Classical guitar design has remained unchanged for about 150 years, despite musicians' laments that the volume is too low, notes are hard to sustain and the sound across the instrument's four-octave range is uneven.
These observations, coupled with advancements in understanding the physics of sound production, are behind the work of Richard Schneider, a master luthier at the Lost Mountain Center for the Guitar in Carlsburg, Wash., who has teamed up with Michael Kasha, a physical chemist and guitar designer from Florida State University.
Together, the pair have made a new, asymmetrical guitar whose design addresses artists' complaints about the instrument.
The guitar's most striking feature, which even non-musicians are sure to notice, is the position of its sound hole. In a traditional guitar, the sound hole is smack in the instrument's center. But in the Schneider/Kasha version, the hole has been moved to one corner of the sound board, as far away from the bass strings as possible, to improve the sounding of those lower strings.
The frets represent another innovation. Made from perfectly round bars of beryllium copper--a particularly wear-resistant metal--they are perfectly level with the finger board, a design modification that, according to Schneider, improves intonation.
And then there's the guitar's bridge, which holds the strings at the bottom. Usually the bridge is made from a rectangular piece of wood. But Schneider makes it wider near the bass strings to carry the strings' vibration to the guitar's top more efficiently.
All this innovation doesn't come cheap: a handmade Schneider/Kasha guitar costs from $2,500 to $15,000. To order one, call the Lost Mountain Center for the Guitar at (360) 683-2778.
On a Different Note: If the musician on your Christmas list leans toward the plugged-in rather than the classical, a more appropriate stocking stuffer might be Justonic's $190 Pitch Palette software. The Vancouver, Canada-based company has developed software that retunes notes from electronic guitars and keyboards as they are played.
In a typical installation, Pitch Palette takes input from an instrument through a MIDI digital music interface; the results are fed to a sound system. The software's ability to "microtune" creates more in-between notes than we are used to hearing.
Mary Purpura and Paolo Pontoniere can be reached via e-mail at PMPurPont@aol.com