Innovative Guitars for Innovative Players
Since 1982, Ola Strandberg of .strandberg* Guitarworks has re-imagined the guitar as an ergonomic instrument that works with the player’s body (rather that be something that a player has to adjust to). With a growing waitlist for new builds (currently 97 people deep and counting) and players like Animals As Leader’s Tosin Abasi, Periphery’s Misha Mansoor and Scale The Summit’s Chris Letchford currently playing their own models, .strandberg* Guitarworks has become a poorly kept secret amongst guitarists. In this interview Ola talks about the evolution of the guitars and the company, what makes his instruments unique and the role of transparency and collaboration in design evolution.
How did you get involved in guitar building?
I originally played the drums, but when my family moved to a different city, there was no room for the drum kit in the moving van. I sold it and traded an aquarium (that also didn’t fit) for a guitar from the guitarist of my band. It was the world’s crappiest guitar and I immediately started modifying it. This was when I was about 14, a few years (and a few guitars later), I went to school and studied mechanical engineering, and one of my teachers turned out to be one of the world’s leading builders of nyckelharpas. I bought myself a book and borrowed his workshop along with some specialty tools from a local guitar/violin builder and the rest is history. I have pictures of these first builds up on my web site, along with nice 80s attire. I also got an after-school job repairing guitars for a local shop and later for the Swedish Charvel/Jackson distributor.
What was the genesis for the evolution of your current designs? (and/or influences) I see elements of things like the Klein Guitar, the Novak fanned fret system and the Toones neck but there are your own innovations like the bridge system and locking headstock mechanism.
I have always liked the notion of a headless guitar. It just seems to make sense to me. I loved the Steinbergers that had bodies (“M” series) and even built my own knock off in the early days. After a 15 year hiatus pursuing a new career in computer science and bringing up children, I wanted to start again but not by just building a better Strat/Tele/Les Paul/(or insert your favorite here). I started looking for headless hardware and didn’t find any.
In this search, however, I stumbled on the site buildingtheergonomicguitar.com, which became a huge source of inspiration. Here I found headless instruments, twisted neck instruments, instruments that hugged your body and so on. I noticed there was a need for lightweight hardware and also that the aesthetics of these ergonomic instruments were entirely unlike conventional guitars. So I set out to design one that I would want myself. That is still what I do with every single build!
But really, I just started building my own guitar and after hearing of this thing called a “blog”, I started blogging about my build. I posted on buildingtheergonomicguitar.com and in the forums of Project Guitar and things snowballed from there. People started to contact me and wanted to buy the hardware. It took me almost two years to get out of the hardware track and back to finishing my own first guitar. This time was a lot of fun. I made absolutely no profit, but made friends across the entire globe and that was enough for me.
From the start, there were three components of the “Ergonomic Guitar System”: a light-weight tremolo bridge, an ergonomic neck, and the complete guitar. The intention was to offer the bridge and neck components as retrofits that could make an existing guitar more ergonomic but that could also be used for new builds.
When I was young, I always wanted a tremolo on my guitars. I couldn’t understand why one would not want this, so this is what I set out to design first. I made it the same measurements as a Floyd-Rose tremolo for two reasons. Firstly, that I would not have to come up with my own routing templates and secondly, one could replace an existing tremolo and regular tuners and knock a good deal of weight off the instrument. I came up with a replaceable knife edge that could be removed and flipped over to double the lifetime of it but the low quantities that I manufactured made the cost of the knife edge prohibitive. It turned out that most people were interested in a hardtail anyway so I shifted attention there. Overcoming the design limitations of the knife edge tremolo never left the back of my mind though. Loads of experimenting later, I found the ultimate solution in miniature needle bearings that sound better than anything else and that don’t wear out. I had discarded this solution before since I hadn’t come up with a way to adjust the height of the bridge while achoring the bearings in something, but with individual height adjustment, I can simply screw the bearing housings straight into the body of the guitar.
Originally, I really wanted to develop the twisted neck as well (i.e. Torzal Natural Twist, as designed by Jerome Little). I came as far as creating a plug for a mold for a carbon fiber neck, but was too entrenched in the hardware design at the time to complete it. I later had a chance to actually play a Lace guitar with a twisted neck and it really works! I had gotten in touch with luthier Rick Toone through buildingtheergonomicguitar.com, who builds the most amazing instruments. He realized that a neck with distinct surfaces, rather than a smooth curve, supports the muscles in your fingers, hand and forearm better. Working with designs licensed from him (but not being able to let go of the twist idea) led to the invention of my patent pending EndurNeck. This combines the distinct resting surfaces with a twisted back of the neck that encourages your wrist to be in an optimal angle at all places along the neck. It’s like the Torzal Natural Twist, but has a conventional fretboard. In addition to being less intimidating for a player to look at, it also requires no special tools or techniques to work with as a guitar builder or guitar technician.
Can you talk about the differences between the available neck profiles: conventional profile, EndurNeck™ profile, Trapezoidal Neck Profile™/Intersecting Plane Neck Profile™ and the optional GrooveNeck™ finish?
