Designing a Baritone Guitar (Part II)

To the reader:

The following posts are part of a project that I completed in December of 2008 in which I designed and built a baritone guitar.  I looked at existing designs and tried to correct the problems that I found with the available commercial production instruments.  The end result was a great guitar that exceeded my aesthetic expectations and met my utilitarian requirements.  The original paper from the project is 40 pages long, so I am breaking the work up into installments. Please note that the design of the guitar, the shape of the body, the neck and the headstock are all trademarks of Indecent Music. I do not consent to my ideas being used for commercial purposes, but I would be happy to talk to or help anyone that is interested in building an instrument for themselves. I am reviewing my options for Patents and the design of the instrument should be considered protected by the Patent Pending status.  Thanks so much for your interest!

Hendrik David Gideonse XIX

3 Problems with Existing Designs

After trying instruments from a variety of manufacturers and finding that I was dissatisfied with all of them, I wanted to start to define what the major problems were with these instruments and what I could do to improve the designs.

3.1 String Tension

Most of the instruments that I played suffered from problems involving string tension.  String gauge, instrument scale length, and desired pitch all affect the tension of the strings.  Lowering the intended pitch of a string decreases the string tension, as does decreasing the scale length of the instrument.  Thinner strings gauges require less tension to be tuned to specific pitches.  D’Addario, a string manufacturer, provides detailed charts to help musicians choose the proper gauge strings for their playing style, scale length and instrument [4].  Gauges, length and tension are all open to adjustment with the baritone guitar because of the lack of an agreed-upon standard.
Most of the instruments that I evaluated had loose string tension causing the strings to buzz badly even with moderate playing pressure.  Most of the instruments that I tried tended toward the shorter scales of the spectrum between 26 ½” and 28” and all used similar string gauges, usually in the following sizes: 1st: 013, 2nd: 017, 3rd: 026, 4th: 036, 5th: 046, 6th: 060 [5].
GHS carries a set of custom strings specifically designed for baritone in the following gauges: 1st: 014, 2nd: 018, 3rd: Wound 028, 4th: Wound 038, 5th wound 050 and 6th: wound 070.  These heavier strings probably would eliminate many of the problems that I was finding on the existing production models.  The manufacturers may have been using the lighter strings to attract players without the stronger fingers that are required to play this larger instrument.  I concluded that a better instrument would have increased string gauge (using the GHS set), increased pitch to C, or a longer scale length to stiffen the instrument’s action.
I experimented with increasing and decreasing pitch from the typical B to B tuning and tried a C to C tuning as well as an A to A tuning.  Most of the baritones were improved by tuning up from B to C and thus increasing the string tension.  Unfortunately this semitone transposition proved to be extremely difficult to fully remember while playing and in the end killed my hopes of the C to C guitar.  This is too bad because this tuning probably would have been very popular with the death metal bands that routinely tune down to D and then “drop” the lowest string to C creating the relationship of a major fifth in the bottom two strings. With standard lighter strings, the A tuning was completely unusable as the strings sat on the frets while playing and buzzed uncontrollably.

3.2 Balance, Ease of Playing 1st Position Chords and Bridge Position

On the production models, I found some difficulty in comfortably reaching to play chords in the lower positions, with a particular problem with 1st position bar chords. In the past I had also experienced this problem with modern style basses with 24 frets and a large cut-away to give better access to the additional frets.
Fender basses didn’t share this problem because of their extended horn on the body of the instrument. The body of the instrument finds a balance on the player’s body with the distance between the two strap buttons becoming a center point.  If the horn is further away from the bridge and closer to the string nut, the lower playing positions will be much more comfortable.  Notice in Figures 2 and 3 the difference between the location of the strap button on the Fender Stratocaster and the Telecaster.  The Strat’s horn balances the guitar in such a way that the player can reach closer to the string nut more easily.  Notice also that the Stratocaster finds its strap button above the 12th fret of the instrument, while the Telecaster’s strap button is above the 16th fret.  Even though both of these instruments share the same scale of 25 ½”, the Strat provides more comfortable access to the first position.

Figure 2 1957 Fender Stratocaster [6]
1957 Fender Stratocaster
Figure 3 Fender Thinline ’72 re-issue [7]
Fender Thinline '72 Re-Issue

Fender’s bass designs move the bridge closer to the tail in order to compensate for the longer neck of 34” (8 ½” longer than the guitars).  If you compare the basses to the guitars, the bridge on the basses is much closer to the tail of the instrument, and the strap button on the basses is located immediately above the 12th fret much like the Stratocaster.

