Has 3D Guitar Manufacturing Taken the Next Step Toward Innovation?

Photo: Rick English

By Kira Grunenberg

When one starts talking about “3D printing,” the conversation has already taken a modern and somewhat futuristic turn. It wasn’t exactly a process that immediately was thought to latch itself onto music or anything related thereto. After all, any ‘hardware’ needed for musicians to make music usually comes from intensive, delicate and experience hand labor done by trained individuals who studied in apprentice positions for years before making something of their own. (This being particularly true for stringed instruments, even today.) The idea of mass, human-less production for an instrument seems contrary to what gives an instrument its individual character, tone, color, and appearance.

However, during this past June, one New Zealand professor of mechatronics brought 3D printing to instrument construction with sets of 3D printed, electric guitars. Revolutionary as this unveiling was, the electric guitar is just that: electric. Consequently, the idea of creating aesthetically unconventional body designs doesn’t have an impact on the ability to use the guitar itself, since it’s run off of electrical signals and not just vibrations for sound.

What though, is there to be said about another man who has decided to use 3D printing for exactly the opposing purpose? An acoustic guitar made almost entirely of synthetic material using this artificial process. Scott Summit is that man –a person not unfamiliar with 3D printing.

Summit is the co-founder of a company called Bespoke Innovations, that focuses on designing parts and coverings for prostheses. According to Businessweek

“Earlier this year [the company] 3D Systems acquired [Bespoke Innovations and a]s far as anyone seems to know, this is the first 3D-printed acoustic guitar on the planet.”

The former was the company that manufactured Summit’s 3D model. One familiar with the mechanics and pieces involved in the function of an acoustic guitar might presume this endeavor to be a wild goose chase of expensive proportions. Why? Similar to the functions of other stringed instruments, in order to create pitch, the strings used on a guitar must be placed across the instrument at hand and then tightened to various levels in order to sustain a particular frequency. This typically involves an enormous amount of pressure from the pull of the tightened strings just to get things ready for playing. Then, even after a guitar manages to withstand that, there has to be enough ‘room’ left for vibrations to be made so the sound can be heard, and ideally, enjoyed.

Summit’s printed guitar is made up of a combination of plastic, sterling silver, and stainless steel. Sure, these materials go into any electric model but they don’t exactly lend well to the thought of a pure and clear string pluck meant to reverberate crisp tones. Summit claims that the guitar’s sound is “rich and full and has a great tonal range,” but some kind of audible showing in the form of a recording has yet to be posted anywhere online for others to hear. At the same time, with a $3,000 dollar investment on the line, (that’s the value of how much plastic was used), Summit’s guitar doesn’t appear it would be ready for common consumer budgets anytime soon anyway –regardless of whether it sounds better or worse than Summit says.

Kira is an old school music nerd with a love for all things creative; always searching for music’s common ground. She graduated with an M.A. in Performing Arts Administration from New York University. Drop her a tweet @shadowmelody1