What’s Old Is New Again at NAMM

Music dealers worldwide make their pilgrimages to NAMM (the largest American trade show for musical merchandise) every year to be sure they see (and try) the latest in music technology. What surprises me often is how old ideas get recycled and promoted as the Next Big Thing. Since George Beauchamp created the “Frying Pan” aluminum body electric guitar in 1931, instrument makers have sought to use alternatives to wood. Among metals, the obvious choice is aluminum, it being easily machinable light weight, and non-magnetic. Today several companies make aluminum guitars:

At this month’s NAMM in Nashville, there were at least two more:

It would be interesting to know if any of these makers did market research to determine whether there is really a market for these and to follow their progress over time. Most of these companies tout the expertise of their founders’ experience in the high-tech aerospace/aeronautics industry. There are certainly parallels to suggest that the skill sets of that industry could apply to guitar manufacturing. Indeed, the main skills would be computer aided design and manufacturing (CAD/CAM). Use of computer-numeric-controlled (CNC) machines for cutting metal is a natural way for someone to create precision objects without having the more hands-on skills required for manufacturing in wood. (Modern manufacturing in solid wood guitars uses similar technologies, but requires more hand finish work.)

Another device shown at NAMM is a strap-on attachment for an acoustic guitar that provides a set of piano-like keys for striking the individual strings. There is little information about the Guitar Forte by Percussive Guitar Inc., suggesting that this is still in prototype testing. The video on their website pretty much shows what it’s about. This idea is also not new. Percussive piano-striking mechanisms were fairly popular in the 18th century, especially on the so-called “English guitar” or cittern.

NMM Preston English guitar with attachment

English guitar by James N. Preston, London, ca. 1765. National Music Museum.

It’s not clear whether any of these devices provide a piano-like escapement. The Guitar-Forte device seems to have a fairly noisy attack sound. The historical versions tend to use felted hammers to soften the attack, but at the expense of volume. A hammering mechanism is best used on instruments with heavier strings with higher tensions that a guitar (especially an electric guitar) normally has. In the case of the English guitar, the sound is reinforced by its double courses.

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