Jason Kostal Talks Guitar Building, Living Adventurously & Why He Doesn't Use Emojis
It's a busy day in the Kostal house. The kitchen is humming, pulled pork is fresh out of the smoker as hard working hands painstakingly assemble an army of toothpick caprese salads, bruschetta, and veggie kabobs for the guests who will soon be arriving. It's late April in Queen Creek, Arizona. The air is warm and dry and we are buzzing with excitement because today we are finally playing a house concert in Jason Kostal's home.
Jason is a world-renowned guitar luthier with a client list that includes Keith Urban and Paul McCartney. This concert was a few years in the making. The first concert was cancelled because Jason tried to take on a city bus and lost (see photo pictured above). A second date was cancelled when Jason was called to a last minute emergency in Europe. Then we cancelled the third date because we had an amazing opportunity to join Meiko and Marié Digby on The Hapa Tour for a few shows. We were thrilled to finally be able to make this concert happen!
We join Jason in his workshop to discuss how he got into guitar building, his restaurant bucket list, and the dangerous lengths he has gone to impress a woman.
Chloe: Hello everybody! Welcome to another Chasing Lovely podcast. We are here with Jason Kostal today in Queen Creek, AZ. We are playing a house concert at his house tonight. He actually builds guitars for a living! And we are sitting in his shop, which is magnificent.
Chloe: I've never seen so many tools in my life... But yeah, welcome!
Jason: Thank you! I'm excited to be here. In my own home. [laughs]
Taylor: Tell us a little bit about your back story. You joined the military at age 17—
Jason: I did.
Taylor: What drew you to that?
Jason: I had two grandparents—both my grandfathers who had served in the military during WWII and they were a big inspiration for me. Growing up as a young child, I knew that I wanted to serve in the military. And in a lot of ways, I've always kind of harkened it to the Roman legion time where the Centurions earned their citizenship by serving in the military. So I always felt like the country that we live in has some amazing qualities to it, and it has some things that aren't so great. But I do feel a sense of obligation to give back to the nation. That, in turn, allows me the opportunity to believe and say the things that I believe and want to say. And ultimately—hopefully—make changes in it down the road because I've earned my right to do so. So I spent twelve years in the military, and afterward, got out and went to graduate school and got an MBA and went into the corporate world and got the job that my parents always wanted me to have where I wore this suit and tie and ran a big company.
Chloe: How'd that go?
Jason: I didn't enjoy it. I didn't enjoy it at all. I felt like my strength was in leadership and taking care of people. I felt like what the company really wanted was management and taking care of the sales and the bottom line, and it wasn't a good fit for me. So, I had learned how to build guitars as a hobby when I was in graduate school and after two years in the corporate world I made a decision to give up that job—and the money that came with it and everything else—and basically move to Arizona to be near my sister and declared myself a guitar builder. I sucked at it for many years—and I don't believe in failure—I believe that challenges are just obstacles that we have to learn to overcome. So I've worked really hard and kind of created a brand and a name for myself and gotten to where I am today.
Taylor: And that transition between going from military to corporate world to guitar making—what was that like for you? I remember we were speaking briefly yesterday about creativity and what it is like to work in such an intensely creative job. I mean, I believe there is creativity in everything we do—we have to be creative in all capacities—but when you are specifically working in a job that would be considered "creative"—what was that like for you?
Jason: It was a huge transition. And not necessarily a good one. The military taught me attention to detail and focus and working really hard to accomplish a task. I think that became very applicable when I started my own business because it's very easy to get sidetracked. Especially if you are creative. You want to do the fun stuff! You don't want to do the things that aren't enjoyable. So I did have to work hard at the business acumen side. But the creative side was the most difficult for me because up until that point in my life, everything that I did was evaluated on a quantifiable metric. I either did what I was asked to do or I didn't do, and there was never this subjective side of "how do you feel about how I did?" Suddenly in the creative field, you put your heart and soul into it—whether you're a musician, a painter, or in my case, a guitar builder—and we spend inordinate amounts of time creating something from our heart. We put it out there thinking it's the greatest thing we've ever done, and we open ourselves up to criticism from people all over the world that may or may not have an appreciation of how we did it or why we did it. My first couple of years, the rollercoaster ride of being able to receive feedback and take it for what it is was very difficult for me. Every time somebody loved what I did, it was an incredible high. And every time somebody said they didn't like what I did, I wanted to find them on the internet, show up at their house...it just created this intense feeling in me of, "How could you not like this?! I put everything I am into this!" And you realize at the end of the day, it's just like ice cream. People are going to like one flavor more than the other. It's nothing personal. But it's the only time in my life where I've done something and allowed the rest of the world to critique it, and then had to sit and listen to those criticisms.
