Friday, July 11, 2008

Guitar Design

Apropos of nothing I was talking with a couple of guitar minded chums about the state of guitar design. We had come to this topic because one of our number was looking for something "a bit different", which is shorthand for "not a strat, tele or Les Paul". This led me to thinking about those guitars and why they dominate as they do.

Of the three I think the strat is the greatest, it has the most, for its time, revolutionary design, it's functional, never out of fashion and eminently practical as a workhorse instrument. In fact it's basically perfect. It's a situation very much like when John Kemp Starley designed the Safety Bicycle in 1885 and with it invented the bicycle as we know it today (diamond frame, chain driven rear wheel, etc.). He basically got it right in one go, an amazing achievement of bold design and engineering, especially considering that the Penny Farthing was the state of the art in bicycle design at the time. Just as Starley hit the nail firmly on the head in 1885 so did George Fullerton, Leo Fender and Freddie Tavares in 1954. The bolt on neck, the solid contoured body, the exciting bright paint finishes, the whammy bar on and on. It's just perfect. I look at Tinseltroos' Strat and it still amazes me 54 years after its invention.

But does that mean that guitar design is done? Is it not worth trying anything else? Sure, there are guitars like the Parker Fly that tried to reinvent the instrument with limited success. For me, the Strat cannot be bettered in its practicality, non-fussiness of its engineering and the manner of its construction. I like basic electric guitars with all the bits bolted together; it's unfussy and if anything breaks it's quite straight-forward to get a replacement part. The only thing that might be worth playing with is body and headstock design because this is a question of taste and style rather than pure engineering common sense. Even so, there are many limitations when designing a guitar body: the neck and bridge have to fit in a certain configuration for intonation to work properly, you need to be able to rout out the right areas to install the electrics, you need to consider having enough mass for the guitar to resonate but not too much so it becomes unwieldy, although that never stopped Rick Nielsen. Finally you have to think about how it would feel like to have the guitar on: could you play it sitting down? A Flying V, for example, is a strictly standing up only instrument and that bothers some people.

The more I thought about it, the trickier the problem became but it intrigued me all the more too. So I decided to have a go. I love the proportions of my Charvel Strat, and I knew what bridge and pickups I'd want if it were my guitar so I laid out those components from scanned photos in Photoshop and started sketching body shapes around them. It took ages to come up with something that I liked aesthetically that would also work as a guitar. I finally appreciated why designing something new is so hard. Not only do you have to compete with something that is basically perfect already, but there are so many constraints that trying anything else is very difficult. In the end, this is what I came up with:

Guitar Design

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Blogger booda baby said...

No point in me commenting because I only like the guitars with pretty woods and nice thingies. We're going to a little party at National this afternoon. One of our friends is an endorser. I like their guitars very much because - yes - they're shiny.

(And because they sound really really good forever and ever.)

I have to go and tell David Oliver ( about this post. Good bye.

7:42 pm  
Blogger Oliver said...

I raised the action on my Strat about 1" off the fret board and strung it with the heaviest gauge there is--now it's just for slide parts. Semi-hollow bodies? Where have you been all my life?

4:52 am  
Blogger Mr Atrocity said...

Booda Baby, National guitars are pretty much the shiniest of all.

Oliver, I used to have a Martin DM that had a raised action for slide. I found I didn't play it enough to justify the flat space it occupied but it was fun for a while then I had to sell it.

9:41 am  

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