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Notes on the Panel Discussion “Innovative Design In Modern Guitar Making”

Updated: Jan 10, 2021

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 Rosenkrantz

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.

Ken Parker