Photos                    String Gauges and Tunings

As a composer, new compositions seem to appear of their own volition.  In the past several years, not only were new compositions happening, but also compositions for which the instruments to realize them did not yet exist.  Internally, I could literally hear non-extant instruments playing new compositions.  The journey to invent or create these instruments has taken many twists and turns; this was a path upon which I began to seriously venture around the time of the KastningSiegfried Book of Days recording sessions.  After those recording sessions concluded in 2002, I began to speak with then production manager of Santa Cruz Guitars, Dan Roberts, about a lower-register guitar family instrument; if the guitar could be thought of as a violin, I was seeking a cello.  Dan shipped out a Santa Cruz Bob Brozman for me to use in the studio; this is a baritone guitar which is tuned either two or three half-steps below the guitar.  At that time, I'd never heard of a baritone guitar; yet it would come to figure prominently in the recording sessions for the album Bichromial.

In 2004, after the release of Bichromial, I began to consider the possibility of a small-body, short-scale instrument with which to extend and expand the upper registers of the guitar.  On that album, I began to explore the concept of expanding the current range of the guitar towards the bass register by use of a Santa Cruz DBB baritone guitar.  This exploration led to the development of the Santa Cruz DKK Extended Baritone guitar; as an artist endorser with Santa Cruz Guitars, I was fortunate to have their support, and worked with them on the development of this unusual instrument I'd envisioned.  The DBB, while a fine guitar, didn't do much to really extend the range, as it was only designed to go a whole step below standard E tuning; yet it did hint at hidden potential.  The DKK went much further, as it extended the register down to a 7th below standard (from E to low F#).  However, this extending of the lower register of the instrument simultaneously had me considering the possibility of extending the treble registers of the instrument as well.  I began speaking with Santa Cruz about a small-body, short-scale instrument in 2004.  We discussed various models of theirs: the 00, the PJ, and later, the Style 1.  I had played several of their 00 models, and was leaning in that direction, but due to the development of the DKK and a year later, another instrument of my creation, the Santa Cruz DKK-12, the idea of a small-body instrument was put on hold.  Although we were deep into the development of the extended baritone, I was still thinking about extending the upper register of the instrument, too.

In 2007, after completion of the recording sessions for what would become the albums Resonance and Parallel Crossings with Sándor Szabó, I again turned my attention to the idea of extending the upper register of the instrument.  After so much time spent in the studio with the DKK-12, I started to think about a double-course instrument for this project.  Using my Martin D-12-28, I began to try some experimental tunings.  However, instead of the usual 12-string tuning wherein four of the six courses contain octave strings, I set up all the courses to be unisons with no octaves.  I used lighter gauges of strings, and tuned everything to F#, which is one whole step above standard E tuning, and one full octave above the DKK.  The result was encouraging; the double-courses provided a texture reminiscent of a mandolin or mandocello.  After a few weeks of living in F# tuning, I raised everything to G tuning by experimenting with various string gauges.  It was amazing how much difference was made by pushing the tuning up by merely a half-step.  After using this G tuning in a recording session for the next KastningSiegfried album, I again decided to extend the harmonic territory covered by the G tuning, and after much more experimentation with string gauges and combinations, I pushed everything up a whole step to A.  This was now a perfect fourth above concert E tuning, and had such an element of bright sparkle, that it sounded like an entirely unknown instrument; an amalgam of harpsichord, mandolin, and perhaps just a hint of guitar.  I carved a new bridge saddle for the A tuning, so as to be able to really utilize it.  In fact, I used the Martin in this A alto tuning on the Kastning - Szabó album Parabola, which will be released by Greydisc Records in February 2009. 

While the Martin revealed the potential in this tuning/stringing, it was clearly the wrong instrument for it.  The scale length was too long, the D body was not right for such a higher-pitched tuning, and the East Indian rosewood back and sides in combination with the D-28 body made for a bass-heavy and darker tonality.  In a D, I love a dark, smoky, bass-heavy and throaty kind of voice, but only as regards standard concert tuning.  The lower registers of the A tuning sounded rich and resonant, but the upper registers were so weak as to be very imbalanced; almost missing entirely in some chord voicings.  Definition was lacking; the voice was entirely imbalanced..  I love the Martin when set up as a concert 12-string, but in this scenario, it did not have a balanced voice.  I knew that a smaller-bodied, short-scale instrument with a different combination of tonewoods would work.  I resumed discussions about a smaller instrument with Santa Cruz.  I had in mind that a maple and Carpathian combination might be ideal.  After several conversations with Dan Roberts, who was that time the production manager at Santa Cruz, it was confirmed that indeed this would provide the voice which I sought for this tuning.  Dan suggested we speak with a trusted tonewood supplier of maple sets, John Preston of Old World Tonewoods in West Virginia.  John proved to be exceptional in his knowledge of European curly maple tonewood, and once Dan explained this new invention of an instrument to him, he was very enthusiastic about being involved in the project.  In fact, John proved to be extremely helpful, and did in fact supply us with the perfect set of European curly maple for the back and sides of the Alto.

