Q&A with Ellis Seal of Composite Acoustics
One of the most arresting visuals at Summer NAMM was a guitar being soaked from a small shower. The display belonged to Composite Acoustics, which makes carbon fiber guitars. Ellis Seal, who heads the research and development department, explains it to us all.
MMR: What is “carbon fiber”?
Ellis Seal: Carbon fiber is a very strong and stiff form of the element carbon – the building block of life. The word “organic” literally means “containing the element carbon.” Scientists and engineers have figured out a way to arrange carbon in a highly oriented crystalline structure that has amazing properties – stiffer and stronger than steel but only 20 percent of the weight. However, this carbon structure can only be made in tiny filaments a fraction of the diameter of a human hair.
MMR: Describe the process.
ES: The building process to make our primary parts consists of arranging the carbon fiber in the proper orientation and position in a mold, placing the carbon fiber under vacuum, infusing epoxy resin into the arranged fiber, and then curing the epoxy to make a strong, stiff, lightweight structure. We use this type of process to make our body and neck in a one-piece construction because we are literally making the material as we are molding our parts, and we can combine pieces to enhance structural performance and reduce assembly time. This integral construction also eliminates a secondary neck body joint. We also make our tops, with or without integral bracing, the panels from which our braces are cut, and our headstock veneer using this method.
MMR: Was this all driven by environmental issues?
ES: I was primarily driven by the desire to provide players with a great sounding, great playing instrument that they didn’t have to worry about – we wanted to free the player to focus on the music. However, the deforestation of the rain forests was a consideration in the decision. Since 1950, over 50 percent of the world’s rain forests have been destroyed. It is estimated that we are losing 50,000 species of plants and animals per year due to the destruction of the rain forests.
MMR: What is the advantage of the material over traditional wood?
ES: Our material is much more consistent and stable. Wood guitars constantly absorb/desorb moisture, and change with changing temperature and humidity. A spruce top can grow or shrink ¼” across the grain with a 50 percent change in humidity, while it changes only a fraction of that along the grain. Since the humidity changes dramatically from morning to night, winter to summer, inside to outside, guitars exposed to these changes are constantly moving and changing.
With carbon fiber guitars, an instrument will stay just the way you purchase it regardless of your environment. People routinely tell us incredible stories of durability and the ability to stay in tune in rapidly changing conditions. Finally, our guitars will take abuse that would destroy a wooden guitar.
MMR: Have your guitars been accepted by players?
ES: We have found that acoustic guitarists want great tone and great playability. If you give them that, 95 percent of them are just fine with a guitar not made of wood. What we have found is that for many of our buyers, carbon doesn’t replace wood – adding a carbon fiber guitar to the player’s arsenal provides a great deal of freedom. They now have a guitar to use when conditions are such that they would rather not expose their wooden guitars.
MMR: Will we see more guitars made of sustainable materials?
ES: There is absolutely no doubt that more guitars will come from sustainable materials. It is mandatory because there is a limited and rapidly diminishing supply of traditional guitar tone-woods.
We believe these trends will continue to favor growth of non-wood instruments. There is a reason why guitars are made from tropical hardwoods like rosewood and old, slow growth spruce – man has figured out over thousands of years that guitars made with these materials sound better. It takes hundreds of years to grow trees large enough to be efficiently quarter sawn into tight-grained pieces for guitars. While there is no doubt that guitar builders will continue to find ways to make guitars from smaller trees in renewable forests, I think that it will be difficult to continue to match the tone of the guitars made with the fine tone woods we are accustomed to.
We look this at an opportunity for our technology.