Wednesday, January 16, 2008

A Multistringed Distraction From Electronic Music

In the middle of last year I started buying woodworking tool and used guitar parts on eBay. My ultimate goal was, and is, to build a type of stringed instrument that, so far as I can tell, currently does not exist. The fact that by any measure I am not currently competent to do this will not stop me.

I started reading about touch-style guitar and dedicated touch-style instruments like the Chapman Stick. It was such an intriguing idea. Being able to play a guitar-like instrument with both hands on the neck makes a lot of sense and was quite attractive as soon as I started to grasp the concept.

I immediately saw two problems with almost every commercially available touch-style instrument. First, most of them are too expensive for the beginner, the casual player or the cautious convert. It’s one thing to spend a few hundred dollars on an instrument you have never played and possibly never seen because it is so obscure. A few thousand dollars is another thing all together.

The other problem was musical. Most Chapman Stick models (the exception being the Alto Stick), Warr Guitars (including Austin Douglas), Bunker TG2001 and Mobius Megatars are touch instruments that primarily cater to people who want to play in the bass guitar and standard guitar register at the same time. They also make up the bulk of the relatively small touch instrument market.

I think this is a fine idea...for other people.

I firmly believe the playing of bass should be left to bass players. I have proven over the years that I am no bass player. Thus, I have no use for fat strings and >30in scales. If I bought a commercially available touch instrument (possibly excepting the Alto Stick and Stu Box’s guitar scale instruments) I would have a larger, heavier instrument than I needed and be paying for at least an octave of range I had no use for.

I wanted to get both of my hands on guitar and violin register notes and leave the bass playing to the professionals. That means a multi-string short-scale touch instrument. Experimenting with different tunings on my standard guitars I established that tuning all string intervals to 4ths would work well for me and that a scale as short as 23 inches could work. That is short for a guitar. Forget about playing notes lower than a standard guitar's low E unless you want to use REALLY heavy strings.

Seeing nothing suitable on the market I started looking for custom instrument builders. With the notable exception of Kevin Siebold’s quite reasonable rates, commissioning the instrument that was taking shape in my head was going to be expensive. It was also going to be risky. I was in uncharted territory. Commissioning such an instrument amounted to asking an artisan to realize my semi-experimental, and possibly half-baked, ideas. The more I thought about it the less this seemed like a good investment.

At some point in this process, probably while I was corresponding with Siebold, my wife asked why I didn’t just build the instrument myself. The answers to this question were obvious. I knew nothing about wood or woodworking tools. I didn’t know where to get wood, parts or luthier’s tools. The most impressive thing I had built to date was my comic book collection.

I don’t know exactly what it says about me, but knowledge of my own ignorance of how to make a stringed instrument immediately became a motivation rather than a deterrent.

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