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A Buyer's Guide to Carbon-Fiber Instruments

The carbon-fiber instrument market can provide a viable high-performance alternative
to traditional wood stringed instruments

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You're playing at a summer-music festival workshop on your favorite fiddle. The mercury is rising, the sun is beating down, and the humidity makes it feel as if you're playing underwater rather than onstage. You notice the imprint of your shirt on the softened varnish of your treasured cello. And is that your neck starting to move? Heat, sun, extreme cold, travel, and that unforeseen case-crushing accident are the bane of most stringed-instrument players. If you find yourself sweaty palmed at the thought of traveling to the relative wilds of Tanglewood in the northwestern mountains of Massachusetts with your favorite axe in tow, or if you're a member of the Joint Services Orchestra performing at the bone-chilling Obama Inaguration, it's good to have a fiddle that's able to endure the hottest days of July or the coldest January mornings, one that can be checked as airline baggage without worry... as well as sound good. What's the secret? Carbon fiber.

This composite material is synonymous with high performance; just watch a protennis match, visit a golf shop, or walk into your local Rod 'n' Reel, and you'll see the proof. But what does the advent of these high-performance sports materials mean for the violin trade? You can find carbon-fiber bows and accessories available in a variety of levels, from low-cost student bows to professional, performance-quality bows. But what about musical instruments made from this composite material? What are their advantages and disadvantages? And how do they sound?

THE INS AND OUTS OF CARBON FIBER

Carbon-fiber instrument makers use a matrix of carbon fiber and resin to create their instruments, according to Matt Dunham, president of Clear Carbon and Components, Inc., the company that manufactures the Luis and Clark violin, viola, cello, and double bass shells. "Carbon fiber in its raw form is a yarn or tow," says Dunham, during a phone interview from Luis and Clark's office in Milton, Massachusetts. "These tows are bundles of carbon fibers. They are created with heat and pressure. Each bundle or tow can have from 3,000 to 12,000 fibers, which are woven into a textile or fabric."

Layers of carbon fabric are then placed in a mold and coated with resin, sealed in a vacuum clamp, and hardened into shape. The back, ribs, and neck of the instrument are molded in one piece, all the way to the peg box. The top and fingerboard are made separately and glued in place. Once these shapes are molded, they are carefully trimmed by hand with diamond-edged tools.

The construction method and materials make for a unique sound. As with most things musical or artistic, beauty is in the eye (or ear!) of the beholder. Playing a carbon-fiber instrument can take some getting used to. They resonate differently than wood instruments and generally sound deeper and louder. "When sitting directly in front of a wooden cello, you get a pretty decent sound," says a good-natured Luis Leguia, the world-renowned Boston Symphony cellist and founder of Luis and Clark carbon-fiber instruments. "But if you're sitting in a 2,500-seat hall, bodies are going to eat up that sound. Plus the sound will dissipate as you move to the sides; it will become less full and have less body.

"Our cellos are loud and they flood the hall; they are less penetrating right in front, but the sound goes out to all the sides, so you get a full-bodied sound if you're sitting 60 degrees away from the player."

These days, carbon-fiber instruments are popping up in orchestras and in solo performance worldwide. Yo-Yo Ma owns a Luis and Clark and touts it as "fantastic." Yvonne Caruthers, a cellist in the National Symphony Orchestra, also likes the sound of carbon fiber. In her testimonial for Quintus, another maker of carbon-fiber instruments, she says, "A wooden cello's sound doesn't carry well in an outdoor setting, but the Quintus cello sounds great. It produces a huge sound, which carries a long way. I think it's the cello of choice for players who have to play outdoor concerts."

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Despite chat-forum rumors to the contrary, Arizona-based Quintus Stringed Instruments is very much in business, albeit after a period of regrouping. The company, now called Instruments of Grace, currently offers three different basses, a new cello modeled after the Davidov Strad, and plans to introduce a second cello shortly. Violins and violas are on hold for now, says Tony Cook, son of Quintus founder Dick Cook.

Indeed, that outdoor option is a big selling point, since weather can be quite destructive to wood instruments. Leguia says that he's played in various hot-weather locales such as South Africa, Ethiopia, and Panama. In each of these spots, he had to deal with the stress of worrying if his instrument would arrive safely and endure dramatic temperature fluctuations. "I've seen [wood] instruments fall apart at Tanglewood and I've had it happen, too," he says.

Shortly after hearing water lapping against the hull of a carbon-fiber sailboat, Leguia began experimenting with alternative materials in his basement in hopes of creating a good-sounding cello that would be virtually indestructible and could also be heard in concert. He constructed three cello prototypes, one made from fiberglass and two from carbon fiber, one of which became the prototype for his now highly sought-after carbon-fiber instruments.

Leguia realized that carbon fiber would be strong enough to make a very thin cello without unnecessary components, like cornices, that soak up the sound. Those added acoustic benefits hold considerable attraction for instrument makers. Sam Finlay, director of sales and consignment at David Gage String Instruments, says, "You can alter [carbon fiber's] resonant qualities, which makes it a perfect material for instrument making."

Composite materials also offer a greener alternative. "We're not using any endangered species," Leguia says, but he's quick to add, "I take special care in making these instruments; I build them in a way that is best for the sound... that's the real reason I do this."

The Sound Quality Debate

Despite these benefits, carbon-fiber instruments face opposition in a marketplace that puts high value on rare, old, wood instruments. David Gage, prominent instrument restorer and case maker, says, "Although there certainly are some very good instruments made of carbon fiber, in my opinion, these instruments don't have the potential for the complexity of sound that can be found in wood instruments.

"A carbon-fiber instrument may have more point or focus at the front end of the attack, allowing for clearer pitch discrimination. But string players are generally traditionalists. Wood has been used since our instruments' inception; we trust it and only it to do the job. Also, the durable qualities—not the resonance of carbon-fiber—were what caught instrument makers' attention."

Finlay adds that carbon fiber "won't sound good until we build it to sound good and not to last forever."

"If you could get a violin made of synthetic materials to sound better than a wooden instrument, people would jump at that," agrees violin maker Gregg Alf. He thinks that there is something about wood that is firmly grounded at the center of instrument making, so that what most people think of when considering a fine musical instrument is wood. So what's the future of this space-age material?

"In the late 1970s, the material was so new, and people were just starting to think of commercial applications," says electric-instrument designer Ned Steinberger. "The initial molding process has evolved enormously. When we first started molding instruments, we had all sorts of problems... now it is more perfect, less hand attention is needed." However, he adds, "the music industry has not yet picked up on [new] techniques—those now used by the sporting-goods carbon-fiber industry."

Makers of carbon-fiber instruments believe those advancements are on the horizon, and they question whether wood is really as perfect a construction material as many people assume. "For years, we have been working with wood, which varies from piece to piece," says Finlay. "We've never been able to count on it being very consistent, let alone attempt to alter the material's ability to conduct vibration. With carbon fiber, several new dimensions are introduced to instrument making.

"When makers learn to manipulate [that], I think we'll all be very impressed. I think that makers will learn to use carbon fiber better," he says. Finlay also believes that carbon fiber will start to replace wooden instruments in the lower-price ranges.

"Down the line, I think that we'll see more 'professional-quality' instruments made from carbon fiber," he says. "We need to learn how to tap into that concept."

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*This article appeared in Strings April 2009
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