Friday, April 22, 2011

Michael Kasha's legacy

Florida State University physical chemist Dr. Michael Kasha created a stir in the guitar field thirty-five years ago when he proposed a systems-analysis approach to the resolution of the age old dilemma of structure vs. tone in the guitar. Dr. Kasha is Distinguished University Research Professor at FSU, an elected member of both the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts & Sciences--the Oscar people.

The traditional specifications for classical guitarmaking were established for subsequent generations of makers and players to follow by the venerated nineteenth-century Spanish luthier Antonio de Torres (he died about the time of the American Civil War). Torres assembled into his new design what he considered the best of all the various ideas that were being used in Europe during his time. The combination of his chosen scale length, soundbox size, bracing pattern (which consisted of a series of long struts under the bridge) and even his decoration scheme became the "classic" guitar which we see today all over the world.

In a nutshell, Kasha proposed that under the traditional system, the long stiffening bars under the top unduly restricted the soundboard's movements. Instead, he proposed a multiplicity of no less than twenty short braces fanning out in what appeared to be a peculiar, yet seemingly purposeful pattern around the bridge. Second, he proposed an aluminum stiffener imbedded into the heel to keep the body and neck more integral and less flexible relative to each other. He also proposed an assymetrically-shaped bridge which purportedly coupled the bass and treble components of the string's signal more efficiently to the guitar. Unfortunately the lopsided Kasha bridge, which became the most visible and distinctive feature of the system, gave the guitar face a comical sneer, which perhaps contributed to the guitar's lack of acceptance in a rather conservative and hide-bound market place.

As a scientist, Dr. Kasha sought the approval of other scientists and proposed the system before physicists and acoustical engineers during at least one convention of the Acoustical Society of America. Ordinarily, musical instrument acoustics is given faint attention at these gatherings: the preponderance of the interest goes to papers treating submarine sonar ranging systems and nuclear-explosion detection devices for the Defense Department. So, even within the faint attention afforded to instrument acousticians, Kasha's paper was pretty much ignored, for what was explained to me then as it's shaky science: unsubstantiated claims, no supporting data, and the killer: even though a celebrated chemist, Kasha was not one of the acoustics boys.

Kasha enlisted the support and interest of the late Richard Schneider, the Kalamazoo, MI guitarmaking genius. Schneider became for a considerable period of time the main proselytizer of the Kasha system and a fountainhead for a small group of young luthiers and concertizing guitarists that got on board in an attempt to promote and popularize the system. Dismayingly, they were often damned with faint praise, and even treated by some traditionalists over the years as if they were a silly cult.

Several of the later samples that Schneider built, utilizing Kasha's system reportedly were, indeed, impressive sonically--but not extraordinarily so. Even this limited success was attributed not to Kasha, but to Schnieder's personal skill and intuition which, it was believed, could extract excellent results from whichever scheme he might set his mind to. Nonetheless, the proponents of the system claimed a sea-change of improvement to justify the bewildering complexity of the new system.

Listeners and builders simply were not sufficiently impressed to change their ways. Hence, the faint praise. Seemingly, this just stiffened the Kasha clan's resolve: they were determined to pursue the system, hoping to refine it until it fulfilled the promise that they eventually expected from it.

Thirty years later, very little interest remains in the Kasha approach, not that a great deal of interest was ever elicited from the general musician/guitarmaking public. The Kasha system is simply not a subject of discussion or interest in the field any more. Apart from the merits of the system, one of the major factors that contributed to the decline in visibility of the system was the fact that in his later years, up to his death, Richard Schneider stopped using the system. So the main driving force behind the system's general acceptance pretty much died with him. The coterie of younger builders that worked with Richard have gone on to devise personal variations of their system, or just adopted one or two features of the entire system and returned to more traditional forms for the rest of their instruments.

At the height of its interest during the mid-70s, Richard Schneider was an indefatigable proponent of the system and a tireless advocate. He came up to me after showing me a Kasha guitar he called "Wanda" (I thought it a peculiar name at the time), I played it and simply could not hear it well in the large, noisy room. I greatly admired Richard on a personal level, so I felt compelled to say something I praised it's stunning workmanship. That wasn't the response he was looking for. Visibly irritated, he glared earnestly at me and said: "You're looking at the future!" and turning on his heels, walked away into the crowd with it.

