Updated: Jan 10
By Dan Krugman
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 some icons and luminaries of contemporary lutherie: Ulrich Teuffel, Ken Parker, Michihiro Matsuda, and Rachel Rosenkrantz, as well as Jamie Gale, who has years of experience marketing and selling these instruments. He is also the driving force behind the Boutique Guitar Showcase, a moveable feast of some of the most prominent makers today and has carved out its own space within the NAMM Show. The discussion was moderated by Burton LeGeyt, manager of the Fabrication Lab and a highly-regarded and innovative luthier in his own right.
This event is part of a series geared toward the students within the GSD but this particular discussion was opened to the public and was conceived as way of bridging the gap between the communities of working instrument builders and students or practitioners in the broader world of design. The discussion began, as all panel discussions do, with each member giving a short intro to their work, interests, and motivations.
Rachel led off with her interest in the topics of biomimicry and bio-materials. While the former seeks to copy structures or functions found in the natural world, the latter seeks new uses for actual natural materials. Some ideas she is currently working on include developing a sort of endoskeleton for her instruments out of porcelain which will serve as an internal resonator, the structure of which is based around how bones are formed. She also has been experimenting with growing mushrooms (she would not reveal what kind) to create a lightweight and somewhat resonant media to fill the interstitial spaces within an instrument. She has also been working for about a year on creating a natural substitute for leather and skin made out of kambucha. She showed some prototype banjo heads she had installed on an instrument, stress-tested to failure and then repaired successfully. Her latest version, which she was getting ready to install the next day, looked like a veritable facsimile of a skin head(at least via Zoom). The downside, she said, was that without the flexibility of collagen, there was nothing to mitigate the brittleness of the material, but her results thus far were promising.
Rachel has previously used other natural materials such as stingray skin as pickguard material. One significant advantage is that in being organic, the ray skin stretches and contracts with instrument through the changing seasons. Rachel has also experimented with making leather from fish products. These last two examples plus the mushroom experiment above are creative uses for materials that would otherwise be classified as waste. Other experiments include using the hexagonal structure of a honeycomb (as used in the synthetic product Nomex) to enhance certain tonal qualities of the guitar. Over a season, Rachel kept bees on a guitar body and let them build their comb behind the bridge. The excess wax, she said, could also be used in the finish of the guitar.
For pictures of Rachel’s latest work, check out her Instagram: @atelier_rosenkrantz.
Michihiro (Michi) Matsuda
Michi Matsuda turns out about seven guitars a year. One of those is usually a kind of personal project for himself. In this discussion, he walked us through his latest creation. Michi said he was interested in the idea of recycling. With the mass production of affordable instruments cranked out each year, if something breaks and the owner takes their instrument in for repair, they are often told that the repair itself would cost more than the value of the guitar. This, Matsuda realized, means there is a surfeit of abandoned instruments in the world that, given a chance, could still be fine instruments.
In its former life, Michi’s guitar had been a Les Paul knock-off but he has thoroughly transformed it into something both familiar and yet totally new. He began by hollowing out the body, leaving only sort of a think rim around the edges, He then made a new, multi-layered top for the guitar. The two outermost layers are made up of discarded chopsticks obtained from a friend’s sushi restaurant which are laid up in what at first glance appears to be a haphazard manner but which likely took some care to arrange. Beneath those lies the actual soundboard, which is rescued from an old piano. The one-piece bridge pokes up through a hole in the chopstick layers and sits on the soundboard beneath. The back of the guitar is left open but does have a partial reflector, made from an old table in Matsuda’s house. The result is visually stunning and bears some of the hallmark ultrafine craftsmanship for which Michi is known.
Beyond the aspect of giving new life to unconventional materials, Michi talked about how beginning with the iconic Les Paul shape served as both a design constraint as to what he could do but he took that also as an opportunity to try to expand the idea of what kind of music this guitar could make. The Les Paul, he said, is often thought of as a rock guitar, but Michi wanted to put it back in “neutral” and hopefully allow the player to approach this form with new eyes. (More on this subject later.)
For pictures of Michi’s latest work, check out his Instagram: @matsudaguitars.
