A couple of years ago I was looking for a replacement tremolo system to fit a Floyd Rose route. I stumbled on the tremolo system designed and build by Ola Strandberg. Even though my guitar and the tremolo system weren’t compatible after all (at least, I wasn’t willing to do the necessary, though minor, modifications), Ola Strandberg and his guitars got lodged in my mind: his designs and his views on luthery made me reconsider guitars all together. For instance, he’s combining multi scale (fanned frets), unique hardware, a headless design and many other innovations into one instrument.
Fast forward. NAMM 2013. I was at the NAMM floor and I got to play some of his guitars and I casually ran into him. His guitars played so insanely good and sounded so insanely good, I just had to interview him! I had to know his motivation, I wanted to know what his inspirations are and in what way music and genres influence him and his designs. After NAMM I contacted him, and this is his story.
What was the spark that set it all in motion that you decided to develop and build your own guitars?
I think the original spark was “hey, I can probably do this!” which was actually set off by reading an interview with Allan Holdsworth in Guitar Player Magazine back in 1982. He had gotten a guitar made by Grover Jackson (at Charvel) out of a wood called Jelutong, which I had just used in wood shop in school, and I realized that maybe building a guitar maybe wasn’t voodoo. I had no money to buy a good guitar and grew up in a crafty family, so it was just natural.
I called up the (only) guitar builder in town and he was kind enough to let me borrow the only real specialty tool that is needed – a fret crowning file – and offered me a single piece of wisdom: “If you have time to write a book about building guitars, you’re obviously not any good”. I didn’t quite take his word, but bought a book (Make your own electric guitar, by Melvyn Hiscock) and with some help of a teacher at school, I built a solid maple Telecaster style guitar with a Kahler tremolo. It looked great and sounded terrible, but I had such a good time building it that I immediately moved on to the next project and the next and the next and ended up selling a few guitars and basses.
Fast forward 15 years of pursuing a career and bringing up children, I have always had an interest of product development, industrial design and design in general, so when I found myself with some spare time on my hands after quitting a gruelling job, I decided to put everything together. I didn’t want to just build another guitar – I wanted to solve a problem and take it to the next level of evolution.
Focusing on ergonomics is based off the idea that a comfortable guitar lets you practice more and play longer/faster/better without fatigue and with less risk of injury. Low weight is a key component of ergonimics and a headless design is natural in this equation since the lack of headstock allows you to build a lightweight body without the guitar becoming neck heavy. When starting out, I was unable to find any headless hardware to buy, so I set off designing my own. I went to school to become a mechanical engineer and worked for several years in a prototyping workshop, so I actually had the skills to both design it and manufacture the first prototype.
I started blogging about the project and posted frequently in the Project Guitar forums, and got others interested. I was then able to round up a small grant to get the first small production batch manufactured by a local company. I started selling the hardware to others, and was happy just seeing their completed instruments and exchanging e-mails with people all over the world.
But from early on, I had a complete concept worked out – The Ergonomic Guitar System (EGS) – with an ergonomic neck and body shape, and tons of ideas! It took me two and a half years of hardware development and sales before I actually had the time and resources to bring these other parts to completion. I was very tempted to go all in and solve every single design problem that was on the table, but eventually settled for a balance between traditional and new construction techniques. Instead of coming up with proprietary designs and secret methods that would differentiate me, I tried to make sure that my designs were possible to industrialize. Not because I thought they ever would be (!) but because I wanted to approach the problem from an industrial design angle. Winning Project Guitar’s “Guitar of the Month” with my first EGS prototype back in December of 2009 was incredibly cool.
People associate sustain with weight for example, which was one area where I did have to look at new construction techniques to overcome. Turning all conventional wisdoms on their head and working with lightweight and stiff materials and with parts that are tightly coupled to each other, it all works out. This is another example of the “spark” – a problem that needed to be solved. There continues to be daily sparks, but I have learnt over the years that success comes from ignoring most of them…
Are you motivated by the pursuit of tone, playability, ergonomics or all three and if so, do you have to make compromises? What do you eventually want to achieve?
Definitely all three! In terms of compromises, let’s take them one by one –
Tone: A Strandberg guitar is typically very responsive and “organic” sounding. It is dynamic and responds quickly. I could probably never build a guitar that sounded and played like a Les Paul or a 335 for example. To some, that may be a compromise, but I consider it a unique selling point and part of the concept.
Playability: No compromises. Ergonomics are a huge part of playability and these two combined lead to a great sound. The playing style obviously has a lot to do with the sound, and with a playable guitar, it’s like taking away a compressor from the signal chain. A very responsive instrument can be intimidating to some players, and some are freaked out by it, but most people enjoy it.
Ergonomics: When I set out to design my EGS guitar (now called the “Boden” design), I looked at what was out there of course. And I noticed that most guitars classified as “ergonomic” looked very untraditional, and for good reasons. There are things like the “Torzal Natural Twist” from Little Guitar Works which is an absolutely brilliant idea that actually works. And there are body designs that really hug your body and have ergonomic advantages. The former can freak people out from a technological understanding perspective and the latter from an aesthetics perspective. So yes, I do make compromises on the ergonomics. I try to make sure that it is possible to industrialize the manufacturing, that a guitar repair technician with skills from a conventional guitar can service them without special training, and that they are easy on the eye. As always with the 80/20 rule, chasing those last 20% can lead to having to make other sacrifices.
