Stone cold groove

Stephen Harris

Reporter

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.