Saturday, January 2, 2010

Guitars Produced From Alternative Wood Products

In the last decade a group of guitar manufacturers got together to discuss the effects the wood industry has on guitars and use of sustainable wood. Included in the meeting was Chris Martin III, Robert Taylor and representatives from other well known guitar manufacturers.

Last June another summit was held at the C.F. Martin headquarters with the company’s wood suppliers.

Bob Taylor of Taylor Guitars has followed up by using more laminate in their product line. Their lower end guitars make great use of laminate for the guitar’s back and sides.

(In 2014, after this article was written, the U.S. State Department awarded Taylor with the Award for Corporate Excellence citing Taylors responsible use in obtaining ebony for their guitars.)

Taylor GS Mini
The 100 Series, GS Mini, the Baby and the Big Baby the tops are solid, but the backs and sides are made of layered sapele wood, with a center layer of poplar.

Taylor Big Baby

These are all very nice guitars. I especially like the Big Baby. Mr. Taylor has come up with some excellent instruments.

In my opinion, it is Chris Martin that has lead the way with use of HPL in the companies X series and the creation of the SWT line that uses only sustainable wood.

There have been some companies that built guitars using alternatives to wood. Their motive was not to conserve the world’s resources, but to make more resources for themselves by using more cost effective materials.

For example, in the late 1960’s Gibson guitars were looking for an inexpensive line to compete with the onslaught of Asian and European beginner guitars.

Gibson - Kalamazoo, Michigan
The company was located in Kalamazoo Michigan and in the early part of the 20th Century had produced a budget line of acoustic guitars which were named after that city.

Gibson revived the product line for a few guitars and amplifiers under the Kalamazoo logo.

The unusual thing about this line up of guitars and basses was that all were made using MDF (Medium Density Fiberboard), which is a multi-purpose construction industry product made of wood particles and wax solvents.

Some refer to this as “Glit”, Glue and S**T, however it is more durable and stronger than plywood.

In other words all that sawdust that Gibson was sweeping off the floor was now being used to make guitars.

The first guitars and basses sort of resembled the Fender Mustang with the upper bout higher than the lower Later models were modified so the design was somewhat similar to Gibson’s SG series. The Gibson Vibrola Tremolo was found on some Kalamazoo guitars. The Kalamazoo line started in 1968 and lasted until 1970 when the line was discontinued.

The single coil pickups resembled Melody Maker pickups with white plastic covers. Pickup controls were 2 slider switches. A white pickguard covered a good portion of the upper body. All had a high gloss finish in your choice of red or white.

The headstock was 6 on a side with Kluson tuners.

The logo decal read Kalamazoo USA in a cursive typeset. Gibson and most other manufacturers recognized the importance of their products being made domestically. The price point set for these guitars was definitely designed to be American made guitars competing with the Asian imports.

Martin LXME
As I mentioned in an earlier paragraph, Martin Guitars took steps to create a line of guitars that was made from their waste.

Their successful X series is made of HPL or High Pressure Laminate. This is the same product used to create laminate wood flooring material.

Martin has turned this into an art form. They have many models, with HPL tops, sides and backs or with solid spruce tops and HPL sides and backs.

The neck on some of these guitars is very interesting. Multiple layers of differing colored HPL are glued and pressed together to produce a neck blank. Then a CNC machine cuts the back of the neck black into a perfectly rounded shape and shapes the headstock. The differing layers of HPL are made of alternate colored laminate so the neck has a very unique effect. Martin also took the process one step further.

For the folks who would not have anything else but solid wood instruments, Martin is manufacturing guitars made of sustainable woods, such as cherry, birch, mahogany and other woods.

Chris Martin has taken conservation one step further by utilizing lumber from forests that are certified to produce sustainable wood. Martin guitars also make use of man-made materials for fingerboards, nuts and saddle by using such materials as Micarta or black Richlite. Micarta is a building material commonly used in modern guitar manufacturing for bridges and nuts for quite a while. Richlite is another HPL product mainly used to produce kitchen and bathroom counter-tops.

Martin SWDGT
The Martin SWDGT (Smartwood Dreadnaught Glossy Top) and the Martin SWOMGT is an American-made six steel-string guitar with solid spruce glossy top and satin-finish cherry sides, back, and neck.

The fingerboard and bridge of katalox, which is a deep brown fine-grain hardwood. They also produce a similar model with Mahogany back and sides.

The Martin D-09 Features all solid tonewoods (European Spruce top and Mahogany back and sides) certified as being harvested from an environmentally sustainable forests. The guitar was created to be similar to the D18. There are other luthiers that were pioneers in the field of guitars that were produced with materials that are alternatives to wood.

Perhaps the Grand-daddy of them all would be Rickenbacker which marketed the Electro-22, commonly known as the Frying Pan lap steel as far back as1931. This instrument, designed by George Beauchamp was made of aluminum.

Electro Model B
Within a few years Rickenbacker introduced their Electro Model B guitar and offered it for sale in 1935. This guitar was made mostly of Bakelite, which was one of the first industrial plastics. Their Spanish model had some intonation problems. It was better suited as a lap steel. Besides 80 years later it still looks cool.

In 1947 (Nathaniel) Nat Daniels founded Danelectro and built tube based amplifiers. Mr. Daniel’s company manufactured amplifiers under the Danelectro name, but the bulk of his products were sold under different brand names by companies such as Sears and Roebuck and Montgomery Ward.

In the mid 1950’s Daniels decided to manufacture electric guitars. What was unusual was the guitars used a plywood frame and attached a poplar wood neck to the frame in a manner that had the neck running through most of the body for the first models.

Later models did not have the neck through the guitar, but glued a wooden block within the body used to attach the bridge screws. The body frame was sandwiched between two sheets of Masonite of varying colors and styles. The aluminum fixed bridge sat on top of the body and was held in place by screws that attached to the distal end of the neck block. The nut was made of aluminum and the simple bridge was a slanted piece of wood.

Some models came with a tremolo unit. The alnico single coil pickups were unique because they were encased in lipstick container tubes. They were also wound in series to provide a punchy tone characteristic. The uniqueness factor for Danelectro’s is the variety of guitars.

They came with single cutaways, double cutaway or longhorn cutaways, which resembled a lyre. Most guitars had two pickups, some had three pickups. The guitars could be six string or 12 string instruments. The basses had either four or six strings. Most guitars came with 21 frets. Danelectro made a 31 fret model called the Guitarlin. When capoed, this instrument could produce a mandolin type of sound. Danelectro also sold double neck guitars.

They manufactured some other instruments with plain wooden bodies, but we’ll save that for another discussion.

National and Valco produced some very interesting instruments in the 1960’s. The necks were wood, but the bodies were made of fiberglass, which they called Reso-glass. These are exceptionally cool looking instruments and one of the first to feature a bridge saddle piezo pickup.

I will also tip my hat to the Ibanez guitar company. The first Talman electric and electric acoustic guitars were introduced around 1994. The early instruments were made of high pressure laminate that Ibanez called Luthite. After production of the instruments parts a picture of wood was glued to the guitar bodies to give the illusion of wood.



pgkobrien said...

great review of the Martin use of HPL technology, and a trip down memory lane with the Danelectro gear.
Great work!

Anonymous said...

You missed the Ibanez Talman electrics, early years of which used some compressed wood product before switching to real wood. Not the current range of talmans, which are acoustic, but the older ones of that name.

Anonymous said...

Bob Taylor has never worked for Martin guitars. You are mistaken him for someone else.