First 3D printed acoustic guitar - the inside story

Design guru Scott Summit and 3D Systems’ Abe Reichental whipped up a storm when they launched the world’s first 3D printed acoustic guitar. Scott is an award-winning industrial designer who counts Apple, Nike, and Palm among his clients at Summit ID, and is known for revolutionising the world of medical prosthetics. Yet he loves playing guitar, has been in bands, and recorded albums. We had an in-depth chat with him at London’s 3D Print Show where he was showing his instrument designs, and he told us about building the acoustic prototype, spectral analysis of The Clash’s London Callling, and future plans for democratizing production.

Scott’s ethos is to add art and humanity to design. He’s invented custom-made ‘fairings’ that personalise, and add personality to, traditional prosthetics, to make people ‘whole inside’ as well as out.

When 3D Systems bought his company Bespoke Innovations, he and the arts-loving 3D CEO Abe Reichental cooked up a plan to shake up music.

We are challenging the notion of what a guitar is. There is no gold standard like there is with a Stradivarius violin.

Scott is a fan of Olaf Diegel who makes intricate electric guitars and basses and is experimenting with drum designs too. (We’ve got an interview with the amazing Olaf on its way).

Abe suggested they do something a bit different, and they decided to try and make an acoustic guitar. So what was it like starting with a blank sheet of paper? Scott is clear that this prototype is just the beginning.

I don’t know how I think it all should be. You have to get the first big hit - that it will not implode under string pressure and that it will make a sound.

He’s achieved his first goals, and there’s a wealth of sonic possibility as well as danger!

The benefits of starting with a composite are that you can dome the top surface. We’re using high-density plastic, which is a beautifully resilient material. I thought ‘we can turn it into a resonating surface’.

Guitars have structural components inside and I guessed it comes at the expense of sound. If I can make the surfaces curved and strong, perhaps it will enhance the acoustics.

One of the most striking things about looking at the guitar and playing it, are its curves. The surface is indeed domed, and the bridge is like nothing else you’ve seen.

There’s an important interface between the strings and the body. The bridge is integral and flows right out of the body. The wall of the guitar also flexes a bit.

He invited us to prod it, and sure enough, there was some give. Scott handles the guitar like an old friend not a precious artwork, and gave it a bash like a drum to illustrate how resonant and tough it is.

The guitar has a good thump to it when you hit it.

US music radio station NPR wanted to record the first test of the instrument, and Scott was working on the guitar right up until the last minute, nervous of what might happen.

Five minutes before, I was bolting the neck on! A pro musician (Shelley Doty) rocked it, and my jaw dropped. It sounded good!

There’s a beautiful and intricate mesh plate over the sound hole, that feels Moorish, Spanish or even Islamic, but Scott has a confession to make.

It’s 3D printed, plated in nickel copper, but it kills the sound! You can’t judge anything on the first prototype. We want to try extreme different sounds and optimize sounds. We can see if we can use certain principles, for example turn up the bass.

The 3D Systems logo is printed in solid silver and the back plate is in steel. The patterning goes right round the guitar. The neck and head are made of wood and we asked him about the strings – they didn’t look 3D printed either!

I’m using 12-gauge phosphor bronze. Someone said we should use 13s to get a bigger sound, but the guitar could explode!

So what are the next steps in the 3D guitar project?

Let’s try and make one that’s geared for the market and look at how to take the cost out of it. The big experiment is going back to philosophy, the idea of democratizing creativity.

3D offers the chance of releasing the ingredients and people can be bartender and designer. The basic premise of CAD is different. Using a template is empowering.

But he thinks there should be some limits – that it should be impossible to make the guitar sound bad. The plan is for there to be a template and a model website where people can tweak and modify. Scott sees plenty of scope for customizing tone and also the look of the guitar such as the mesh plate.

We are giving people the keys to the kingdom. The pattern could be some text, a crazy Celtic tattoo or another fun concept.

He gave Kitmonsters the keys for a little while, and handed over the acoustic prototype for a strum, along with a 3D printed pick.

We were immediately struck by the fact that it resonates in a very different way to standard acoustics. It feels very vibrant and bassy, and the curves make it good to hold. With the 3D Print Show in full swing though, it was hard to check out the finer sound details.

The guitar was built on 3D Systems’ Sinterstation Pro using Duraform material, a tough impact-resistant plastic, and was made using a 140w laser for 20 hours. Scott is keen to stress the instrument’s green credentials.

Guitar companies are getting busted for using illegal wood. The problem is how do you secure good wood? They should start to consider alternatives.

This was built on a powder machine so you don’t need a support structure, and was then spray-painted. It’s a fantastically green product. You could chop it up and eat it and it would pass right through you!

Scott is relishing the possibilities open to him and other 3D instrument designers, and cites great breakthroughs from the past as inspiration.

One of the greatest guitars is the Nashville steel and it produced an entirely new sound, when someone questioned assumptions of what a guitar is. You say ‘let’s rethink the whole thing and experience sounds never arrived at before’.

Scott and 3D Systems had another prototype up their sleeves for the 3D Print Show too. They made a spinal-style glowing art piece for a Line 6 Midi Controller, based on The Clash’s London Calling track. Scott and Abe are both big Clash fans.

I didn’t have time to do a whole piece from scratch and wanted to do something visually intriguing. We used stereolithography, and we took something that had neither physical form nor static form, and turned it into something that was both physical and static. It’s a 3D representation of the track.

What would sheet music look like if there was a sculptural interpretation? Sheet music of London Calling would be a dry description. It doesn’t have the energy of the song.

So Scott and his team worked out how to capture that energy, with some spiky results!

One of the guys did spectral analysis of 40 seconds of the song. We didn’t use the literal geometry, but used it as a reference. It was like a porcupine. The song has a backbone, the bass comes in, the snare fill at 4/3. Then there are 12 hits. I love the whole album, and anything I can do to pay tribute to The Clash…