Seeing “my” guitars on stage and hearing them on albums is very motivating and that only happens if the owner likes the instrument, which is what my “made-to-measure” concept is about. If I had to name one achievement, it would be making this more accessible, i.e. a full custom instrument with material choices, scale lengths and neck shape are adapted to the player, with a reasonable wait time and price point.
I am also motivated by problem solving in itself, and have several innovations just waiting to be realized. Being able to pay others to do work for me will be a great help to make this happen.
How does your personal taste in music influence your designs?
Not so much, but the reverse is definitely true. I have expanded my musical tastes considerably from working with my customers. Having said that, I thought I was building a jazz/fusion guitar, but due to early adoption by Extended Range players like Chris Letchford (Scale the Summit), who was my first ever made-to-measure customer and who now has a recently announced signature model in the works, Tosin Abasi (Animals as Leaders) and Misha Mansoor (Periphery), the Extended Range segment is where it really took off. I had never listened to that type of music before when I met either of them, but was completely blown away. After receiving my first e-mail from Tosin, having never heard of him, I listened to Animals as Leaders on repeat for a whole day!
Recently getting Allan Holdsworth as a customer and having him record several songs on his new album with his [custom Seymour Duncan 59B equipped] .strandberg* guitar does bring the whole thing home though. It was really with a player like him in mind that it all started but I could not in my wildest dreams think that it would happen. Another headless guitar pioneer, Paul Masvidal (Cynic), recently joined the team of .strandberg* artists and we are bringing out a signature model for him, which is very exciting and totally in line with my personal tastes.
The feedback I receive from my customers and people who try the guitars is a continuous learning experience and an incredible kick. Coming up with well sounding 7- and 8-string guitars, where “well sounding” is to a large extent defined by the djent/technical metal genre, has evolved into a set of rules for material and pickup selection, where I guess personal taste is an element. This continues with many of my 6-string players, like Al Mu’min (the HAARP Machine), playing in drop tunings where similar rules apply.
How much control do you like to have over your designs? In other words, having your designs being build in an OEM construction, would that be feasible?
OEM construction is definitely possible and is happening already. From the start, I made my designs available under a Creative Commons license, allowing others to use my designs for free as long as they state clearly that they got permission from me and that they make their own enhancements or modifications available under the same license. I did this mostly because it was fun to share the work with others, but also to increase the acceptance of headless guitars and grow the market. I would rather have 10% of a market of a million than 100% of a market of thousand.
With my patent pending EndurNeck™, which is a neck profile that encourages a more relaxed wrist and reduces stress and tension on joints, tendons and muscles, the situation is a little different. It took a lot of deliberation before deciding to go the patenting route over Creative Commons, but when it started hitting “Top 5” lists of musicians highlights of the year and the likes, I decided that maybe this is the start of my retirement fund and to try and make some money off it. I now license the design and provide a kit of instructions and 2D and 3D CAD models to others that want to use it.
I have with great success licensed the use of my trademark to Strictly 7 Guitars to manufacture a select set of standard models, based off the specifications of made-to-measure guitars from Tosin Abasi and Misha Mansoor. I visited them several times and trained their staff and worked directly with their subcontractors to implement the designs and construction methods to my standards and continue to have weekly video conferences, but essentially, they are on their own. This kind of work will continue and is part of my strategy to reach my ultimate goal of made-to-measure guitars being more accessible.
I saw that you use a lot of Seymour Duncan Pickups, for instance the SH4 JB and the SH2 Jazz. What are your experiences with Seymour Duncan pickups?
My first guitar I actually used for something and bought the pickup with my own money, my second build, was built in 1985 and featured a single Seymour Duncan JB pickup and I have always enjoyed Duncan pickups since, and if I played enough myself, my personal guitar would probably still feature a JB.
Right now, I have a couple of very interesting Duncan customers waiting for guitars, and look forward to what is supposed to drop in the mail soon. We have evaluated a couple of the new pickups and are very excited over the new Nazgul pickup as a bridge pickup candidate for our Boden 8-strings.
But generally speaking, my customers have a pretty clear view on what pickups they want in their guitars, and Duncans are certainly a common choice.
Your guitars sometimes have a classic vibe to them but can also look very radical at the same time; do you have the intention (or wish) that your guitars are being used by a particular genre or style or do you simply wish to build your visions?
My ultimate reward is seeing/hearing my guitars being played. My personal preferences have to take the back seat and I try to put myself in the shoes of the customer and interpret his/her needs and meet those requirements. The value that I add is the ability to do so, and my experience so far is that my personal views are requested.
There are several things that I don’t accept doing though, like major modifications to the body shape/headstock, use different hardware or neck construction methods since these are part of the concept. I have brought out a second model, the “Varberg” design, which has a slightly different aesthetic, but also a different approach to the construction.
For “Varberg”, the inspiration was surf guitars, and it is named from one of the few places where you can surf in Sweden. “Boden” is a place in the north of Sweden. I was told by someone that the shape reminded her of reindeer antlers, and this is one of the places where reindeers are farmed.
There are certainly future projects in the pipe with he intent of pushing some technological boundaries but also with specific genres/segments in mind – and a different source of inspiration…
A further recent addition to the artist roster is talented 8-string guitarist (multi-instrumentalist really) Sarah Longfield. I really want to take on the challenge of achieving good tone in an 8-string guitar that works for a smaller size player with small hands.
For more information on Strandberg Guitars, visit: http://guitarworks.thestrandbergs.com/