I recently wrote about how I came to be making five incredible guitars for BMW, as part of Nikita Gale's work called 63/22, which was shown at the Frieze art fair in London. In the next few weeks, I'll be sharing details about each of the guitars and how I made them, starting with perhaps the most challenging of them all, "Lynn". This guitar is based on a sketch by Henri von Freyberg and Karl Johannson - two of the brilliant designers responsible for the stunning interior of the new BMW I7 electric car. It's inspired by BMW’s affinity for smooth interior shapes and luxurious fabrics, and in the original sketch (below) it was shown entirely covered in fabric.
This presented the first of what was to become a whole pile of conundrums. While I've made a couple of guitars with a fabric top (a bit like Fender's paisley telecasters), these were more like a big sticker, which I'd then just embedded in epoxy, before adding an edge bevel and hiding the join under a layer of paint in a burst. It's a great effect, but pretty simple.
Lynn needed to be different - it had to be entirely clothed in the rich fabric, and the fabric had to be the final finish - a really tactile surface, quite unlike any guitar I've ever seen. There would be no thick layer of epoxy or opaque paint to mask the joins here: I'd need to work out a way to make the joins clean, if not invisible. Perhaps I could just stretch it around the body, cut a narrow slot around the edge of the guitar, and tuck the free edges of the material in with a thin bead of glue? I thought that would work but had to wait until I had the fabric to be sure.
In the meantime, I pushed on with making the roasted swamp ash body and the simply beautiful one piece, AAA+ bird's eye maple neck. I'd had this neck blank around for a few years, waiting for a special project.
One morning in early September - just a month before I needed to deliver the guitars - a courier arrived at my workshop in Essex, bearing a bolt of the exact same cashmere and merino wool used to clad seats and interior details in the I7. It was soft, with a beautiful sheen, a fine directional pattern and an interesting texture. All good so far. While it was a little thicker than I'd anticipated, at around 1.2mm, I could work with it. But, unlike typical four-way stretch vehicle fabrics, I discovered it was resistant to stretching, and that was going to make it much, much harder to create smooth edges and corners.
Worse still, it completely torpedoed my idea of simply wrapping the fabric and tucking it into a narrow slot. A few trials quickly showed it would need to be tensioned to reduce bunching and ugly folds of excess material in the corners and recesses, so quick drying glue would really help. But, it had a tendency to wick thin, quick drying adhesive like CA, leaving ugly, hard, dark patches on the finished surface. CA was out.
None of these things are a problem when the material is used to wrap large, soft items like car seats, as there's room to stitch pieces together and invert the seams, which can't be felt against the soft seat bolsters and padding. Ditto lightly curving surfaces like you find on a car door or dash. But I was wrapping a comparatively small object, with tight radius curves and corners at opposing angles. I'd need to use staples, removing them later, and a thicker, slower curing glue. I found that staples which were strong enough to keep the necessary tension while the glue dried also left visible marks in the fabric when removed. How on earth was I going to hide them? I was totally stumped.
I parked the problem of the wrap for a few days and moved on to the real elephant in the room. Lynn's working title was "Hidden Mechanics". A fundamental design principle of BMW is clean, comparatively minimalist interior surfaces. Their modern vehicles are not festooned with knobs and switches, as can be seen with the iDrive controls. This ethos was very apparent in the sketch, which was basically just a body, a neck and no visible hardware whatsoever. Now, it goes without saying that the physics of how a guitar works requires at least some hardware, but I'd already resolved to keep it to a minimum and delete as much as I could from the top of the guitar. There would be some necessary concessions with how the neck extended into the body to allow for a bridge and pickup, but I otherwise followed the shape and proportions closely.
That meant a headless design and edge mounted controls. Edge mounting was going to be easy (or so I thought), but a headless design relies on a bridge system which also serves the tuning function. Those bridges tend to be both bigger than a standard stop tail and they are meant to be mounted directly to the top of the guitar (for examples in this series, take a look at "Joan" and "Thornton"). Could I somehow embed a headless bridge within the guitar, and make it a string-through-body design?
