June 2, 2011
Custom guitar-maker Gordon Branch started making guitars from wood, the traditional material, about 25 years ago. He went in a different direction when he created a design based on an aluminum billet, relying on the metal’s acoustic characteristics for a unique sound. Recently he decided to try combining an aluminum billet with aluminum tubing, with stunning results.
What happens when your high school has a well-funded industrial arts program, you grow up in a community with a thriving live-music scene, and you want to learn to play guitar but can’t afford a nice one? If you have extraordinary patience, some ingenuity, and take lessons from a master guitar builder, the sky is the limit.
Gordon Branch, who grew up near San Francisco, used his education to pursue a career as a machinist and later turned his interest in guitars into a hobby and later a full-time job. He went on to dream up the biggest innovation in guitar design since the electric pickup was added in the 1930s.
Like most innovators, Branch didn’t take a direct path from high-school shop class student to musical instrument designer. The first two steps down this path were signing up for guitar-playing lessons and purchasing an inexpensive guitar. Disappointed with the quality of the guitar, he would later take a guitar-making class, learn how it’s done, then forge his own path. He has been handcrafting unique guitars and basses ever since.
“I was lucky growing up in the San Francisco Bay area in the 1970s,” Branch said. “San Leandro High School had an excellent industrial arts program. A guy could go down the street after graduation and get a good job at Caterpillar.” He credits Andy Koval, his shop teacher, for making a difference in his life and inspiring a career in metalworking.
Branch got a job as a maintenance machinist, working with metal and plastic, at Raytheon’s semiconductor division in Mountain View, Calif. He was the sole machinist in an operation that employed more than 1,000 people. This unique position allowed him to do some moonlighting, and it wasn’t long before Branch was staying late at Raytheon to work on some side projects.
Outside of work, Branch yearned to learn to play guitar. He signed up for guitar-playing lessons and parted with $50 for an inexpensive, imported acoustic guitar, but it fell far short of his expectations.
“I looked in the phone book and I found guitar-making lessons taught by Ervin Somogyi,” he said. The class was expensive, so Branch proposed a trade: Branch would design and manufacture some guitar-making tools instead of paying the class fee. Somogyi accepted. Although Branch didn’t realize it at the time, Somogyi wasn’t just any old guitar builder. He was a master builder.
“These days he charges $25,000 per instrument.”
Wood (Not Metal). In that class, Branch learned that guitars and their low-pitched cousins, basses, have one thing in common: They are made of wood. Wood is easy to cut, sand, and bend, giving the instrument-maker quite a bit of versatility in the instrument’s size and shape. People who build and repair stringed instruments, luthiers, work with many woods that are common, such as maple, cherry, and rosewood, and some that are exotic, such as koa, bubinga, and snakewood.
The anatomy of an acoustic guitar is straightforward. The two main components are the neck and the body. The size and shape of the body (resonant cavity) and the material used for the top (soundboard) interact to give a guitar its signature sound. Various species of wood are used for the neck and the fretboard for their natural feel and how they interact with the strings. In short, wood provides endless variations in the way a guitar or bass sounds.
In Somogyi’s class, Branch built an acoustic guitar. Since then he has built nothing but electrics.
“I was drawn to build electrics because of the sound and the freedom of design possibilities,” he said.
Branch eventually made every guitar and bass configuration imaginable: right-handed and left-handed, single cutaway and double cutaway, single pickup and multiple pickup.
Then he started getting really creative.
Metal (Not Wood). A career machinist familiar with metals, Branch realized that metal might be suitable for a guitar or bass body. Many metals have good acoustic characteristics, but the weight and cost of metals are two limiting factors; guitar and bass bodies have to be lightweight and affordable. Branch found that aluminum would work.
“Aluminum has a great natural resonance,” he said. He homed in on an aircraft-grade aluminum, alloy 6061-T6, and started working up a design. He came up with a shape that incorporates the flowing curves of a conventional guitar.
Branch dubbed his original design the Airframe. He starts with a 60-lb. billet of aluminum, which he sends to a shop with CNC milling capability. The shop removes about 50 lbs. of material. Branch then uses his mill, a manual Bridegport, to do the final machining work, which removes another 5 lbs. of material. Then it goes out for anodizing. When it comes back, Branch adds the neck, hardware, and electronics.
