Friday, June 06, 2008

Living Here in the Future, Part 3

I have a classical (nylon string) guitar that is considered non-traditional, in that, while the top is cedar, the back and sides of the instrument are from osage orange wood.

The traditional top-of-the-line wood for such guitar bodies was for many years Brazilian rosewood. Dense, heavy, and with tonal qualities that luthiers and players like, and pretty to look upon.

Most of the sound on an unamplified guitar comes from the vibrations of the top, and these have traditionally been spruce, cedar, or certain kinds of redwood.

Braz has become an endangered species, can no longer be legally harvested from living trees, and these days, the only way to get it is from stumps, old furniture, or boards cut before the interdiction. Now and then, somebody finds a trove of sunken logs, or old church pews, and such items are much coveted, and expensive. To get a handmade guitar using good-quality Braz for the back and sides will add a thousand bucks or more to the cost from the git-go.

These days, Braz has been largely replaced by Indian rosewood, which has similar density and tonal qualities, is easier to work, and more stable. And there are others coming up -- Australian blackwood, Madagascar ebony, bubinga, koa, walnut, maple, etc. Osage orange offers, according to the luthier who made mine, a tone somewhere between Braz and Indian, and is considered a trash tree in the US.

But now, we have a new entry. Carbon fiber.

CF guitars have been around a while -- Ovation has made a steel-string with a carbon fiber back for years, and has -- I think -- a nylon-string model. But the idea of a guitar made completely from the stuff, including the soundboard, is relatively new, and certainly on the classical end.

The Blackbird version, of which there aren't many, is kind of spendy, and I haven't seen, nor had a chance to play one. I suspect that because the things will be waterproof and almost bulletproof, there will be a market for them, and they are supposed to start showing up in numbers this summer. Classical guitartsts tend to be somewhat, um, less adventurous in choosing high-end instruments. They want guitars that look like the ones Segovia played; the basic shape and sound of these has changed but little in the last few decades. Many of the changes are unseen or subtle -- double-tops, sound ports, bevels, bracing.

It will be interesting to see if the new CF's have the sound, because they won't have the look or feel.

It's kind of like Kydex for a handgun holster or knife sheath. On the one hand, such accessories are tough, long-lasting, waterproof, and relatively cheap and easy to make. On the other hand, fine leather has a feel, a look, and even a smell that attracts folks.

Glock in Kydex? Or a charcoal-blued-steel revolver in horsehide? Both have their uses, and for some, form follows function straight across. For others, the look matters.

Time will tell, I suppose ...

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