in taking products like this into retail; this is a daunting task.”
In terms of supply chain issues, Seelye says he is fortunate in that as soon as the backlog began early last year, he was experiencing a doubling in sales, so he worked hard to get materials right away. “We immediately doubled up on everything, and in doing it so quickly, we were able to get what we needed. We are still using materials we purchased a year and half ago.” To produce the instruments, Seelye says he uses an injection molder located in Everett, Washington, and then assembles them in his shop in NorthWest Crossing. “There aren’t many manufacturing resources in Bend,” he says.
Outdoor Ukulele also offers related lifestyle products on the website, such as gloves from Sullivan Glove Co. in Bend, items from Portland Bee Balm and backpacks from Topo Designs that can be used to tote the instruments. “We even have the perfect bungee; so many people add bungees to their order so they can strap their instrument to their backpack or motorcycle or whatever. I like offering related items, especially if they are made in the U.S.” He adds, “We sell a lot of gloves, which are really just for fun, but the other items can be used in conjunction with the ukuleles, like the backpacks and bungee cords. There are a lot of little things that fit in the box around the instruments. Around Christmastime, it’s amazing how someone will buy an instrument and buy five other items to go with it.”
Preston Thompson Guitars
Preston Thompson and Dan Stewart started PK Thompson Guitars, LLC in 2013 after years of Preston building as a single luthier. The duo decided to enter the boutique guitar market by having guitars built, basing the business in Sisters because of the town’s national reputation for Americana and roots music and its small-town feel.
Sadly, Thompson passed away in 2019, but the team of highly skilled craftsman he hired and taught his methods to continues to produce custom acoustic guitars that have the look, playing feel and sound of the best American-made instruments from the 1930s, considered the golden era of guitar making.
“Our customers often mention that their guitar is an heirloom, and something special they want to pass along to family members,” says Christine Funk, general manager, who runs day-to-day operations and has been with the company since 2015. Stewart and Thompson’s wife, Julie, who now co-owns part of the company, produce a wide variety of standard models and custom guitars, as well as limited-edition models.
Funk says the company has had many hurdles to jump over in recent years, but that the team continues to create guitars renown for superior tone, craftsmanship and materials. “The death of Preston, our master luthier and business owner, was a big challenge. We have overcome so much as we grew the operation, like continuing to find skilled help along with affordable housing. This isn’t difficult for just our company, but many others in the area too who need employees,” she says. “Currently, we have a great team and tackle many day-to-day challenges together. We have a solid reputation in the marketplace and are proud of the players who share our guitars with their audiences, like Billy Strings, Peter Rowan, Laurie Lewis, Lindsay Lou and Trey Hensley. Local celebrated player Pete Kartsounes is a huge supporter of ours too.”
Current projects at Preston Thompson Guitars include an upcoming limited-signature model for Peter Rowan, who is a bluegrass legend, and a special commemorative limited model to honor Preston. “Our inlay artist, Simon Haycraft, is also working on a wildlife series to adorn several high-end guitars,” says Funk. “Simon will sink his teeth into these creations using overall themes to represent different animals. He has inlaid many beautiful images onto our guitars, making them extra-special for our clients.”
Funk said that the crew is always looking for ways to streamline processes to increase monthly output, to cross train so that they continue to learn new tasks and to use target marketing methods that work best for the company to find initial future orders. They also share the sound of their guitars in online reviews via Peghead Nation, Dream Guitars, Acoustic Guitar Magazine and other outlets such as their YouTube Channel.
“Recently, we hosted a Flatpick camp at The Belfry with 17 campers and four instructors over three days,” says Funk. “It went off without a hitch, and everyone learned a lot. They enjoyed their time playing guitars and had a chance to see the crew making the guitars first-hand.” She adds, “If you are a guitar player and interested in a tour, please call 541-588-6211 for an appointment.”
At its inception more than 35 years ago, Ken Czepelka, owner of Sound Sculpture LLC, has combined his love for the electric guitar with his skill in electronic design to create audio products that can transform the lives of performing musicians. “Guitar players had always struggled with controlling different aspects of their sound while performing live, and in getting the exact tone they want when they want it,” says Czepelka. “Back then, while watching a band perform and watching the struggle, everything became clear to me in that instant what I should be doing with my life. That’s when Sound Sculpture was born.”
Since then, Czepelka has developed a core product line that many of the top guitarists in the world depend on, he says. “By pressing just one switch, they can change their signature tone to perfectly match the song. A lot goes on behind the scenes, but to them and their audience, the change is smooth and transparent.” He adds, “I’ve had musicians tell me they would give up all their gear, but never their Sound Sculpture. I love hearing comments like that.”
Czepelka moved to Bend in 2003 from Boulder, Colorado, because he was looking for a change, and several friends in Boulder had told him that Bend is a nice place and that he might like to live here. “I checked it out for fun and fell in love with it and with Oregon. I don’t think I’ll live anywhere else now. Oregon is everything to me.” Prior to creating Sound Sculpture, Czepelka had spent more than 18 years working with electronic engineers across the country, he says, helping to develop disk drives, cad systems and more for the industrial and personal computer industry, working with companies such as Storage Technology Corp, Seagate, Intellistore, Cadnetix and Fujitsu. He took the leap of applying his knowledge to the area of work he loved most, music technology, in 1986.
Despite his love of the region, Czepelka says that since he moved here, he has found that Central Oregon lacks the engineers, technicians and other skilled personnel that are abundant in the Boulder area. “It is changing here, but unless we see more high-tech companies move into the area — and I don’t just mean app developers — it will be a challenge for me to find the people I need to develop stronger business relationships.” He adds, “On a more personal level, I have struggled, as many entrepreneurs do, with getting away from the ‘I have to do everything myself’ mindset to learning how to let go, create relationships that can help the business grow and to move into more of a leadership role. My motto these days is ‘delegate, delegate, delegate.’ It’s the only way this company will grow as I would like it to.”
Over the years, Czepelka says it’s become clear that his product line must focus on the systems that support guitar and studio effects, and not the effects themselves. “That is our core business. We have a broad product line now that addresses this need, and our products are considered nearly priceless for some musicians.” He adds, “We are continuing to develop new products that adhere to this commitment.”
Sound Sculpture’s current product line consists of two models of the Switchblade series of audio routing systems, with a unique matrix offering the ability to connect guitar and studio effects in unimaginable ways, Czepelka explains. “We also have an advanced guitar amp A/B switcher called the ‘Abyss,’ which goes far beyond other A/B type boxes. And we have a series called ‘MIDI Power Tools’ currently consisting of three units: the FootSim, ABCadabra and Volcano, each of which offers specialized control of devices a musician or studio owner may already have.”
Czepelka says he is getting ready to go into production on a long-overdue replacement for Sound Sculpture’s flagship audio switching system, called the Switchblade ET. “It’s been three years in development, and I’m super excited about it. I feel like a kid waiting for Christmas,” he says with a laugh. “We already have customers waiting in line for its release and hope to ship early next year.” He adds, “Many more ideas are in the works.”