Redefining the Electric Guitar with CAD
The axe. The gitbox. Lucille.
Whatever you choose to call it, the electric guitar was arguably the most important step in the long evolutionary path of the guitar, which archeologists claim dates back 4,000 years to the Mesopotamian tanbur instrument.
But since the first electric guitar was revealed to the public in 1931 by inventor George Beauchamp, very little has changed. With the further popularization (and physical standardization) of the instrument by companies such as Gibson and Fender, you would be forgiven for thinking that innovation in this area ceased at some point in the early 1960s.
One Lithuanian designer and his band of merry men hope to change all that by combining SOLIDWORKS CAD modeling, modern hardware features and traditional luthier practices to produce a gitbox that is truly worthy of the 21st century.
Lava was created two years ago by industrial designer and guitarist Rapolas Gražys, who wanted to make an ergonomic guitar that enhanced playability while reducing weight. As explained by Gražys at the SOLIDWORKS World 2016 conference, traditional electric guitars don’t particularly allow for playability for higher notes at the bridge end of the neck, due to poorly shaped cutaway sections (the horns on the guitar). The problem is that the cutaways just aren’t cut away enough.
And as for the weight, some electric guitars weigh north of 18 lbs. If you are standing on stage for hours at a time, that can become tiresome. The Lava guitars weigh in at a manageable 6.6 lbs. At the slimmest point, the Lava Drop’s range measures just 12 mm, which gives you some idea of where the instrument saves on weight.
Figure 1. The Lava Drop X guitar. (Image courtesy of Lava.)
Traditional electric guitars also feature frets along the fingerboard. Frets do have an advantage in the sense that the notes are perfectly divided up along the neck, making it easier to hit the correct note each and every time—but that practical advantage is also a tonal disadvantage. Due to the division of the frets, a standard fretted guitar is only capable of playing tones and semitones. This is fine for most western music types, but what of eastern-influenced music, which makes use of microtones?
Gražys decided to remove the frets, allowing for a greater range of tonality. Also, fretless necks are easier on the fingertips. Fretless guitars are generally uncommon in the world (compared to fretless bass guitars) and tend to exist as modified standard guitars—however, in these cases, the frets are removed with pliers.
And so, the Lava Drop range of guitars was born. They got their name from the flowing form exhibited by lava drops, a form which is mirrored in the ergonomic shape of the new instruments. There are currently three variants of the Lava Drop guitar, which I will describe later.
Building Lava Drops
First, let’s have a look at the design and manufacturing process.
The basic silhouette of the guitar was modeled in SOLIDWORKS (see image below), and static loading simulations were performed on one of the thinnest part of the neck to ensure that it was strong enough to withstand breakage. According to Gražys, the design’s basic silhouette was created in just 20 hours with SOLIDWORKS, which is pretty nifty.
Figure 2. Modeling the Lava in SOLIDWORKS.
After the silhouette was modeled, the CAD file was sent to a 5-axis CNC router to cut out the main body. The main body was cut from a piece of maple, glued together. For the prototype, the same piece of maple was used to create a separate bolt on the neck for the guitar.
Due to the separate neck, the prototype was found to have poor sustain and resonance, so a new instrument was created from a single solid piece of wood—that is, the neck and body are cut from a single, uninterrupted piece, with no joining required. This design feature has been adopted into all new variants of the Lava guitar series.
Next, the body was removed from the router and hand finished by the luthier in the team to give it flowing and fluid curves.
Figure 3. Manufacturing the prototype. (Image courtesy of Lava.)
The neck was finished professionally by hand to produce nice organic curves and the groove was cut and drilled to install the truss rod (a steel rod that runs along the length of the neck). The fingerboard was then glued onto the neck and the headstock hardware and tuning heads were added.
Next, the guitar body was coated with tung oil or acrylic to provide a tough but natural-looking finish. After the shape and the finish were complete, the electronic and mechanical hardware was added, including pickups, circuitry, pots, a jack plug input and knobs.
As mentioned previously, the Lava Drop is available in three different models, the Lava Drop +, Lava Drop – and Lava Drop X (as seen in the picture below). Each guitar is as unique as the grain of the piece of wood it’s cut from, ensuring the instrument is one-of-a-kind and impossible to copy or plagiarize.
Figure 4. The Lava range.
Lava Drop +
This model is the 24-fretted version and is made from a single piece of American/European maple wood together with ebony fingerboard. In terms of hardware, it features a Schaller tremolo bridge and two Lace Alumitone split-coil humbuckers (allowing for five-pickup tone combinations) and apparently creates rich, bright tones suited to rock, blues, country and funk.
Lava Drop –
This is the fretless version and is handcrafted from one piece of dark sapele wood with an ebony fingerboard. This guitar has the same hardware as the Lava Drop +, but due to the lack of frets, it’s better suited to jazz, world music and slide guitar styles.
Lava Drop X
As a guitarist and synth player, this version is of most interest to me personally. It has a laser-controlled MIDI controller, which means that it can connect to a computer or synth and musicians can control whatever synth or tonal parameters that they’ve programmed into the synth—purely by waving their hands around in thin air (similar to a theremin)!
In terms of physical hardware, it is manufactured from a single piece of merbau wood (used in shipbuilding), has aircraft-grade aluminum trim and has actual hardened volcanic lava embedded as fingerboard inlays (fret markers). Again, this is a fretted version, with 24 frets. It features a Lace Deathbucker split-coil bridge pickup, a standard jack output and an XLR output. For MIDI usage, the Lava Drop X can be hooked up to any software sequencer package (such as Ableton, Cubase, etc.) via a custom interface box.
Figure 5. Traditional luthier handiwork.
As you can see, SOLIDWORKS has been a useful tool in the creation of the Lava Drop range—and there are many other ways you can utilize the software for designing instruments.
This article on the SOLIDWORKS blog shows how you can use simulation to analyze the frequency of tensioned guitar strings. After all, a guitar string is effectively just a beam that is fixed at both ends, and as we know, SOLIDWORKS simulation is pretty good at beams.
This video tutorial shows how you can model a tuning head using SOLIDWORKS 2015.
There are a whole bunch of other videos on YouTube showing tips and tricks for those wishing to design a guitar of their own.
Personally, I would love to see someone model the entire guitar with tensioned strings and perform simulations on the neck. There can be over 200 lbs of tension across the strings on a guitar neck, which is why most guitars contain a truss rod!
The Lava Drop range is now available through a Kickstarter campaign, which Gražys hopes will spread the word of his beautiful creations. So feel free to click the link and show some support. And maybe you too can own one of these unique instruments.
About the Author
Phillip Keane is currently studying his PhD at the School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. His background is in aerospace engineering, and his current studies are focused on the use of 3D-printed components in spaceflight. He previously worked at Rolls-Royce and Airbus Military and served as an intern for Made In Space and the European Southern Observatory.