This is a blog posting about innovation, about the balance between values, creativity and commerce, and about the thought processes that underlie radically rethinking the existing common approach. It’s also about a very unusual guitar (sometimes called ‘The Fishbone’ and often rudely compared to an old TV aerial), and a very unusual guitar-maker. But scroll down and watch the video first: it puts the rest into context.

One of the most common musical instruments in the world, guitars are everywhere. A large percentage of homes have one somewhere, either hanging on a wall waiting to be played, or posed on a stand or a sofa in a living room. The electric variety comes in a range of shapes and colours (although the idea that the shape doesn’t influence how they sound is a very contentious one: don’t raise it around serious players or instrument makers and expect a brief or calm response), but the acoustic ones are much of a muchness: neck, curvaceous body with a ‘waist’. And, despite the stereotype of the fashion-conscious, rebellious guitar-player, makers who stray too far from the expected don’t generally make much money. Like most of us, guitar players by and large don’t like that much change. If you want someone who freely embraces the possibilities of technology-driven change, find a keyboard player.

In the 1970s in New York, a man called Allan Gittler decided a rethink was in order. A guitar should be boiled down to its essence: six vibrating strings running over frets that allow different pitches to be sounded. Pretty much everything else could be dispensed with, as you can see in the video. But this was more than just an object lesson in minimalism. To quote a man from an online discussion group I know only as Brain G:

His need to ‘rethink’ things was a philosophical need to make things ‘right’ in his world. The three main reasons he built his guitars:

  • He had been travelling (hitchhiking, actually) around the country with a classical acoustic, and it was getting pretty beat up. It dismayed him that such a beautiful instrument was getting so battered that it would end up being destroyed.
  • His thinking was that guitars were stereotyped. you played jazz on a jazz guitar, classical on a classical, rock on a les paul or strat, etc.and yet on a piano, for instance, you could play any kind of music. So his guitar was intended to be an instrument that could be used for all genres of music.
  • He thought that expending mental energy considering the particular shape of a guitar, the paint and finish, hardware, and wood types, all get in the way of thinking about – and getting to – the music. He called it “mechanistic distraction”.

The result of his opinions on these subjects were what led him to create a durable, basic, universal musical interface – the Gittler guitar.”

Having abandoned an earlier career in film production, Gittler found himself playing a classical guitar on the streets of New York. Possibly not a wise move for either the wallet or the soul, the conditions were also far from ideal for the instrument. Wood is sensitive to temperature and humidity, as well as easily dented or, over time, warped. In an instrument where precision engineering and durability are critical to it actually playing in tune, it’s surprising that wood continues to be the overwhelming choice of materials. (Chalk that one down to conservatism of players: attempts have been made with fibreglass, plastics, epoxy resins and other materials over the years. Guitarists keep buying wood.)

Gittler’s “philosophical need to make things ‘right’ in his world” is shown in some of the descriptive text included in the patent that was registered (you can read it online here):

  • Fret bars can be located with an accuracy of 0.002mm. This precision construction enables the guitar to be built with a much greater range than a conventional instrument.
  • If wear is evidenced on the fret bars over the years, they can be rotated in their slots to present unworn surfaces.
  • Since there is no fret board under the strings to interfere with finger pressure and placement, the guitar of this invention gives greater control feel and nuance over the strings.”

The design process is informed not just by adopting a philosophical approach, but by being a player – by all accounts, he was a highly accomplished jazz guitarist. If you have a taste for irony, Leo Fender – the man who gave the world both the Telecaster and the Stratocaster, possibly two modern guitars that have been heard of by a sizeable number of non-players – couldn’t play them. He was an engineer, not a musician. Leo’s talent was thinking through what could be manufactured on a commercial scale. Fender guitars are bolted and screwed together so parts can be replaced, like cars: there’s no denying there’s an intelligence there, but it’s not really being applied to the idea of sustainability. Or dependable intonation.

Nearly ten years after Gittler’s death, we can speculate why his astonishing, truly radical but very high quality instruments are now a rare and valuable collector’s item with examples in the Musuem of Modern Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Guitarists – with the exception of The Police, who bought an early example and used it in a promotional video – probably weren’t ready for something quite that different. A small minority remain fascinated, but most would still shrug or snigger if faced with one. It was a reaction not lost on the inventor/designer, whose response to an interview question about musician’s reactions finished with a phrase that change implementation managers everywhere should pin on their office noticeboards:

Musicians hated it, as would anybody whose preconceptions are rattled.”

And Gittler’s hit and miss relationship with commercial enterprises doesn’t appear to have been limited to his film career: moving to Israel and taking the name Avraham Bar Rashi, a deal was struck with an Israeli company to produce a limited number of instruments to add to the 60 that had been made in New York. It didn’t go well: the precision was lacking, unauthorised elements were added to the design, and Bar Rashi wound up writing to instrument dealers disassociating himself with the later instruments.

His radical minimalism didn’t, however, end there. At least two further varieties of instruments were produced, one described by one owner as ‘looking like a fish’ (see for yourself here), although the subsequent description goes to show that there was still a philosophical reasoning at work:

Unattractive as they may be, a greater liability is their square – that is, non-rounded – neck profile. It really is like playing a 2X4. His reasoning was that “convenience distances one from the experience””.

One website takes the story further, publishing a scan of a booklet produced for a later, even more minimal model – essentially a plank, strings, some fishing line and a magnet. But it’s the accompanying text that’s fascinating:

After having investigated all kinds of electric guitars I found them of gross lines and basically vehicles for pirouettes in glittering industrial hardware […]

[…] The intricate machining of stainless steel was distancing me from the intimacy of playing guitar and this led me back to wood – organic and warm – and I proceeded to chip away to a design configurated with the most simplistic of elements – to create an integral oneness in an instrument that offers the least impediment to placing a personal vibe into an electric guitar”

Peter Cook (interviewed previously at this blog) has commented frequently on the balance between creativity and structure in creating successful organisations. Unlike Les Paul or Norio Ohga, former Sony Chairman and pioneer behind the CD, Gittler didn’t achieve glittering business success for his creation – although, it seems debatable that this was ever his aim. Like them, however, he can be seen as evidence for the case that innovation is driven by a multi-disciplinary outlook and a willingness to challenge conventional thinking in pursuit of an ideal. In an interview published around the time of his death, there are further references to ‘discipline’ and precision. But we’ll let him have the final words, answering the first question in the interview :

Vintage Guitar: I’ve heard you referred to as an “inventor,” “musician” and “artist.” Which term or terms do you think are the most appropriate?

Avraham Bar Rashi: Musician, composer, writer, director, auteur, moviemaker, artist, poet, film editor, photographer, inventor – they are all appropriate, but if you would like to spare your readers a tour of my vanities, just label me “retro-Renaissance,” or simply “guitar player.”

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