[Image above] Alex Morningstar plays a short demo on the guitar he made out of glass. Credit: Morningstar Glass Guitars, YouTube
Ask a musician what the difference between an orchestra and a band is, and their answer will likely focus on the types of instruments played in each group—while the former consists of stringed instruments like violins and cellos, the latter includes brass, percussion, and woodwinds.
On a deeper level, these instruments are distinguishable from a materials perspective.
“In some instances, the material is directly involved in sound generation, while in other instruments, this is not the case,” says Gregor Widholm of the University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna in a feature article of JOM. “For the violin, the material is extremely important, because the body generates the sound that we hear. The other extreme is the clarinet, where the air column inside generates the sound and the material is only needed to form the shape of the air column. In this case, you can take any material.”
For many band instruments, the main objective is to form the air, so they consist of an array of materials. In contrast, the sound produced by orchestra instruments is heavily influenced by the instrument’s material. Thus, orchestra instruments are made almost exclusively from wood due to this material’s unique mechanical and acoustical properties.
In recent years, musicians have experimented with materials besides wood to create traditional stringed instruments. Carbon fiber is one standout example that has attracted significant interest due to its higher tolerance of environmental conditions compared to wood. But some more unusual materials have been explored as well, such as ice, 3D-printed titanium—and glass.
Alex Morningstar: Making guitars out of glass
Alex Morningstar of Gainesville, Florida, did not set out to build a glass guitar. But as he explains on his website, life took him in an unexpected direction.
“I have a bachelor’s degree in biology and worked in a few laboratories before being unfortunately laid-off. I struggled to find a job in my field so I ended up working in a window and glass repair shop to make ends meet. I learned how to cut and handle glass and read through product catalogues and trade magazines during down time,” he says.
As he learned what all could be done with glass, Morningstar began to wonder if creating a guitar from glass would be possible. Through trial and error, he figured out how to build a functional guitar, after which he focused on improving its form to enhance playability and sound quality.
Since building his first glass guitar two years ago, Morningstar now operates his own business called Morningstar Glass Guitars. In addition to selling guitars made entirely from glass, he also sells a glass neck by itself and handmade glass picks.
Last summer, Morningstar uploaded a video explaining his entire process for building an electric glass guitar. Some highlights from the almost 20-minute video include
- Hollow body: He designs the bodies to be mostly hollow to reduce weight of the guitar. To make it feel like a traditional solid-body electric guitar, he incorporates an outer frame using pieces of one-quarter-inch glass layered together.
- Solid neck: The bulk of the neck, including the headstock, is cut as one piece from a half-inch-thick sheet of glass. He uses an angle grinder with a diamond blade to both cut the neck and shape its rough profile; a belt sander is used to smooth the neck.
- Adding the tuning machines: A guitar’s tuning machine is the mechanism in the head of a guitar to adjust string tension. He drills the necessary holes using a diamond-coated drill bit and flips the neck over when the drill bit is close to coming out the other end. “This creates a cleaner hole as drilling straight through the glass often causes one side to blow out,” he explains.
- Smoothing the edges: After putting the neck and body of the guitar together, the edges of the guitar are still pretty rough. Because it would be “very time consuming, messy, and difficult” to sand the edges to a polish, he found that adding a thin layer of clear epoxy to the edges gives the guitar a more finished look (plus adds some impact resistance).
The final guitar weighs 12.9 lbs (the average weight of an electric guitar is 6–12 lbs). Skip to 17:20 to hear what the guitar sounds like when played.
So how durable are these guitars? This February, Morningstar uploaded a video illustrating how the guitar handles common mishaps that might occur, including hitting the neck against a chair or mic stand.