Special commissions

Not the usual fare...
Compression-moulded carbon-fiber guitar soundboard projects

Back in the 1990s I teamed up with the prominent carbon-fiber technologist Rich Janes to attempt to bring our patent for a new compression-molded carbon-fiber soundboard to market. I produced a number of interesting and promising prototypes of showy guitars in an effort to advance the visibility of the project. Although the 1/32"-thick soundboard proved to be very promising, the project never took off and the partnership came to a friendly close. I had a number of leftover graphite soundboards Rich had given me, so I accepted a number of private commissions which turned out successfully, among them a wedge koa guitar (first one below) a cutaway classic, and a novel requinto guitar (second seen below) made from Purpleheart.


Harp-guitar conversion.

Twenty years ago, Sean MacLean wanted to cover Michael Hedges'  inventive (and fiendishly difficult) guitar compositions--and play his own compositions in Hedges' style. Sean had purchased one of my Brazilian rosewood Dreadnaughts previously, and asked me how he could convert it into something like Michael Hedges' harp guitar. At first I thought the idea was nuts. I liked that.

    It took a whole lot of interaction with the client, a six foot slab of inch-thick Sitka spruce, six mando-bass strings, four EMG bass pickups, two Campagnolo bicycle quick-releases, a lot of industrial design--and the Remora was born—.a Remora being the peculiar fish that spends much of its life attached to sharks by a sucker on its head.

     Fifteen years later, Sean calls me out of the blue. He was an on-air personality, doing classical music programming for WGBH Boston Public Radio and still performed with his Remora, which is still going strong. Two rare old friends return.

Inspired by Bach - Sean MacLean on the Remora
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The Seis shown above was originally commissioned by Paul Simon for use in  the orchestra pit during the production of his broadway play "The Capeman." It was meant to allow a guitarist to play the charts for the cuatro parts, since no cuatro-playing understudy could be found that was willing to learn the parts and then wait to be called. 


It is a six-course (12-string) hybrid I developed of the traditional 10 string Puerto Rican cuatro, adding an extra sixth course tuned a fourth below the usual fifth bottom course (a course is a string pair, tuned in unisons or in octaves). This expansion in the instrument's range has a number of interesting consequences: the seis can either be tuned across the string array in strict fourths, enabling it to be played by someone familiar with playing the traditional cuatro, but now with an expanded bass range.


But by dropping the pitch of the two upper string courses by a semitone, you create the interval series 4-4-4-3-4. Voila! Guitar intervals. Now any guitarist can play the cuatro right out of the box. And what beautiful music it makes... my guitar player friends tells me it sounds like a miniature 12-string guitar, but much louder, sweeter and faster! 

I also made a seis for Jeffrey Pfeiffer of New Hampshire. He says it sounds just like a full-size 12-string guitar, but louder! 


Shortly before it was shipped , the superb Hartford guitarist David Giardina dropped by and played some impromptu Beatles on it. Here's a short sound clip of his first experience playing my Puerto Rican seis. See if it doesn't sound just like the full-size 12 on the Beatles' recording...  

Norwegian wood on a Seis - David Giardina
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 A 12-string "seis" for a Broadway show 

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Wedge guitars

The Cutting Wedge

Reprinted from 

Acoustic Guitar Magazine,
May/June 1995 issue 

by Tricia Harvey:

New England singer-songwriter Joel Zoss loves his new guitar--not because of its unusual appearance, or even for its pleasing acoustics. For Zoss, this wedge-shaped wonder signals an end to pain and injury which had threatened to cut short his musical career.


After decades of crooking his right arm over his deep-bodied "Dreadnaught" D-35, Zoss began to experience persistent bouts of shoulder pain. An orthopedic surgeon diagnosed calcific tendinitis (an injury in the shoulder joint) and told him he would have to keep his right arm close to his side when he played to avoid further injury. That left him with three choices: stop playing altogether, switch to lap steel or a Telecaster, or have surgery to shave bone from his shoulder socket. Zoss decided against all three and opted instead to have a full-size acoustic guitar designed that would allow his right arm to drop more naturally from his shoulder.

















He commissioned luthier William Cumpiano to design and build the instrument, whose shape had to succeed ergonomically as well as acoustically. Cumpiano began by creating a Styrofoam mock-up, which Zoss would take home and tuck under his arm for several hours. After each session he reported back on how the shape felt, and they trimmed and pasted the mock-up until they arrived at an optimum shape that produced no pain: one that conforms to the natural wedge-shaped void formed between the arm and body when the arm is held out at a small angle. Cumpiano was not concerned about the guitar's radical asymmetry. "I'm convinced that in acoustic soundboxes, asymmetry is a benign thing," he says.


Because the new shape would dramatically reduce the air volume within the soundbox, however, the guitar was in danger of producing a tinkly, music-box sound. And Zoss wanted his guitar to have a cutaway, a short scale, and light-gauge strings--all of which would further contribute to a small sound.


Cumpiano's solution was to maximize the volume of the soundbox by designing a body with a very wide soundboard and a full-depth bottom side. He believed that a flexible, compliant soundbox walls would avoid the glassy brilliance associated with stiffer, harder plates and lead to a deeper-resonating soundbox cavity." He therefore opted for very light plate thicknesses and moderately soft tonewoods: figured Hawaiian koa for the back, sides and neck, and a not-too-stiff Sitka spruce top. He pared down all the braces and then contoured the sides and headblock to accommodate the radically sloped, domed back.


Zoss' shoulder pain is a thing of the past, and he says the guitar "sounds and plays as good or better than any guitar I've ever owned," According to Cumpiano, non-ailing guitarists find the wedge shape refreshingly comfortable, too. "Now I'm trying to find a good reason why they shouldn't ALL be shaped this way," he says.


Listen to Joel Zoss playing his Cumpiano wedge acoustic guitar on his album, Joel Zoss: Florida Blues:

Joel Zoss tries out his Cumpiano wedge for the first time.

The new owner of the Jumbo wedge guitar shown above, Henry Geddes, is shown trying out his new wedge for the first time.

The first Cumpiano Wedge was a 15-inch guitar. Subsequently William has made several others for teachers and working musicians. The one above is a 16-inch jumbo wedge with its back and side plates individually sawn from the same original plank of Hawaiian Koa, giving a unified, integrated appearance to the guitar.

These photos of my Cumpiano Wedge Guitar appeared first in Acoustic Guitar magazine in 1995. 

Joel Zoss: Florida Blues - Street Vet Chant
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Musician Tom Buchheit ordered the wedge guitar illustrated here. He liked it so much, he commissioned a second, matching one with 12 strings, seen above

heel carving


While completing this early Brazilian rosewood guitar commission I was inspired to suggest to the client, who had asked me for "something unique"—that he let me apply traditional banjo-heel carving techniques to the heel of his instrument. A 1921 Vega Tubaphone 5-string happened to be in my shop and served as inspiration.