I want to welcome Leo Lospennato from “Lospennato Guitars” who was kind enough to write this guest post for our site and share with us one of the topics he teaches in his book “Electric Guitar and Electric Bass Design”.
Leo is an Italian/Argentinian luthier based in Berlin, Germany. Engineer by education and designer by choice, at 16 he became fascinated with lutherie when he built his first (“terribly made”) electric bass, using practically no tools and the wrong woods. Today his instruments are in the hands of recognized musicians, embodying an original retro-futuristic concept: guitars that look as if they were designed in the 50’s by someone trying to imagine how a guitar would look like in the year 2100!
Lutherie, in the words of his book, “has it all; lutherie is inspiring, is frustrating, is rewarding, is deeply technical, is highly artistic… it is like nothing else. And you get to hold in your hands something made by you, an object you can make music with.”
I hope you Enjoy this!
Go ahead Leo
Designing the Electric Guitar body (2D)
Electric guitars come in a thousand different shapes. The following chart classifies them using two axes: Convexity/concavity and straightness/curvature of lines. Categorized this way, guitar and bass bodies go from curvy to pointy, and from minimalistic to convoluted.
Have you noticed? The more extreme those variables get, the more radical the instrument looks. A lot of concavities, or none. A lot of curves, or none. That is how a radical design emerges. But find a balance of curves, draw a conservative number of concavities, and the more “traditional” the body will look. That is why the classic models are closer to the center of the chart, and the radical ones are closer to the borders (the Spanish guitar qualifies as “radical” here, because it is out of context: an electric guitar with that shape would be radical indeed!)
This chart is not exhaustive–on the contrary, each shape represents several others. Counter-examples can be found, of course. For example, just attach the neck on the wrong end of a Stratocaster, and you get a radical guitar with the exact same concavity/straightness combination as a Strat.
Here’s another thing about extreme body shapes. Extreme body shapes are usually unergonomic–the instruments at the top-right of the chart don’t look comfortable to play and probably aren’t. The biggest offender is the “ABBA guitar”, which represents the maximum value in both scales. The designer surely decided that these new kids from Sweden needed some visual impact to have a fair shot at the 1974 Eurovision Contest (their costume’s designer probably thought the same thing. It worked, anyway: ABBA won the contest that year).
The first draft
I prefer to start by drawing the lower-left bout (the place where the player rests the arm). There is no particular reason for that. Then I continue with a light contour to define the body, which I will erase and redraw a hundred times, here and there, until I come up with a pleasant and balanced whole. This phase should not be encumbered with too many rational considerations–just let the pencil flow, instead. Start over again, as many times as necessary. This is the moment to be creative. I spend a lot of time designing body shapes for two reasons: First, it’s my favorite part of the process. Second, I am an obsessive perfectionist about it; I keep making changes so subtle that not even a microbiologist wielding an electron microscope would notice. My only consolation is to know that for a luthier perfectionism is not entirely a bad thing.
Design templates: a thousand-year wisdom
There are no recipes for generating beauty, but some attributes of beauty (symmetry, proportion, equilibrium, etc.), are of a dimensional nature, so we can make use of some geometrical, referential frameworks to base our creative process.
The Vesica Piscis
Literally meaning “the bladder of the fish” in Latin, the Vesica Piscis is a symbol considered sacred in ancient times. It is made from two circles of the same radius, intersecting in such a way that the center of each circle lies on the circumference of the other. It evokes very strong associations, and it is therefore natural that ancient instrument makers searched to attain perfection in their designs by basing them on such a “perfect” figure.
The intersection was considered an image of the contacting worlds of Earth and Heaven, matter and spirit. It is a symbol of completeness. It also symbolizes a fish, a secret paleo-Christian symbol, representing Christ and the saints. This shape has been not only used in the design of stringed musical instruments, but also in architecture around the world. It is said to have been used to design violins and instruments that have a “teardrop” shape, like lutes. It is the most basic of layout tools, but it can help our perception of symmetry, balance and proportion when designing the body.
Would it be useful to design an electric guitar? Yes–at least as a first approach.
Were the LP and the Strat designed using this resource? Can’t say for sure–but look how well they fit in those curves! Note also that in one case the Vesica is used vertically, and in the other one, horizontally.
The Golden Ratio
Made popular through the bestselling novel The Da Vinci Code, the Golden Ratio is a design resource used for millennia (literally), since ancient Greece times. It describes a relation between two segments, one of which is 1.618 times larger than the other one. This relation is found in an astonishing number of instances in nature, clearly more frequently than pure chance would suggest. So, a guitar designed using this principle would be perceived as consistent with proportions found in nature and also in culture. See in the figures below how well the LP and the Strat fit in the golden rectangle. Look at the position of the bridge in the Les Paul, and at the precise golden relation between the width at the upper bout and the length of the Stratocaster body.
Was it deliberate? Did the designers of the classics use the golden ratio as a guide? I don’t know. I made a test with a few bodies of my own design (also shown below) and they too fit in interesting ways to these proportions–but I did not use the Golden Ratio as a basis for these designs!
The golden ratio can be used as a first, basic guide to design the body. It can be used simultaneously with the Vesica Piscis, too.
Horn insertion lines
I want to introduce you to a design trick that, in my experience, is useful to improve visual harmony. Take, for example, the following body shapes, in which the lines of the horns have been extended through the body or neck.
In the following figure, notice how the horns do not just stick out from the body, but are a continuation of the upper bout and/or the cutaways. The extended lines converge, or stay parallel, or interact in some other way that makes sense, giving continuity to the design. I omitted “bad” examples on purpose–in such cases, the shape of the body looks “disconnected” somehow.
Another benefit of this horn insertion line approach is that the shape of the heel will be easier to integrate with the rest of the design. If the horns follow very divergent paths, it will be more difficult to make them meet in the back of the instrument.
Advantages of making a protototype of your guitar’s body shape
Prototyping is a process that I highly recommend during the design phase. Even if the “prototype” is just a simple cardboard cut in the shape of your guitar’s body:
- It will save costs, by preserving the materials that will be used on the real instrument.
- It will help to test the body shape from an “ergonomics-based” perspective (you can anticipate the look and feel of the real thing, testing how comfortably the model fits in your body, simulating your hands access to controls and higher frets, etc.)
- You can adjust the body’s size, if necessary (just stand with it in front of a mirror with it).
Designing a great guitar body
- Use templates to ensure good proportions, but do not constrain your designs too much by them.
- Reinventing the classics. If you want to use a known model as a reference (for example, if you want to re-create an Explorer, or design a stylized Jaguar) using a real size drawing of the original as reference will ensure that your design has a compatible size. Also, by knowing where the original curves lay, you can find new paths for your own lines. You can get real size plans from several providers on the internet, or just draw the outline of a body using a real instrument.
- Use more than one drawing medium, if you have to. Pencil and computer complement each other.
- Prototype! Cut a cardboard or plywood silhouette of the body, and simulate playing on it standing up, sitting down, etc. Does it look comfortable? How does it fit on your knee? Would you be able to reach the whole fretboard? Now is the time to make all necessary adjustments.
- Let it mature. Hang the draft on a wall where you can see it from your bed, your sofa or your desk. One day you notice a curve that needs to be corrected. Do it. Then after another few days you may notice that the upper horn angle is a little off. Correct it. Always keep the original drawing somewhere, though, so you can appreciate the evolution, or even start again from scratch.
The process continues until a few days pass, and you can’t (or won’t) make any more changes. That is the outline of your new guitar body.