The Art and Design of Stringed Instruments

By Susan Gettlin | March 6, 2017

I have always been fascinated by the intersection of art and science. Although I was trained as a traditional printmaker, and then later a digital printmaker, I have always had a love for stringed instruments.

If there were one instrument that embodied this intersection, it would be the guitar. My grandfather, who immigrated from Italy, was a mandolin teacher, and although he died when I was very young, that connection was passed on through my father. The great classical guitarist Andres Segovia said of the guitar, “The guitar and the dog, in order not to be separated from man, have submitted themselves with resignation to the worst alterations of size and appearance.” That being said, from the earliest Baroque guitars to modern day instruments, the variety in shape, design, materials, size and construction is like no other instrument. In the end it is a magical union of form and function.  

In 1975, not having the financial means to purchase every instrument I wanted, I built my first stringed instrument with a handful of old Sears tools and a book by David Russell Young. Approximately one year later the neck fell off, and I learned a very important lesson about failure: I needed to know a lot more about being a Luthier. For the past 41 years I have honed my skills as a Luthier and studied the research done by Dr. Michael Kasha, Richard Schneider and Roger Siminoff.

Over the past ten years technology has played a major role in the construction and design of stringed instruments, from CADD-CAM design and construction, laser-cutting wood and inlay material, and the integration of non-traditional materials, to the focus on sustainable sources of instrument-grade wood.

My 2015-16 sabbatical began my implementation of these technologies into the construction of hybrid acoustic-electric guitars. This ranged from the use of unique materials, body construction, and soundboard bracing patterns, to inlay designs. The sabbatical provided an extended block of uninterrupted time to focus in a way I was never able to do before. For me this meant spending eight-to-ten hours a day in the studio, seven days a week for fourteen months, struggling with technical obstacles and creative failures, but also understanding that struggle provides a path to success. It is through this type of experience that creative clarity surfaces. It is no different than an athlete who trains everyday to reach their full potential. Sustained artistic engagement begins with an undying passion to create—to be connected not only to the materials, but also to a concept and vision that are a unique part of who you are, which never ends.

Professor Robert Mauro was on sabbatical for the 2015-16 academic year.