Physics Buzz: The Graphite Guitar

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Physics Buzz: The Graphite Guitar


John Decker, who has doctorate in physics from Cambridge University, spent 10 years developing the graphite guitar - an acoustic guitar made of carbon fiber and epoxy resin which looks (and sounds) as good as the name implies. He started a company called RainSong Graphite Guitars that produces about 700 all-composite guitars a year.

Creating a guitar sans wood that would be durable and sound good was a challenge for Decker and his colleagues. The "sound" of a guitar depends on what the soundboard - the top butternut squash-shaped panel - is made of. Traditionally, soundboards are made from a wood like spruce or cedar. Even the different varieties of wood affect the tonal quality of the instrument.

Choosing graphite for the soundboard was not an overnight decision. Decker and his colleagues experimented first with other materials like fiberglass, which was too heavy, and plastic, which was too flexible. They settled eventually on graphite because its fiber structure was similar to that of wood's and would hopefully mimic the tonal qualities of wood. They experimented with adding other fibers and the proper amount of resin until they got a soundboard that worked.

On the RainSong website, Decker uses physics to explain what gives the RainSong guitar its unique "carbon sound". The soundboards on guitars transfer the vibrations of the strings into sound which then resonates in the body. For wood, about half of those vibrations are absorbed and turned into heat instead of sound. This effect, called damping, is heightened at higher vibration frequencies.

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