Branch continues to use wood for the neck, so his instruments have the best of both worlds.
“The wood necks are typically made of mahogany and ebony and have a carbon fiber shell inside, combining the warm tone of the wood neck with the clear, bell-like tone of the aluminum,” Branch said.
Tube (Plus Billet). Branch wasn’t finished.
“While working in a fabrication shop that built chopper frames, I couldn’t help but notice the resonant qualities of the aluminum tubing,” he said.
His latest instrument, designed in 2010, is the AirTube V. The shape is reminiscent of the iconic Flying V. Introduced by Gibson Guitar Corp. in 1958, the Flying V was one in a series of futuristic-looking guitars, which included the Explorer and the Firebird. Fifty years later, Gibson’s Flying V hasn’t changed much. Branch took the concept much further when he updated it by constructing the body from tubular aluminum.
It’s not entirely made from tube—it combines a billet with tube. The billet provides the strength and integrity, anchoring the neck, bridge, and pickups. Eight lengths of tube provide unique acoustic properties.
“It’s TIG welded from the inside of the body,” Branch said. “You can’t see the welds. [It’s a] sweet-sounding guitar with a look unlike anything else. It’s modern and wild but still comfortable to play.”
What’s next for Branch? More tube and his first guitar exposition.
“I’m moving away from the solid billet, the Airframe-style guitars, and going toward using more tubing in the designs,” he said. “I am finding the sound is better—it gives more air space, allowing more resonance. It kind of loosens up the sound, and gives a fuller sound than the billet guitars.
“I have a new tubing-based design that is nothing like a V,” he said. “I just finished the first bass and I am working on some guitars.”
As Branch develops new designs, he’s also open to changing the manufacturing processes. He has been doing some research on brazing.
“I am really hopeful that I can switch from welding to brazing, because it’s such a clean look when it’s done right.” He’s wary of the drawbacks, but is looking forward to the experiment.
“As part of the [brazing] process, they have to immerse the whole body in a molten salt bath, and the metal comes out looking like it has been in an ocean for a day or two,” he said. “But it doesn’t seem to be pitted, or even corroded deeply, so I should be able to clean it up. It’s nice because the bond between the tubing and the billet is really clean, and it doesn’t have extra weld material hanging out.” Branch also has noticed that the parent material and the weld take on slightly different colors in the anodizing process, so he’s hoping that brazing will eliminate the color difference.
Branch acknowledged that despite their unusual, modern look, his designs haven’t set the music world on fire.
“Because my stuff is so different, it’s difficult to find acceptance,” he said. “Most guitar players want the same guitar that their dead guitar hero used to play.”
This keeps the big companies going, but doesn’t do much for the many independent guitar-makers. However, independent guys aren’t left completely out in the cold; they just have to look for unconventional ways to advertise their products. In the old days Branch marketed directly to musicians. When a band was scheduled for an evening show at a nightclub, he would just show up in the afternoon, when the band was doing a sound check. Security was nonexistent, so Branch, carrying a couple of guitar cases, would walk right in.
The Bay Area music scene isn’t as lively as it once was, and security is tight these days. That door has closed, but new doors have opened up a bit in recent years. Some guitar players are open to new and unique designs.
“I’m finding that some people are into new things, more high-tech things,” Branch said. “And the kids are really into my stuff—they see my stuff and the usual reaction is, ‘Oh my God, what is that thing?’”
Branch is hoping for more of that when he exhibits at the annual Montreal Guitar Show. It’s a niche expo that excludes corporations, focusing solely on craftsmen like Branch.
“It has become the premier show for small-time luthiers,” he said. “A lot of one-man and two-man shops exihibit. It’s a juried show. They don’t let just anybody in. They check out your work [beforehand] to make sure it’s up to their standards.”
The big guitar manufacturers make thousands of guitars each year. For Branch Guitars, the output is closer to one per month. That doesn’t sound like a lot of orders, but it’s enough for now, and Branch is hoping that the expo will lead to bigger things. For a guy with such an unusual niche, this is the perfect place to showcase his work.
“A zillion guys are making Stratocaster and Telecaster copies, but I’ve always wanted to do my own thing,” Branch said. “It’s not the easiest path to follow, but it’s interesting and I’m enjoying what I am doing.”
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