Q&A Session with Dan DeMars
Since the launch of the DeMars Guitars line at the 2006 NAMM, many people have asked about Dan DeMars and his instruments. He recently sat down with music journalist Jesse Frances to answer a few questions.
Q: You made a big splash at the 2006 NAMM show. How did DeMars Guitars get started?
A: Well, I’ve been playing guitar since around age 10. There was always a guitar around the house when I was growing up, as my dad plays. He’s 79 now and still plays his Gibson ES every day. Good product design has always attracted me, whether it’s guitars, cars, appliances, whatever. I remember sketching guitars in the margins of my notebooks during high school and college. When Ned Steinberger introduced the headless bass back in the late 1970s, I instantly thought, “This guy gets it.” It was the perfect marriage of form and function, elegant yet minimalist, innovative yet not too “out there”. He proved that electric guitar bodies do NOT have to be big, since they don’t move air in the manner of acoustic instruments. They can be any size, shape or material the designer chooses.
In around 1984, I built my first electric, using a neck from an old Teisco guitar neck bolted onto a 2×12 pine (!!!) body of original design. In fact, I still have this guitar. The shape is an amalgam of an SG, a BC Rich and a Hofner violin bass, if you can believe that. Granted this was 1984, so it had 3 DiMarzio pickups (a PAF at the neck, a coil-splittable Dual in the middle and a Super Distortion a the bridge) and a BadAss combo bridge/tailpiece. The amazing thing about this instrument is that it still plays and sounds good, although the intonation is far from perfect. Still, not bad for a first try.
I built a couple more instruments over the years – purely as a hobby – and in 1994 my wife and I received a Christmas card from one of her best friends who reported that she was “engaged to an industrial designer named Ned Steinberger.” Ned and I met a couple years later and became friends, sharing thoughts and ideas on instrument design. This was around the same time that NS Design (his electric concert string instrument company) was getting started. In early 2000 I started a consulting firm totally unrelated to musical equipment. My “other life” is spent managing biotech/pharma R&D (see http://www.viridisgroup.com/). Ned called one day to see if I’d be interested in helping him out on the business end of NS Design – stuff like the design of their promotional literature and website, managing the NAMM booth, contacting the media, handling artist relations, training his shop staff on working a booth and dealing with customers, etc. I kept Ned at arm’s length for a few months while I was starting my biotech consulting work, but realized that I could in fact do the work remotely on my own time. Ned and I agreed that I’d give him a day a week, and the rest is history. After about three years, we realized that my mission was accomplished: NS Design is firmly established in the world of electric concert string instruments and I’m very proud that I had something to do with it.
Q: How did the DeMars Guitars instruments come about?
A: During the time I was working with Ned, I began exploring my own ideas about chambered solid bodied instruments. Ned and a few of his associates within the industry – namely Hap Kuffner – were very encouraging about the pursuit of my interests. Via the NAMM shows, I also learned a ton about the industry. I was also able to use my MBA skills to look at the business process and the supplier/vendor/OEM/distributor/dealer/media/artist relationships in a formal manner, instead of just throwing myself into it.
On the design side, one thing I learned from Ned and his electric concert string instruments is the attractiveness of having an “acoustic” instrument that is relatively insensitive to changes in temperature and humidity. Anyone who owns an acoustic guitar knows what I’m talking about – especially musicians and their roadies who tour and play a lot of live dates. The thin spruce tops warp and crack, they are easily banged up through constant use, bridge pins get lost in dark backstage areas, fingertips get jabbed changing strings, etc.
Acoustic guitars sound great acoustically because you’re hearing the vibration of the guitar’s top more so than the vibrations of the strings. Since these instruments (when amplified) almost ALWAYS use under-saddle piezo pickups when playing live, the air that they moved is of relative insignificance. It’s the vibration of the string through the saddle – far more than the vibration of the top – that is being amplified.
Finally, I also wanted to design an instrument that was as comfortable to hold and wear as your favorite electric. Traditional acoustic guitars are thick, with sharp right angle edges that dig into your ribs and strumming arm. The DeMars Guitars instruments are only 2” thick, with a ribcage contour that allows the instrument to fit snugly against your body.
Q: How did you hit upon the use of two piezo transducers?
