When purchasing an instrument, musicians consider many factors ranging from price and quality, to brand and mobility. Although sometimes overlooked, one of the most important aspects is material.
What will your instrument be made of?
As technology has progressed, so has the answer to this question. Until the last half-century, the acoustic qualities and visual beauty of wood meant that it dominated the market for many instruments. However, as high quality woods become rarer and their use is called into question because of environmental concerns, alternatives are growing in popularity. Manufacturers began using plastics and hard rubber to make woodwind instruments decades ago. Today these techniques are widely accepted. Most woodwind makers offer instruments made from wood alternatives, and sometimes they are even preferred by musicians.
Wood alternatives have also reached the world of strings. Luthier Mario Maccaferri first produced plastic guitars and violins in the ’50s and ’60s. Though they never gained acceptance, he paved the way for other innovators. Charles Kaman, founder of Ovation Guitars, patented the first graphite-composite guitar top in 1974.
Today varied carbon fiber and graphite materials are used to make instruments. They are often referred to as “composites,” meaning that they are made from synthetic material consisting of two or more substances. Fibers of certain polymers, or chemically based materials, are lined up parallel and set in an epoxy or silicon resin. The most commonly used fibrous polymers include carbon fiber, Kevlar, nylon fiber, and glass fiber.
Why composite materials are stronger
Why switch to composite? From a structural perspective, composites are more durable. They are water resistant, impervious to extreme temperature and humidity, and have exceptional tuning stability. They also make ideal travel instruments as they are not easily damaged by bumps and bangs. Finally, replacing parts on composite instruments is easier.
Many musicians still argue that composite materials are inferior in terms of sound quality, making them an unappealing alternative. They say that composite materials produce a hollow sound that lacks the richness produced by wooden instruments. Wood, they claim, produces a larger range of tonality that simply cannot be replicated by scientifically engineered materials.
You will have to make your own judgement about sound quality. It really boils down to personal preference. Be sure to sample plenty of instruments, both wood and composite, before making a final decision.
There are currently a few composite acoustic guitar makers in the market including RainSong which uses a graphite composite for its instruments; Ovation, which uses a patented Lyrachord material of glass filament and bonding resin to make its uniquely shaped guitars; Blackbird, which makes carbon fiber travel guitars; and Peavey Composite Acoustics, which also uses carbon fiber. Luis and Clark makes carbon fiber violins, violas, cellos, and basses.
Composite string instruments can run at prices consistent with, or even higher than, those of wooden alternatives. However, there are some cost savings. Professional cellist, Wayne Benjamin, compared the sound of his carbon fiber cello from Luis and Clark, which sells for only around $7,000, to wooden instruments available in the $30,000 to $70,000 range.
The increasing popularity of composite string instruments cannot be denied. Yo-Yo Ma used his Luis and Clark cello outdoors during the 2003 Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington Mall, where temperatures exceeded 100 degrees. Matt Malley of Counting Crows and Steve Miller both play RainSong acoustic guitars.
Ultimately, the choice to use composite is a matter of personal preference. Musicians must weigh all factors, from durability to sound quality. However, as seen by the increased use of composite instruments in professional performances, current trends seem to favor greater acceptability of instruments built from man-made materials.