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For three years now, French builder Jean- Yves Alquier has surprised and delighted fans of forward-thinking guitar design with the instruments he’s shown in Montreal. This year, he showed the third guitar in a series he began in 2009 with the Air Mail Special, followed by 2010’s Papaleocada.
“My concept was to make three hot-rod style guitars that pay tribute to Charlie Christian, the Dopyera brothers [John Dopyera invented the resonator guitar and created the Dobro with his siblings Rudy and Emil], and Erik Satie. This guitar, the last of my triptych, is inspired by Gnossienne No. 1—one of Satie’s compositions that I like very much. So I call it the Gnossienne.”
This 8-string acoustic-electric has a handful of beautifully unusual design twists. “It has nylon strings,” explains Alquier, “and it’s tuned A–E–A–D–G–B–E–A. The two outside A strings expand the standard 6-string tuning in both the bass and treble registers. I was inspired by the timbre of a 17th-century lute. But the difference is I designed this guitar to have all its sound remain inside, rather than project out, as you would with a traditional lute or classical guitar. I use a Highlander pickup system to amplify this interior sound. Essentially, the amplifier allows the listener to venture inside the instrument.”
The Gnossienne’s spruce soundboard is tucked inside the red body, which is actually a shell that surrounds the top and its bracing. “I use a fan bracing pattern,” Alquier continues. “The braces are made with two spruce strips surrounding a carbon-fiber center. The strings sit on carbon-fiber saddles that penetrate through the exterior body and attach to the interior top, driving it like pistons.”
Left: The fan-braced spruce soundboard of Jean-Yves Alquier’s Gnossienne 8-string is inside the red
outer shell. Note the carbon-fiber string saddles. Middle: The way the Gnossienne’s neck joint melds
seemlessly with the outer shell is a thing of beauty. Right: The instrument is tuned A–E–A–D–G–B–E– A,
and the only parts Alquier didn’t build are the Rodgers tuners and the Highlander pickup.
Other construction details include fanned frets and multiple string-scale lengths that range from 640 mm (high A) to 670 mm (low A). The frets sit on a concave fretboard, which makes them look like little arched bridges. “I was inspired by the sitar,” says Alquier, “which has tall, curved frets.” But unlike the sitar, each of the Gnossienne’s frets is embedded into a tiny pedestal. “That’s because I didn’t want the frets to collapse. I first carved the fretboard from basswood and then made a mold from that sculpture and poured in a composite material to form the fretboard. Actually, I made two fretboards. The first was graphite, which looked beautiful. But it’s very hard to glue anything to graphite because it’s so slippery. So I abandoned that idea and used a composite consisting of black powder suspended in a resin base.”
Except for the custom Rodgers tuners and Highlander pickup system, Alquier fabricated all the parts and assembled the guitar himself. Finding low- and high-A nylon strings wasn’t a problem. “Both are made by Savarez,” says Alquier. “The low A is for nylon-string baritone guitar and the high A is a lute string.”
Needless to say, the Gnossienne is a one-of-a-kind instrument that stands at the crossroads of guitar, lute, and sculpture. “We have the guitar, so now we must create the guitarist,” says Alquier. “This has been my concept from the beginning: Build an instrument for a musician who has not yet appeared. Maybe the guitarist is alive already, maybe not. Whoever it is, the player has to be drawn to this guitar and has to think differently.”