A project launched three years ago just for fun is propelling the latest products by Ravi Sawhney and his 30-person team at RKS Design on to a whole new stage - the rock 'n' roll concert stage.
Sawhney, founder and chief executive officer of the Los Angeles-area industrial design firm, was spurred by his own musical interests and those of his employees to explore creating a whole new type of electric guitar. RKS staffers brought in their guitars from home, some 50 in all, and they began brainstorming and developing prototypes based around an ``open architecture'' concept not previously applied to the guitar manufacturing industry.
In 2001 veteran rock guitarist Dave Mason - who already helped run a production company called Blue Label Records with Ravi's brother, Ramesh - joined the project as an equity partner in newly formed subsidiary RKS Guitars. After endless design changes and fine-tuning, the first products - a series of three visually striking, polyurethane-body guitars and one electric bass - are about to go into limited commercial production.
Paul Janowski, vice president of operations at RKS who formerly worked at Schecter Guitars in Chicago, said, ``As far as we know, RKS Guitars is pioneering the use of plastic as a major structural portion of the instrument. Plastic has been used on switch tips, knobs, pick guards, pickup covers and other decorative and nonstructural parts for years, but no manufacturer has used plastic in a major part except for effect.''
Array of models
The open-architecture concept - which at the manufacturing stage allows for interchangeable body shells and pick guards built around a central core with either aluminum or wood ribs - enabled RKS to build models without building full guitars, and afforded it a huge portfolio of color and finish options.
``Because we had the resin parts,'' explained the Canadian-born, Southern California-reared Sawhney, ``that allowed us to do a lot of plating on those parts.''
The result is a stunning array of custom-painted and plated guitars that includes such models as: Chrome Molly (chrome-plated), X-Ray (a translucent, milky-white body through which the structural ribs are visible) and Stars & Stripes (a painted tribute to Old Glory). Plans call soon for Bling Bling (plated with 24-carat gold), Blue Jeans (with the body shells wrapped with actual stretch denim), and such finishes as snakeskin, distressed leather and probably a full-clear model.
RKS also has developed a series of solid-body guitars called Natural, made by computer numerically controlled machining of the shells into a sandwich of cedar and quilted maple or curly maple.
``We can do anything we want, once we build these tools,'' Sawhney said, referring to imminent plans to build some epoxy molds for the body shells to replace the less-expensive soft tooling they have used to date. The molds for the shells currently are being made with ShinEtsu's KE1300T grade of silicone, according to RKS designer Bill Debley.
While it farms out most of the manufacturing, painting and set-up to outside contractors, RKS has been molding the body shells for the prototypes in-house, using the RenCast 6491 grade of castable polyurethane. The resin is made by Vantico Inc., which as a result of a June 30 financial restructuring became part of Huntsman Corp.'s Polyurethanes and Specialities Division.
``We use something very similar to the large-scale, reaction injection molding materials, but we buy it through companies that sell for rapid prototyping, `` Debley said. ``We don't really have access [to the more mainstream materials] because of the amounts we're purchasing right now.
RKS - which has had good luck using an off-the-shelf PU grade - can mold 43 sets of body shells out of 10 gallons of urethane, which translates into about 2 pounds of material per guitar.
The basic, plastic-body guitars are fairly lightweight - about 7 pounds, on average - which allows the design flexibility of plating with metals such as chrome or gold that add several pounds to the finished product.
Debley said that for its Bling Bling model, RKS is working with Artcraft Plating in Burbank, Calif., one of the few platers in the country that it said can gold-plate PU.
Artcraft uses a proprietary process to make the nonconductive parts conductive. First, the urethane shells get a coating of copper, then a coating of nickel and then the final finish layer of either chrome or 24-carat gold. The total thickness of the plating is about 0.02 inch.
Debley said the process is superior to vacuum metalizing for the application, and noted that it gives the instrument a cold metal feel and adds some weight to it.
``It's a nice effect and has a big effect on the tone, too.'' RKS discovered through the process that even the paints and coatings applied to the shells can affect the instrument's tonal qualities significantly.
And that is really the crux of the matter. Most important is not how the guitars look, but how they play. Only the ability to deliver world-class sound will get them near a concert stage.
Thanks in large part to Mason's endless tweaking, the parties involved believe the current products finally are ready for prime time.
