Traditionally guitars are made of wood. Obviously. But guitars have also been built from a large variety of materials which are not solid woods. The following list is not meant to be a complete list of guitars built from non-standard materials (although I welcome other examples). And although my previous article in the series limited itself to acoustic guitars, I am including electric guitars along with acoustic guitars in the list.
One of the first artificial materials to be used in guitars was Bakelite, a plastic best known for its use on pot handles. George Beauchamp, one of the founders of the National Guitar Company, was also a cofounder of what would become the Rickenbacker Guitar Company. They invented the first electric guitar, a lap steel guitar called the Frying Pan. Some models of this guitar were made from cast Bakelite.
Mario Maccaferri is best known for designing the Selmer guitars used by Django Reinhardt and associated with Gypsy Jazz. But after moving to the United States he became fascinated with fabricating items from plastic. Mario Maccaferri designed plastic guitars and ukuleles. Although plastic guitars and ukes were more toys than serious instruments the Islander Uke became quite popular after it was promoted by Arthur Godfrey, a popular radio and television personality. My dad fell for the fad and we had an Islander Uke complete with an attachment that would play chords by pressing buttons. My dad thought chord by buttons was a great invention – this way he could play songs without actually learning to play the ukulele. I thought it was silly.
Pressboard and Plywood
Danelectro electric guitars were one of the few brands I could possibly hope to afford to buy new back when I first started playing guitar in the 1960s. I own a Danelectro re-issue now and love it. But in the 1960s I thought they were scary ugly. They were finished in turquoise, blue, purple and other strange bright colors, often with a metal flake like pattern. These guitars were constructed from Masonite, a pressboard material, over a plywood frame. It kept costs low so the guitars were affordable.
The first fiberglass guitar I saw was an Airline resonator guitar. Airline was the Montgomery Wards house brand. The guitars were made by National. National manufactured guitars for others and for a variety of brand names including Supro, Oahu, and National. They referred to the fiberglass used for their guitars as res-o-glass. National seemed to like to experiment with fiberglass and a more famous fiberglass guitar from this company was the Valco Map Guitar (also National and Airline names appeared on the guitar). Eastwood guitars has re-created this shaped guitar because of the perceived “coolness” factor.
Another use of fiberglass in guitars was the Ovation guitar bowl, invented by Charles Kaman, the founder of Ovation. Charles Kaman was an engineer and used synthetic materials in the helicopter parts he designed. He was also an amateur guitarist and applied his engineering skills to produce a better guitar.
Carbon fiber is sometimes called graphite. The advantages of guitars built from carbon are they are lighter weight and are not affected by humidity or temperature. Carbon fiber can be fabricated into tops that are a fair replacement for wood.
One of the first guitars with a carbon fiber top was the Adamas line from Ovation. These guitars were a combination of wood, fiberglass, carbon fiber and other materials.
Rainsong is one of the largest manufacturers of carbon fiber guitars. Almost the entire guitar is built from carbon fiber.
CA Guitars or Composite Acoustics, is another maker of carbon fiber guitars. I had heard that this company was closing their doors last year. Their models had some innovative shapes and features. The good news is that apparently Peavey now owns Composite Acoustics and will be selling these guitars soon.
The last acoustic guitar company I wanted to mention is Blackbird Guitars. They make some innovative travel guitars from carbon fiber and have some interesting features such as hollow necks.
Composite materials haven’t just been used for acoustic guitars. One of the most innovative electric guitar and bass designs are the electric instruments designed by Ned Steinberger. The designs were unique not just because of the materials, but because of the double ball strings which made changing strings fast, the tuning system which is located at the bottom end of the guitar, the headless design and the distinctive shape. Steinberger is now owned by Gibson.
Another alternative electric guitar is the Parker series that began with the Parker Fly. The body is thin and reinforced with resin and carbon. There are a lot of composites and non-traditional materials in the guitar.
The first metal guitars were the resonator guitars built by National starting in the late 1920s. German Silver and Nickel plated brass were used for the first tricone and first single cone guitars. But painted (and later plated) steel was also used for resonator guitars. Square neck models such as the square neck style 1 tricone, had hollow necks. Today you can by copper, brass and steel bodied resonator guitars (and of course wood bodied guitars).
The resonator cones – the part that amplifies the sound – were (and are) made from aluminum.
Martin is probably perceived as more of a conservative company upholding traditional practices in guitar construction. Actually, all guitar companies are being forced to consider alternative woods, materials and construction methods and Martin has tried some surprising things. One of these surprising things is their Alternative-X model of guitar. The top of this guitar is made from aluminum.
Lucite – a trade name for plexiglass – has been used for solid body electric guitar and bass bodies. The “cool” factor is that you can see through the bodies of these instruments. The Dan Armstrong Lucite Bass was used by Rollo Radford when he played with the Siegal-Schwall blues band.
Fender also made a Lucite Stratocaster. Others have made Lucite models although often these are made by individual luthiers in the shape of a well known guitar model.
HPL (High Pressure Laminates)
Martin (and others) are using laminated wood for the back and sides of some of their lower end models.
Bob Taylor decided to build a guitar from unusual materials in 1995. He built a guitar from the wood found in a normal pallet. Pallets (or skids) are the wooden platforms used in warehouses and shipping to allow forklifts to move the items stacked on top of the pallet. They are made from rough lumber. Bob’s purpose was to demonstrate that you could build a nice sounding instrument out of non-traditional materials. The back and sides are made from the oak slats of the pallet while the top is made from the two by fours which could be pine, fir or hemlock – not really specified. Whatever it was, it was used. He succeeded and has even sold pallet guitars in limited editions from time to time.