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Talking Guitar: Ervin Somogyi - Part Four: THE “RAPUNZEL” GUITAR’S STRUCTURE

ON THE “RAPUNZEL” GUITAR’S STRUCTURE.

Most of my guitars (the steel string ones, that is) are braced with one or another version of “X” bracing.  No. 421 is different.  For lack of a better name, I have called it “tick bracing” because it reminds me of the anatomy of a tick.  Again: the notable lack of imagination in play here.  But there’s an interesting story behind this design, that I’ll tell you about further below.

Before going into that, though, I should say that I’ve mostly made “traditionally” braced guitars throughout my career.  For my steel string instruments this has meant use of one or another version of the canonical "X" bracing.  It works, as we all know.  [NOTE: if you are interested in educating yourself about the history and dynamics of “X” bracing, I’d recommend that you get a set of my books and read up on it -- as well as the other common bracing patterns in use today.]  I'm guessing that every steel string guitar in TNAG's showroom features "X" bracing; it is the principal structural element/reinforcement that stabilizes the topwood against the pull and torque of the strings, and without which the top would sag and distort.  As I said, it works. 

However, I like to experiment and to explore possibilities.  I like to find out what happens if I do this or that a little differently.  I’ve been of this mind for most of my working life (which now is at the fifty-year mark).  The tradeoff that it offers is that my work continues to be interesting . . . instead of highly profitable.  Whenever one does anything different or exploratory, instead of gluing the same pieces of wood together in the same way to the same spots, it reduces efficiency. 

Personally, I think efficiency for its own sake is highly overrated.  But that’s just me.  My psychotherapist is cautiously optimistic that we can change that.

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There came a point at which I wanted to see if I could make a successful steel string guitar without an “X” brace -- and without resorting to standard fan bracing, ladder bracing, falcate bracing, Kasha bracing, radial bracing, lattice bracing, or anything else.  

This impulse came out of a meeting that I had, a number of years ago, with artist Mihail Chemiakin.  Chemiakin is an artist who is highly famed in Russia and Eastern Europe – and a bit in Western Europe, particularly in France, which has wooed him for years now.  (The French government has made available to him, to live in and to use, a castle in Southern France that was once the home of Charles VII -- who was the French king who turned Joan of Arc over to the British to execute as a heretic, witch, and traitor.)  Chemiakin is not well known in the United States.

Chemiakin is almost a National Treasure in Russia, however.  The man is massively talented, productive, and a pioneer and authority in an artistic movement that is called “Metaphysical Art”.  He has a sense of line that is powerful, and unique.  I came across his work a long time ago entirely accidentally and was immediately captivated by it. 

Chemiakin was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1943; it was the middle of World War 2 and life was dire.  I believe that it is largely for reasons of his early formative experiences under such conditions that he functions out of a dark sensibility (that, and being Russian; it didn’t help matters that while a young man in Russia he was arrested for being a Dissident Artist, and tortured to get him to “reform”.  That effort failed and he was expelled from Russia.  He went to France, where he was embraced as an artist.  He’s lived in various places since; and ultimately he was received back by Russia as a cultural hero).    

I’ll be the first to admit that Chemiakin’s work really isn’t everyone’s cup of tea – but then again I was born in Budapest, Hungary, during World War 2, and I can resonate to and relate to this man’s sensibility. 

I’ve bought a few of Chemiakin’s more affordable works through some art galleries.  Furthermore, I had the opportunity to meet the artist himself a few years ago when I accompanied the owner of one of these galleries to a visit to Chemiakin’s own then-workshop in upstate New York.   I consider it one of the honors of my life that I was allowed to meet this man. 

I was present at a discussion that these two had about a new project of Chemiakin’s.  It was predicated on the fact that every painting, drawing, still life, portrait, nature scene, sketch, water color, etc. ever made began with an outline of some sort . . . to be duly filled in.  Chemiakin wanted to see if he could create images starting from the center and working out, but without having an outline to work to.  He showed the gallery owner some of his new works that had been done like this . . . accomplished by dripping ink and paint outwards from a central point . . . without an outline . . . and working until a shape had been achieved.  I was impressed with what I saw.

That discussion that I was witness to made so much of an impression on me that, in due time, I got curious about whether I could make anything of my own by “working without an outline”.

 

In the case of steel string guitars, that outline (the organizing factor, actually) seemed to be the “X” brace.  It is, as I said, the principal structural element/reinforcement that stabilizes the topwood against the pull and torque of the strings, without which the top would sag and distort.  It also organizes the vibrational possibilities of the face depending on its size, mass, angle, tapering or profiling, spread, coupling or uncoupling with/from nearby structures, evenness or unevenness, etc. etc. etc.  The “X” brace is essentially the boss and foreman of the “work crew” that delivers vibrational energies to the various sections and quadrants of the guitar face.  As some people would say, It Be Da Boss.

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So, as I said: I got interested in seeing if I could make a successful steel string guitar without an “X” brace -- and without resorting to standard fan bracing, falcate bracing, Kasha bracing, lattice bracing, radial bracing, ladder bracing, or anything else that doesn’t depend on an “X” brace.  

The result of that exploration was guitar No. 421.  It has a double-thickened midplate instead of the "X" brace element (which I thought would support the middle area of the face), and it has the usual secondary braces one sees on steel string guitars . . . but no “X” brace.  In other words, no bracing element between the soundhole and the bridge to stand up to the strings’ torque, and to act as an energy-delivery channel that carries vibrational impulses from the center to the outside. 

I came up with something that I’ve called “tick bracing” . . . because it rather reminds me of the anatomy of a tick.  It’s not a very sexy name but it does describe the structure pretty well (Fig. 9). 

Fig. 9  “Tick bracing”.

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After I built this instrument and strung it up, I found that I needed to beef this bracing up a bit with the addition of a small secondary transverse brace beneath the soundhole.  Not having built one of these before, I didn’t know how much string tension the top needed to withstand, and it sagged more than what I was happy with.  I worked through the soundhole, and retro-installed a modest-sized brace that was contoured to fit around all the other pieces of wood that were already in place.  And that fix did the trick. Guitar No. 410, by way of contrast, has normal “X” braced construction.

 

More later . . . Ervin.

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