About the Ridgewing/Chrysalis Guitar (Harvey Reid)

As the only musician who for the for last 15 years has owned & operated, performed and traveled extensively with two of the world’s supply of about 12 of these unusual instruments I want to try to explain a bit about them, since they are so different from “normal” guitars in almost every way, and there is now a chance that many more of them will be made. If you have ever wanted one, now might be your best chance. They are currently hand-made and expensive, but they are trying to produce them on a larger scale, which would of courser lower the price, though the hand-made ones would presumably retain their value...

(Actually I have a guitar and the world’s only 8-string Chrysalis mandocello, shown here when I got it around 1999.)

photo of HR

These instruments have a number of unique advantages:

1) They easily come apart and go back together, which makes them vastly easier to travel with. One of them fits easily in a briefcase and can be assembled and played in about 30 seconds.
2) Being made of mostly carbon fiber (graphite) they are impervious to weather, temperature and humidity.
3) The action and intonation are easily adjustable, so they play very much in tune. You can change the neck angle in the middle of a song if you want to.
4) Because they have no resonating cavity (body) they are much more easily amplified than wood-body acoustic guitars. They can be played at much higher volumes than conventional acoustic guitars.
5) Because they don’t have body resonances like acoustic guitars, they are good platforms for plugging into effects and signal processing devices.
6) They are incredibly cool-looking, and feel good to play in front of audiences.
7) New Ridgewings are modular, which means you can swap parts, and easily change neck, body etc. for fashion or functional reasons.

A Little History

Most people who see a Ridgewing (the new name for what I have always called a Chrysalis) think it is an electric guitar, but when I play them, I conceptualize them as “acoustic” instruments. Let me elaborate a bit, since this is a very important point, especially to someone who is considering buying one. This guitar is the brainchild of Tim White, who seems to have combined his training and interests in guitars, robotics, engineering and entomology into this idea. He doesn’t seem to talk much about the entomology connection, perhaps for fear of seeming too weird, but I find it to be possibly the most fascinating part of the guitar.

photo of HR

All guitars were “acoustic” (I’ll stop using quote marks now...) until the 1930’s when the first magnetic pickups were added to acoustic guitar bodies. So much is already written about the origins of electric guitars that I’ll spare you the long story. Not long after the first pickups were built into new instruments, the need for some changes to the guitar bodies became apparent. Very soon after the invention of the electric guitar was the discovery of feedback, and obviously the newly-amplified large-body acoustic guitars had problems with that. The hollow-body electric guitar was quickly followed by the semi-hollow-body, but the real “revolution” came in the early 1950’s when Leo Fender and Les Paul pioneered the solid-body electric guitar that we all know so well.
The point of the solid body was to make the guitar sustain better and to have less feedback, but it soon also became apparent that the solid-body electric guitar was a platform for electronic experimentation with amps, pedals and the explosion of signal processing we also now take for granted. Musicians like Jimi Hendrix would have never been able to take the electric guitar to all those exciting new places had he been playing hollow-body instruments. So it really has only been about 50 years that there has been this line of distinction between acoustic and electric instruments.

A number of attempts have been made to bridge this gap, with a proliferation of types of pickups and new body designs added to acoustic guitars to make them amplify differently, as well as features (such as the Fishman Power Bridge) being added to electric guitars. The Parker guitar is a prominent example of a re-born electric guitar that has some properties of an acoustic. Like other guitars in this “hybrid” class, the Parker has 2 sets of pickups: electric pickups on the body and a piezo acoustic-style pickup under the bridge. (A piezo-electric material makes a weak electric current when it is vibrated or physically disturbed.) The idea is that you can switch between these types of pickups (and even combine them) and get a sound that resembles a plugged-in acoustic guitar when you use the piezo pickup, and a normal electric sound when you just use the magnetic pickups. This works reasonably well, except that the acoustic sound is pretty thin, since the guitar is usually strung up with thinner gauge strings typical of electric guitars. Essentially all acoustic players use bronze-wound strings, and presumably don’t get the tone they like from the nickel-wound strings needed to drive a magnetic-type guitar pickup. So without heavier-gauge bronze strings a hybrid Parker-type guitar can never really sound like a plugged-in acoustic.

The other less-understood but vital difference between acoustic and electric guitars is that an electric guitar is essentially a plank with strings, and an acoustic guitar is much more sonically “alive.” Those of us who play hard-core acoustic guitar music depend on the top of the acoustic guitar flexing and responding to our attack, and the way the strings bounce back is a key part of the experience of playing acoustic guitar styles. (It’s worth noting here that arch-top guitars are different animals, and they respond differently to the player’s hands than either solid body or flat-tops, though they can be made louder when plugged-in than flat-tops since the arched tops are not as feedback-prone.) Personally I don’t enjoy playing electric guitars as much because they feel like planks, and I much prefer the response and feel of an acoustic. Sort of like dribbling a basketball with the right amount of air in it; it bounces back as you use it. This responsiveness that comes from the top of the acoustic guitar (and also from aRidgewing) , and the extra sonic complexity it generates is another reason why Parker electric guitars can never quite sound like a plugged-in acoustic. The electric guitar remains fundamentally a plank, no matter what you do to it electronically.

Which brings us back to the Ridgewing and entomology, the study of insects.

