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Tone and playability in design

It's obvious that the perfect guitar is one which is a dream to play and delivers the best possible tone. In reality however, most features that make a guitar more playable are to the detriment of the tone. So what sort of features should you be considering on your dream guitar?

I wanted to explain in a little more detail the thinking behind various features that I deem interesting for folk and gypsy jazz guitars, and explain some of the thinking (and consequences) behind different designs.


1) Cutaway, or non-cutaway?

There's quite a bit of debate around the idea of whether a cutaway is a good idea or not. By adding one you're increasing access to the upper regions of the fretboard, so if you're a player that likes to wander up to the 16th fret and beyond this probably makes sense. However, it's worth asking yourself whether you are happy sacrificing that valuable tone-producing airspace within the guitar, as well as destroying the symmetry of the soundboard. Not just visually, mind: the soundboard actually vibrates differently and in a slightly less uniform way when it's no longer symmetrical.

2) Body depth and tapering

A lot of players don't realise that the sides of their instrument actually taper from the endblock (where you plug in your input jack, or attach your strap) to the neck. The idea behind this is to increase the capacity of the air cavity within the body without making too it uncomfortable to get your arm around. Playing around with this taper or the overall body depth is a great way to control the tone without redesigning the instrument. A useful way of getting closer to the warm tone you get from Jumbos without making a larger guitar - than an OM, say - is to increase the size of the ribs or reduce the amount of taper. This is also a good way to tonally offset any losses caused by having a cutaway.

3) Number of frets to the body

Something regularly considered by players is the choice of whether or not to have 12 or 14 frets to the body. A consequence not often realised however is the impact this can have on the tone, particularly on fixed-bridge guitars. Most 12 fret guitars have the bridge positioned centrally on the soundboard, as the earliest guitar designs intended. However, when 14 fret guitars were introduced the longer neck brought the bridge closer to the soundhole, changing the tone (and the bracing) along with it. For many the difference in tone is just fine, and the added comfort offered by access to the frets without having to add a cutaway is a bonus.

4) Fanned frets

I've dealt with this in another blog post ('Multiple scale length instruments') so I won't go into too much detail here, but basically fanned frets are a way to change the tone of each string in order to get a broader harmonic range. Normally fanning the frets means that lowest strings are tighter and the higher strings are slacker (or usual tension). This can also be achieved by simply using custom gauges for each string, but fanned frets are a more permanent and convenient way to get this effect. Furthermore the effect on the bracing can further alter the tone. The downside to fanned frets is that extremely fanned frets are a bit confusing at first. However, I normally find that it doesn't take long to adjust.

5) Arm bevel

The arm bevel is another feature that is appearing with increasing regularity on modern handmade guitars. It's an obvious comfort to bevel the area of the guitar where the arm rests, but it comes at a price of reducing valuable soundboard space. It's also a tricky feature to manufacture, so this is not something seen on factory built instruments.


Ultimately it's up to the player to decide what features are most important to them. Everything including the playing style and genre of music being played affects the choices that a player should make. The best guitar is the one which affords the playability and comfort that you desire, and makes you want to play more! A blend of the right features will come close to creating the perfect instrument without compromising on the tone.

Check out the featured guitars page for more ideas. And don't forget to leave your comments below!

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