Rock Clouser has been an instrument design and product manager for such companies as B.C. Rich, Hohner String Instruments and Conn-Selmer String Instruments, and has spent over thirty-five years involved in the music industry in one form or another. He is currently the product manager for Lanikai ukuleles and H. Jimenez Latin string instruments. We sat down at a Panera Bread over a bowl of soup and a salad on a rainy night near Nashville to talk about instrument design and our conversation touched on points that illustrate the differences between the needs of the instrument designer and the needs of the loudspeaker designer.
JS: What kind of designs have you been involved in?
Clouser: I’ve designed things from $40 little entry-level guitars all the way up to a $7000 hand-made B.C. Rich guitars custom made in every aspect.
JS: When they think of guitar design most people think of paint and woodgrain, but there’s a lot more that goes into it beyond what meets the eye. What are some of the things below the immediate surface we might miss?
Clouser: Well, to start, there’s a huge difference between acoustic instruments and electric instruments. With electric instruments, while body shape and size is important, you can eliminate a lot of the intricacies of acoustic instruments because of compensation with amplifiers and pedals. You can pretty much get any sound out of any stick of wood that’s electrified.
It’s a completely different animal when you go to an acoustic instrument. For acoustic instruments you need that tone – it has to sound good from the beginning. With [my latest project] I just re-did the entire Lanakai [ukulele] line – 48 new models. I don’t just design for the sake of hey, I’m gonna make a red one, I’m gonna make a blue one – its got to be sound first, a good sounding instrument from the inside out. Brighter woods, lighter woods, like maple and that sort of thing give a brighter pitch to the instrument. That might be something a player wants – they want to be bright, they want to be out in front, they want to have that crispness to it. On the other side, there’s mahogany, it’s a darker tone. If you’re a singer-songwriter you might not want something that’s going to compete with your voice, so you buy a wood tone that matches the timbre of your voice or what you want to project as a player. A lot of Bluegrass players want spruce because a solid spruce top projects out because when its your time to shine you’ve got to be able to project out above the rest of the group.
JS: It’s all about tone.
Clouser: Anything I can do to make the instrument resonate, but in that same breath give variety to the line. I don’t want to make a bunch of instruments that all sound alike. You need a light range, dark range, you have to have loud projecting tones, quiet muted tones, because you don’t’ know what the artist is going to want. You’ve got singer-songwriters that strum by themselves, you have duos and trios on up to nationwide acts and bands that need that projection for larger spaces.
JS: What about on the inside?
Clouser: An important thing is the bracing inside. When you look at a child’s instrument it’s like bricks, [the bracing] is there just to hold the instrument together. The higher the level you go, the more delicate and the more carved away it is. The trick is to take as much wood out if it while still supporting the instrument.
JS: At KEF, one of the things we are most concerned with when designing a loudspeaker is the bracing and the concept is the exact opposite. We brace the heck out of these things and use a lossy joining material to keep the cabinet from singing and vibrating so it doesn’t interfere with what you do on your end of the chain. And you’re trying to eliminate bracing.
Clouser: I’m trying to make that top sing as much as possible. At the same time, I’ve got to have the support because I’ve got tension pulling on that top all the time. It needs some support in there, but I need as little as possible because bracing is going to stop the top from vibrating.
JS: Talking about all the different exotic woods you use, has it gotten more difficult because you can’t use the same wood you might have used twenty years ago?
Clouser: Particularly so in the last year with the new issue of CITES [Ed. Note: Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. An international agreement aimed at ensuring international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival]. Rosewood is used throughout the industry not only because of its tone and beauty, but because it is durable. When you push down on the fingerboard you have to have something that’s going to take the punishment over and over again. Before [the last issue of CITES] they specified which type of rosewood was banned, Madagascar or Brazilian rosewood for example, by name. In the last issue, CITES lumped all rosewood together which meant I had to redesign everything down to the student models because everything uses rosewood. Of course, India was panicked because they’ve been growing Indian rosewood for cultivation for years. CITES has said they are going to reconsider the ban for the musical instrument industry but they only meet every two to three years. You can still use rosewood but the documentation to prove where it was harvested is extensive which raises the cost.
JS: What are some of the things you have to take into account when you’re doing an electric solid body instrument?
Clouser: It’s still about resonance. With B.C. Rich we weren’t exactly selling to the Gospel market so I had to tailor those guitars exactly to what the metal and rock players wanted. [Metal players] tend to want active pickups which create a strong signal coming from the guitar to the pedals and amplifier that breaks up quicker and is warmer and sweeter.
JS: Would you get guys with some notoriety or pull as it were who would contact you and ask for specific things?
Clouser: We’d customize anything and we’d get that all the time. I worked directly with Aerosmith and Slash. I did all of Kerry King's Signature Models for Slayer. He’s very high-level, very well respected in metal music and he would contact me and be very careful to say in his Signature Models that ‘I want an affordable model for someone who may not like me but for someone who just wants a cool guitar.’ He’d say ‘when I was coming up there weren’t any cool guitars, there were just guitars’ so he’d send me a picture of one of his tattoos and we’d make the graphics on the guitar like that, but it didn’t say Kerry King on it anywhere, he’d say just make it a cool guitar.
Then we made some that were in the higher level that were almost like his personal guitars that were in the five- to seven-thousand-dollar range. And they were done in the same shop as the one’s Kerry ordered but he would always require a special logo on the back of one of his so you could always tell it was his personal guitar.
JS: When you see them live do you ever sit back and go ‘that’s my guitar’?
Clouser: All the time!
JS: How cool is that.
Clouser: And usually [the more famous] the artist is the greater they are to work with because they know what they want, they know how to get it and my challenge was to get their vision to that. I did one for Kid Rock’s guitarist that we were backstage and he started talking about his idea of a double-neck and I didn’t have any paper so I grabbed a paper plate off the catering cart and I drew it and he said ‘yeah that’s what I’m thinking!’ Then I had to go back and build that thing. It was an acoustic on one side and an electric on the other side and it was a Flying V on top of that.
JS: Flying V double-neck half acoustic half electric. Got it.
Clouser: [laughs] So we did that. We didn’t say no. If they could think of it and they wanted it we would try to do it.
JS: So before we finish up, I think the most fun thing I got from talking to you was the difference in approach from instrument designer to speaker designer. We’re trying to eliminate resonance and you’re trying to get as much resonance as possible.
Clouser: My take of your side of the industry would be that you’re trying to make it as pure and uncolored as possible. I’m trying to give the artist the color upfront – I’m looking for dark, I’m looking for bright. Is the player looking for mellow are they looking for punchy? And you’re trying to recreate that as accurately as possible so [the listener] has the experience the artist intended.
JS: All though I should have, I couldn’t have said it better myself, that’s exactly the point. I really, really appreciate this. I learned a ton, thanks a bunch.
For more information on Lanikai ukuleles and to see Rock’s design, please check out www.lanikaiukuleles.com