“Innovative Design In Modern Guitar Making” Discussion Part Two

The "Birdfish" guitar by Ulrich Teuffel

By Daniel Krugman

***This is the second part in a series on a discussion at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD). Make sure to read Part One.


On Friday, 4 December, the Fabrication Lab at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) hosted an online panel discussion on the subject of “Innovative Design in Modern Guitar Making”. Panelists included: Ulrich Teuffel, Ken Parker, Michihiro Matsuda, and Rachel Rosenkrantz, as well as Jamie Gale, who has years of experience marketing and selling fine, handmade instruments and is also the driving force behind the Boutique Guitar Showcase. The discussion was moderated by Burton LeGeyt, manager of the Fabrication Lab and a highly regarded and innovative luthier in his own right.

Part 1 of this article describes each of the panelists introduction of themselves, their work, and their interests. Part 2 presents the discussion that followed those introductions.

The Discussion

The discussion that followed centered on basically two broad topics introduced by Burton. The first topic was how these builders balance the competing priorities of creating something that remains true to one’s vision for the instrument and yet also meets the specific needs of the client.

Ken Parker responded that it is precisely the interplay between builders and musicians over time which creates and refines the designs of the instruments. He noted that the classical guitars developed in the nineteenth century have fundamentally the same designs as the ones made and played today. It is really hard to improve on designs that work. There are certain elements that all guitars have more or less settled on over the years with little variation such as the neck shape, scale length, and the spacing of the strings at the nut and bridge. When he was designing the Fly, he said he knew he could not stray too far from some basic design elements of the Stratocaster or he would lose some of those tried-and-true aspects players have come to expect.

Rachel Rosenkrantz noted that as a custom builder, her clients are usually looking for something one-of-a-kind. Her instruments are also often non-traditional in some way or other. So for each new client she gives them a twenty question survey about their playing habits, for instance, whether they play sitting or standing. With a deeper understanding of the type of use she is building for, she feels she can better create an instrument to suit their specific needs.

Jamie Gale then chimed in with the observation that in their introductions, Michi, Ken, and Ulrich had all circled around this idea of the archetypal guitar; that there was some pattern from which they could not really escape. But, he said, this is a product of our perspective. He pointed out that we tend to think of the guitar as a solidified form when in fact it is constantly changing. Classical guitars, flamenco guitars, steel resonators, archtops and electrics were all developed within the same 100 years of each other. And the players’ views of what is acceptable or desirable is always shifting.

His example was the Les Paul (which Michi had mentioned previously). When it was first sold, the Les Paul was a commercial failure. Marketed as a jazz guitar, it was too small for jazz players. They simply were not interested. To make up for the lost sales, he says, they developed the ES-335, which looked more like a “traditional” jazz guitar. Not until some young, blues-obsessed kids of the next generation picked them up did the LP become the icon we know today.

The same goes for the resonator guitar. Like the archtop, these were intended as a jazz guitar that could compete with the volume of a brass band, but jazz players did not take to them. Yet, somehow they made their way to the Mississippi Delta and Appalachia and became staples of Delta blues and bluegrass music.

Ken agreed, adding that the Telecaster was first designed for a certain type of music but has become near universal in its application. Everyone from Ed Bickert to Roy Buchanan and John 5 from Marylin Manson plays the same guitar. And it is virtually unchanged from the 1950s. Leo Fender, Ken said, was sure that the Stratocaster was such a superior instrument that when it was released, people would throw away their Teles. He was shocked to find that they sold in roughly the same numbers.

Burton then shifted the discussion to the topic of the balance between the engineering side of guitar-making and the artistic side. He asked Ken specifically about this, who answered definitively that the engineering is always in service of the art. Every craftsperson, he said, will use every tool at their disposal to make their vision a reality. This was as true of Stradivari as it is today. The argument that Strad would never have used sandpaper or some modern tool or material, he said, strikes him as simply ridiculous. On the other hand, if technology such as CNCs or laser cutters discourages people these days from building and working with their hands, developing those skills, then that, he said, would be a real tragedy.

Rachel pointed out that in her work, she views CNC as a way to help her focus on the most important handwork and preserve her ability to use her hands longer in her working life.

Uli’s view of CNC is that in such a long building and assembly process as making a guitar, the time saved by having a machine to simply copy-and-paste parts is not very great. What CNC offers is the possibility to make things that simply can’t be done by hand. He likened it to photography. If you look at photographs from the 1970s compared to today, the difference would be obvious. The use of filters and digital manipulation have made all sorts of things trivial today that could not have been done in the 70s. It’s a similar leap forward from painting to the use of camera obscura. With just a pinhole, you can simply paint over a projected image more accurately than anyone could paint just looking at a scene. Plus, he added, if you could show a guitar made today to a builder sixty years ago, they would simply be blown away.

As the time for the event ran out, Jamie Gale put a final button on the whole discussion by saying that the work of each of the builders on the panel showcases something about themselves. They are putting a piece of themselves out into the world for others to enjoy. And for the audience of students and makers, he urged them to have the courage to do the same.

One final note:

In Dan Wheeldon’s post about the Virtual Banjo Gathering, he wrote about some of the challenges of conducting and attending a conference online. I agree that it is certainly a far cry from the actual experience of being there in person. However, much like his positive take on the virtual walk-through of the American Banjo Museum, here is another case in which technology made possible an event which otherwise likely would not have happened. The panelists here ranged in location from Rachel and Ken in Providence, RI and Gloucester, MA, respectively to Michi in Redwood City, CA, and Ulrich in Neu-Ulm, Germany. For these builders to get together for a quick two-hour chat in Cambridge would have been a monumental task. So, much like Uli suggested about other technological advancements, if you could bring someone from another era into this one, strange as it may be, their minds would be undoubtedly blown.

Dan Krugman has been building and repairing instruments since 2010. In 2016, he was the inaugural recipient of the Michael Allan Katz Luthier Apprenticeship Grant from the Abraham J. & Phyllis Katz Foundation during which he trained with Ken Parker for two years. He is curious about the intersection of historical craft and innovation in materials and methods. You can see some of his work at www.ddkguitars.com.




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