The purpose of these articles is to establish a system of analysis and terminology that will allow anyone to understand and describe any non-acoustic guitar design and visually critique or improve them. Many of the underlying principles are fairly obvious, but I’m going to imagine I’m describing them to a relative novice. I apologize to the more advanced.
I’m not trying to claim any higher Authority here, I’m just going to call things as I see them. While I’ve designed over 200 new guitar models, only two have been realized and I’ve never spent a day in the Industry, which may be good or bad. Meanwhile, I’ve gleaned a few insights.
The first thing to remember is that there are certain aspects of these guitars that are taken as read…
Number One being that they are virtually always designed around a central long axis. (The Spine) Designs that neglect or contradict this fundamental reality will always have problems, and show them.
Second, that guitars are made for humans to play, and must relate to the size range that we are. Ergonomics are a big part of making guitars that people like, and buy, and keep. Nearly every guitar body ever made was drawn inside an envelope about 18×24 or so, give or take. Solid bodies are generally 13×20 or less, as they’re heavier, unless chambered. Most necks are between 16 and 22″ long , depending on scale length. The vast majority have a headstock, and most of those fall somewhere inside of an area about 4×10″, tops. So if you’re setting out to design a new guitar model, it’ll probably fit in these ‘envelopes’.
Naturally there are exceptions to every rule, but if you can get finished designing every possible guitar in those parameters, give me a call. (Physics has shown that finite spaces can in fact house the infinite!) I’ve given this a lot of thought over the years, and really, most guitar bodies fall into only six general types, dependent on their overall Thrust. The way to discover this is to codify the pattern of the apparent Axes they have, drawn perpendicularly across the widest and narrowest points of their shape.
The human brain seizes on these extremes as a way of identifying shapes quickly. Our eyes are evolved to remember horizons, rock formations, animals, trees and plants,and the tools of daily life. Aside from the ones shown, there are bound to be oddball combinations, but those are disparate enough to dump into an ‘Irregular’ group. The others then are: Static, Avid, Recumbent, the Butterfly, and… SaddleBags, for lack of a more serious term. (I had a funnier one in mind, but would surely have gotten me in trouble!) This is a little-used type anyway and difficult to make work. If anyone coins a better term, I’m open to hearing it.
The reason most guitar designs will fit into the first three categories is because they rely on symmetry, across the Spine. Not all guitars require symmetry, but it’s a way to insure ‘non-failure’… it just always works. The Acoustic archetypes that Electrics descended from were symmetric, because regular shapes make regular noises… they just sound better. (Because they introduce fewer vibrational frequencies that affect the physical structure poorly.) So symmetry also visually suggests good sound. The only problem is that most symmetric guitar designs have been done, so finding new ones is tough.
Asymmetric guitar designs that are pleasing usually are because they achieve a Balance between their disparate elements, and that’s pretty much what symmetry does, in its more structured way. It’s just done through visual weighting.
Electrics evolved from acoustic Box guitars, and their ‘waisted’ structure (which stiffens the box) stayed with them, though I’ve yet to see any quantifiable reason for that, except history, and perhaps comfort, with a small nod to keeping them looking somewhat organic or feminine. So with that much inheritance, making new solid models without a waist is risky at best… though I’ve managed a few. At very least, one must remember that guitars are played in various positions, and a waist does help keep them from sliding off a player’s leg while seated.
So if you’re drawing a new model, it’s often desirable to work out the ‘bones’ first and then flesh it out from there. Each of the Thrust types will have its pluses and minuses that have to be worked out in relation to the player’s position, so it’s a good idea to work at full scale. Go to the guitar store and measure some successful guitar designs to understand a ratio of height to width generic to certain ‘families’ of guitars that people recognize and gravitate to. The Greeks discovered certain ratios like the Golden Mean (1:1.6) usually deliver an eye-pleasing balance… and a Strat body gets pretty close at 1:1.5. But again, there are no hard rules.
Naturally, longer scale instruments will allow body sizes to increase slightly, and short-scale necks will want smaller ones. Just understand that there will almost surely be some compromise in the ‘hanging balance’ of the full sized model’s prototypes, whether that means making the body smaller, the head longer, adding chambering, etc. Designing guitars on paper is one thing, 3D articles are a whole ‘nother bag of bobcats.
A Third ‘Given’ is that guitars are appreciated by human eyes, and they have their own wants and quirks. They ‘read’ objects in various ways. They scan the perimeter, [and different cultures will want to ‘read’ from one side or the other]. They ‘weigh’ the mass of the whole – and its parts, and they relate shapes to known motifs, and tend to attribute properties to objects by what they know of similarly shaped ones in their memory. For example, every time I show a new guitar design to anyone, they invariably seek to tell me what it’s closest to. It never fails.
So understanding how we See is a great start in learning how to please the eye. There’s a good book called The Astonishing Hypothesis that describes the process in full scientific detail. But you should also study sculpture, architecture, layout, photography, calligraphy, and even flower arranging for clues to how we see beauty and function.
Fourth on the list of Things We Can’t Avoid is that others have come before us, and designed many of the archetypal guitar designs that determine what works (or sells), and what doesn’t (or hasn’t). The fact is that any new design has a VERY small chance of displacing the icons we all inherited, and this is even truer depending on the knowledgeability of the buyer. The less they know, the more rigid their preconceptions – and their predilection to hanging on to that ignorance. Jumping on popular bandwagons is a lot easier than thinking. (It’s a bit like buying a Harley, one is washed in its aura and gains a certain cachet.) This is why so many feel justified in selling other peoples’ work, it works, and it’s occasionally legal, in certain cases. It’s important to remember, however, that Fender lost its case against all the Strat copyists because thirteen year old Guitar Center patrons didn’t know who designed it originally – because so many had stolen the design for so long that somehow it had become acceptable to consider it fair game. I kid you not. And this could happen to you. (I’ll just get it out of the way and state that I find it Ethically wrong to steal other peoples’ work.)
So any putative guitar designer needs to learn what has come before us, looking very closely and objectively at what has been done. And by inference, what HASN’T. Many guitar designs that are revered don’t necessarily deserve it, they just came along early… lots of them are downright ugly. Still, one should look for ways to combine good ideas, or explore the niches between them that have not been mined. Of course what we’re all after is that moment of real inspiration, bringing forth something truly new and archetypal, from nothing.
Early on, though, there’s no substitute for research, and the subject is nearly endless. Luckily, most of us can’t get enough guitars!
Next time… how I describe things, and some more principles for really seeing shapes. Comments and questions are welcome below, also you can contact me directly via the About page. Kerry Kruger.