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Intelligent Design?

Artistic form and innovative function

A couple of news items are bringing attention to something Premier Guitar readers take very seriously: guitar design. There is an art and a science to it and sometimes one element is stronger than the other, but every now and then both come together and history is made.


In anticipation of National Design Week (October 14-20), The Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum is promoting its National Design Awards, which include the popular People''s Design Award. The PD Award gives people a chance to weigh in on what "good" design is all about. A number of products, graphic design layouts, buildings, etc. are competing for internet votes in a free-for-all competition. Anyone can go to the website and vote. The idea is to recognize and appreciate quality design for what it is -- an intuitive though nebulous concept that doesn''t require you to physically engage with or understand the items in question before voting. Sometimes you can simply look at something, new or old, and know that its design is flawless.

Not surprisingly, some guitars are among the leading vote-getters right now: the Fender Stratocaster, the Fender Telecaster and Prince''s Symbol guitar.

Despite the Telecaster''s revolutionary twang, the guitar''s visual aesthetic was and is notable in its own right. The same goes for the Stratocaster. Its contoured body, pickup switching system and adjustable bridge were welcome innovations for guitar players in the ''50s but non-musicians fell in love with the guitar, too. Sure, the guitars'' deep cutaway is meant to give players easier access to higher frets while reducing overall body weight, but it also contributed to a look that is best described as classic. The Tele and the Strat were bold designs when they were introduced; asymmetrical, yet balanced. They provided iconic imagery that accompanied and then came to represent the progression of blues, country and of course, rock n'' roll. There are a lot of good-sounding guitars out there but no other electrics have imprinted their designs on our collective consciousness in quite the same way.

Prince''s Symbol guitar went where no guitars had gone before. Visually, it is loud and obnoxious to the point of ridiculousness, but it is also elegant and pointedly symbolic in both connotative and denotative ways, playing off the performer''s gender-morphing symbol that became his name. The symbol thing confused fans and critics alike but didn''t deter "the artist" (as he was often called during that period) from making a statement. For him to incorporate it into a guitar -- his musical tool, so to speak -- was very Prince, and was really the whole point. This was a guitar that wasn''t talked about for its tone or playability, although Prince is generally regarded for knowing a thing or two when it comes to infusing tasty guitar licks into popular music. This was a guitar that was meant to make a visual statement -- most people would agree that it indeed accomplished just that. That it is being considered for a People’s Design Award alongside the Strat and the Tele is extremely intriguing.


Another guitar in the media spotlight right now is the De Villain Centerfold, a folding guitar with windable strings designed by Fredrik Johansson, a Swedish pilot who was tired of the hassles that come with taking a normal-sized guitar on a plane. Unlike other travel guitars that are simply small-scale instruments or body-less versions of a playable neck-to-bridge contraption, the De Villain solves the size problem by literally folding in half. The strings wind around a coil that you crank. It locks back into place upon unfolding. The entire unfolding/cranking process takes 20 seconds.

Its ability to stay in tune and sustain a note like a solidbody should raise immediate questions but Johansson claims his guitar can do both.

The folding design has been attempted by more guitar manufacturers than are willing to admit it. Achieving the functions of being both a playable, good-sounding guitar and a portable guitar is no easy task, but Johansson might be on to something. He has improved his design many times and the end result is getting a lot of publicity, especially with high-end gadget sites like Gizmodo and

The big question is whether a guitar that folds in half can pass muster with serious guitarists who value tone over a clever idea. For $3370, you can buy one and find out yourself.

For more information:

National Design Awards – People’s Design Award

The De Villain