Extreme guitars

  • Villanizer X3. IMage credit: Donna Feldman Lasky, www.shootbare.com
  • Elemental bass
  • Pikasso
  • Banana Bass
  • T-Pain's custom-made guitar for his album rEVOLVEr.
  • Millennium Falcon guitar
Date:31 August 2012 Tags:

DIY creations that push the boundaries

Wannabe songwriters and rock stars alike ply their trade on an instrument whose basic design has barely changed in centuries. The essential guitar layout is familiar and straightforward: curvy body, long neck, six strings… that more or less sums it up. Creative luthiers have seldom strayed far from this template; generally, they’ve found electric instruments (which don’t need an acoustic “soundbox”) more suitable for way-out designs such as Gibson’s Flying V.

But, for some extreme strummers and pickers, that’s not enough. The instruments you see on these pages do more than play music – they push the boundaries, resulting in amazing instruments that need to be heard and seen.

Villainizer X3
To make his steampunk-style instrument, Jeff Ritzmann first disassembled a Jackson Randy Rhoads guitar, sanded it down and cut its upper wing to elongate the design. He then screwed a “gearbox” into the guitar’s body and added equidistant screw cap covers around the edge as rivets before texture-painting the entire thing using faux hammered-metal techniques. Ritzmann later filled the gearbox with real metal gears that he cut and then mounted (using steel brads) at varying heights, overlapping to cause a dimensional optical illusion. The gears are just for show, though. Ritzmann says that they’d interfere with the guitar’s sound if they actually moved.

After adding the jack wire – which Ritzmann disguised as a tube – he rust-outfitted the entire instrument by hand, using a combined paint and chemical process. Copper Tesla coils and copper fittings were added last, creating a wicked guitar that’s built like a tank and only looks heavy. In truth, it’s the guitar’s sustain that’s beefed up.

Saving the rhino
One of several first-rate South African luthiers, Murray Kuun handbuilds a range of instruments from acoustic guitars to electric guitars (see left) – even violins. He is currently busy on the Big 5 collection, and has to date completed the Leopard and the Rhino – the latter being 100 per cent made out of African materials. His Elemental bass is made of imbuia and sapele; other models such as the Modena and Dino (do we detect a fondness for Ferrari sports cars?) make use of traditional guitar woods such as birdseye and curly maple as well as unconventional woods such as mahogany.

Kuun is also highlighting his environmental sensibilities with his Rhino, which he describes as similar in general concept to pre-war, Depression-era guitars built by some famous high-end guitar companies. “The body and neck construction is (unusually) all-mahogany; the hallmark of this type of guitar is a beautifully rich, but precise sound. This guitar is no different, it sounds gorgeous.” A portion of the proceeds of the guitar’s sales will go towards the fight to save the rhino.

When jazz guitarist and composer Pat Metheny asked luthier Linda Manzer to build a guitar with “as many strings as possible”, the work took two full years. The result: the Pikasso Guitar.

This 42-string instrument (all of them are playable) is an obvious ode to the Spanish artist for whom it’s named. Manzer’s own masterpiece includes ebony fingerboards, bridges and face plates; two sound holes; and two access doors into the guitar’s interior for repairs or amplification. One of the instrument’s most innovative features is “The Wedge”, a tapered body shape that makes the side closest to its player thinner than the opposite side resting on the player’s knee. The Wedge also increases underarm comfort for the musician and provides a better aerial view of the strings: the guitar leans inward towards the guitarist rather than being parallel to the player’s body.

Along with its avant-garde design, Manzer’s award-winning Pikasso employs a state-of-the-art piezo pickup system with a hexaphonic pickup on the six string section. This allows Metheny to access his Syclavier computer system and trigger any sound, including sampled sounds.

Banana Bass
Steve Wishnevsky’s Banana Bass gets its name from its tropical yellow exterior, which he says was the serendipitous result of grabbing the first can of paint he could find. The left-handed fretless instrument features a solid wood neck and a hollow body made of 3 mm Baltic birch plywood, so the bass is both light and strong. Its softer sound is most useful for recording and acoustic jam sessions.

Alistair Hay of Ireland’s Emerald Guitars built the UltraZone Guitar (below) for musician Steve Vai, whose music changed his life. The guitar is a fully functioning replica of the illustrated axe seen cradled in the arms of an alien on the cover of Vai’s 1999 album The Ultra Zone, and has its own pod-like case.

Hay carved his six-string from a block of rigid urethane foam using only a Dremel multitool and sandpaper. He then covered it with carbon fibre, employing a wet layup process to create a strong exoskeleton, and spliced the guitar’s wood neck and body centre (where the pickups are located) into the carbon foam body, giving it a carbon skin.

The entire instrument has an outer finish of colour-shifting Triflash paint, adding to its biomechanical look. Exterior add-ons come from repurposed extras around Hay’s shop, including copper brake pipe and electric wire that he wrapped around the headstock. Hay also fashioned the Alien (right and far right).

Top Guns
Villainizer creator Ritzmann also did a guitar for the internationally known artist T-Pain for his album rEVOLVEr. The design includes a working revolver chamber and bullet feed. Further exploring the theme, he has created the Gunslinger bass.

Right now he’s working on his next model, called Titanic. And yes, it will be a guitar based on the ill-fated vessel and is timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of its maiden voyage.

Doron Markowitz’s stellar Millennium Falcon guitar is not a toy guitar, but rather a guitar built from a toy. The base of this hyperspace rocker is Hasbro’s 1995 Light and Sound Edition Millennium Falcon, complete with the toy’s built-in special effects. Four different sounds and lights are wired up to a special volume control that powers through the amps, allowing the musician playing it to rock laser blasts along with guitar riffs.

All the design elements reflect Star Wars’ themes: The tone knob features the Jedi council insignia; the guitar’s camouflage strap is straight from the uniforms of rebel forces that landed on the moon of Endor in Return of the Jedi; and Han Solo and Chewy action figures are even sitting in the Falcon’s cockpit.

Video: Jimi Hendrix tribute guitar

– By Laura Kiniry
– Additional reporting by Anthony Doman

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