Taylor: I know we were talking earlier today about identity. I was asking if you were able to dissociate your personal identity from your profession. You said that you were able to. Was that something that took a little while to get to that place? How did you do that?
Jason: Very much so. It was a conscious effort. Partly just to alleviate that rollercoaster ride. I needed to be able to say: the guitars are one part of me, but they aren't who I am. And that way, if the guitars were evaluated positively or negatively, it really correlated to the guitar itself, and not to me as a person. So I needed to do it. It was something that I recognized, "If I don't do this, I'm going to jump off a bridge. That's literally where this heads." So it took a lot of time. It took practice, it took conscious effort, it took faking it for a while. Somebody would critique me and I would just put on that happy smiley face and be like, "Wow, I really appreciate you telling me that! I'm the biggest idiot on the planet. I'm gonna take that and run with it, so thank you!"
Chloe: Good for you!
Jason: But eventually, you get to a point where you mean it. Now there is Jason the guitar builder, which for many people—especially people all over the world—that's who they know me as. I don't want to say I'm a celebrity because I don't believe that, but one of the things that I think is difficult about being a celebrity is that people that know you believe they know you. They see you on TV or they read an article and they think, "I know who this person is." They feel connected to you. But they've never met the real person. So that's one of the things I struggle with. There's Jason Kostal the guitar builder, who people all over the world know that person based on what they've read or what they've seen. But then the group of people that actually know Jason Kostal the person is much smaller. So I do have kind of two distinct groups of people in my life, and you have to learn to kind of navigate through both of those. But who I am as a person is a very important aspect of who I am. And the guitar builder part just happens to be what I'm doing with my life and how I spent my time during the days. It's not who I really am.
Taylor: We often get the question, "What inspires you when you write songs?" So I'm curious...as a guitar builder, where do you draw inspiration from? For example, if people work in fashion, they might cut out clippings and have an inspiration board. What does that look like for you?
Chloe: Do you have a guitar inspiration board?
Jason: I don't. I really don't consider myself a creative person. I think people always think I'm putting myself down when I say that. I really don't view it as a negative. My undergrad was in engineering. My graduate degree was in business. I am analytical, and putting a guitar together is very simple for me. It makes sense. It's putting parts together and creating a product. The most difficult thing for me is the creative side. Anything I do that's unique to my guitars takes me days or weeks to come up with, and there are other people that can do it in seconds. Songwriting is a great example. There are some people that sit down and in one year they come up with one or two songs. Then there's Bob Dylan, who writes three-hundred songs in an afternoon and they're all, like, mega hits. People are just wired differently. So I struggle with the creative side and I struggle for inspiration. My biggest inspiration would probably be my fellow builders. I see what they're doing and I go, "Wow! That's really incredible." I don't really want to copy it, but is there something that I could do that's similar that's uniquely my own? The other thing I get really excited by is the woods themselves. So many guitars—electric guitars and even modern acoustic guitars—are painted different colors or they're adorned with inlay. All unbelievably beautiful things, but it's almost like it detracts from the natural beauty of the wood being used for the guitars. For me, I try to use the finest woods on the entire planet, and when I look at that—when I can envision what that's going to look like as a guitar—that excites me. Then I'm like, "I have to build a guitar out of this piece of wood right now because I want to see what it looks like!" So that's my biggest inspiration: either I'll see a piece and I'm like, "MUST BUILD GUITAR." Or I'll see work that my peers do and I go, "I want to be able to do that. Or something similar to that." I'm also inspired by musicians because ultimately what I'm building is a tool for them to create music. If I do a really good job, then the guitar should no longer become a limitation for them and their songwriting. I listen to so many musicians who say, "I would love to do this, but my guitar won't do it" or "If I play this way, the guitar starts to have problems." I don't want people to play my guitars and have them be a constraint. I want them to play my guitar and feel like they can do anything that they want with their songwriting. And so I get a lot of inspiration from musicians because as I see them play and perform, it refines my ideas of what I need to do to my own guitars to make it a better playing experience for them.
Chloe: Wow, that's awesome. Do you have any bucket list goals for you as a luthier?
