American Lutherie Tacoma USA 2005

«The 13th strings Guitar»


The word "guitar" has entered the most basic human vocabulary, along with the familiar shape that we have come to associate with it. It is one of those archetypical words, like "hat", like "dog" or"house", words that automatically cast an image even in the mind of a 4 year old...

Maybe that's the reason why so many people make a joke when they first lay eyes on my13stringed guitar. "Oh my", they say, "you must have been pretty drunk when you drew that blueprint!" Or "Ermanno, I had no idea guitar makers go through a cubist phase.

The preconception of what a "classical" "guitar" has to look like is very established in the minds of musicians and luthiers alike. I think it may have to do with our desire to find the definitive version of somethingwe cherish. The shape branded into our subconscious mind, that elegant curvedbody with the centered soundhole, the six strings, the slowly decreasing distances between the frets, all of these visual signals give us a certain peace of mind, the reassuring feeling that something has found its final, perfect and most satisfying shape.

But then there is the rebel artist. Then, you get a person like Anders Miolin. Somebody who thinks in terms of music and freedom of expression, which means not necessarily in terms of convention. Somebody who finds inspiration in adifferent realm than the well known: The place where you push the enveloppe, the place where doing something "the way it's always been done" is almost a sign of laziness.

I met this outstanding musician years ago, and I realized right away that he was not somebody easily satisfied with standards. He inspired me to rethink many of my own experiences. If music is an art form that gains from versatility, why should the spectrum covered by six strings, or eight, or even ten strings be accepted as the final limit? Wouldn't that be like a painter denying the existence of certain colors? If a piece was written for piano, was that really only because of that instrument's tonal capacities? What if a different instrument's range could be stretched to accomodate the composition? Wasn't it possible that this new instrument's character could bring something exciting to the piece? And this way of seeing things - and wanting to hear things - made a lot of sense to me.

Anders was playing two guitars at the time: A 10string and an 11string alto guitar built by Swedish Luthier Bolin. This was necessary to accomodate the various tunings and ranges required by his repertoire. It was not very convenient, having to carry these two big guitars around. Anders (which ironically means «different»in German...) was looking for an alternative. He was looking for the "one for everything".

We tried to define the sprectrum our guitar would have to cover, and it became clear that five octaves would be ideal. A challenging goal, considering that a regular 6-string guitar only stretches across 3 octaves plus one quint. We found that13 strings were necessary to achieve our goal: The lowest note would be"E" and the fingerboard would have to go 5 frets farther than that of the conventional classical guitar.

I believe that inspiration can come from strange sources, and the fear that something might just not be possible at all, along with the fervor that comes from beating the odds, is one of them. I had read somewhere that the direct translation of the greek word for "problem" is "task" and that's how I decided to approach this project. And something very reassuring happened: My years of experience as a classical guitar maker gave me the solid background I needed. The clarity and simplicity that lie at the center of our craft proved to be reliable even beyond the borders of what I could take for granted.

Soon, the problem zones became apparent: Headstock, Bracing, the position of the soundhole and the design of the fingerboard would have to undergo serious changes. A headstock with 13 tuners would cause tremendous balance problems if I'd construct it as a variation of the exisiting shape. It was not enough to stretch this design to make it long enough. So I came up with a layered version, which has the tuners aligned on two platforms. I am proud to announce that this headstock does not extend far over the length of a 6-string.

My next big concern was the fact that 13 strings create a tremendous amount of force that the instrument's top would have to withstand. So I started experimenting with a bracing pattern that has been used since the 1930s. This pattern consists of parallel bracings, going horizontal and vertical and crossing each other with little "bridges". It ensures a very even distribution of forces and makes it possible to have a very thin top.

Because of the tremendous width and length of the fretboard, the soundhole could not stay were tradition has taught us it "belongs". In my calculations, which lead to the placement in the upper body bout, I realized that a great acoustic advantage might be gotten from this "compromise": The vibrating part of the guitar's top would be about a third bigger! Simplicio had already used this soundhole placement (except in his design, the round hole is split into two halfmoon-shapes and placed to the left and right of the fingerboard) but back then, guitarists may have been even more conservative than today, so his ingenious design was abandoned.

One of my tormenting worries was the question of weight. Like a designer of race bycicles, I started analysing each detail of my construction under this aspect. The huge fretboard would have to be stripped of every unnecessary gram of wood. Only the first three frets would have to be used on each of the strings. Between the 4th and the 12th fret, now only 7 strings run over the fingerboard. Higher up, it becomes continously narrower.

Planning on a CAD software, I started exploring the space between convention and invention. I started imagining a guitarist playing my instrument and envisioned his possible problems. I was not very happy with the fact that above the 12th fret, playing would be rather difficult: The player would have to do it without the help of his left thumb, which would have to leave its suporting position behind the neck. What if there was a way to increase the distance between the top and the fretboard, so there was more room for the player's left hand? This is how the idea of the slanted body was born. This has an additional advantage: Consider the angle at which the strings are attached to a harp's body: The transferrence of their vibration is much more efficient than in the case of a guitar. Every additional degree between these two elements adds definition to the tone. This is an example of one solution creating additional value beyond its original purpose. In other words: You try to solve one problem and you endup solving two.

I have now built four specimen of this guitar. With each of them, I made new discoveries and solidified my research. Interest from musicians has been very encouraging. It feels like people appreciate that new ground can be reached, even if, especially if you stay true to your foundations. I am fascinated by how guitarists use this new tool. After a short period of getting used to the wide neck, after a couple of weeks of training their hands to reach new places, this instrument becomes part of their range of expression and lends its voice to their imagination. This has always been my most reliable source of pride. With this new concept, it almost feels like giving somebody fresh words for an ancient language.

by Johannes Labusch