Rick Toone has assembled an excellent reference source for the Trapezoidal Neck Profile family on trapezoidneckprofile.com. To summarize on a very high level, the planes of these neck profiles provide a stable surface to press the thumb against, in contrast to the inherently unstable state that the thumb ends up in on a curved surface. This relaxes the thumb, palm and entire forearm. The different variants come down to personal preference and playing style. With the EndurNeck, I wanted to, in addition to relaxing the palm and fingers, address the angle of the wrist as well. Many players will play at the first few frets with a quite acute angle of the wrist, and the EndurNeck encourages a correct and more relaxed playing position.
I notice that you offer a choice of bolt-on neck versus neck-through body. Do you have preferences for one or the other depending on the number of strings (or other factors)?
From a construction perspective, I definitely prefer bolt-on. It’s so much more efficient and easy to deal with from both a materials and a manufacturing perspective. A big part of what I do comes down to industrial design, minimizing the number of manufactured parts and optimizing the construction procedure.
Tone-wise…the jury is still out on that one. Some people prefer bolt-on and others prefer neck-through. I will say that I have noticed some properties of a neck-through that I like, but I’m pretty sure it comes down to my carbon fiber lamination process that goes all the way through the body in the neck-through case. I’m trying to find the time to do a bolt-on construction from a neck-through blank (if that makes sense). With increasing number of strings comes increased tension and load on the neck, so a bolt-on design is a pretty good safety net and insurance against future changes in the wood, although I do take other measures to prevent surprises in that respect.
I’m assuming the neck is maple laminated with carbon fiber for support – but were there other factors behind this as well?
I use a variety of neck materials, but a technique that I use that is common to all necks to laminate with unidirectional carbon fiber and epoxy. A big part is support, but I find it seems to increase responsiveness and sustain as well. I did some experiments with chambered necks in the early days, but I haven’t had time to further explore that.
Can you talk about your decision to incorporate fanned frets into the design and what you think they add to it?
Rick Toone is the one who first put me on to using unconventional neck profiles, and he also put me on to using a subtle fan of the frets for the purpose of ergonomics. Although multiscale guitars is [rooted in] an ancient concept, Ralph Novak did extensive research on the tonal benefits of having unequal scale lengths for each string, which was patented and trademarked under the name Fanned-Fret. There are great articles about this at the Novax Guitars web site and the patent protection has now expired. The way that I use this layout of the frets does have tonal benefits – a heavier gague string intonates and sounds a lot better with a longer scale – but primarily I use it to accommodate a more relaxed playing position and I adjust this to the size and playing style of the player.
If you consider the windshield wiper type motion that your forearm does when moving up and down the neck – I am laying the frets out to enable a relaxed wrist throughout the entire range of play. I am homing in on some standard relationships that seem to work particularly well from a general player perspective. A subtle fan of 1/2″ on a six-string guitar (25.5″ on the bass side and 25″ on the treble side) tends to feel and sound natural and not throw you off at all. On extended range guitars, I have used 25.75″, 26″, 27″ and 28″ scale lengths for the 7th and 8th strings and it really makes a difference for the tone. Even slightly more extreme relationships, like the 28″-26.5″ 8-string guitars that I have built for Tosin Abasi and others, come very naturally to most players and requires no adjustment. The ergonomic benefits are there from the start though.
What have been the musical and non musical influences on your design aesthetic?
I love many different genres of music. From prog rock to singer/song-writer to math metal to blues and so on. I thought I was building a guitar for the Allan Holdsworths out there. But as far as the music industry goes, I was completely out of it for 15 years and am still hardly back in (despite having attended NAMM and other shows). Juggling a day job with endurance sports and putting guitar building on top of that, I just don’t have time. I am very interested in industrial design and architecture, but not enough to be able to quote influences. But most of my day jobs have been incredibly creative – designing both hardware and software and working out how to solve problems and optimize manufacturing.
How has .strandberg* evolved as a company?
[It’s grown] from a non-profit hobby to something with a potential for being an actual business for sure. But [in terms of building] it’s also gone from doing one build at a time at a leisurely pace to doing as much in parallel as I can within my time and space constraints. My primary challenge now is mental – trying to decide how to scale up/scale out production while maintaining the soul of .strandberg* guitars.
I think the key to being where I am is that I started this as a hobby with no requirement to put food on the table as a result of that work and that allowed me to take risks that a professional builder could never take. Coupled with a complete ignorance of how you’re supposed to do it (and having started out as a hobby with the motivation of making new friends) it also allowed me to take a new approach by making all my designs available under a “copyleft” type license, much like open source software. There are a few of us out there now (like Darren Wilson at Decibel Guitars) that work on being as open and transparent as possible. I think of it as “Internet Age Lutherie”, which, at least speaking for Darren and myself, is a survival tactic more than anything else. By being open about pricing, options and wait lists as well as construction techniques, etc., we can respond to most e-mails with polite one-liners referring to the web site rather than having to compose answers each time. Doing this also opens up for viral marketing through social media. If it’s not on-line, it didn’t happen, kind of.
