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Brandon Madrid’s Sonic Secret Weapon

A Normal Heights luthier makes the Ferrari of guitars

By Maya Kroth

They say you should never meet your heroes, but don’t tell that to Brandon Madrid. This Normal Heights guitar-maker recently became the toast of the music world thanks to a chance encounter with one of his idols, “Swami” John Reis. 

Shortly after relocating to San Diego from the Pacific Northwest a few years ago, Madrid was working in a North County guitar shop when the lead singer and guitarist for bands like Rocket From the Crypt and Drive Like Jehu came in. “In San Diego, John’s a family guy that lives in South Park, but in Portland he’s a rock star,” says Madrid. “I told my boss, ‘Gimme a minute, I need to talk to him.’” 

That minute turned into three hours, and within a week Reis and Madrid were plotting to build a guitar that would improve upon Reis’ Silvertone hollow body. They realized they shared a love of Japanese guitars from the 1960s and envisioned an instrument that had the look of a Japanese axe and the quality that can only come from handcrafting. 

“A lot of luthiers just input all the measurements in a computer program and hit ‘go’ on the machine,” says Madrid, who makes his guitars using almost no electric tools. “My craft is kind of dying.”

In addition to being good-looking, the guitar had to be able to take a beating on the road, as anyone who’s seen Reis’ spastic live show can attest. And, naturally, it had to sound just right. After months of tinkering, the Kon Tiki was born.

“It doesn’t sound like any other guitar you can buy new right now,” says Reis. “Sonically, it feels like you’re using a secret weapon.”

It didn’t take long for the guitar world to notice. Photos of Reis playing the Kon Tiki on tour turned up in Rolling Stone, Spin, and Pitchfork.

The $3,500 Kon Tiki now has a year-long waitlist, and Madrid is enjoying the ride. “To have someone I admire play one of my instruments and then to see it in a publication that musicians always read? You can’t get much better than that.”

Brandon Madrid’s Sonic Secret Weapon

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