Talking Guitar: Ervin Somogyi - Part Six: THE “RAPUNZEL” GUITAR’S ORNAMENTATION
I’ve been describing my No. 410 and 421 guitars, made of wenge, in these postings. Let’s continue.
I have named guitar No. 421 (the one with the “tick bracing”) as “The Rapunzel” . . . on account of a rather challenging inlay on the back of that guitar’s neck. It’s a braided pattern, like Rapunzel’s hair supposedly was (Figs 10, 11, and 12).
“Rapunzel” guitar with very linear wood grain on the back (and sides).
“Rapunzel” guitar back of neck inlay, bass side.
“Rapunzel” guitar back of neck inlay, treble side.
The reason that I thought to do anything like this inlay was that the guitar, as otherwise completed, looked . . . well . . . incomplete.
The back and sides are made of particularly straight-and-close-grained wenge (wen-gay); the graining is so tight and uniform that, from a distance, it looked homogeneous to the point of looking bland. To my eye, this guitar seemed to need something to spice it up visually.
I naturally thought of an inlay. And I thought I would do it on the neck wood (I’d done back-of-neck inlay work before, to hide a flaw in the wood that appeared at the last minute). A few days later, I thought of a braided inlay design.
Inlaying into the back of a guitar neck is tedious and careful work because of the round surfaces involved. Most inlay work is rendered into flat surfaces; the back of the neck is anything but. Yet, I couldn’t think of anything better to do. I decided to use red wood veneer strips bordered with black-white-black violin purfling strips.
How could I go wrong? The most famous and revered artists in the world have all used red in their work!
AESTHETICS OF INLAY DESIGN
I’ve used the Rapunzel guitar as a teaching device since I completed it. I did not intend this use of it when I was making it; but after this instrument was done I noticed that I had done the inlay work in a way that automatically and without conscious thought included a not-so obvious but nonetheless essential design consideration. It’s most certainly a factor that is worth knowing and teaching about. And that is: whatever you do, don’t make the design static; that’s boring. Make it a bit dynamic. This guitar incorporates that aesthetic element, and therefore I’ve used it as an illustration of what I consider to be a general principle. Let me explain what I mean.
Aside from obvious things such as clean execution, a principal reason for how attractive the “Rapunzel” inlay work is, in my opinion, that the pattern has an organic look to it. It’s not rigid. The elements are not at rigidly set right angles to, and mathematically consistent distances from, each other. Neither is the grid in alignment with, nor perpendicular to, the axis of the guitar neck. And the braiding “moves” helically as it wraps around.
Look at Figs. 10, 11, and 12 more closely: the ribbon pattern itself isn’t perfectly regular and gridlike, as chicken wire or chain-link fencing would be. The spaces between the ribbons change progressively in size as they move up the neck and as they adapt organically (i.e., without mathematical rigidity) to its proportions. I think that if the inlay elements were all at right angles to one another . . . or just evenly spaced . . . this would be a very boring piece of work to look at.
Check out the accompanying images and judge for yourself. Look at the flow of the lines and of the spacings between them. Notice how, as one goes from the nut to the heel on the treble side of the neck, the spaces get progressively smaller . . . while they get progressively larger on the bass side. Man, that is so cool! And static . . . it’s not.
Aside from what I call the “organicity” of the spacings of the grid segments up and down the neck, there is a separate orientational component. Notice that, as the grid wraps around the curvature of the neck, it “wraps” itself around in a way that isn’t static. The axis of the wrapped grid is at a slight angle to the long axis of the neck. Take another look at Figs. 10, 11, and 12. To my way of thinking, the things I’m writing about should strike one immediately . . . and certainly in less time than it takes to read about them. My personal feeling is that it is these two qualities that really make this inlay work so visually successful – and worth pointing out.
Finally, here’s a tricky technical aspect to the execution of such inlay work. Namely, that inlaying linear strips of wood, regardless of how pretty they are, into equally “linearly straight” grooves in the back of a guitar neck, will not work.
The back of the guitar neck isn’t round; it’s rounded and curved; and its curves change. The tapering of the neck, combined with the fact of its variable-radius curvatures, means that strips inlaid into such a surface need to be a bit “S” shaped. Linear strips that are ruler-straight will NOT work.
One thing that is certainly worth saying is that this inlay works for that specific guitar. As I said, the wenge that I used was so perfectly straight-grained that it looked featureless when seen from a few feet away; I felt it needed something extra. The back looked . . . well, too plain. The bare guitar neck, attached to the “bare” back, looked equally nondescript. The guitar -- certainly as seen from the back -- managed to look like the spy in the novels who looks so ordinary that there’s nothing about him that attracts attention; and he becomes invisible (Figs. 13 and 14).
A wenge guitar back that is so perfectly grained that it’s featureless from a few feet away.
Another wenge guitar back that is so perfectly grained that it’s featureless from a few feet away.
The wenge itself is of a reddish/chocolate hue, so the red ribboning is compatible.
But, besides that, I think it was good to inlay into the neck rather than into the back and sides. I believe that work complemented -- but didn’t compete with nor take away from -- the spare look of the back and side woods. In fact I think it actually enhanced the plainness of the back. It was plain, and the neck was not, and they balanced each other out nicely. I hope you would agree with this assessment.
Had I done inlay work on the back instead -- or also -- there would have been too much bling (visual stuff going on) in one area. All in all, I think the Rapunzel is some of the best work I’ve done.
One more thing: the inlaying of the end of one of the veneer-ribbons into the bass side of the guitar neck, where it curves into the heel (look at the jpeg) . . . man, that was really something (hint: you can’t get a flat ribbon to wrap around compound curves unless you’re really, really skilled). It should have gotten me a MacArthur grant...
Unitl next time...