By Johanes Labusch
The preconception of what a classical guitar has to look like my spring from our desire to find the definitive, the classic look and feel of what we cherish. The familiar visual signals give us a certain peace of mind, the reassuring feeling that something has found its final, perfect, and most satisfying shape.
I had known Swiss luthier Ermanno Chiavi's guitars to be firmly rooted in that straightforward philosophy. But constant improvement has been as much a mark of his development as a steady and firm belief in tradition. I own a Chiavi guitar built in 1996, and it is proof of his solid no-nonsense style. At the same time, it illustrates his keen curiosity and sense of experiment: The body is made from beautiful bird's-eye maple, and the inlays around the soundhole represent a row of maple leaves.
Chiavi could happily have gone on building guitars that embodied this blend of solidity and style. But four years ago he was contacted by Anders Miolin, guitar professor at the Zurich Conservatory. Miolin views music mainly in terms of freedom of expression, not necessarily in conventional terms. Ermanno realized right away that Miolin was not easily satisfied with standards. He was playing two guitars at the time: a 10-string by Corbellari and an 11-string alto guitar built by the Swedish luthier Bolin. Lugging these two instruments around was necessary to accommodate the various tunings and ranges required by his repertoire. Anders (which ironically means "different" in German) was now looking for a way to play piano and lute literature on one guitar. He wanted the greatest possible amount of freedom from a single instrument.
Professor Miolin inspired Ermanno to rethink many of his experiences. If music is an art form that gains from versatility, he argued, why should the spectrum covered by six strings, or eight, or even ten strings, be accepted as the final limit? Wouldn't that be like a painter denying the existence of certain colors? If a piece was written for piano, was that really only because of that instrument's tonal capacities? What if a guitar's range could be stretched to accommodate the composition? Wasn't it possible that all the differences in sound and playing technique could bring something exciting to the piece? And this way of seeing things - and wanting to hear things - made a lot of sense to a luthier committed to the idea of marrying tradition and innovation.
Anders and Ermanno tried to define the spectrum their guitar would have to cover, and it became apparent that five octaves would be ideal. A challenging goal, considering that a regular 6-string guitar only stretches across three octaves plus a fifth. They found that thirteen strings were going to be necessary. The lowest note would be E and the fingerboard would have to go five frets higher than a conventional classical guitar's, thus including the note e´´´.
A headstock with thirteen tuners would cause balance problems if they just made a regular headstock that much longer. Instead, Chiavi came up with a layered construction: Two platforms are placed on top of each other, each with six tuners, and the thirteenth tuner is placed in the middle. This headstock does not extend far over the length of a 6-string. Visually and functionally, it makes immediate sense.
Thirteen strings create a tremendous pull which the instrument's top would have to withstand. Ermanno started experimenting with a rectangular bracing pattern that has been used since the 1930s. It ensures even distribution of forces and makes it possible to have a very thin top with particularly even acoustic capabilities. The body, by the way, is not bigger than that of a regular classic guitar - the wide neck represented the maximum of bulkiness the tow inventors were willing to live with.
Another crucial decision was not to place the soundhole where tradition has taught us it "belongs". Chiavi moved its location to the upper bout, increasing the vibrating area of the top.
One tormenting worry was the question of weight. The huge fretboard would have to be stripped of every unnecessary gram of wood. Only the first three frets would be needed for all thirteen strings. Between the 4th and 12th fret, now only seven strings run over the fingerboard. Higher up, it becomes continuously narrower.
Ermanno was not very happy with the fact that above the 12th fret, the player would have to do without the help of his left thumb, which could not remain behind the neck and provide support. He decided to use a feature he had seen in the work of some other guitar makers over the years: a slanted top, which adds some distance between the fingerboard and the top at the neck-body connection and leaves more room for the guitarist's left hand. It also improves the tonal character of a guitar. The wider angle at which the strings are attached to the bridge creates a better transference of string vibration to the wood. One could think of it as a small step toward the harp, where the strings meet the resonance chamber at a high angle, as opposed to the conventional guitar, where the strings are aligned with the top.
Ermanno Chiavi has now built four of these guitars. With each of them, he made new discoveries and solidified his research. The moment one of the bass strings is first picked, one realizes that we have left traditional guitar territory for sure. But even if only the standard six strings are played, this instrument has an amazingly big sound. Ermanno explains this with the "reverb chamber" effect on the additional strings. Interest from musicians has been very encouraging. After a short period of getting used to the wide neck, this instrument becomes part of their range of expression. It lends its voice to their imagination. After Anders Miolin's first public presentation of the 13-string guitar, a happy Ermanno Chiavi told me: "It almost feels like giving somebody a fresh set of words for an ancient language!"-------------------
Hear this instrument played by Anders Miolin or visit www.chiaviguitars.com.