Achievements in guitar design

There have been a few ignoble attempts to redesign guitars over the years.  As far as I'm concerned, if your modifications interfere with your ability to play your instrument, they are a step backwards no matter how good they look.  As far as I'm concerned Gibson's Explorer and Flying V fall into this category.  That being said, here are a few that probably cross that line, but I include them in this discussion for the purposes of advancing ideas of what is possible in the area of design.

The Classics Redesigned

Paul Reed Smith Custom 22
The success of this guitar can be largely attributed to its skillful combination of the best of the aesthetics of both the Les Paul and Stratocaster.  However, there is more to it than that.  Rather than the standard arched top of a Les Paul, a PRS invariably minds where its hardware is; the arching swerves around the insets for the knobs.

Another striking feature is the daring array of colors.  PRS is not afraid to venture into the all-but-uncharted land of purples, emeralds, and even turquoises!  Indeed, there are few solids and "cherry bursts" to be had, yet the look is undeniably classic.  Even the relatively adventurous bird inlays on the fretboard are soothing.  There is nothing that seems radical or gaudy about these instruments.
(neither blocks nor dots)

The electronics appears very basic, but many models sport a clever addition: a four-pole 5-way rotary switch.  It blends into the look as a basic knob like that of the master volume or tone, but it confers tremendous versatility to this instrument.  Some positions select pickup coils in series while others are parallel.  This allows the guitar to go from the creamy humbucker sound of a Les Paul to a punchy clean Strat sound without fiddling with push-pulls or toggles to achieve coil taps.

PRS official site - They sure are introducing a lot of ugly guitars lately.

Ernie Ball/Music Man EVH signature model
(aka the Axis in its present incarnation)
As with the basic PRS, I would imagine the rationale here as well was to design a guitar that would fuse the best of a Les Paul and a Strat.  Remarkably, it looks nothing like the PRS, but the they share these same influences.  Also, I sense a desire to update a classic style, to bring it out of the '50s and into the present.  I consider it a success.

However, I wasn't crazy about the flush-mounted Floyd Rose in the beginning since I was used to a Strat tremolo, but I have since seen what Eddie does to his strings.  It's a wonder he ever manages to get back in tune.  The fact that you can't pull back (i.e., up in pitch) made these guitars ideal for the D-Tuna Eddie was to add later on.

The Strat-from-another-planet headstock with 4x2 tuners is clearly a compromise: not 6 in-line, not 3 x 3.  The pearloid keys on the tuners is another nice touch.  Although the modern instruments in this line no longer have it (that I've noticed), the original EVH signature models had a highly figured birds-eye maple neck and fretboard.  This grain went nicely with the mini fret dots too.  This was an original touch that complimented the look.

The body design really jumped out at me from the moment I first laid eyes on this model.  It sort of looked like a LP, but it seemed to be morphing into a pair of bouts (aka horns) like those of a Stratocaster.  It retained the binding around the body just like a LP, but it had a completely flat top (no arch, not even upper arm curvature).  This really showed off the finish, which was matched on the headstock.  The exciting thing about the finish on these instruments was that they were almost always an original color like amber, green, or purple... on top of gorgeous, highly figured quilted maple which was rarely obscured by "burst" paint jobs or excessive electronics.

Ever the minimalist, Eddie went with his trademark single volume control, this time with a Strat knob to again drive home the connection to the guitar's influences.  However, the only thing standard about the three-way pickup selector was how it worked.  Its placement near the lower out defied every other major manufacturing trend thus far (Note: the post-Eddie version has moved the switch to beneath the volume knob.  Boooo!).  Further, rather than using off-the-shelf switches like those found in Gibson-type guitars, this one is a nice, stubby piece of chrome.  Very cool.

Finally, the zebra pickups reference both the humbuckers of Les Paul-type guitars, but imply a single coil as well.  Like everything else about this guitar, they're traditional, but they also distinguish themselves as unique in a crowded world of six-string copycats.

Ernie Ball / Music Man - Official site.

Ibanez Jem 7-string
This might be a gaudy instrument, but day-glow guitars were at the core of hair bands in the twilight of the metal years.  The was the peacock of all guitars released in those days.  This instrument is probably remembered as fondly for being on the cover of Steve Vai's Passion and Warfare as for any of the tracks on that album.

