Necessity sure makes an inventor into some kinda mother.
Pete Swanson, self taught luthier, is right in Niagara’s own backyard dealing with the heavy buzz around his newly launched Dagmar Custom Guitars. Since he’s debuted them at the Montreal Guitar Show, he’s received contact from people around the world who appreciate not only the art deco aesthetic of his electric and acoustic guitars with the lightning bolt shaped f-holes, or as Pete would describe it, “it’s Michigan meets Nashville”. But it’s not just the aesthetic itself, it’s the groundbreaking construction Swanson discovered while experimenting with making fenders for balloon tire bikes.
The body construction itself echoes the cornerstone of architectural development – the Roman Arch. The rounded guitars use what Swanson describes as “non traditional” way of guitar making – not utilizing steam but rather “super accurate maths and super accurate machine processes.”
Taking approximately 250 hours for each unique creation, Swanson takes hundreds of pre-cut segments, measured to minuscule fractions, and then glues them together to create the body. To compensate for the demands made on the guitar body, he applies unidirectional carbon fibre inside the arched body-frame. Once that carbon fibre is inlaid into the concave inner frame, he can then “shave the outer material right down so that the thickness in the centre 4 arched rows are brought down “to about 4.5 mm.”
Swanson notes that that measurement is about twice the average width of an acoustic guitar’s construction, but as Swanson explained, he “can justify it” because he is “asking the guitar shape to do about 8 times as much” with regard to tension bearing.
Without getting overtly technical (or risking giving away trade secrets), other ingenious applications abound. Because of the construction there is no “glue muting”, and indeed when you put your head into the frame of the body and speak, you hear a resonant sound, not unlike an amphitheatre effect. Because of the materials involved there is also less stress on the guitar from alteration in factors such as humidity. The care that goes into the finest details have simply presented to the guitar player an instrument with a warmer, darker tone, but because of the solid application to detail of the body, that aforementioned “amphitheatre effect” also allows the guitar’s hollow body to project.
Swanson completes the guitar with a single bolt-on neck using a custom Allen wrench. He aims for the lowest action (aka “the perfect wave”) on his necks, and yet another innovation is the shave down, giving some space where the neck meets the body, allowing for more natural resonance.
So many little things count and add up.
One really has to hear them to appreciate the quick mastery that Swanson has achieved over this specialization.
Dagmar Custom Guitars is a new endeavour and Swanson has truly only been mastering the creations for just over a year.
If one doubts the ingenuity of the design, one can refer to Queen’s University’s Dr. Hans-Peter Loock, P.Eng., Associate Professor,Dept. of Chemistry, whose excitement over Swanson’s designs has led Dr. Loock to purchase a guitar from Swanson for the purposes of making a Dagmar Custom Guitar a component piece in the development of a new pickup technology using fibre optics.
Debut pricing starts at $10,000 US for triple-A grade wood with ebony appointments laid on top of a boutique-grade archtop jazz guitar.
I asked Dr. Loock how the idea of using fibre optics as a pickup applied.He explained that they have “developed a pick-up that uses fiber optics and very small lasers to sense the vibrations of a guitar body”.
When I asked him to elaborate on the implications of this development, Dr. Loock explained “Consider that fiber optic cables are only slightly larger and heavier than a strand of hair! We can put many sensors on the soundboard of an instrument without altering its vibrations and the instrument tone! In fact, we expect that we can put these type of sensors also on many other instruments, such as harmonicas, violins, percussion instruments, etc. Also because the sensors are so light, their frequency range is much larger than those of piezoelectric detectors, giving a more faithful reproduction of the sound of the instrument.”
Dr. Loock is excited about Swanson’s designs because Swanson has no reticence in applying cutting edge technological innovation.
He likes Swanson’s design aspect because he can ”embed our fiber optic sensors into the grain of the wood - right at the production stage. We expect that this will not only give a better sounding guitar but also that we can use many sensors simultaneously. Because every sensor picks up a slightly different "sound", this allows the musician to fine-tune the sound of the instrument.”
Coincidentally, on the way back from Queen’s after delivering the guitar to Dr. Loock, Swanson relayed an anecdote to me. Word came on the radio that Les Paul, the progenitor of the modern guitar, had passed away. In a strange twist of fate the birth of a new approach and aesthetic to guitar making might yet yield what could be called a “photonic guitar” and there’s no question Les Paul would be strumming away on his original “log”, smiling down on the next steps being taken.
During the interview I was privy to strum ‘Mary Lou W.’, the electric version, using a Charlie Christian pickup (named after Mary Lou Whitney, the pianist who helped Christian launch his career). T Bone Walker also used this style of pickup. The newer style pickups however use a magnesium base as opposed to the giant noisy magnets – Jason Lollar’s own innovation in pickup design. In the electric-based design, Swanson allowed for a thicker body to reduce feedback and hum. Again, some carbon fibre strands offer reinforcement and Plexiglas is even employed in a different X - shape to allow for the adjustment of the pickup. The selection of Cooked Maple on the back, and Western Red Cedar for the top, sandwiching this deep bodied guitar again illustrates Swanson’s willingness to experiment with tone woods, form, and function - and still nail it. It felt beautiful to play and I wanted to kick myself for not having warmed up a few days in advanced to really take it for a spin.
‘Jenny’, the second acoustic made by Swanson – and also featured at the Montreal Guitar Show – is carved much finer at the re-curve areas/junctures to reduce weight elements, and again, a joy to play. It was a struggle to not want to fire up an open tuning and see what kind of slide singing one could get out of it.
With three guitars under his belt and a fourth cutaway model aka “player’s choice” – allowing the player to reach the upper register – in the works, Swanson’s creation has caught the eye of a publisher who wishes to feature his unique work with other guitars in a coffee table book.
For now Swanson just seems excited that his guitars are reaching a wide audience with genuine interest in such a short amount of time. Some luthiers labour for years in obscurity, but one has to take bold steps with innovation and it appears few question that Swanson has done just that.
Dagmar Custom Guitarscan be contacted at www.DagmarCustomGuitars.com
or interested parties can reach Pete Swanson at 905 262 0475.
For a direct explanation on the technical components from Swanson himself, and to hear the guitars please visit www.youtube.com/globalpunditorg