CNC and DIY Hand-Machined Musical Instruments

The first DIY solid body guitar made by Les Paul in the late thirties was so basic he called it “The Log.” Plagued with feedback and resonance issues trying to convert an acoustic guitar to an electric, Paul switched his focus to the solid body design, aided by a little bit of larceny. Late one night, he and a few friends stole a fence post. He attached some pickups and strings to it, plugged it into a phonograph and made history. When audience response to a man playing a fence post wasn’t quite ecstatic, he sawed an acoustic guitar in half and attached the sides to his log, and never looked back. Today, the original Log is in the Smithsonian. [http://invention.smithsonian.org/resources/online_articles_detail.aspx?id=346]

The guitar has come a long way since then, and involves far less fence post steeling. Dozens of companies emerged produced electric guitars for legendary rock bands like The Beatles to small time garage groups. Technical advances have affected all instrument making, even in the classical field: it is rare to find an artisan who will handmake a violin a la Stradivarius in the 21st century. Manufacturing equipment is the name of the game in instrument production, but the different between hand-operated machinery and CNC  machinery is a big question for musicians hoping for top quality instruments.

The Fender Example

The Fender Musical Instruments Corporation, the oldest electric guitar producer, opened a custom guitar shop in 1987. The demand for custom-made Fender guitars soon exploded, and in order to fill orders, the company turned to CNC machining for production. Because the CNC files can be saved and used later to fit specification, it allows Fender to produce bodies, necks, and other parts quickly, expertly, and with little variance. Traditionalists might be opposed to so-called “handmade” guitars being run through computer machining equipment, but, as Fender points out, even early guitars were machined using state of the art equipment available in the 1920s and 1930s.

Because Fender opened up to the new technology, they were able to corner a part of the custom-made guitar market before any of their competitors. But they were not the only ones to turn to CNC. CNC is very much the standard in custom guitar production, from small time hobbyists making their own axe, to entrepreneurial professionals marketing their services locally or through the internet. CNC machines can be very expensive, but the fact that they provide economy of space, materials and time make them desirable for different scales of operation.

The “Handmade” Option

For large operations like Fender’s, CNC is practically the only option. But for smaller craftsmen, hand operation can add to the sense of artisanship quality the customers are looking for. While no custom guitar producers are shaping wood by hand with a whittle, they are using hand-operated machines and their own eyes and talents to produce guitar bodies. The amount of focus, time and energy ensures a high quality instrument, but one which will take longer to produce. And while specificity and exactitude can’t be reproduced over and over by a human craftsman, the originality and uniqueness of each instrument is guaranteed. Many musicians look for the human care devoted to their instruments, and so talented luthiers (stringed-instrument makers) can charge high fees for their services.

These artisans, though, will never be able to parlay their custom talents to large scale operations. There is only so much time in a day, and CNC machining greatly speeds up an already long process. Making one custom guitar can take up to a year, even if CNC machines are involved, and dedication on the part of the custom manufacturer can increase if he is hand-machining.

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3 thoughts on “CNC and DIY Hand-Machined Musical Instruments

  1. There’s no reason a custom luthier couldn’t use cnc to rough out necks, etc., and then further refine them by hand. While the router is running he or she can be busy doing something else. It’s the future, don’t buck it.

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