The was the first rock had seen of a 7-string, so that was something unique already.  (Admittedly, Vai hardly needs this as he spends the majority of his time as the upper end of the scales.)  Then there was the "handle" carved into the body.  No one had any idea why this was necessary (Couldn't he afford a case?), but it sure was cool.  And the "lion's claw" scoop in the tremolo routing was a unique feature, although one wonders what lion has six or seven toes?!

But it was the fanciful use of color on these instruments that really made them stand out.  The swirl paint job was only present on a very few custom issued instruments, but they all went out of their way to add color like no axe before.  The pyramid inlays were composed of three separate pieces of plastic to create their innovative design, and even the pickups were built using bobbins in colors almost too embarrassing to recall!

Jem site - These guitars have inspired a cult!

Ibanez S-series
When I think about what the Stratocaster might have evolved into at the end of its first 50 years, this is what I picture. The pickups are all top loaded without the hassle of an unsightly pickguard.  The inlays are characters from an alien language.  Even the Ibanez headstock seems more into efficiency than being ornate, as one might view that of a Stratocaster.

Rather than the comparatively bulky body, the S-series tapers towards the edges, cutting the weight of the instrument by several ounces.  Even the Floyd Rose is state of the art.  The Lo-Pro version is streamlined so as to stay out of the way and let you make music.

Official Ibanez site - Jump right to the S-series pages.

Out of this World

Steinberger GL
Although they're pretty much accepted as "just another guitar" these days, when the GL was first introduced, it really shook up the six string world.  Ironically, the idea is built around what makes a guitar playable, not interesting to look at that made these guitars so interest to look at... and to play!

The small body turned out to be perfect for making this the ultimate travel guitar.  It reduced the overall weight, plus there was no headstock!  This was a shocking development and almost unimaginable for its time.  Ned Steinberger originally conceived of this as a way to make it easier on the guitarist to hold up the neck.  Getting rid of the head reduced the weight at the most distal point, but you can't deny it just looked cool.

Also, the tremolo on these instruments just about will not go out of tune, no matter how much you abuse it.  Dive bombs, pull-backs, whatever.  You can out-Van Halen even Eddie himself and not have to worry about retuning.  Also, the strings tune together on a pull so it sounds like a slide.  And as they say on tv, But wait, there's more!

The tremolo can also be locked to make this a fixed bridge guitar.  Even more dramatically, those guitars with the phenomenal transtrem were able to change keys in mid-song.  This special tremolo locks into six different positions to change the tuning across several steps.  Eddie made use of this on "Summer Nights" from 5150.

The instruments themselves were also innovative in their materials.  The entire GL guitars were made out of a "special blend" of graphite (only the necks on the GM were similarly made; the body is made of wood.  Graphite had a number of advantages: it was more resistant to wear and less susceptible to changes in temperature and humidity that would affect the tuning.

Finally, early on Steinbergers were typically equipped with active pickups from EMG.  They also routinely employed an active on-board equalization circuit.  Nothing else was comparable, and little today is comparable in terms of this degree of innovation. - Official site.

Westone Rail bass
It looked like something the Cylons might carry on the original Battlestar Galactica, but it was all about function, not just form.. or, um, the absence of it.  Unlike so many other attempts to break the proverbial mold, the radical look here does not alter the instrument's playability.  In fact, one of the most unique features of this instrument was its flexibility.  The single pickup could be repositioned along the rails that give this model its name.  Rather than having only one or two options, this allowed the most demanding of players to find the "sweet sound" at the end of the neck.

Speaking of necks, this model emulated the headless Steinberger design, but took it that much further.  Original, but functional.  Put this on your list of what to get me for xmas.

Pics and Specs - Random site with more info and images.

The Teuffel Birdfish
Here again a radical design proves that one can be tremendously daring without sacrificing playability.  This looks more like modern art than a carefully crafted musical instrument, but it does indeed have a number of interesting features.

