Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Setting my sights a little lower

It can't have escaped anyone's attention that I haven't yet built the T-beam guitar. Even though I've talked a lot about it, nothing tangible has emerged. I've bought the components and there's nothing much missing. It's just a question of doing it.

So why haven't I made it yet?

It's mostly due to my busy life with a job and two small children. Yet other busy parents manage to build guitars, so there must be another reason. I've been thinking a lot about it and have reached the trivial conclusion that the T-beam guitar is too big a task for my limited experience. There are too many things that can go wrong in the process, and that's keeping me back.

I've decided that I need an easier task to gain some experience. A task that gives me a reasonable chance of success. This means that I'll have to lower my ambitions and - for starters - build something much simpler: A two-string, nylon string, fretless piezo alu T-beam stick bass. This is way easier than my original goal (a guitar with frets, tapered neck, pickup cavities, etc.), meaning that I might actually get it built.


The instrument minus acrylic body

The simplicity (and hence increased probability of it becoming a reality) of this new project in comparison with my original idea is due to the following factors:

Fretless because:
  • Fret, bridge and nut placement becomes less crucial or non-existing
  • I don't have to think about adjustability for intonation (lengthwise adjustable saddles)

Two strings because:
  • It is simpler than four strings.Whether or not to radius the fingerboard is not an issue.
  • Stig Pedersen of D:A:D plays a two string bass ;-)
  • I will be using the same basic design as e.g. Krappy Guitars and Longbow. This means that the neck won't have to taper towards the nut, which in turn means that I can use a standard T-beam and only cut it to get the desired length.
  • The few times, I've played a bass, I've mostly used the two low strings.

Nylon strings because:
  • I like playing nylon strings
  • They put little tension on the neck, meaning that I don't have to install a truss rod.

A bass because
  • I want to build something simple, and a two string guitar doesn't appeal to me.
  • I don't want a fretless guitar. At least at present, I want my guitars to have frets and six strings.
  • I don't have a bass, and I could use one. There's a good chance I might actually play it.
  • I believe the human ear to be less sensitive to tonal precision in the low register. Therefore, fretlees is a more nearby option for basses than for guitars. On a guitar, it would be very, very obvious if a tone was even slightly off, whereas on a bass, your ears would be more error-tolerant. On a bass, there is a larger margin. And I can use that ;-)

Piezo pickups because
  • It will serve as a testbed for my preamp/buffer experiments (thought I might swap some components when using them for guitars rather than basses)
  • I want to be able to use nylon strings, and a magnetic pickup won't pick them up (unless they have steel cores, which would increase neck tension)
  • I can use a much narrower T-beam than if I'd have to make room for traditional pickups and still avoid the top flange of the T-beam being completely intersected by the pickup cavity. Narrower means being able to use a standard 60 mm aluminium T-beam.

Alu T-beam because
  • It gives me practice in building T-beam guitars, which is what I set out to do in the first place.
  • It gives me the opportunity to experiment with mounting the piezos in different wood species on the quarter circle neck "sticks" (e.g. maple and mahogany).
  • Using semi-hollow wooden "sticks", it allows for wiring and piezo placement in an enclosed space everywhere on the bass (headstock included)
  • It gives me a reasonably hard fingerboard surface (depending on the alloy and temper), which is important with fretless instruments.
  • The considerable thermal expansion and contraction of aluminium doesn't ruin intonation when the bass is fretless. On a fretted instrument, this is a problem. This makes aluminium a more suitable building material for fretless than for fretted instruments.

A stick (with detachable body) because:
  • I believe that the body dampens the strings and reduces sustain. It's not so much the guitar body itself, but the fact that it rests on the player's torso and the player's arm rests on it. If you isolate the body from the neck (or "stick"), it will be able to vibrate more freely and without damping.
  • It also allows a lot of freedom in designing bodies with ergonomics or looks in mind. The stick remains, but you can swap body according to your playing style and physique. Or your mood, for that matter. Plus, you can experiment with many different shapes and materials for the body. You can have a guitar body designed for seated playing and one for standing up. One for resting the guitar on your left thigh, and one for resting it on your right, depending on preferences.

That's a lot of reasons to build the thing. Some are better than others, but overall I believe the project to have a good chance of success.

2 comments:

Core said...

Lovely, looking forward to the possibillity of physical progress.

One thought; wouldn't it be a good point with lenghwise saddle adjustment in order to intonate so that the two strings are playing the correct note at the same fingerposition, thus helping the mind-body unity regarding the crucial "hitting the note without glissando towards it". Based on my recent indian sitar experience i think of it as a good philosophy to keep things tuned and intonated to help in the difficulty of playing unfretted. Even though a false low register note can pass at a glance i still think that it disturbes the subtle fingerposition/mind coordination and thus is a hinder for the learning progress.

All this is NOT meant as a discouragement :) I would add an adjustable saddle and that hardly complicates the building progress?

Alexander Gorm Øst said...

You're right about the adjustable saddle. The ones I plan to use are only height-adjustable (a piece of threaded rod through the top flange). And if the bass doesn't collapse under the tension the first time I string it up, adding lengthwise adjustable saddles will be one of the first things I'll be doing. But I'll have to see that the bass basically functions before doing it - I'd rather not put too much effort into the details before I've verified that the basic design works.

Your description of the benefit of having adjustable intonation on fretless instruments is spot on. I've been persuading myself that it wasn't necessary because one could easily adjust the finger placement to compensate... the "glissando towards the note". But you're right, the bass shouldn't impose the need for such constant corrections on the player.

When (if) the bass is working, I'll change the saddles by making slots in the top flange instead of the threaded holes. Then, the saddles will be secured on top and bottom of the flange by nuts. Loosening one of the nuts will allow adjusting intonation by sliding the saddle lengthwise to the desired position.

Btw, the project is already underway. I hope to be able to bring an update shortly.