Jason: I'd like to still have a job. [pauses] No, to be honest with you, I'm very at peace with where I am right now. I feel like I've accomplished or am in the process of accomplishing everything that I set out to do. I don't say that in a way that's like, "Look at me, I'm amazing!" I just feel very comfortable with the journey that I've been on. I live my life in such a way that if there is something I want to do—whether it's in luthiery or just in my life—I do it. I don't put things off until tomorrow because my time in the military and my time in other endeavors in life has shown me how precious life is. I can wait to do everything until I'm 65, and then physically I may not be able to do it. I may not have the finances to do it, so I just feel like I'm at a point in my life right now where I can do the things that are important to me, and that's how I live my life. And that translates into my guitar building. If there's something I want to do, whether it's go spend a week in some amazing luthier shop and learn from them—or I went to Austria last year to take an inlay course with an inlay artist—I do those things. I don't worry about what they cost or the time it takes me away from the shop. I view it as it's all part of my journey. I got into guitar building because I wanted to enjoy it and have fun. And for a while, I was allowing the world around me to dictate what that path looked like for me. Either clients were saying, "Build this" or other luthiers were saying, "You shouldn't take that time off because you need to be in the shop" and I just felt like...this is the whole reason I'm doing this—to take control of my life again. So I started doing that. The result for me is, I'm happier than I've ever been. I'm living an incredible life. My productivity has actually doubled because I'm excited to be in the shop when I'm here. So in terms of a bucket list, I kind of feel like the bucket gets filled every day. But it almost gets emptied at the end of each week because whatever's in that bucket is going to get done in a very short period of time. So it's kind of ever-evolving. But I never feel like something sits in the bucket for a long period of time.
Chloe: That's refreshing. I like running into people who go out and live their dreams and don't wait for life to happen to them and convenience and all that. It's fun to see.
Taylor: I was curious about your other interests.
Jason: I don't have any. [everybody laughs]
Taylor: We've been here for a couple days now and you have quite the cookbook collection. And oil collection! For like, cooking oils. I've never seen so many...like, grapeseed—
Chloe: I have EVOO and canola oil and that's it. [laughs]
Jason: Cooking is a huge passion of mine. I learned how to cook when I was six years old and I had a grandmother that came to live with us. She was Italian and taught me how to make pasta and sauce from scratch when I was six.
Chloe: When you were six?
Jason: Shortly thereafter, my mom went back to work. She was a single mom and she'd work late into the night. I would stay up late at night so that I could cook her dinner when she came home from work. Cooking for me has always been very calming. As an Italian person, I was always taught that people come together around food. In my life, I've learned that as busy as people get, if you can say, "Hey, let's get together for dinner" people will come together and you can sit and have that conversation. So I love to cook. I love it because there's so much creativity and passion and your own personal element that goes into it, y'know? We talked about it today where I can take a recipe and make it exactly as it's written and it's gonna taste one way. But then I can add to it or detract from it and I always find that very exciting and wonderful. So I try to cook every night if I can. I enjoy trying new things. I love great dining experiences. My two passions right now are travel and cooking. And clearly, if you see me, you'll realize I'm not starving to death. [Laughs] So I must be doing pretty well. But I travel all over the world, and one of my personal bucket lists is to eat at the top 100 restaurants in the world.
Jason: And I've eaten at most of them. I think I'm at seventy-four out of the hundred.
Chloe: That's pretty good.
Taylor: Where did you find the list?
Jason: Oh, they post it every year.
Taylor: Oh, really?
Jason: And that's what's neat is—it changes! So next year I might only be at fifty. But what I've found is—there's an excitement in eating things that even I would be like, "I'm not going to eat that." But when it's prepared by a chef that combines flavors in a creative and artistic way, you can eat something you had vowed you would never put in your mouth and find out it's the most amazing thing you've ever eaten. I love that experience. So I do—I enjoy cooking. I love to travel. By last count, I've been to 104 of the 196 countries in the world.
Jason: And thanks to the military, I've been to most of the ones you don't want to travel to. And I've seen a lot of other great ones as well. So my goal is to see every country in the world and go back to a bunch of them in the future. Those are kind of my two big passions. That's what draws me and kind of drives me these days. I love making my life an adventure. I feel like as much as I loved my time in the military and I loved my time in the corporate world and I loved the time that I was establishing my business, one of the things that's very corollary to all of those is each one of them was a huge period of sacrifice for me. I gave up holidays, I gave up time with family, I gave up relationships, I gave up hobbies. It's easy to look at where somebody is today and say, "Wow, they're successful. I want to be them." What you didn't see is the twenty years of sacrifice, hard work. When I got started in the guitar industry I worked seven days a week, 16 to 18 hour days.
Chloe: Oh boy.
