Friday, 29 August 2014
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Stone cold groove

Of all the materials you could use to create a musical instrument, concrete is probably not the first that springs to most people’s minds. But researchers at Loughborough University are defying convention with their plans to build a guitar from cementitious material.

This idea immediately raises all sorts of questions. For example, how would the history of rock music been different if people had taken the name of the genre more literally?

Jimi Hendrix would certainly have had trouble setting his guitar on fire if it had been made of concrete. And Pete Townshend would have caused much more damage when he decided to smash up the stage with his axe.

Another question, of course, is why on earth build a guitar from cement? The answer is tied up with the very current debate over how much money-making potential Britain’s university research should have.

Vince Cable thinks funding should only go to projects that are ‘commercially useful or theoretically outstanding’. Concrete guitars don’t immediately seem to fit either of those categories.

Even the lead researcher on the project, Dr Chris Goodier, admits the research isn’t likely to help fill a gap in the market. ‘People want a Fender that looks like a Fender and is made out of wood, so it’s very difficult to launch a new type of guitar,’ he says.

Nor are most musicians that interested in the science behind their sound. ‘Slash from Guns N’ Roses plays a Gibson, Eric Clapton plays a Fender, that’s why they want one. And that’s why the material and the design hasn’t changed for decades.’

So why pursue something as absurd-sounding (in concept that is – the instrument hasn’t been built yet so I don’t know what it will actually sound like) as a concrete guitar?

Goodier sums it up: ‘We don’t do research just for business benefit. This is to create new knowledge.’

Some might argue that knowledge on its own isn’t that useful. But apply the knowledge to a problem or situation and initially silly-sounding research can suddenly become much purposeful.

Despite concrete being one of the most widely used building materials in the world, there just isn’t much data about its acoustic or sonic properties, claims Goodier. And sound can be vital to a building, whether it’s a concert hall, recording studio or even an office.

‘At the moment a civil engineer will build a structure and an acoustic expert will hang things from the walls that will do the job, and the two disciplines don’t really overlap,’ says Goodier.

‘No one really looks at concrete except for deadening sound. The effects of air bubbles, the surface, the density, the elastic modulus – how can they contribute?’

Goodier hopes the research could also contribute to the debate on the sustainability of using hardwoods from 100-year old rainforest trees to build guitars. And perhaps it could help artists and architects design sculptures and outdoor spaces that themselves create and reflect sound.

Of course concrete could turn out to be terrible for these applications, leaving Loughborough with an instrument about as useful as a chocolate saxophone.

Or it could lead to a breakthrough that revolutionises building materials. We’ll never know unless we try.


Readers' comments (13)

  • We built an all-aluminium acoustic bass guitar a couple of years ago (photos available) it does the job of being very loud with excellent tone. What makes my eyebrow twitch, somewat, is; why it has to be 'University Teams of Researchers' doing this stuff. Our rockets are way ahead of anything any University is doing- but they show little interest. If anyone thinks that Universities are the place for sound practical and useful engineering- they are deluded.
    Universities and industry live in different worlds. Future practical research needs to be led by the private sector, with Universities supplying services on demand.

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  • We can't afford to keep military aircraft overhead to defend ourselves yet we have money for THIS !!!

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  • The final comment has significant relevance: universities provide a fantastic opportunity to investigate ideas that may, at first glance, appear absurd; but you never know... How many people thought that the LASER was a waste of time in the beginning?

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  • Before going any further with this project, listen to the resident group at the Bedrock Cafe in the Flinstones 1960s cartoon series.
    If stone guitars sounded so awful in 3,000BC, why should they be different now?

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  • Who does K Hastings think those 'military aircraft overhead' are defending us from? It could be argued that investigating the acoustic properties of concrete is a far more practical use of public money than white elephant defence projects!

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  • I hope the team will also investigate the properties of granite and marble. They're far more rock.

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  • A concrete guitar is not new or novel. A research group at ICI Advanced Ceramics group built a concrete acoustic guitar back in the 1980's (along with some concrete speaker cabinets).

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  • The acoustic properties of concrete have been used in defence applications before - in the 1930's large concrete ears were built for detecting enemy aircraft noise in the 1930's.

    Maybe they are going to be revived as an efficiency savings by replacing radar and Nimrod! Some basic search will be required of course.

    Yes University fees are worth every penny.....

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  • Back in the 80's I remember they were going to build aircraft wings with concrete, so why not guitars. Like the project leader says, it is experimental and much can be learned from the exercise. Often this research leads on to other things, as we know from the space program, and the materials discovered benefitted us all. Go for it Dr Goodier.

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  • The article seems to be talking about electric guitars with solid bodies - my Gibson Les Paul is heavy enough with its hardwood body!
    I have a number of electric guitars and have experimented with different pick-ups and can say that the pick-up type and positioning have a far greater effect on the sound than the body material and shape (unlike an accoustic guitar).

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