Summary: How innovations such as bevels, double tops, and soundports have contributed to the evolution of the contemporary guitar. By Teja Gerken
That’s a weird-looking guitar!” If you’ve been to any major guitar festival recently or have had non-guitar-playing friends flip through the pages of this magazine, you’ve probably heard those words. While the majority of guitars built these days follow the blueprints set by Gibson, Martin, and Antonio de Torres, there are an increasing number of guitars that—to the uninitiated—may look like the result of a catastrophe in the building process. Crooked frets? Holes in the side? Bodies that are thicker on one side than the other?
Rest assured, however, that the innovations found on many custom guitars—and increasingly on some instruments made by larger manufacturers— were fueled by the ergonomic, tonal, or musical needs of players. With the skills of guitar builders at an all-time high, designs that were previously considered too difficult to produce have now become common practice.
In this article, we’ll look at a few of the innovations mentioned above—multiscale fingerboards, soundports, and wedge bodies—as well as some similarly important developments such as armrest bevels, double tops, and elevated fingerboards, that have become common enough to be available from an increasing number of guitar builders.
One of the most popular modifications to a modern custom guitar is the armrest bevel. Invented by Canadian luthier William “Grit” Laskin, the bevel is designed to increase playing comfort. Not only does the bevel take away the pinch often felt while resting your forearm on the edge of the guitar’s body, with the right positioning, it can make you feel like you’re playing a thinner guitar.
Laskin first built a bevel into a classical guitar in 1989, the result of a request from a client whose arm was irritated by the sharp edge of his guitar. “I asked him if he cared how far I took it and he said no,” Laskin says. “I came up with essentially the design I still use today.” Laskin has since made the bevel a standard feature on all his guitars, and he sometimes adds a second bevel in the waist area of the guitar’s bass side, where the body hits the player’s rib cage. He says that, ideally, a bevel should be custom matched to the player, because the best position will depend on how the instrument is held.
Laskin’s bevel idea has become so popular that it is now offered by many luthiers. Some use straight adaptations of Laskin’s design, while others, including Kevin Ryan, have come up with their own variations. While Laskin’s bevel design is inset into the edge of the guitar, with a clear beginning and end, Ryan’s bevel starts at points around the waist and endblock, flaring out to its widest section in the center of the lower bout.
Taylor Guitars is the only major manufacturer to offer a bevel as a custom option, and it is now standard on the company’s Presentation Series guitars. “Grit was the inspiration for me,” Bob Taylor says, “but we do it differently in that we feather it in rather than scoop it up at the ends.” Working in a factory environment, Taylor has had to fine-tune its process for making the bevel and for fitting it onto an existing line of body shapes.
“We’ve done a lot of them by putting them on limited runs of guitars, and by doing that, we’ve gained the skill to do them efficiently,” Taylor says. “We haven’t had any problems with them whatsoever, either in the field or the factory.” Taylor’s bevels add $1,500 above the retail price of the guitar, but this is because, Taylor says, they involve “an incredible amount of skilled labor hours added to the guitar.”
Besides the Laskin, Ryan, and Taylor designs, there are a few other approaches to bevels. Classical guitar builder Kenny Hill has developed a version that replaces a relatively flat section of the lower bout edge with a piece of the same wood used for the top, rather than using a hardwood, as Laskin and Ryan do.
Some builders—most notably Tom Doerr—integrate a rounded edge around the body’s entire perimeter, and others, such as Rod Schenk, are using a less drastic bevel design. Besides Taylor, Northern Ireland’s Lowden Guitars has started offering bevels on production instruments, as seen on the Pierre Bensusan signature model.