Charlie Kaman & Ovation Guitars

The late, great, guitar player Glen Campbell had one of the most popular television shows during a time when America, for the most part, had three stations. And, every Sunday night The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour featured a guitar that very few people had ever seen before. That guitar was built in New Hartford, Connecticut. It featured a round back made of molded fiberglass. This near-magic formula of one of the most popular television shows of its time along with one of the most famous and beloved guitar players of the time and an unusual instrument almost instantly put the Ovation guitar company on the map. In the late 70s and early 80s Ovation was one of the biggest selling acoustic guitars in the world.

The Ovation guitar was the brainchild of military contractor and helicopter builder Charles “Charlie” Kaman. Charlie was a guitar player and had this idea about building a technologically superior instrument.  His original prototype instruments were made between 1965 and 1967. If you’ve ever seen one of the original Ovations, they had shiny backs and a three piece wooden top. Most acoustic guitars have two piece wooden tops. So, why a three piece top? It was because the only Sitka spruce wood that they had around the helicopter factory was for helicopter blades, and the boards for the blades were not wide enough to cover the top of the guitar with two pieces. Thus, the three pieces.

In 1967 Ovation officially entered the guitar manufacturing world, not cautiously with a traditional, easy to accept guitar structure but, boldly with a fiberglass round back that had never-before-been-seen on a guitar.

Charlie Kaman graduated from Catholic University with a degree in Aeronautical Engineering in 1940 and launched his business endeavors in 1945 with his company, Kaman Aircraft. At the outset, Kaman Aircraft primarily built helicopters.

Kaman Aircraft felt a need to diversify. “We started research and development on guitars in 1965 and sold our first guitars in November of ‘67.” When asked where the original idea for the Ovation guitar came from, Kaman  stated “I’m afraid I have to take the rap on that one.”

“I played guitar as a kid so I went to see guitar companies along the way. I saw the methods that were used in guitar companies in this country. I realized that we had a major contribution to make with our technology. I chose the round back as a means of enhancing and improving sound. It took us about two years to design the bowls (roundbacks) and other aspects of the guitar including the aesthetics” 

John Ringso, a Norwegian boat builder who emigrated to the United States, built the original Ovation guitars by hand. He was one of the first employees at Kaman Aircraft and was in charge of the shop that made the rotor blades. His hobby was repairing old and exotic violins. When he heard that Charlie was considering building guitars, he made it known that he was interested. Charlie, John Ringso and a third person, Arnie Wheaton, an electronics engineer in the Kaman flight test lab, designed what, in their eyes, was a technologically superior instrument, engineered to deliver a more uniform response across the sound spectrum. 

The first major guitar player that Charlie took the guitar to was Charlie Byrd. Byrd was a nylon string player and suggested taking the guitar to steel string player Josh White. Josh White became the first Ovation endorsee.

Not long thereafter, “We brought a 14 fret, narrow-necked version to Glen Campbell. The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour gave international recognition to the Ovation. That was our promotional breakthrough,” said Kaman. 

Guitar players had been trying to amplify acoustic guitars for a long time with varying levels of success. Ovation developed a pick up system that simply worked better. It delivered a true acoustic sound amplified. The timing was a perfect match as much of the popular music of the 70s and 80s had acoustic guitars in the mix. It also solved the problem for Glen Campbell who didn’t want a mic between himself and the camera. Ovations quickly became the go-to workhorse guitar for live performances. It would be a number of years before other makers started incorporating pickups into their acoustic guitars.

Additionally, Ovation guitars started a worldwide debate among acoustic guitar players on roundback versus traditional wooden back and sides. Basically, it was Ovation against the world (i.e., Martin, Gibson, etc). Ovations became widely accepted and were played by many of the world’s top artists including Neil Diamond, Roy Clark, Dave Mason, Nancy Wilson of Heart, Cat Stevens, and many others.

Charlie’s son, Bill, who started working summers at the Ovation factory in 1967 until he went full-time after graduation from college, was named President of Ovation in 1985.

Kaman sold Ovation to the Fender Musical Instrument Corporation in 2008. In 2014, Fender announced that they were closing the Ovation factory in Connecticut leaving production of all Ovation guitars overseas in China, Indonesia, and South Korea. Soon after closing the Connecticut factory, Ovation was sold to Drum Workshop, Inc.

Charlie passed away in 2011 at the age of 91.

(by Fred Bramante)

Published on February 1, 2022