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Musical Instrument Inventions: The Upright Electric Guitar




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Published on 20 Jun 2017

A hybrid instrument – wood planks, electric guitar strings & pickup coils, upright piano keys/action. This video starts with a quick run-through of key drawings and some time-lapse clips of assembling it (all done to an original soundtrack), and then around 11 minutes of real-time footage of the inventor, Nelson the musician, playing it.

Nelson is a piano and keyboard player interested in working with the sound of the solid-body electric guitar – especially the Gibson SG, as played by well known guitarists such as Angus Young from AC/DC, and Jimmy Page from Led Zeppelin. Dissatisfied with the quality of electric guitar sounds available as digital samples, Nelson decided that the only way to get closer to the real thing and still be able to play it on a keyboard, was to build a physical instrument using similar materials to a real SG, based on its key measurements and dimensions such as the overall length of the SG guitar body and neck, fret positions for higher notes, and so on – and to marry this up with a modified version of upright piano keys, striking action, and string “dampers”.

The resulting instrument invention has 3 planks of wood, 81 strings, and 6 sets of long “humbucker” pickup coils – 1 “bridge” and 1 “neck” pickup on each plank. There is an extra octave of notes below the open “bottom E” string on a normal electric guitar, and nearly 2 more octaves at the upper end, above the usual highest “top D” fret note found on a Gibson SG.

The piano action’s string dampers have been retained and modified to suit the electric guitar strings, allowing both the usual “start-stop” for individual notes, and use of a sustain pedal as standard for an upright piano. The result works well and enables rough mimicking of hand damping techniques used when playing an electric guitar.

Fine tuning of each note is done with a unique mechanism involving use of an allen key to turn a screw that pushes onto a strong metal rod going through the hole in the “ball end” of the electric guitar string. Tuning takes a while, so the video shows just a few seconds of it.

This thing is heavy! To ensure all the working parts are always precisely located in relation to each other, a lot of extra supports were needed. An aluminium frame holds the planks up, using triangle shapes to make it rigid. The keys also had to be fixed into position so they wouldn’t do things like sag in the middle, so they are mounted onto a “key bed” with reinforced aluminium bars running left to right just under the keys, and with steel bars underneath the whole bed, running front to back.

For simplicity, the strings are struck rather than plucked, using stiff wire in place of the usual felt piano 'hammers'. A close-up of one of these is shown in the video.

The signal from the pickups is plugged into a Marshall valve amp and 4x12 speaker stack, as would be done normally for any electric guitar. Nelson goes for an SG sound similar to Angus Young, so he turns down the “middle” knob quite a bit on the amp.

The relatively large size of the 3 wood planks, and the weight of all the metal supports needed, gives this instrument huge amounts of sustain, amounts that many electric guitar players would die for. Unfortunately, the explanation for this extra sustain is that too many of the high frequencies created when a string first starts moving, cannot be absorbed by the large mass of the wood and the metal frame – so they stay in the string itself. Further testing done on potential design changes to remedy this, eventually taught Nelson that for any solid body electric guitar, the thing that gives the kind of tone quality which he wants to have available on a keyboard instrument, is the “transfer” of high frequencies out of the strings and into the guitar body, leaving more of the rich lower tones to be picked up and sent to the amp. His instrument is just too big and too heavy to do this, so it cannot produce the right sound.

Testing after construction was completed also showed that hitting the string with a hammer – one made from any material – generates a different kind of tone from plucking. Pulling the string before you pluck uses much more force than hitting it, and the pluck then produces a lot more lower frequencies, by “driving” the string so that, even right after it starts moving, the lower harmonics immediately sound louder than the higher ones. This all means that using hammers on the instrument has a similar effect to the one caused by the weight issue – the sound is too “toppy”.

Despite these drawbacks to the sound, as you can hear on the video, this rocks!

On one of their blog pages, Great Bear Analogue and Digital Media, who helped in all sorts of ways with the making of this video, have posted a description of the full history of the upright electric guitar project:


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