Jol Dantzig's Esoterica Electrica: Why Wood?
When a plastic guitar falls in the woods …
Wood is nature’s own composite material. Our homes and the furniture that fills them are made of wood. Pencils and paper are made from it, and the disposable napkins and cups we use daily are derived from wood. Since ancient times, wood has been the material of choice. So much so, we take it for granted—even in the world of guitar.
Over time, stone, fired brick, steel, glass, concrete, and plastic have replaced wood in much of the modern world, but wood remains a giant industry that shows little sign of slowing down. Yet there are places where wood has been usurped as the substance of choice. No one thinks for a second about making automobiles out of wood anymore, and I’m not interested in flying across the ocean in a wooden airplane either. The most advanced contraptions of today are molded, extruded, formed, and even printed from metals and plastics, so why not guitars?
The idea of alternative materials for guitars isn’t new. The all-metal National resonator guitar arrived in 1927, and the 1928 Stromberg Electro—arguably the first commercially made electric guitar—featured a large metal resonator plate. A few years later, the cast-aluminum “Fry Pan” lap steel guitar was introduced by Rickenbacker Electro. It seemed for a moment that wooden guitars were going the way of the wooden schooner. But somehow in the face of this “progress,” the trees bent, but didn’t break.
That’s not to say that builders stopped trying. Italian luthier Mario Maccaferri, known mostly for designing Django Reinhardt’s Gypsy jazz guitar, was fond of using plastic in a diverse range of musical items. In 1941, he developed a plastic ukulele, and a decade later produced a line of plastic archtop guitars. The “Plastic Mac” was a diminutive instrument of injection molded styrene assembled with common plastic adhesives. Not designed as a toy, the Plastic Mac was a playable, decent-sounding instrument. Notably, the back and neck boasted a brown/black swirl that emulated rosewood. Maccaferri was a visionary infatuated with plastic as a replacement for wood, but his efforts were largely ignored, and he wouldn’t be the last.
In 1966, Charles Kaman, who made his fortune as an aerospace contractor, diversified into music with an acoustic guitar featuring a bowl-shaped fiberglass back. With the help of a massive marketing budget, the Ovation guitar became the most successful plastic guitar in history. Known for their strident tone and thin necks, they were ubiquitous during the power-ballad era of the 1980s. Much of the cult-like popularity of the Ovation resulted from being the first widely distributed guitar with a built-in, under-saddle pickup.
In the solidbody world, Dan Armstrong designed a Lucite guitar (and bass) for Ampeg in 1969. Its see-through plastic body celebrated synthetic material rather than trying to hide it, although the neck was maple. Featuring replaceable pickups created by Bill Lawrence, the Armstrong became somewhat fashionable in rock music despite their 10-plus pounds heft. By 1971, the demand for them had melted away.
Around the same time, a machinist named John Veleno built his first all-aluminum electric guitar. Polished to a mirror finish, the Veleno was a custom-built specialty axe that found favor with a few daring guitarists. Although exciting in appearance, the Veleno was plagued with a cold feel and slicing treble. In a similar vein, the Travis Bean design of 1974 mated aluminum necks to wooden bodies. Although lovely to look at, the Bean guitars didn’t catch on, and later when Kramer guitars tried the same recipe, it too faltered.
As carbon fiber replaced wood in items like tennis rackets, golf clubs, and bicycles, it was inevitable that guitar builders would turn to it for instruments. Early adopters were the basses by Modulus Graphite and England’s Status Graphite. These instruments purported to be impervious to weather. The 1984 Bond Electraglide guitar was also solid graphite, and had a unique, stepped fretboard molded of the same material. Another child of the 1980s was the Steinberger, which was molded mostly in one piece, and had a daring, headless design. A darling of the MTV set, the Steinberger was coveted by many big-name musicians for its ergonomics and appearance, which was perfect for the new-wave look.
In the last three decades, synthetic materials have made inroads, mostly in acoustic instruments including violins, string basses, and guitars. The strength of composites allows instruments to be made with thinner, more responsive parts that rev up to volume with the lightest of touch. (The stillborn Ovation full-carbon-fiber Q guitar had a dynamic range so far beyond wooden guitars that players who tested it couldn’t deal with it.) Today, despite more alternatives to choose from than ever before, it seems as though we just can’t get past the beauty and sound of wood. Consequently, even builders of alternative-material instruments spend a lot of time writing ad copy that references “woody sound,” as the promise of a new tonal spectrum still seems beyond our willingness to give up on tradition.