It almost goes without saying, but since the 1970s, Ken Parker has been blazing his own trail in guitar design and has had a huge influence on countless makers within and without the instrument building community. Ken’s introduction to his work was a quick tour through his career, highlighting some threads he continues to pull on to this day. One of his guitars, the “Celestial guitar” dating back to 1976, incorporates a number of his early innovations to the acoustic archtop, several of which he uses to this day. The ball-hitch style tailpiece attachment; the hollow, fixed-height bridge and thin, responsive tops, are all ideas Ken began developing early in his career.
He also discussed his development of the carbon fiber reinforced necks he makes. These were initially inspired by Renaissance lute neck construction which he learned about from a friend with whom he shared a workspace in his early days. The earliest examples were six-string basses made in the 1980s. Just like a lute, these had softwood cores and an exterior veneer of ebony. Ken said he was surprised as a young builder to learn that so many people had ignored the vital importance the neck plays in transmitting vibration through the guitar. Furthermore, the neck is constantly having its resonance modified by the “bag of protoplasm” –your hand moving up and down the neck as you play. As to the question, “Why use carbon fiber? It’s not traditional.”, Ken is sure that if luthiers during the Renaissance had access to carbon fiber (or sandpaper, or any modern tool for that matter), they absolutely would have used it as well.
On the subject of material choice, he also discussed some other innovations from his time at his electric guitar company (Parker Guitars), including the use of carbon fiber fingerboards, 0.5 mm thick, with stainless steel frets bonded to them. They not only obviated the use of wood and played well, they also allowed them to build guitars so consistently that there was no need to level or dress the frets after installation. Just string it up and it was good to go.
As for future projects, Ken is currently working with the Abraham J. and Phyllis Katz Foundation to make Ken’s knowledge available online in articles, videos, and blog posts.
For more on Ken’s archtops, check out his website.
Ulrich Teuffel has been on a lifelong journey to reimagine the electric guitar as we know it. His early apprenticeship and training in mechanical engineering at Mercedes gave him the skills for precision work. He first found his passion of building and repairing guitars as a young man. He had even begun a side business repairing instruments. However, he felt that he had run into a stumbling block in his own builds, since the guitars he knew, loved, and repaired were all industrially produced. In order to understand the design process and be able to create something truly new, he decided to go to graduate school for industrial design.
His graduate work was not focused on designing guitars however. Over the course of his degree, he would design all sorts of products. When he graduated, he returned to the idea of designing a new guitar form with fresh eyes and a broader perspective. He sought to deconstruct the guitar down to its most basic elements. The result would become his “Birdfish” model. The pickups can be moved to any position between the neck and bridge. They can also be swapped out with a simple mini-jack connector. The controls are mounted on the “fish” part of the body and the two bars can also be changed—a modular insturment. He also fabricates just about every part of the guitar himself, right down to the screws. His now iconic design has all the elements of a more “traditional” electric guitar but the look is anything but.
As Uli said in his introduction, he viewed the electric guitar like the five-pocket jean. Everybody knows exactly what to expect from them. They come in slightly different styles and materials and there are certain elements you can change here and there; but in the end, you know what you will wind up with. He says that over the course of his career, he had set out to reinvent the electric guitar but realized in the end that through his experiments, he had really reconfirmed the truth of the five-pocket jean, which is a fascinating conclusion.
For more on Uli’s instruments, check out his website.
Finally, there was Jamie Gale. Though Jamie has made guitars, his experience is more focused on understanding the audience for these instruments. He said he views his primary role as “furthering the conversation of the guitar and championing the work” of builders like his fellow panelists. Mostly he is interested in the intersections between the guitar and other disciplines. However, with his years of experience interfacing with and understanding the clientele, as well as his role curating the builders as part of the Boutique Guitar Showcase, Jamie’s perspectives in the ensuing discussion demonstrated the breadth and depth of his knowledge of the field.
Jamie kicked off the discussion by quoting Danish architect, Bjarke Ingels: “If you go beyond indifferent, you’ll awaken a response in both extremes.” And, Jamie added, if that’s what you’re doing, as these builders often are, you know you’re on the right track.
More on the discussion that followed in Part II
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.