Hooray for through-and-through originality: It’s wonderful when a newly conceived musical instrument presents a whole new musical landscape to explore.
On the other hand, there’s also value in presenting a new instrument idea with at least some familiar elements – for instance, instruments for which the playing technique is close to that of some known instrument, however much the new instrument may be innovative in other ways. Such an instrument comes into the world with a head start, as many people will already have some dexterity in handling it.
With that in mind, I’ve made a number of guitar-like instruments. In terms of craftspersonship, these are not remotely in the same league as the fine instruments we see from serious guitar makers. Instead, they are mostly about ideas, along the lines of “Gee, I wonder if it I could make a guitar-like instrument with a new sound by doing such-and-such?” For example – well, listed below are some of the kinds of things I’ve tried to do. In addition, you can find a Youtube video showing several of these instruments here.
Wobble Steel Guitar: This instrument has no wooden soundboard or hollow body; instead it has a large sheet of galvanized steel. The bridge delivers the string vibrations directly into this sheet. As is typical of sheet metal, the sheet has pronounced resonances which color the sound. The player can slightly flex the sheet while playing, and this causes those resonances to shift from moment to moment, creating bends and shimmers within the tone.
Deep Guitar: Deep Guitar uses a homemade magnetic pickup specially designed to function as a contact pickup, responding to the vibration of whatever it’s attached to. (To make this possible, the design reorients the polarity of the pickup’s magnet and has the coils wound over a specially shaped bobbin.) Rather than being mounted on the guitar body, the pickup presses directly on the strings from above. This alternative pickup configuration produces a wonderfully full tone in the bass but is poor in its treble response. Accordingly, the instrument is strung as a baritone guitar, tuned a fourth or fifth below standard guitar tuning, highlighting the rich low end.
Slideable Fret Guitar: This one has staple-like movable fretlets under the strings. You can tune it to any non-standard scale you like.
Tinfoil Guitar and Tinfoil Bass: These are minimal instruments – just fretted sticks with strings, really – with small sheets of tin foil pressed against the strings adjacent to the bridge to alter the tone and create rattly effects. Piezo pickups are attached to the foil itself, so the sound that comes through the speaker is the rattled string sound as filtered through the foil. Pure raunch. Tiny adjustments in the positioning of the foil make a big difference in the resulting sound, and because the foil tends to frequently get scrunched around in various ways, the sound varies and is unpredictable from day to day. (Sorry, there’s no link for photo and additional information on on this instrument because no page has yet been created in this website’s Instrumentarium section for this instrument.)
Cubist Bass and Cookery Guitar: These instruments are designed as explorations of the effects of having an unusually flimsy soundboard. With typical guitar designs, you can’t make the soundboard too light or weak, because the board has to be strong enough to sustain a lot of pressure and/or pull from the strings. In the Cubist Bass and the Cookery Guitar the strings are configured and mounted in a way that eliminates the stress from the strings, so the soundboard can be made extremely light. My expectation was that this would allow the boards to be more responsive, with a strong and perhaps more bottom-heavy tone offset by relatively short sustain. And indeed, in the Cubist Bass, those effects seemed to come across very nicely – decent volume and a nice full bass sound from a relatively small and crudely made string bass. In the cookery guitar, however, the effect turned out to be not so noteworthy – pleasant enough tone, but not especially loud or all that different from a typical guitar.
Y-String Guitar: In this guitar, each string divides into two at a Y-joint an inch or so from the bridge. This creates an effect in which the sounding frequency depends on the direction of vibration, producing two slightly different pitches depending on the direction of pluck. In practice, most plucks produce a blend of the two frequencies, creating a chorusing effect. In addition, the extra weight at the Y-joint slightly detunes the string’s harmonics, which further complicates the tone.
Elastic Guitar: The elastic guitar is made for stretchy strings. A couple of them are latex, like rubber bands, and the others are similarly stretchy plastic materials. I have not found stretchy materials that can take anywhere near the high tensions of normal guitar strings, and so the string scaling on this instrument is quite short. Even at that short scale, it’s tuned a full octave below standard guitar tuning. Elastic strings don’t have the force to do a good job of driving a sound board, nor do they do very well in driving a pickup or a piezo in the usual configurations, so for this instrument I had to develop a special magnetic pickup system: the pickup is incorporated into the bridge, with the strings riding on a a steel bar which rests on a foam pad on top of the pickup. The sound of these strings is nearly devoid of overtones, making for a warm, rounded sort of tone. (For more on elastic strings, see also this essay.)
Mid-String Pickup Guitar: I like the sound of a magnetic pickup placed as close as possible to the middle of the string’s vibrating length. It’s an unusually warm sort of tone. So on this guitar I eliminated the higher frets in order to be able to place a pickup around where the 14th fret would normally be, which is approximately the mid-point for strings fretted in the first few frets. (Sorry, there’s no link for photo and additional information on on this instrument because no page has been created in this website’s Instrumentarium section for this instrument.)
Damped Guitars: There are various ways of damping the strings to create pizzicato effects. If you haven’t mastered the technique of palm-damping in live performance, you can easily create similar effects by wedging a piece of foam rubber under the strings adjacent to the bridge. Working with different shapes and densities of foam, you can bring out some really nice sounds. I’ve made some guitars that take this a step further with special foam-holder components over the bridge. These allow effortless fine adjustment of the foam pressure and positioning. Just about as effective is the idea of wedging a suitably-sized and shaped foam piece under the strings near the bridge. (Sorry, there’s no link for photo and additional information on on this instrument because no page has been created in this website’s Instrumentarium section for this instrument.)
String Lattice Guitar: The string lattice guitar is an exploration of the notion of tunable soundboard resonances, achieved by replacing the soundboard with a planar array of many additional strings. It’s an intriguing idea! But the actual audible results, in the instrument that I made, were not really all that thrilling. Still, the concept merits a fuller description than would fit here, so I’ve written it up in another posting, which you can find here.