Jason: I never took time for myself, for anything that was important to me. So I'm now at a point where I can enjoy my life and I feel like I'm making up for the last twenty years of sacrifice by figuring out who I am and what is important to me and then living that life. So having a sense of adventure and being able to do things that I never thought I'd do...those are all really important to me. Anytime an opportunity presents itself, I'm very prone to be like, "Let me go do it." Even if it's something I never thought I'd do. 'Cos those experiences are what define us and shape us. And at the end of my life, I personally won't care that I built great guitars. I'm gonna care about the relationships that I created; the people that I impacted along the way. What I'm going to remember and take with me is all the experiences that I had that got me to where I was. So I choose to live without regrets and I choose to live life as one big adventure and we'll see where it takes me. It could end up being the death of me in five years and I'm okay with that! Y'know?! In all sincerity, I've had an amazing life. If I go out in a big flash—blaze of glory—I am totally okay with that. I would much rather do that than live a really long life and have nothing to show for it. So I feel really good about the path that I'm on and how it goes each day.
Taylor: From your travels, do you feel like there are any countries that you've been to that are really underrated? As in, everybody should travel here at some point in their life—
Chloe: But nobody does—
Taylor: But it's not like Paris where everyone's like, "That's where I want to go."
Jason: They're all underrated. They're all underrated. If you live there, you stop seeing the beauty of it. And if you haven't been there, you've never experienced the beauty of it. I have been to some of the most horrible places on Earth and I would still say they're some of the most beautiful places. You meet people that create the beauty. You meet culture. You interact with history. And it may be that in the moment you're like, "This place really sucks." But the reality is: every place on this planet has a beauty to it that is uniquely its own. And I think everything is underrated. I really do. I've never gone somewhere and said, "That's exactly what I expected. It met my expectations." Every place I've ever been—even the most horrible places—I've always been like, "Wow! I really did not expect that. And I'm excited that I had that opportunity to witness that." So nothing comes to mind because I am being very sincere when I say every place you can go to, there will be something you never thought you'd see or experience there and it blows you away. That's what makes the journey so much fun. So many people experience the world around us through a book or a documentary or a movie. And you can get a feel for it, but man, when you're there and you're physically touching it or smelling it or tasting it, suddenly National Geographic can't do justice with what you are witnessing in front of you. So I encourage everybody that can to travel. Even if it's just getting out of your hometown and going somewhere down the road.
Chloe: Is there a person who has taught you the most in life? Who in your life has had the biggest influence on you?
Jason: Wow...probably John Wayne. [everyone laughs] Just kidding.
Chloe: [laughing] I'm gonna choke!
Jason: My mom has probably been the most influential person in my life. She's hardworking. She raised my sister and I and sacrificed a lot when we were growing up in order to provide for us. When you're a kid you don't realize it. You think money is just there and everything that you want to do—you don't realize there's a cost associated with it. Time. I look back and I think, "How did my mom get my sister and I to three events simultaneously each day after school?" While working and things like that. But as a kid, she allowed me to try anything I ever wanted to do. Her only criteria was: you can't quit. So once you say, "This is what I want to do" you have to see it through. Whether it's a season or whatever the commitment was. I learned a lot about life and making promises to people, understanding your obligations and being accountable to yourself and responsible to yourself. She's built businesses, lost businesses, regrown businesses. She is a very successful woman. I've watched her rise to the top, fall to the bottom, and rise back to the top again. I think as a person traveling through life, that's the rollercoaster path that we're on. Being able to handle that with elegance and grace and dignity and integrity—when you have a role model like that, it becomes a lot easier to do. That's been really important to me. To this day, we talk almost every day. When I have days where I'm like, "I'm struggling with what I'm doing" or "Am I making the right decision?" She's usually the first person I bounce that off of and say, "Am I about to do something really stupid?"
Chloe: Moms will tell you! [laughs]
Jason: What's nice though is, we've reached a point in our lives where she recognizes where I am in my life. So she'll call me on a daily basis with business decisions that she has to make and say, "Hey, what do you think of this?" So we both respect each other for where we are in our paths. If I was going to point to one person, I'd say she's been the most influential and probably the biggest guide for me.
Chloe: Very cool. A lot of our questions so far have been fairly serious. We've got a few funny ones...weirder ones. I remember asking you what kind of phone you had earlier. Mostly because I was curious: what's in your frequently used emojis?
Jason: I don't use emojis!
Jason: Yeah, I don't. I downloaded an emoji keyboard and I never figured out how to load it.
Chloe: So you do not use—you're not a user of the emojis!
Jason: I have friends that actually make fun of me 'cos I will text and end it with the colon and parentheses as the smiley face. And like, really? You can't use some amazing custom built emoji?!
Chloe: You know how much more specific you could be with that smile?!
Jason: I really—I suck at that.