It was this manic energy that drove some to call his interest obsessive, even overbearing. He reportedly dogged this century's greatest grand master of the guitar, Andrés Segovia, to get him to evaluate a Kasha-system guitar. The version of the story that I heard was that the Great One--who rejected modernity in all its forms--resisted what he must have considered his annoying entreaties, but finally consented to try it, just to appease the persistent guitarmaker. Segovia played it and immediately rejected the guitar out of hand.

The rejection just increased Schneider's sense of conviction. Convinced that Segovia's eventual approval would insure the system's universal acceptance, Schneider kept dogging the old man over the next several years with progressively-improved versions of the instrument. Segovia finally accepted and retained a copy. It's unclear whether he liked it or simply that he wanted to put an end to the whole matter. It's my understanding however, that Segovia, up to the date of his death, never performed in public with it. Yet Schneider and his followers believed that they had nonetheless won a major victory for the cause.

About the same time, the victory was counterbalanced by an embarrassing setback: a botched effort to bring the system to the mass market. On the weight of his own considerable reputation, Schneider was able to persuade one of the oldest and largest guitar-making factories in the world, the Gibson Company, to build and market a Kasha-braced instrument. In a conversation with me, Schneider blamed the ensuing fiasco on Gibson marketing executives who insisted the system be inaugurated to the mass public on a line of steel-string folk guitars, rather than on nylon-strung classic guitars, which was what Kasha had originally intended. Regardless of what Schneider later called (in conversations) the impulsive and premature decision to misapply the system, Schneider indeed participated closely in the design, tooling, production and marketing of the Gibson Mark steel-string guitar. The production of the Mark guitart was vastly more complex and difficult than the production of ordinary guitars. The result was a certifiable flop. The Gibson Mark guitar was heavy, ugly and an utter failure sonically. It also suffered from all the worst aspects of guitar mass-production: bad glue-ups, poor materials selection, indifferent workmanship, bad action short, a complete fiasco. Subsequently, Richard tried valiantly to put the whole matter behind him.

Kasha's legacy remains as simply an earnest attempt to redesign the acoustic guitar, in a laudable effort to bring science and art together. Unlike instruments with a far simpler anatomy--such as violins--the guitar's fantastically complex signal response defies easy analysis. I believe that Kasha's attempt to create a system to bend the guitar to his will and Schneider's effort to promote it, was perhaps all an exercise in self-delusion. It was a failure in many ways, a failure most notably assisted by the hide-bound culture of the classic-guitar field at that point in time, not to speak of the peculiar appearance of the instruments themselves.

The Kasha system still resonates occasionally when guitar lovers who hear about it for the first time, are attracted by the "product-differentiation-in-the-marketplace" look of the guitar and not knowing the particulars of its history and the personalities involved, ask for my take on it.

Although my take is that the system fell far short of it's sales pitch, its not to say that the guitar's traditional acoustical anatomy cannot be made more efficient. There are today a small number of builders who are, as we speak, dramatically wringing remarkable changes in the guitar's response. Alan Chapman and Greg Smallman are two builders whose work I'm familiar with, who are achieving impressive results with graphite-reinforced lattice-bracing systems and beefed up soundbox structures. They and others following their footsteps are now consistently producing classic guitars which can aptly be termed "cannons.". The best and brightest guitarists are starting to flock to this new breed of builders, and more and more makers are starting to emulate their success. No button-holing or proselytizing has been necessary. It seems everybody is stealing the idea from them--the sincerest form of flattery.

But with everything that is gained, usually something is lost. For me the warmth and intimacy of the traditional sound is lost on these new shouting instruments, much of the gestalt is gone. The traditional anatomy has enough value for me to only venture tinkering peripherally with it, since I, for one, love it as it is.

Guitar abuse

Do you do any extra reinforcing on the side in the bend of the cutaway? I was thinking that the bend itself provides some structural rigidity in one sense but that it could also be a weak spot if the guitar were dropped.

Here's my perspective: It's not your responsibility to make the guitar drop-proof. You're making crystal goblets, not cafeteria tumblers. You're not making a back-packing guitar either. What you're making is a delicate eggshell optimized for sound, not rugby. Any treatment other than taking it out of the case, playing it, and putting it back in the case is abuse.