``I think we can compete,'' Mason said, referring to the ability of the RKS guitars to hold their own, performancewise, against top-line makers such as Fender, Gibson and PRS. ``They're ready to go,'' he said in an Aug. 28 telephone interview from his home office/studio in Ojai, Calif., near Los Angeles. ``I wasn't going to put my name to something in the marketplace that I didn't think had a shot.''
And Worcester, England-born Mason, 57, knows something about guitars. As a teenager in the mid-1960s he was a founding member of the British rock group Traffic and for two years was a member of Fleetwood Mac. He also has toured and recorded with some of the biggest names in rock history - Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Paul McCartney, Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones - and sustained a successful, 30-year solo career.
The collaboration between guitarist and designers featured its own interesting dynamics.
Sawhney said Mason first stopped by RKS Design as a favor to Ramesh, ``and he didn't like what he saw, but he said, `This has potential to become the next great guitar ... but I need some changes.' Now, he didn't say, `I'll need changes for the next two years.' He just said, `We'll need to make a few changes.' And every time we saw him, he was very consistent,'' constantly raising the bar.
``I think I drove them pretty crazy,'' Mason said of his partners. ``I understand - they're designers, so they came up with a great design and said, `Well, that's it, right?' And so for a year and a half, I had to keep going, `Nope, not yet.' It was a question of bringing design into a really functional unit, into something that you can compete with in the marketplace. And that was a process.
``I've played guitars for 40 years, but I know nothing about building one. So it's been a question of trial and error,'' he admitted.
The first prototype he saw featured the same open-architecture design and body style that exist in today's models but, Mason said, ``Originally, it was a three-quarter-size guitar. There was no head stock on it.
``At the outset, the three-quarter-size thing was not going to work on a professional level. And neither was the fact that there was no head stock on it,'' he said.
So he personally designed the head stock - the piece at the end of a guitar's neck that holds the tuning keys - that is on the instrument's current models.
He also had his doubts about the concept of interchangeable bodies, due to concerns that it might compromise the rigidity of the structure, which is vital to the sound. But Mason now is adequately satisfied with the product to use it in his own recording studio, and he even used an RKS guitar on stage during part of a recent tour.
``Yeah, we've got a guitar,'' declared Mason. ``It's really well-balanced. It plays great. It's got a great action. ... I'm sure that, like anything, it will probably gather more little changes as it goes. But I think we definitely have something that's ready to bring to market.''
With that in mind, RKS Guitars is now in the process of making its first 15 production models, which Sawhney calls Version 2.2. Those will be available soon for retail sale.
And they won't be cheap.
The majority of the models will sell for $1,600-$3,500, though the gold-plated Bling Bling will chart at closer to $5,000. And then an ``artist series'' of collectibles is planned.
``Those will be off the charts,'' said Gary Kevorkian, director of marketing and public relations for both RKS Design and RKS Guitars.
``With the quality of workmanship,'' Mason noted, ``they're a little expensive now because they're all made in the U.S. Hopefully, at some point, there'll be a more mass-produced version that'll bring it more in line. Right now, it's an expensive piece. It's for professional players.''
Next up, said Sawhney, ``We're going to do a series of slight modifications, what I'd call design-for-manufacture simplifications. So that's the design Version 2.3 and the build on that is 50 guitars. That will start approximately Oct. 1.''
RKS is gearing up now for that output and may bring in some production urethane equipment.
``We are looking into purchasing a metered mixing system that will allow us to dispense two-part urethane resins and other kinds of materials like epoxies and silicones,'' Kevorkian said.
``The tooling we are adding for the guitar will be composite epoxy molds for the shells and pick guards. Several mold sets will be set up and an operator will dispense a metered shot into each mold.''
RKS Design has a 20,000-square-foot headquarters facility in Thousand Oaks, Calif., that offers plenty of space for what Sawhney calls ``an incubation.''
``Once we start getting into 100 guitars a month,'' he said, ``we'll have to give back the space to RKS [Design]. We've already looked at leasing another facility to do that.''
While RKS and its current network of subcontractors probably could handle production of up to 500 guitars a month, he said they are contemplating whether to outsource all aspects of manufacture. For now, though, he said the tight quality specifications require RKS to be directly involved.
Meantime, as optimistic as Mason is, he admits, ``You don't know until you get it out there, until you start getting a lot more feedback from people.'' But then he quickly added: ``I'm real excited about it. We're going to be launching it at the NAMM [International Music Products Association] show in January in Anaheim. Then I've got a new album that'll probably be coming out next year, so whatever TV shows I'm on, it'll be there.''