I sketched out a few ideas and settled on combining the brilliant German-made ABM bridge system that I was familiar with and a standard Gotoh TOM bridge, recessed into the body. After some trial and error, I found that if I mounted the ABM bridge in an angled pocket, cut from the rear of the guitar, I could just about squeeze everything in, while retaining a decent break angle, room for adjustment of string height and intonation, enough wood to screw everything in with the confidence it wouldn't just implode under string tension, and the ability to access the bridge for string changes and tuning. But it was really tight - I had just 0.7mm of wiggle room before the strings would start to foul the body and bridge(s) at the end of adjustment travel. Every cut, every hole, would have to be perfect... but at least I had a solution.
I was still pondering the problems with the upholstery, when a few days later, while loading stuff into my camper van, I noticed that the plastic edge trim on one of the cupboards had come away a little at the corner. I idly pushed the T-trim back into its slot, climbed into the driver's seat, and had a genuine lightbulb moment. I could hide the join with T trim! But it is as ugly as sin, and that just wouldn't do for such a luxurious instrument, so I'd have to hide that too.
More failed experiments followed. While it would work, I felt that the narrowest T-trim available, when wrapped in the fabric, was too wide for the proportions of the guitar, so I'd have to cut it down before wrapping. I made a jig to do that. The trim would also need to be recessed in the edge of the guitar so it would sit flush with the wrapped edges, and the channel for the T-section would have to be perfectly centred in the recess. I made jigs for doing that too. The glue I had settled on took 72 hours to fully cure, so I had to wrap the guitar and secure the fabric in small stages. I discovered that the combination of the fabric, the recess, the T-slot and the fabric made edge mounting the controls tricky. I raided my kids' plasticine stash, wrapping it in plastic bags to make perfect forms to hold the fabric in the places I couldn't use staples while the glue dried. Progress was slow.
It took well over a week to completely cover the guitar, but eventually my persistence paid off. The patterns matched well, everything flowed, it looked clean, and I'd even managed to wrap the Bare Knuckle Pickups PG Blues I'd selected for the guitar. I could finally turn my attention to putting the guitar together and wiring it up.
And then came my final big problem. The guitar plays like a dream and feels amazing in the hand. At just 265mm at its widest point, the smaller proportions of the body, which are intended to make the guitar more comfortable for players with breasts, the light weight, and the ridiculously easy fret access, all combine to make Lynn an instrument that is just begging to be played. It really is that inviting. But after all the effort, I was terrified of marking it or damaging it in some way before taking it to Frieze. It got the lightest of play tests, and even then, I made sure I was lab-grade clean before touching it. It's quite the thing!
It's fitting that Nikita chose to name the unique guitar I'd come to know as Hidden Mechanics after Barbara Lynn. Born in Beaumont, Texas in 1942, Lynn is a true pioneer, just like this guitar. A chart-topping R&B singer, guitarist and songwriter, she began performing in local clubs in Texas before being discovered in the late 1950s. Her first single, “You’ll Lose A Good Thing,” was number one on the US Billboard R&B chart and a Top Ten Billboard Hot 100 hit in 1962 - it was later covered by Aretha Franklin and Freddy Fender. Lynn, who wrote, sang, and played lead guitar for all of her songs, toured extensively with the likes of Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder, Dionne Warwick, Al Green, and Marvin Gaye. In 2018, she received a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts which is the United States government's highest honour in the folk and traditional arts.
Named after: Barbara Lynn Sketched by: Henri von Freyberg and Karl Johannson Body: Roasted Swamp Ash
Neck: Old Stock AAA+ Figured Bird's Eye Maple, with heel adjust 2-way truss rod
Frets: 24 Sintoms Medium Jumbo
Pickup: Bare Knuckle Pickups PG Blues Humbucker, with CTS push-pull coil splitting on tone control
Bridge: Reverse mounted ABM bridge and Gotoh TOM
Nut: Graphtec TUSQ
Jack: Pure Tone mono, edge mounted with electro socket cup
Strings: D'Addario NYXL 42-9 gauge i7 Components/wrap: BMW cashmere/merino wool blend fabric
To read more about how this project came to fruition, and how I came to be involved, take a look at my other articles on 63/22.
To find out more about Nikita Gale's inspiration for the project, you can hop over to Forbes and BMW.com to read their detailed interviews with her about the project.
For a great article by Frieze, which goes into detail not just on the specs of each guitar, but more importantly the musicians for whom they are all named and why Nikita chose those artists, check out this link.