John Preston of Old World Tonewoods recalls: "One day in June, 2008, I received a call from Dan Roberts of Santa Cruz Guitar Company. Dan had a special project and asked if I could perhaps help him in getting the right wood for the guitar’s back and sides. The guitar was to be made for Kevin Kastning, an artist endorser of SCGC. After discussing some of the requirements of the guitar, Dan introduced Kevin to me, who happened to be also on the line. Kevin described the importance of getting the right maple for sound production and to would show off this special alto guitar. Later, I began searching through my existing stock of European maple guitar sets. I wanted a to find wood with a sustained, clear ring, but also having even and relatively narrow flame extending across the entire piece. It also needed to be structurally “stress-free” as much as possible. I took photos of several maple backs and e-mailed them to Kevin - but one in particular I thought would be the one Kevin would choose. That wood was indeed the one Kevin selected, and now in Kevin’s talented hands is helping to make that stimulating, intricate, highly interesting music he is known for. It gives me great pleasure to have had a part, albeit very minor, in the creation of this fine SCGC alto guitar for such a special musician. Thanks, Kevin, and Dan, Joseph, and all at SCGC that had a hand in this alto guitar project, for letting me be a part of it, too!"

I began to put together the rest of the specifications for the alto.  It would be based on the Santa Cruz 00; a small-body instrument with a short scale of 24.75 inches.  I had played several of the Santa Cruz 00 models, and was always impressed with their balance and simultaneously enamored of their unique voice.  The body and the scale length would be the only elements of the 00 which would remain intact, however.  Each of my guitars has a cutaway, but the 00 would be unique to my arsenal in that it would not.  The reason being that it was in such a high register, that the upper portion of the register made accessible by a cutaway didn't have the fullness and body of the rest of the instrument.  It was the same effect as the final half-octave of a piano: the tonal qualities in the extreme upper register are all attack and no sustain.  In a way, the entire instrument was already above the cutaway register, so a cutaway would go unused.  In addition, cutaways reduce the air space of an instrument; in larger-bodied guitars this reduction can be equalized by what is done with the voicing, but the 00 is so small by comparison, that a cutaway could have a very serious and undesired impact on the overall tone and voice.  The back and sides would be European curly maple, the neck would be mahogany instead of maple, top would be Carpathian red spruce, the nut width would be wider than the stock 00, and in a very unusual twist, the fingerboard would be fretless above the 15th fret.  Aesthetically, it would adhere to the usual KK series: no center back strip, maple rosette and purflings, no position markers or fingerboard inlays, and no pickguard.  I also wanted to try something a tiny bit different on this instrument, too; instead of the usual mother-of-pearl SCGC logo inlay on the headstock overlay, I asked Joseph King of SCGC if he could do cocobolo rosewood instead.  I had specified figured ebony for the overlay, and I knew that cocobolo, one of my very favorite tonewoods, would look subtle yet beautiful.  Joseph confirmed that indeed he could use cocobolo as the inlay material, and he set about selecting a beautiful piece of figured ebony and the cocobolo for the inlay. 

Once I had the specs completed, I had a couple of phone conferences with Richard Hoover, founder of Santa Cruz Guitars, and a very gifted luthier.  We discussed what I wanted in the capabilities of the instrument; as well as all the specifications.  Richard agreed with everything I'd put together, and in August 2008, Joseph began work on the Alto.  John Preston had shipped the European curly maple back/sides set off to the SCGC shop in Santa Cruz, California, and Joseph called me to let me know it had arrived and looked great.  We also discussed what I wanted in terms of voice, tone, and balance for the Alto; it was Joseph's job to select the set of Carpathian red spruce which would be used for the top.  The selection of the top set is highly critical in any instrument, and especially so in one which had never before existed.  Joseph and I spoke various times regarding the voice and tone of the instrument; these conversations were indeed important, as Joseph would be performing the voicing of the top, which involves among other things, carving the top bracing in order to achieve the voice I sought.  Once the top was braced and voiced, and the body was together, Joseph again called to discuss neck profiles.  The neck is carved by hand, so the profile is determined ahead of time.  On some of my other SCGC instruments, I'd specified a V-neck profile, but for the slightly wider neck and the double courses, I wanted a C-neck profile.  Again, Joseph got this exactly right; the neck profile is extremely comfortable.

Along the course of the build process, Willie Carter of SCGC would email progress photos.  Richard would call me and keep me appraised of the progress; as well as ask questions about details and finer points of the specifications.  In December 2008, I received a cheery call from Lizbeth Gray at SCGC.  The Alto was complete, and it would be shipping within the week.  It arrived at its new home on December 23, and felt like a truly wonderful Christmas present.  To Richard Hoover, Willie, Joseph, Lizbeth, and everyone at SCGC, my sincerest thanks and gratitude. 

- Kevin Kastning,
January 2009

 

 

Specifications and Details

 

Gauges: (high to low); all courses are doubled/unison:
Tuning: A above concert E tuning

PITCH / GAUGE
A .010 / .010
E .010 / .010
C .014 / .014
G .020w / .020w
D .026w / .026w
A .035w / .035w


German curly maple back and sides, highly figured
Carpathian red spruce top
1 7/8” nut
24.75 inch scale (629 mm)
Gotoh 510 tuners in black
Figured ebony peghead overlay
Black binding on fingerboard
No binding on headstock
All maple/dyed maple purfling and rosette
Bracing/voicing: double-tapered, highly knifed, scalloped tonebars
Ebony fingerboard and bridge
No center back strip