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.

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11 thoughts on “Thoughts on crossover guitars”

  1. Hi there,
    I was looking for a crossover nylon too, for ages.

    I agree with all your criteria for a crossover except the nut width. I have shaved off the neck of my Alhambra 9P (crazy) to 48mm but regretted it because it’s a tad too narrow. Some of the string hit the inner side of the fingers. I believe 50mm would be perfect. So for there are none in the market that fits my specs. I’m seriously considering commissioning our local luthier for this.

    You forgot about truss rod. What I did to the Alhambra: 1. Side dots 2. Radius fretboard, 20 in. 3. Truss rod 4. Nut width 48mm 5. Thinned neck.

    ZZ

  2. Hi there,

    This was a great post for me. I am a steel-string acoustic player, right hand finger style (although an occasional pick) and have several old (WW-II) Epiphone and (60′s & 70′s) Martin guitars. My current “classical” guitar is a new-ish James Goodall Grand Concert: wide neck, cutaway, Brazilian rosewood/spruce/koa – really beautiful.

    I tried playing on a traditional nylon-string instrument, a copy of a Fleta made by Kenny Hill in CA. It was a stunning instrument but my fingers are short and the neck always filled me with dread. I ultimately gave it as a gift to my (longer fingered) son-in-law.

    I have recently been thinking about going back to nylons in a crossover and have played a few by Fender and Yamaha. Fender was a flat fingerboard and the Yamaha left a lot to be desired. I’m still on a search path – they’re usually long for me, like 18-24 months. In the nylon, I would mostly be playing baroque lute transcriptions and some Brailian-style jazz.

    After reading your blog I went to the Alhambra website. Which crossover do you have? Are you happy with that choice or would have changed it after some time with the guitar? There’s a dealer near me in New Haven, CT but I don’t know yet what he has in stock.

    I would appreciate any insights you might be able to share with me. Thanks.

    Spider

  3. Hi,
    Very happy to find this article.

    Would be glad to see some notes on lower end models too – Ibanez for instance has the AEG10NE and a few others that fit your description almost to a T.

    Trying to switch to nylon after several years of happy fingerstyle on steel strings, I was quite vexed to know that classical guitars are not supposed to have intonation compensation.

    After browsing around a bit I get the feeling that cheaper brands have better intonation since they want to please the new enthusiast rather than be sticklers for tradition – while the fancy brands are selling cutaways that ought not to be touched anywhere close to the cut!
    I am trying to ascertain if this is indeed true.

    Any advice / discussion on your blog will be much appreciated.

    thanks
    Shrikant

  4. I called Thomas Humphrey in the mid 90′s, inquiring about his Milleniums but also to get some good general advice. I was impressed that he bothered to call me back, in Texas, and he talked with me for a long time. He was somewhat protective in his tone, almost like a big brother talking to a younger brother. I was considering a Maldonado cutaway. He was very concerned about the loss of tone, volume and clarity in the upper registers. I bought it anyway and never really got the fullness on the treble strings. However, a huge majority of cutaways are amplified and that problem is easily overcome with some adjustments of that nature. I think his concerns were well warranted in the unamplified arena. Players like Vicente Amigo and Paco de Lucia don’t use cutaways and maintain a very full tonal quality – playing traditionally. On the cutaway side Strunz and Farah have great tone with the cutaways but it’s obviously tweaked in a studio or gone over in sound check – on stage.
    The rest of this article/blog is very insightful though. I appreciate your perspective. I would like to see some sonic experiments done with and w/o the cutaway on the same model guitar. I know it has been done. I just don’t know where to find it.

  5. Hi,
    I am realy pleased to have found this article.
    About 12 months ago I purchased a steel string. I have had a classical for years. Although I have managed to play the classical I did find the 54mm width not necessarily that comfortable.
    I also started making guitars and have been toying with a 48mm or 50mm neck for a classical as I have been having some problems with the neck when changing from my current nylon string to the steel string. Finding those nut sizes for nylon strings has not proved easy.
    I also like the idea of the radius neck as it does have a better feel.
    Great arlicle
    Kevin

  6. Good article. I’ve been building guitars for 20 years now and I never heard of a cross over guitar (came here via google). Unknowingly I have built a few of them for jazz players who wanted something a bit closer to their arch top guitar specs. I just finished one for myself, a double top with 20deg radius arched fretboard and cut out. I love how the thing plays and I don’t think I will ever build a flat fret board again unless a customer demands it.

    Now, if I was in marketing I’d try and come up with a better name than ‘cross over’ :)

  7. I’m radiusing my cheapo Ibanez 10N($299.00)nylon string to 14o radius!Can’t wait as this git is loud,not much character though(plywood top).Glad you mentioned arched back and more midrange as this puppy is loud even with low action!!Yes they should radius the fingerboards and put some neck angle on ‘em also(tradition dies hard.Thanx for great article! Ty Millsaps

  8. Yes,the intonation is incredible on the Ibanez 10N and not just for a cheapo but for any nylon string!Lots of tinkering I’m afraid though after re-radius but maybe not.I have discovered in my 55 playing years that as far as intonation goes there’s them that is and them that ain’t and not much one can with some gits intonation.The players touch can affect intonation as much as setting up with a meter!!

  9. Interesting blog; I have a small hand and some fingerings were difficult to impossible. I bought a Pavan, one of Tom Prislo’s outsourced models. 50 mm nut and a 640 scale length with a 500mm radius. I now can manage “astourius” about $2000 with case and shipping. I was looking for a cedar top but decided at last minute for the Engleman spruce. No regrets. I feel that Having a nut width narrower than 50mm could cause strings to hit the positioned left hand fingers when playing hard. I wouldn’t use high tension strings without a truss rod.

  10. I’m 53 and have been promoting most of these same ideas for decades only to be shot down by most guitar makers, and that’s when I wasn’t being laughed at. MANY classical guitars prior to 1965 or so were made with 50mm nut widths, and hardly any made in the 19th century were any wider than that. Why there’s been this push to keep making necks wider (I’ve seen some as wide as 56mm!) is beyond me, and I think it’s gone beyond the realm of common sense. Like a couple of other posters here, I also think 48mm is too slim and that 52mm is too wide. 50mm seems perfect to me. I also like the 640mm scale length better, but unfortunately, 95% of the time when you find a guitar with a 640 scale it will have a smaller body like on the Prisloe guitar another poster mentioned, and I don’t want a smaller body.

    If anyone would like to see how a 50mm nut width feels, I would encourage them to look for a Cordoba GK studio flamenco guitar. They’re easy to find at places like Guitar Center. While they have a thinner body and are meant to be played electrically, you can at least get the idea of what a 50mm neck feels like, and these guitars have what I feel is the perfect neck even though the guitar itself would not suit me for anything.

  11. For those in search of a nylon string guitar with 50 mm nut width, I also suggest to check Alhambra cutaway series. I own a 3C CW, and I find it very comfortable to play (I mostly play classical or fingerstyle blues repertoire), also because the neck shape is flatter than on other classical guitars I tried.

    Indeed Alhambra makes nylon string guitars with various neck width: the guitars from the Classic series have either 52 or 50 mm neck width, the Cutaway series 50 mm and the Crossover 48 mm.

    I’m curious about 48 mm nut width guitars, but I didn’t like the feel of the neck on the only one I had the chance to try so far (a Yamaha NTX700).

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