By Jennifer LaRue
(c) Connecticut Explored, Fall 2008
Charlie Kaman made considerable contributions to the world of flight through his Kaman Corporation, the aeronautics company he founded in Bloomfield in 1945. But Kaman is also renowned in musical circles for inventing the Ovation guitar, the world’s first guitar to combine acoustic sound wth electric amplification. For more than 40 years, some of the most sought-after guitars in the world were made by Kaman in New Hartford, Connecticut.
Kaman, raised in Washington, D.C., earned his degree in aeronautical engineering at Catholic University of America and then went to work in 1940 designing helicopters with Igor Sikorsky at Hamilton Standard. It was an exciting time to be working with helicopters; there was plenty of room for innovation in their engineering. Innovation was one of Kaman’s strong suits, but eventually he grew tired of designing for someone else and, with $2,000 to his name, started his own company.
In the early 1960s, with business flourishing, Kaman decided to diversify. As an avid jazz guitarist (who often had played gigs at D.C.-area clubs and who was once invited to become a member of the Tommy Dorsey band), moving into music was more logical than it first appears. When a big military contract fell through, Kaman found himself thinking of how to use some of the materials he would have used to make helicopters, including Sitka spruce wood he had planned to use for rotor blades. The highly resonant wood’s vibration needed to be controlled when it was used in a helicopter rotor blade; that same vibration, he reasoned, made the wood ideal for use in a guitar, which needed vibration to create its sound.
Being an engineer familiar with the properties of the range of materials used in the aerospace industry, Kaman also recognized that guitars didn’t have to be made of all-natural materials. His use of fiberglass (which he was accustomed to using to make helicopter blades) in creating the Ovation guitar’s signature bowl-shaped back too guitar-making into a whole new realm; the big round belly projected sound outward, increasing the instrument’s volume.
The first Ovation, called the Balladeer, was designed in 1966 and debuted in 1967; the first model served mostly as a showpiece that Charlie could share with musicians, getting their feedback and building a market. One of those musicians was Glen Campbell, who had established a strong reputation as a studio guitarist and was just making his name in show business. Campbell, who had recently launched a television show, “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour,” told Kaman that he needed a guitar that could be heard when played on stage with other instruments (acoustic guitars were famously hard to hear under those circumstances) without having to stand behind a microphone for amplification.
Kaman and a group of his helicopter engineers set to the task. The resulting Ovation featured carefully crafted piezo crystal electronic pickups that carried the strings sound to an amplifier. Other key design features, including a preamp, helped reduce feedback while maintaining the guitar’s clear and balanced sound. Early models sold for $200 to $300.
Kaman Music Corporation’s factory in New Hartford continued developing high-end guitars with technical features that appealed to aficionados and professional players alike. Each year has brought a new, limited-edition guitar; these remain highly collectible, even though all the other major guitar makers have now jumped on the bandwagon, adding acoustic/electric models to their standard lines. The corporation also made Hamer guitars (after acquiring the Hamer company in 1988), began distributing Gretsch drums in 2000, and became the nation’s largest independent distributor of musical instruments and accessories.
In October 2007, Kaman Corporation, with Charlie Kaman long retired, sold its Kaman Music Corporation division to Fender Musical Instruments Corp. The factory continued to make Ovation guitars in New Hartford, along with Hamer electric guitars and Fender’s Guild acoustic guitars until 2014.