I know that your instruments are individualized for players – but there seems to be a certain niche of players (Djent, etc) that are gravitating towards them. Do you think that the overall design has come out of the needs of the player or do players seek out the guitar because the extended ranges (and other ideas) work with their aesthetic.
I think a lot of has to do with the fact that players want to look themselves in the mirror and go “Heeey”! If you’re into rock’n’roll, you will not feel that way without certain implements and there are simply too many iconic guitars out there. With the djent/ERG/metal crowd, I think they can look in the mirror and feel that way with something different. Also, these guys are so dedicated to what they are doing. [They’re] well educated, incredibly bright (despite appearances sometimes) and they need tools that work for them. I have questioned more than once if “ergonomic” would turn people away because it was dorky and that “you’re not a man unless you can wield a 10 lb axe”, but as it turns out, a lot of people really appreciate a light-weight guitar. These guys practice for endless hours every day! And, the fact is that there aren’t that many headless ERGs available.
Are there any particular sonic aesthetics that you strive for?
I like “organic” sounding guitars that respond very quickly. I want to feel the vibration against my chest and body and hear the tones acoustically.
What are the challenges associated with centering builds around having individual components fabricated?
Keeping things in stock!
I know that you’ve sold parts separately in the past, but I saw on the site that all parts are currently being used for builds. Do you have any time frame for when people can order parts again?
I felt that I had to put the hardware sales on a temporary hold to ensure my own supply in the short term. The financial commitment to order a batch of hardware is not one taken lightly and there are several things factoring into the decision on when and how big a batch will be ordered. The intention is to have hardware for sale again well before the summer (2012).
Are their specific amps or tones that you try to match the build to?
I am still learning about the characteristics of species of wood and construction methods. If I can provide the ultimate signal path from your heart/brain via your arms, wrists, fingers to the strings, and from the strings into the wood, then the rest will work itself out. In rarely plug my guitars in beyond making sure that I connected the electronics correctly.
Aluminum plays a prominent role in your builds. Are there sonic characteristics that attract you to it or do other factors come into play as well?
It started as pure aesthetics and weight to be totally honest. Low weight, i.e. a lack of inertia, allows vibrations to travel through this material much more easily than through a heavy material. The vibrations are transferred into the tonewood less influenced and this has many positive effects. Lace Alumitone pickups happened to come out at just the right time and fit into my design concept. Like I described above, I generally don’t even plug things in. During the development of the first prototypes, I would run my guitars around to friends and music stores to get input and a lot of people really had nothing good to say… But some people liked them, which was encouraging, and now they are pretty well accepted. I like the fact that they are kind of hi-fi ish and full range. You can always tweak your amp to shape the signal down the line. Also, as it turns out, I have been using the “wrong” kind of pots all this time – maybe that is the key! Haha…
Your development blog (http://guitarworks.thestrandbergs.com) is fascinating to me on multiple levels. While many builders are caught up in secrecy and protecting their ideas in contrast you have been very transparent with regards to prototypes, design etc. In fact, a large section of the blog deals with building your own ERG and utilizing creative commons in those builds so other people can benefit from the design. Clearly ergonomic guitar design is more than just a marketing tool for you. How did you get involved in focusing on that aspect of design and how to you view the role of collaboration in the work that you do?
Since it started as a way of just engaging with people and making new friends, it was only natural to be open. Later, when I realized that maybe there was a market for headless guitars out there, I thought it made more sense to grow that market and take a small share [rather] than to corner a tiny market. With the acceptance and availability of headless guitars, more people will want to buy mine as well. Openness has evolved into a survival tool from there – I can’t respond to all the e-mails I get, and now I can almost always do a quick search of my own web site and send a link that has the answer. It’s the same thing with pricing for the custom guitars – I prefer to let people build their own quote and work on my backlog.
If people are considering ordering a custom guitar, what kind of questions should they be asking and what should they be approaching the builder with (other than money)?
Getting it to feel good when you hold it is a key component. Of course materials and pickups matter, but the feeling you get when you pick it up and look at it will go a long way. When describing what style of music you play and the quirks of your playing style (Do you bend upwards, downwards? Do strings slip off the side of the neck on your guitars? Do you do a lot of chord work or mostly melody/solo work? etc.) The builder should be able to provide recommendations. Do your homework and play a lot of guitars. Try and figure out what makes one feel better than another.
What’s in store for .strandberg* in the future?
Lots of things are going on! There will be some announcements coming out in the near future. Contrary to earlier transparent approaches, I have been doing some skunk works with Al Mu’min of the HAARP Machine, putting the final touches on stuff that I have been working on for several years, which is very exciting. Right now, it’s final prep for Frankfurt. I don’t have my own booth, but plan to partner up with Leqtique (pedals) and True Temperament, so there will some good exposure. I am working very intensely on increasing the build pace, still keeping every single guitar a true “.strandberg*”, so there is a lot to look forward to!