Chloe: That says something too.
Jason: I like to think that my words convey what I'm trying to say...? And that I don't need to follow it up with a clown face to give an added validity.
Chloe: Fair. [laughs]
Jason: And I don't do shorthand texting. I spell my words out. I use punctuation. I get mad at myself if I spell something wrong or if auto-correct changes something. I'm pretty old-school in that I feel like words are very powerful and they have meaning. Sometimes I feel like we lose sight of that because of the world we live in today where everything's like, "Let's shorten it and abbreviate it."
Chloe: That's fair.
Jason: The written language to me is very powerful. Spoken language kind of comes out and we don't always get to think about it. But written language is like—I'm putting it out there. I should have enough respect for myself to go back and read what I just wrote before I hit send and make sure that it's what I want to convey. 'Cos once it's out there, I can't take it back. So I focus more on written communication than the emojis. I'm sorry.
Chloe: Fair enough. That's alright, that's alright...
Jason: I don't even know what emojis are out there!
Chloe: I'm going to text you alllllll the emojis!
Taylor: There are some crazy ones. [laughs] What's your favorite form of communication? Phone calls or texts or emails or songs or...?
Jason: It depends on the person! If I feel connected to them then I want to hear their voice, and it's face-to-face or telephone. If I am in a hurry then texting works well. If I want to maintain a little bit of distance, then email seems to be kind of the way to do it. It really is different for each person. For each person in my life, there's a different form of communication based on how I feel. I don't think I've ever sung communication to anybody! Even though I do occasionally sing, I've never decided to communicate in that capacity.
Taylor: Do you have any hidden talents like accents or impressions? Or you can make a clover with your tongue? Or...?
Jason: Ahhh...I don't.
Taylor: Chloe can do a goat noise.
Jason: Oh, really?
Chloe: Yeah, it's my hidden talent.
Taylor: It is.
Jason: I haven't heard that yet.
Chloe: [makes goat noise]
Jason: Wow...that's impressive. I can roll my tongue up but I can also roll it down. And I've never met anybody else that can do that.
Chloe: Really? Like flip it—
Jason: So. [pauses to demonstrate] There's [rolls tongue up] which a lot of people can do and then—
Chloe: Roll it the opposite way!
Jason: [rolls tongue down]
Chloe and Taylor: [laugh]
Jason: So there you go! In all my years I've never met anybody else that could do that. I dunno. I don't think I've ever shared that with anyone.
Chloe and Taylor: [laugh]
Jason: Thank you for making that public knowledge.
Chloe: Yes, of course. Okay, last one. What's your most embarrassing moment?
Jason: Oh, wow. I was a lifeguard in high school and I was lifeguarding with an older woman that I was very attracted to. I think I was a freshman in high school and she was like a senior—
Jason: I was lifeguarding with her that day and I thought, "Oh man, I'm gonna really impress her." I've been working on this dive where I did a double flip and then a sailor's dive, where you go in head first so you don't put your arms out in front of you. I waited until she was watching and I made this very slow, almost Bay Watch type strut up to the diving board. And I did my little double flip and I dove into the water and I hit the end of the incline head first.
Chloe: Oh no!
Jason: And I remember sitting under the water for a couple seconds, trying to see if I could feel my toes and my hands—
Chloe and Taylor: Oh my God!
Jason: Because I truly thought I had broken my back and my neck and just slammed into—
Taylor: Did she save you?
Jason: I came to the surface and I was gonna pretend like nothing was wrong. And this woman then jumped into the pool, swam to me, threw me into like a side carry and started swimming to the side of the pool while dragging me. And as she dragged me, there was just blood pouring out from behind me—
Chloe and Taylor: Oh no!
Jason: So I basically split my head open and needed to go get a bunch of stitches and everybody, to include the other lifeguard, knew exactly why I'd done it. So it was even more embarrassing.
Chloe: Oh no!
Jason: So that was it.
Chloe: That's pretty rough.
Jason: I haven't done any magical dives off a diving board since then.
Chloe: And that ended your diving career...
Jason: Yep! Pretty much! I felt like I was well on my way to the Olympics, but I just decided to take a detour.
Taylor: There you go.
Chloe: Oh man. Well, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us and answer our sometimes interesting and sometimes strange questions!
Jason: You're welcome!
Chloe: And for having us in your home and for putting on a concert for us.
Jason: Yeah, let's go do a house concert! Play some music for a bunch of people!
Chloe: We're gonna go play some music. Goodbye everyone out there!
*This written interview has been edited.
To learn more about Jason and his guitars, visit http://kostalguitars.com/