Reminiscences of a Lutherie enthusiast – 1

In retrospect, when talking about music and musical instruments, I’ve come to the sobering conclusion that a society has to be able to afford art. In the court of Louis XVI, the monarch of France in the 18th century, John Adams, who was an ambassador of the then newly formed nation of America, said something that succinctly explains my conclusion. Mr Adams was in the court of Louis XVI along with Benjamin Franklin, another founding father of the nation we now call USA. Mr Adams, unlike Dr Franklin, didn’t quite show an interest in theatre and the arts, which Versailles was known for. When questioned in court why that was, Mr Adams said that he had to study war & politics so that his sons could study mathematics & philosophy, and then their sons could afford to indulge in painting, music & the finer arts. In the time I learnt how to play a guitar, it often occurred to me how the instrument came to be and why music came to be. Suffices to say that John Adams answers that question.

Musical instrument fabrication is a good indicator of the society it was conceived in. Since I was closer to the guitar, it made sense to study that instrument in particular. Guitar as we know it today originates from the lute, another stringed instrument. But it came to be its own over time. A guitarist by name Brandon Acker, whose YouTube channel is pretty informative about the evolution of the instrument, is someone who can be referred to. What interested me was the evolution of production technologies of the guitar after the 1800s. For the uninitiated, the mention of a guitar would either mean an electric guitar or a steel string acoustic guitar. A few would know what a classical guitar is. To begin with, how a guitar makes a sound is something that fascinated me. To get into greater detail about it, one would need to know the parts of a guitar.

In the image here, one can see that the body of the guitar is hollow with a hole in it called the sound hole. This guitar here has no cutaway on the body, and is of a shape called a dreadnought/dreadnaught. Many falsely think that the sound comes out of the sound hole. The sound actually comes from the top sound board while the sound hole is merely an airflow ventilator. When a string is plucked, the string vibrates at a certain frequency. When a string is pressed on the fretboard, the string length is altered and it vibrates at a frequency corresponding to the length and thickness of the string. The image is not that clear, but the strings get thinner from left to right in this guitar. The guitar is for a right-dextrous player, who frets with the left hand and picks the strings with the right hand. When the guitarist holds the instrument, the top-most string is the thickest, with the thickness reducing downwards. The thinner a string, the easier it cuts through the air around it and hence, makes a higher pitched sound. Conversely, the thicker strings make a deeper sound. With such a setup, the guitar covers a fair breadth of the spectrum of sounds from low to high. I must also mention that this guitar has steel strings. Each string on each fret is a note. These notes are denoted with letters from A to G. The guitar is calibrated with the ‘A’ note’s frequency at 445 Hz. The strings of the guitar in what is called the standard tuning, from top to bottom, or left to right in this image, are tuned as follows – E, A, D, G, B & E. The pitch increases as we go downwards. The note corresponding to A is not the string which is tuned to A; it is on the second fret of the string tuned to G. Much can be said about the musical progressions, scales & modes but that isn’t what this article is about. The frequency of A denoting 445 Hz is where we continue from. What that means is 445 cycles per second. That indicates very tensile forces in the string. In the beginning cow gut was what was used for making guitar strings. The bones from cows were used for the bridge & nut. Musical instruments truly needed sacrifice.

Bracing in a classical guitar

With such high tensile force, and a string vibrating at such frequencies, the air around the string is disturbed. This air causes the sound board beneath it to vibrate. The sound hole, like I mentioned, is merely an airflow passageway. The top of the guitar vibrates the most in tandem with the string and amplifies the signal. By itself, a string produces little to no sound. To ensure that the top doesn’t lose its structural integrity, underneath and facing the hollow side, the wood is “braced”. These are wooden dampeners to regulate how much the top moves. They also provide support for “bracing” against the tensile forces of the string. When the American civil war came by, an American luthier by name C F Martin had the idea of using steel for strings instead of cow gut, as it was in shortage. Using steel caused some obvious problems. Steel had higher tensile forces to vibrate at the tuning needed. The way the guitar was made until then wasn’t going to work. Steel also caused the top to vibrate more, as it cut through the air far more efficiently than gut. What proceeded further changed the art of lutherie entirely. In gut string guitars, the bracing faced far less tensile force. The image here is the kind of bracing what one might generally find in a classical guitar. Mr Martin realised that he needed to reinforce the sound board stronger and eventually came up with a design that would end up being the industry standard in a very short time. the bracing was with an X pattern, and it worked. Another innovation from Martin was the shape of the body of the guitar. To make the guitar louder, and since this was in the pre-electric civilisation, the body had to be made bigger. Thus, was born the most commonly available shape of an acoustic – the dreadnought/dreadnaught; named after a battleship.

X Bracing by C F Martin

Martin’s guitar company, C F Martin & Co, became a runaway success. Aside from the soundboard itself, the steel string guitar brought forth multiple innovations that would eventually lead to the electric guitar. The fretboard of a gut string guitar, which now gained the nomenclature of “classical guitar”, was flat. Simple engineering & production proficiency dictated that cylindrical shapes handle tensile & torsional forces better. The fretboard developed a slight curvature, became thinner & also had an additional part called a truss-rod. This truss-rod was another reinforcement to reduce the amount of wood used, and helped counteract the tensile forces. This truss-rod was inserted in the neck of the guitar and it also reduced the costs of refurbishing a guitar. Any bending of the neck could be adjusted with the truss-rod. The biggest innovation to acoustic guitars would come several decades later, changing the way the neck was attached to the body of the guitar. That came from Taylor guitars. The neck was screwed on with bolts, and was a detachable piece. The other big development in acoustics was vents on the sides of the sound-board, an offset sound hole & a cantilever fret board. A part of the fret board touches the body of the guitar & a cantilever fret board for that part would allow even more of the guitar to vibrate naturally. A few notable innovators – McPherson guitars, Kevin Ryan guitars, Ervin Somogyi & David Murray (Dehradun guitar company).

An ignored innovation that contributed to the resurgence of classical guitars came from the invention of a synthetic polymer. Classical music is played with finger-picking. The narrower placement of the strings on a steel string guitar caused the rise of a whole other kind of playing style – use of a plectrum. Where the classical guitar caused the death of a cow, plectrums caused the death of tortoises for their shell. When DuPont industries came up with nylon, it would go on to become a great substitute for killing cows to make strings. While reducing the incentive to kill an animal, it also caused a resurgence in the playing of a classical guitar. Nylon can be plucked with fingers without hurting, and it maintained tension for longer; a perfect substitute. As plastics became more and more popular, Dunlop industries developed a material called Tortex, that was a substitute to make durable plectrums that could make the instrument produce great sound. If plastics weren’t invented, we wouldn’t have had a society that could afford to play the guitar in all likelihood.

There is a whole lot to say about electric guitars, that’s for another essay.

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