For one thing, it comes with a set of pickups that can be swapped in and out at will without the need for soldering.  Why this approach is not more commonplace is beyond me!  Similarly subject to your sonic whims are the resonator blocks which can also be alternated for varying sounds.

The headless design is reminiscent of a Steinberger, but is has the advantage of using string clamps at the top of the neck, thus bypassing the need for the always hard to find double-ball strings.

Teuffel - Official site, jump right to the Birdfish page. (But check out the other models!)

Parker Fly
They look exotic, but their design is relatively simple.  While they aren't overly ornate, their features are surprisingly diverse and well thought out.  The headstock, as simple as it is, implies a gravity-defying concept as it almost bypasses the strings.  Naturally, they only use locking tuners as any guitar from the future would.

They guitars themselves are surprisingly light.  In fact, I was afraid that I would damage them in handling them the way I do more conventional guitars.  Their lack of mass comes from two departures from convention: the back of the guitar is scooped out rather than having a flat face (which is good for guitars with a hefty gut) and the entire instrument (neck and headstock included) are coated with graphite.  The entire instrument is a single continuous piece of composite material.  The look is fantastic, and I appreciate the fact that they avoided the urge to add fret markers of any sort.  Minimalism definitely works here.

As for electronics, the one thing everyone remembers about these instruments is that they have a piezo bridge.  You can get acoustic sounds with the least acoustic looking instrument in the world.  You can also go with conventional magnetic pickups or blend the two sounds.  There is an active EQ that shapes the acoustic sounds as well.  The latest models feature coil tapping on the humbuckers as well via a push-pull pot.  And the tension on that tremolo is easily adjustable via an accessible knob on the back of the guitar.  The trem can be locked as well.  That's a lot of options!

Parker Guitars - Official site.

Alvarez "Scoop"
This was just a nutty idea, but they deserve credit for trying it.  I mean, if EVH can popularize a guitar with a single pickup, why can Alvarez push a guitar that cuts out the neck pickup in order to make a statement?  It isn't clever, but it pushes aside the expectations of what can be in the guitar world.

Random site #1 and Random site #2 - Just sites by fans of this guitar.

Norton "Frame" guitars
These guitars owe something to the Westone's Rail bass, but they have a few tricks of their own.  If you only want one guitar that does a little bit of everything, this is the one for you.  You can swap body "wings" to create guitars of a variety of styles, but what about electronics?  Well, they can swap out pickups as well.  They created a radical look already, and then made it subject to modification.

Norton guitars - Official site, perpetually being redesigned.

Acoustics Reimagined

Yahama Silent Guitar
As so many other guitar makers have demonstrated, who needs a body?  With the growing ubiquity of piezo bridges, it was inevitable that even acoustics would be reduced to mere twigs.  Yamaha's Silent Guitar (there's also a classical version) fakes the outline of a body, but it is little more than a 2 x 4 with electronics tacked on.  While is has some reverb, it only provides a single tone control.  Hello?  Even the cheapest acoustic/electrics sport a 3-band EQ these days.

This look is hardly original, however.  Makers of travel guitars such as those by SoloEtte have a similar design (I can't say who originated it), although they have the advantage of a detachable frame for greater ease of traveling (unless, of course, the airline screeners think it is a weapon).

Yamaha - Official site, jump right to this guitar's page.

Chrysalis Inflatable Guitar
This was another new direction in design.  The look was certainly strange enough, but the concept was even further out there.  At the core of the guitar was an inflatable section.  Granted, I have never played one of these, but I can't imagine it contributed much to the sound.  Modern electronics do a better job if you're going to eschew the basics like, you know, wood!

PDC award for the Chrysalis - Sorry, the official site is down (I think they went out of business).

Godin Multiac
Again, these guitars define simplicity in appearance, but they come loaded with a decent preamp.  They are also chambered internally to produce a more resonant tone than they might appear to be capable of.  And some versions of this model are also uniquely outfitted to connect to various guitar synthesizers (read: mainly those made by Roland).  Note: Godin's electric models also have piezo and synth capability, so they are worth a look as well if you want to burn the candle at every possible end.

Godin - Official site, jump right to the instrument's page.

All text copyright Alexplorer.  Images gathered from around the web including eBay auctions and official sites.