Modern guitar making crystallized in the mid-1800’s in Spain when Torres developed the modern braced guitar top, and it has not wavered much in spite of endless tinkering and experimenting of almost every luthier. Torres showed famously that the top of the guitar was the most important part, and his paper maché-body guitar made a startling amount of sound to prove his theory. The strings pass over a saddle, through a bridge that is glued to a flat top made of spruce or cedar, braced variously with fan or parallel braces glued under it. This gives it the strength to withstand the pressure of the strings, with the freedom to flex and vibrate and amplify the vibrations passed to it from the bridge. Now we get to the entomology...

The Ridgewing guitar grew from a fact that Tim White learned in entomology: the strongest architectural design known to science is not the spider web as many believe, but the wing of the dragonfly; in particular one known as the damselfly. The Ridgewing is a rather faithful replica in carbon fiber of the wing of a dragonfly, and though it looks like a space-age electric guitar, it is essentially a prehistoric, 100 million year-old acoustic guitar. To me it is as alive and responsive as any acoustic guitar top, and possibly more so. The lack of a body means that the vibrations from the bridge are passed from the webbed top to a frame, which itself might be exhibiting more of frame resonance typical of harps than the body resonance we associate with guitars. I have never played a “conventional” guitar top that floats in space like a Ridgewing, so I can’t compare the two structural ideas. They just made the first Ridgewing this month that has an aluminum rather than a carbon fiber frame, and it has noticeably more resonance and sustain, comparable to solid-body electrics. The only instrument with that frame was strung with very light electric strings, so I was unable to really take it for a test drive.

The Ridgewing guitars do not currently have magnetic, electric guitar pickups as we know them, but they can be conceptualized as electric guitars, and played at very high volumes and played through effects pedals and distortion devices designed for electric guitars. The bodies don’t have the feedback problems that acoustics have, and it is possible that Tim White has created the best platform yet for reuniting the guitar family, and making an instrument that can be either an “acoustic” or an “electric.” It would be possible in the middle of a gig to pop the strings off a “electric” Ridgewing that was string with light gauge strings, and put a new set on that were much heavier. The headstock and bridge of a Ridgewing are connected to each other by the strings, and they stay together as a unit when you take it apart.It would take a few seconds to readjust the neck angle and string action, but the nut and saddle are part of the assembly you remove, and the usual problems you might have, for example, switching from a .045 gauge bass E string to an .054 would not be there.

photo of HR

Two things are needed to investigate this further. I’ll try to do a volume test, and see how loud I can play a Ridgewing into my Mesa Boogie amp as compared to a solid-body electric. I anticipate that it will be able to be vastly louder than any acoustic, but not quite as loud as a standard solid-body electric. (My neighbors and family might put a stop to my testing.) At some point as the volume goes up there will be a threshold, and until you are on stage at a real gig it won’t be possible to know for sure just how loud it can get. I suspect also that it can be easily loud enough for many styles of music, such as country or jazz, and just where in the spectrum of nightclub or arena rock it would start feeding back will likely be determined by someone other than me. When an electric guitar feeds back, it is when the body and strings together are being excited by the sound waves from the speaker and sending new energy into the pickup via the strings vibrating in the magnetic field of the pickup. When an acoustic-type piezo pickup under the saddle feeds back it is because the body of the instrument is the antenna for the sound waves from the speaker, transferring this energy in turn to the pickup under the saddle. Good solid research of this kind does not happen in the living room, and if I payed in a punk band I could get to the truth faster.

The other thing that is needed is to try to mimic the output of an electric guitar pickup by EQ’ing the saddle-style piezo pickup in the Ridgewing. Magnetic pickups make a much less complex signal than piezos do; in particular they don’t make much sound at all above about 6000hz. The amps that have evolved to amplify electric guitars do not even have tweeters, and they are just mid-range drivers. When we play plugged-in acoustic guitars, we generally play them through a “full-range” speaker or PA system and not an electric guitar amp. The distortions and effects pedals that we associate so much with the art of electric guitar playing do not work as well with the more complex signals that piezo style pickups generate, so in order for the Ridgewing to be able to mimic the electric sounds some tools will need to be developed to modify the pickup signal. (The other option would be to add electric guitar pickups to the Ridgewing, but the dragonfly-grill top does not currently allow for that.)

In order to find out if the Ridgewing is indeed the new standard for a hybrid guitar, and whether or not a traveling musician could use it to play both acoustic and electric guitars in a show, some experimenting will need to be done to find out how to modify the piezo pickup signal so it more resembles the output of a magnetic pickup. It should be easier to remove frequencies and dynamics than to add them, and this is the time in history when such a transformation might be quite doable, even by something like a cell phone. It seems like it should be a lot easier to convert a more complex signal into a simpler one than the reverse. This is the kind of thing being done now with the Fishman Aura and the amp modeling technology from companies like Line 6, and presumably some circuitry and a switch could be added to the Ridgewing preamp to make this kind of transformation and make the pickup signal behave differently.

I’ll see if I can learn something about this, and report back, since I have access to Ridgewing guitars and people who have the know-how and motivation to answer these questions. The idea that we could carry both an acoustic and an electric guitar around in one briefcase from the jungle to the desert is tantalizing indeed. (The success of my mandocello indicates that it will also be possible to switch necks on a Ridgewing guitar so that it could be either a guitar or a bass, or even a 6 & 12-string guitar interchangeably.) The biggest unsolved problem with the Ridgewing is how to give it some acoustic sound so you can play it in a hotel or around the house and hear it. The inflatable mylar balloon add-on body that mine first came with in 1999 has been discontinued, though it did work surprisingly well, not unlike the Torres paper-maché guitar body.

©2015 by Harvey Reid


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