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"The Right Look" in Guitars

Some of the guitars I see have that certain something (some don’t) and are visually appealing enough for me to approach and take a closer look.

I go to a lot of guitar shows. Some of the guitars I see have that certain something (some don’t) and are visually appealing enough for me to approach and take a closer look. You’ve probably had the same experience, but what is it all about?

Well, it involves a package of visual impressions that my eyes seem to take in all at once. Though I believe most people are capable of taking in the same particular package of visual impressions all at once, they may not be consciously aware if they have not yet learned to pay attention. The package includes the proportions, lines, smoothness or lumpiness of the curves, harmony of color and texture, and the overall pleasingness. It’s no different from the capacity for instant assessment of yummy-ness (or lack of it) that a man might make when he looks at a woman (or vice versa), or even a car or motorcycle. However, the sexual/sensual part of an assessment is usually less prominent when one looks at a guitar or the average painting. That desexualized version of one’s personal assessment—fully valid in its own right—is what we call aesthetic appreciation, sense of appeal, or “the right look.” And as far as we know, we are the only species capable of having such an experience.

Take a good look at these six images. From the standpoint of design (in the simplest and most basic sense of the word), which image does not belong with the others? In other words, as design projects, which of these images looks right and which one does not? When making your selection, be sure to disregard size, cost, age, whether it’s exotic or common, familiar or unfamiliar, alive or dead, color, material (e.g., animal, vegetable, mineral, or synthetic), location, practical utility, caloric content, or social/cultural relevance. These things are all irrelevant to design essentials. We’re merely looking for a basic feature or element of design that all but one of these images share. Take your time, look carefully, and try not to read my answer until you have one of your own. I’ll give you my answer at the end of this column, and it’s entirely possible you may come up with a different one.

When considering things, sizing them up, and making judgments, nature has basically given us two distinct ways of arriving at a truth. One way is to measure, calculate, or compare against a standard, or figure something out and arrive at the “correct” answer. One can also intuit a truth or have an insight about it, by knowing something without being able to explain how one knows it. Intuition has nothing to do with measuring, calculating, or comparing—there’s something more direct, personal, and immediate about it. And while both methods are fully valid, neither one can be used to comprehend or explain the other. It’s like engineering versus art. How can either one be wrong?

In the world of visual art and design (we’ll get back to guitars in just a second), the main visual point is to arrive at the internal cues that signal “that’s it, it’s right, it’s done, you can stop now.” The striving can of course be modified by training and experience, but the artist stops only when he knows it’s time to stop. Short of that, he keeps on working, expressing, and seeking. Likewise, the viewer knows when something grabs his attention fully, or doesn’t. There is otherwise no calculation, clock, statistic, rule book, syllabus, recipe amount, blueprint, or deadline to otherwise tell either the artist or viewer that he or she has reached an optimal point. The technician, on the other hand, uses precisely these tools by following a different brain-map and a linear set of “performance instructions.” He stops only when he has met the explicit requirements of his task.

This brings me back to the many guitars I see both at guitar shows and in stores. Some of them look right to me, and some of them really don’t. The package of visual impressions includes the proportions of the body-width to the length, the smoothness or lumpiness of the curves as they morph into one another, the harmony and contrast of color in the woods, metal, or plastic, and the size of the peghead and bridge as part of the overall look. It all makes for an overall allure that enriches one’s experience of a guitar that’s made well. And that’s what you react to differentially when you see it, because different guitars literally carry different amounts of it. Their makers put those things in there … or didn’t.

Let’s get back to the images mentioned at the beginning of this article. My aesthetic take on this is that the guitar does not belong. Why? Because none of its lines or line values are found in nature. It seems to be created with a compass and a straightedge by someone who decided that this is a proper or desirable look. It has all the necessary parts, yet it somehow looks stiff, artificial, and lacking in organic naturalness, flow, or harmony. The Mona Lisa, the guitar, and the baseball players are all man-made images, but the Mona Lisa and the baseball players don’t strike the eye as artificial. Do you agree? I’m not saying artificial is bad—I’m just saying it’s different. There’s successful artificial and clumsy artificial. As we can see from this small sampling of images, some man-made quality works artistically and some of it doesn’t. As a matter of fact, the entire design industry—from clothing and cars to toasters and architecture—is about producing man-made shapes that appeal. But that’s a topic for a separate and longer article. The allure of a guitar, or lack of it, isn’t accidental. Someone either put it in there, or forgot to.

Ervin Somogyi
A professional luthier since the early 1970s, Ervin Somogyi is one of the world’s most respected acoustic-guitar builders and rosette designers. To learn more about Somogyi, his instruments, or his rosette and inlay artwork, visit