Polymer composites play a minor role in today's market for fretted and stringed instruments, but entrepreneurial manufacturers seek ways to sell innovative applications to musicians. Imbued with old-world values, a traditional musician accepts change slowly, expects a subtle feel in an instrument and wants tone-wood sounds.
``Composite material instruments constitute a small percentage of what people are buying and using now, but there is a slight and steady trend toward more composites,'' said Andy Ellis, associate editor of Guitar Player magazine. ``The trend will accelerate as the scarcity of tone woods reaches critical proportions.''
Traditionalists can be a tough sell. The sounds from a resonant wooden instrument and ``a synthetic guitar'' are as different as the light from a warm glowing candle and a harsh fluorescent tube, Ellis said.
Worldwide, about 985,000 guitars were sold last year with about 8 percent made with some composites, said Brian Majeski, editor of The Music Trades.
``If you exclude the [Kaman Music Corp.] Ovation's 60,000-70,000, all the rest with composites sold a total of less than 10,000 units,'' Majeski said. ``These are very expensive, low-volume, specialty products.''
Approaches vary widely.
Geoff Gould was an originator in the field using aerospace technology. He founded Modulus Graphite Inc. in San Francisco, which patented technology for a molded graphite and epoxy guitar neck in 1979.
Now, Modulus makes electric guitars and bass guitars that list for $1,600-$3,000, and the company supplies other manufacturers with composite necks and phenolic-and-paper fingerboard laminates. Modulus also licenses technology used in making Steinberger basses.
Industrial designer Ned Steinberger introduced his all-composite, fiberglass and carbon-fiber bass in 1980, later adding a model with a wood body and composite neck. Tuning is done at the bridge instead of the headstock.
Steinberger in 1986 sold that line to Nashville, Tenn.-based Gibson Guitar Corp., which produces the instruments in Huntington Beach, Calif. Now, Steinberger of New Windsor, N.Y., is working independently on a process to laminate graphite and wood for upright basses.
Traditional guitar designer Ken Parker of Wilmington, Mass., produces a hybrid six-string electric guitar that achieves resonance through a core of tone woods. The instrument takes advantage of a thin, lightweightexoskeleton of fiberglass, carbon fiber and epoxy.
Parker introduced the guitar in 1993.
In partnership with Parker Guitar Co., Korg USA Inc. of Westbury, N.Y., markets the Parker Fly Deluxe for $1,950, or $2,250 with a vibrato bridge.
Physicist and technologist John Decker formed Kuau Technology Ltd. in Wailuku, Hawaii, to produce all-graphite RainSong acoustical guitars. They list for $3,500-$4,250.
``In our patented process for acoustic damping, we add some Kevlar to the soundboard layup to generate a controlled amount of acoustic loss and a woodlike tonal quality,'' Decker said, ``That quality is constant across the audio range without sounding tinny or glassy.''
Master luthier Lorenzo Pimentel of Albuquerque, N.M., and composite sailboard fabricator George Clayton of Escondido, Calif., were instrumental RainSong developers.
Playing a different tune, aerospace engineer Leonard John of Toronto patented a violin with a carbon fiber and epoxy body and wood neck. He built three, one of which has been valued at $100,000, but he has yet to commercialize his invention.
Next month, five hobbyists with composite-industry ties will play fretted and stringed instruments containing advanced materials during the symposium and exhibition of the Society for the Advancement of Material and Process Engineering in Anaheim, Calif. They will perform at a May 8 reception and compare the sounds with those from traditional-material instruments at a May 9 demonstration.
``A stringed instrument with composite components is consistent in material density, moisture and temperature resistance, weight and toughness,'' said Lawrence Bazinet, the group's leader and regional sales manager in Ramona, Calif., for Akzo Nobel NV's Fortafil Fibers Inc. unit.
First-time players notice the overall ``wholeness'' of the composite instrument, Bazinet said. ``There is a definite tightness or togetherness of the components.''
In Anaheim, Bazinet will play a five-string banjo with a Modulus neck and a carbon fiber and epoxy tone ring from Quality Composites Inc. in Sandy, Utah.
Gould will perform with an electric bass guitar from Modulus, and David Lacy, regional sales manager with Fortafil Fibers in Tuscaloosa, Ala., will play a RainSong guitar.
Marty Cook will perform on a prototype mandolin, and his brother Tony will play a John violin with a composite bow from Coda Composites Co. of Winona, Minn. Marty Cook of Flagstaff, Ariz., teaches music to schoolchildren and consults at Quintus Manufacturing Inc. Tony Cook is composites laboratory supervisor at Simula Inc. in Phoenix.
Interest in composite instruments fluctuates on trends, Gould said. Collectors retain interest in some inexpensive plastic instruments from the early 1950s.
Guitar powerhouse Kaman Music began by diversifying from its aerospace core and now has 30 percent of the U.S. market.
Kaman developed the Ovation guitar in 1964, initially using wet layup of fiberglass cloth and polyester resin to achieve a bowl-like shape that cannot be duplicated easily in wood.
``Although considered radical, it became widely accepted due to easy maintenance and good sound,'' Bazinet said.
Zehrco Plastics Inc. of Ashta-bula, Ohio, makes the bowls with a high-glass-content sheet molding compound using random chopped-glass fibers in a polyester mix. Zehrco ships the bowls to the Kaman plant in New Hartford, Conn., and Saehan Music Co. Ltd. in Moonsan, Korea, for further work.
Ovation guitars maintain the tradition of a wooden top, except for the Adamas model, and succeed in the market by being priced slightly lower than all-wood acoustic guitars, Ellis said.
``We're not priced lower or higher than any broad category, and our models compare in specifications to wood guitars,'' said David Bergstrom, fretted products manager.
List prices for Kaman guitars range from the Applause at $379 to the top-of-the-line Adamas at $3,099.
The Adamas top consists of carbon-fiber layers sandwiching a birch veneer, said Don John-son, manager of engineering, quality control and research and development. The 0.050-inch-thick top is about one-third the thickness of a spruce top.
``We're the first to use carbon graphite as a soundboard and, excluding RainSong, the only ones to market a graphite-top guitar with any success,'' Bergstrom said.
Kaman has sold more than 40,000 Adamas guitars over 20 years. Music products accounted for 15.4 percent of 1994 sales of $819 million for parent Kaman Corp. of Bloomfield, Conn.
A wooden top gives the core of the sound to a guitar, Ellis said.
``Sound vibrations go through the cellulose and rearrange the wood on a molecular level'' and are easily recognized in ``instruments lovingly played'' over many years.
Diminishing supplies and some restrictions on trade of old-growth Sitka spruce, mahogany and Brazilian rosewood have increased prices. Eventually, shortages may open the market for composite instruments with the correct sound and feel.
Environmentalists encourage the trend. The Fauna and Flora Preservation Society in London said it campaigns to shut down the trade in rare woods.