Figure 4 Fender American Standard Jazz Bass and American Standard Precision Bass [8]
Fender American Standard Jazz Bass and American Standard Precision Bass

If you look carefully, you can see that the top horns of both Fender basses are identical.  The repositioning of the bridge and the strap button position has the benefit of pushing the entire length of strings towards the player’s right hand and bringing the 1st position closer to the player’s left hand.
Fender’s original basses have 20 frets, but newer designs from other manufacturers often incorporate 24 or more frets.  This creates a problem of access to the higher frets, so a much deeper cut-away needs to be provided.  The deep cut-away creates a somewhat unbalanced looking body like the Ibanez SR1000EFM.  The top horn looks exaggerated compared to the bottom horn with the cut-away, but the strap button still needs to be at the 12th fret to remain balanced.  For my taste, the visual balance of this Ibanez was disrupted by the cut-away that was needed to provide access to the higher frets.

Figure 5 Ibanez SR1000EFM Bass Guitar [9]
Ibanez SR1000EFM Bass Guitar

3.3 Rigidity for Tone and Sustain

The production models I played also had problems with neck rigidity.  The amount of force generated by the string tension puts a strain on the neck and causes the wood to flex and bow.  All the models I played used a standard 2-piece neck, featuring one piece of  ¼” stock for the fingerboard and then a ¾” or 1” thick piece of a different wood for the majority of the neck.  This technique is based on the tried-and-true method of neck construction for guitars, but it does not support the extra tension from the heavier strings very well.
Many modern bass builders solve this problem of neck flex with a technique of reinforcing the neck with rigid pieces of metal or graphite and also make use of laminated or multiple-piece necks.  The laminating technique adds a tremendous amount of strength and rigidity to the instrument by varying the grain patterns and species of wood in the neck blank.  Note in Figure 6 below that the Ibanez bass shows the layers of wood in the neck running through the whole body of the instrument.

Figure 6 Ibanez neck-through design showing the 5 piece laminate used in construction [10]
Ibanze neck-through design with laminated neck

As Ken Parker proved with his Fly guitar [11] (See Figure 6), sustain is improved by increasing the rigidity of the instrument, not by increasing the weight of the instrument. Parker’s graphite-backed mahogany instruments were extremely light, and the rigidity of the instrument resulted in much less energy being loss in transmission of vibrations [12].

Figure 7 The Parker Fly Guitar
The Parker Fly Guitar

The improved sustain offered by the Gibson Les Paul over the Fender Stratocaster was traditionally assumed to be a result of the increased density of the Les Paul’s mahogany over the lighter swamp ash favored by the Fender luthiers.  As it turns out, dense wood is also more rigid.  The joint where the neck attaches to body is critical to tone and sustain.  Running the gamut from a bolt-on neck favored by Fender to the dove tail mortise and tenon of the Les Paul, the neck pocket is the most critical construction feature of a guitar [13].

References

[4] “String Tension Specifications.” 2007. D’Addario & Company, Inc. 7 Dec. 2008 <http://www.daddario.com/resources/jdcdad/images/tension_chart.pdf>.

[5] Zentmaier, Kurt. “Agile AB-3500 Baritone Tribal Green.” Rondo Music. 7 Dec. 2008 <http://www.rondomusic.com/product931.html>.

[6] Woodlake. 1957 Fender Stratocaster [SketchUp Model of a 1957 Fender Stratocaster]. Digital image. Google 3D Warehouse. 7 Sept. 2006. Google. 7 Dec. 2008 <http://sketchup.google.com/3dwarehouse/details?mid=10b65379796e96091c86d29189611a06>.

[7] Botboyf. Fender Thinline ’72 re-issue. Digital image. Google 3D Warehouse. 19 Sept. 2007. Google. 8 Dec. 2008 <http://sketchup.google.com/3dwarehouse/details?mid=d63d106c12c3f759ad347847c4726934>.

[8] Fender. American Standard Jazz Bass. Digital image. Fender. Fender Musical Instrument Company. 8 Dec. 2008 <http://www.fender.com/products//search.php?partno=0190660712>.
Fender. American Standard Precision Bass. Digital image. Fender. Fender Musical Instrument Company. 8 Dec. 2008 <http://www.fender.com/products//search.php?partno=0190460706>.

[9] SR1000EFM [Ibanez SR1000EFM 4-String Electric Bass]. Digital image. Ibanez.com. 8 Dec. 2008 <http://www.ibanez.com/bass/guitar.aspx?m=sr1000efm>.

[10] SR1000EFM [Ibanez SR1000EFM 4-String Electric Bass]. Digital image. Ibanez.com. 8 Dec. 2008 <http://www.ibanez.com/bass/guitar.aspx?m=sr1000efm>.

[11] “Parker Fly.” Parkerguitars.com. 2008. Parker Guitars. 10 Dec. 2008 <http://www.parkerguitars.com/code/models/models_fly.asp>

[12] Cleveland, Barry. “Parker Fly Supreme, Fly Mojo, and Fly Deluxe.” GuitarPlayer.com. Feb. 04. 8 Dec. 2008 <http://www.guitarplayer.com/article/parker-fly-supreme/feb-04/984>.

[13] Hiscock, Melvyn. Make Your Own Electric Guitar. 2nd ed. Hampshire, UK: NBS, 1998. 20-31.

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