Thoughts on crossover guitars

All this research has prompted some observations, first about what a crossover guitar needs, and secondly about what traditional classical guitarists could learn from the features of a crossover guitar. I expect this to be controversial!

It is my belief that a nut width of 48mm on a nylon-string guitar would be just fine for many guitarists, even those who play classical guitar exclusively. It provides considerably wider string spacing (at 8mm between strings) than what you find on most steel-string guitars. It is noticeably narrower than the 9mm string-to-string spacing you find on a traditional classical guitar with its 52mm nut width. It really does make a difference. If you are not already accustomed to a traditional classical guitar neck, try it; you’ll like it.

At the other end, however, a crossover classical guitar needs to have a string spread of 57 to 60mm at the bridge saddle. This is the traditional classical width, much wider than that found on most steel-string guitars. The reason for this is that if you are playing traditional classical right-hand finger technique (p i m a), you need a lot of space between the strings to dig in and get a good loud sound.

Virtually all traditional classical guitars have a completely flat fingerboard which has no inlays on the fingerboard or on the side. However, virtually all electric and steel-string acoustic guitars have “side dots” that let the player glance down and determine the fret location of his left hand. All classical guitars should have side dots. There is no drawback to this. And if you’re worried about traditional appearance, don’t be. Nobody can see the side dots except the person playing the guitar.

Furthermore, there is no reason that a classical guitar should have a flat fingerboard. This is an unproductive hold-over from the 18th and 19th century when flat fingerboards were the only kind that luthiers made on plucked string instruments. The primary reason for remaining with the flat fingerboard design is one of ease of manufacture and low cost for the luthier. It does not benefit the player in any way.

Regardless of the width of the neck, some curvature in the fingerboard profile, or radius, is always helpful in making the guitar easier to play. I have read about classical guitars with a very slight curvature, 24-inch or 20-inch (610mm or 510mm). Mine has a 15-inch radius, like a Martin steel-string guitar. A greater curvature, say a 10-inch or 7.5-inch radius like on a Strat, would probably be more than a nylon-string player would want.

The late Thomas Humphrey, builder of the Millenium Guitar, championed a slightly radiused fretboard on his traditionally-proportioned instruments with full-width fingerboards. He mentioned that in addition to comfort and playability, it was helpful to increase the curvature under the bass strings to enable a slightly greater string height to correct problems with string buzzing.

Obviously, it’s easier to plane a flat fretboard and hammer in flat frets. With a radiused design, you have to sand or mill the fretboard to a specific tolerance, and you need to individually bend each piece of fretwire to match that radius before it is hammered in to the fingerboard, in order to get a good fit. Finishing the frets by leveling and polishing is a bit more complicated also.┬áThen you need a radiused profile on the nut and the bridge saddle, and this probably complicates intonation compensation. All this takes time and money, but boy is it worth it to the player.

Cutaways are good. You can play the high notes more easily.

The idea of the cutaway first came from archtop steel-string guitars in the 1930s, and was incorporated in to the design of most solid-body electric guitars. Additionally, many models of steel-string acoustic guitar are available with or without a cutaway.

I won’t offer any verifiable data here, because the cutaway issue has been discussed far and wide for many years. Let’s just say that traditional classical guitarists have not approved of the cutaway because it simply makes the guitar look unlike a traditional classical guitar. The cutaway remains an unpopular option for serious, acoustic classical guitar players. But the cutaway is gaining acceptance. It’s been demonstrated that the presence of a cutaway does not necessarily alter the sound, volume or projection of a guitar.

One of my tenets in this blog is that classical guitars should break from tradition in terms of size and shape if there are innovative new ideas that prove beneficial. So I would like to ask traditional classical players to be more open to new shapes and dimensions for their guitars. Why must all guitars look, externally, just like the ones they built in Europe in the 19th century? If somebody builds a design that’s easier to play yet sounds just as good or better, it shouldn’t be rejected just because it does not look orthodox and conformist.

If you want to do some outside reading, I would refer you to the Web site of the famed and innovative builder Greg Byers, who discusses different designs with regard to scale length. Unfortunately there’s not a lot of information on the Web about Thomas Humphrey’s design principles, since his passing and the abandonment of his Web site and domain. I’m sure you can find many other links. The biggest area of innovation is in the construction of the tops of the guitars and how they are braced, and that’s way outside the scope of my blog.

My Alhambra crossover guitar

By the way, crossover guitars are sometimes called “fusion” guitars, and that term is usually applied to a thin-line acoustic-electric guitar designed for jazz players.

But mine is not. It’s a fully acoustic guitar, no pickup, designed to sound and project just like a regular classical guitar.

Here are the details:

My guitar is a limited-run instrument, not a production model. But Alhambra now has three production models that you can order, and they are similar.

Mine is identical to an Alhambra 5P, except for the neck and the bridge saddle.

Alhambra 5P CWX from The Twelfth Fret, Toronto
Alhambra 5P CWX from The Twelfth Fret, Toronto

Specifications

Alhambra 5P CWX Crossover

  • 1-7/8″ wide nut (48mm), 8mm string-to-string spacing
  • Radiused ebony fingerboard (15-inch or 380mm)
  • Side dots at 3, 5, 7 & 9th frets
  • Ebony reinforced Spanish cedar neck (no truss rod)
  • True Spanish neck joint
  • 650 mm scale length
  • Venetian cutaway design
  • Extra access neck heal contour (sometimes called “compound” or “contoured” cutaway)
  • Solid Western Red cedar top
  • Traditional fan bracing
  • Laminated Indian rosewood back & sides
  • Rosewood body binding
  • Radiused saddle (for appropriate string height and action given the radiused fingerboard)
  • Traditional rosewood bridge with angled┬átie block. String span at bridge is 60mm, or string-to-string of 12mm, just like a standard classical guitar.

It came with a flat-top hard shell case, one that looks like it was built by TKL.

Here is the background:

Grant MacNeill and the luthiers of the Twelfth Fret guitar store of Toronto, Ontario, Canada designed the first Alhambra crossover model. They carved a custom neck and fingerboard, and commissioned Alhambra to produce two-hundred 5P guitars with replicas of this neck and fingerboard. Twelfth Fret took delivery in 2007 and sold them exclusively from their store.

Alhambra was pleased with the results so they added three models of crossover guitar to their regular production lineup. The new models are higher-grade instruments than the 5P CWX, and all come with a Fishman pickup and preamp system built-in. The new Alhambra crossover models can be ordered from any Alhambra dealer. (I provided a link to the list of dealers in the United States only, but they are available world-wide.)

I got my 5P CWX at a great price, from Twelfth Fret. I bought in in March, 2009, and it was one of the very last of the 200 that they ordered. They may still have one or two left, and at any rate they can get you one of the new production models, so contact them if you are interested. Ask for Grant and tell him that Wheat Williams sent you.

I’m taking the liberty of posting Twelfth Fret’s pictures from their page on the 5P CWX, because I fear that they are no longer available and Twelfth Fret might take down their page.

The new Alhambra crossover models are true classical guitars, but I don’t like the bridge design, the binding, or the big honkin’ headstock logo, because they look quite un-traditional. My guess is that Alhambra is betting that these non-traditional elements will make these models more appealing to those who were not classical guitarists to begin with.

Alhambra CS-3 CW E2 Crossover Guitar
Alhambra CS-3 CW E2 Crossover Guitar