A: For years we’ve all read about the effects of the neck – especially the various woods – various woods in the guitar’s construction and resulting tone: maple sounds different than ebony which sounds different than mahogany which sounds different than whatever. Wood selection is especially important in neck construction, as is the neck attachment method: bolt-on vs. neck-through vs. tenon design. We went with a simple bolt-on design that allowed for the convenient placement of the neck piezo transducer.
Regarding that second transducer, I always wondered why no one captured the effect of the neck if it supposedly contributed so much to the instrument’s tone. I was also struck by a quote by Phil Kubicki in the book “American Basses” who noted that the neck of a stringed instrument also vibrates, much like the tines of a tuning fork. I thought, “Why not capture that vibration?” and realized that no other builder was doing that. Luckily I discovered the products and the wonderful folks at K&K Sound, who not only had the right transducers, but also an onboard 2-channel preamp that allows the player to adjust both the relative gains and EQ of each channel. The effect of the neck transducer is subtle, but remarkable. You really notice the effect when it’s gone, after you turn down the neck transducer pot; the bridge saddle piezo alone sounds comparably thin. That said, we discovered that the neck transducer can’t be too loud, or you can pick up sounds from the fretting hand on the neck. To our surprise, some guys playing the bass at our NAMM booth were doing some funk slapping and popping. They raved about the fact that they were finally able to hear the percussive “click” of the strings hitting the frets, all due to the piezo transducer at the neck heel. Truly an unexpected discovery.
Q: Tell us about the soundhole designs.
A: Well, these are chambered solid-body instruments that don’t “move air” in the manner of a traditional acoustic guitar or bass. Therefore the shape and/or locations of the soundholes would only be cosmetic. Another thing that Ned Steinberger taught me is that players really care about how their instrument looks, whether it’s a pristine new guitar with a figured maple top and exotic abalone inlay, or a beat-up ’52 Telecaster. The look of the instrument matters – it’s their signature – their vibe – their tool. In many ways, live music is as visual an art form as it is an aural form.
Guitarists are relatively conservative in their tastes in instruments – especially with acoustic guitars. They want a guitar that looks like a guitar, and that is especially pertinent with acoustic instruments. That’s why I went with a round soundhole – it gives you the traditional look that audiences are used to seeing onstage.
Bassists are a different breed of musical animal– they want something that looks unique. The bass soundhole was indeed an inspiration. I had originally designed the bass with a round soundhole near the bridge. The more I looked at it, the more I realized it was boring. That’s when I realized that I could make it any size and shape I wanted – and the bass clef was the perfect solution. I have to admit that the Long Trail Bass Guitar was the real star at our NAMM booth – bassists were initially attracted to the look of that bass clef soundhole, and then they fell in love with the playability and sound of the instrument.
Q: No bridge pins?
A: No need for bridge pins! I’ve owned several nice acoustic guitars over the year and all are fraught with the same design dilemma: how is a thin top supposed to vibrate freely when it is being pulled upward with hundreds of pounds of force by strings whose ends are jammed into a bridge plate? My string-through design assures that all vibrations are directed downward onto the bridge saddle, as they should be. Roadies have also commented on the design: no lost bridge pins in a dark backstage area! They also like the use of the AutoTrim tuners (another of Ned’s designs) which automatically clip the ends of the string as you’re tuning up. No need for wire clippers and no more jabbed fingertips. Essentially, these are solid-body string through designs, not unlike a Telecaster – simple, effective and elegant.
Q: How are your instruments made?
A: First we use top-quality materials only – no compromises. All parts and materials (except for the rosewood and ebony that are, of course, grown outside the US) are sourced from United States manufacturers and vendors and the instruments are made right here in Vermont. The tops are AAA-grade Englemann spruce or AAAAA-grade flame maple. We chose basswood for the bodies since it is light, resonant and easy to mill. The bindings on the acoustic/electric instruments are rosewood rather than plastic. The rock maple necks are a 3-piece construction using alternating grain for structural stability; the 13-degree pitchback headstocks are the same piece of maple as the neck, not spliced in.
These instruments are made in small batches using CAD/CAM/CNC technology, unapologetically assuring the tightest of manufacturing tolerances. As much as I admire and respect traditional luthiery, it has proven to be an expensive, imprecise and variable method of guitar construction. With the CNC, tolerances are in the thousandths of an inch, resulting in reliable manufacturing between instruments, tight joints and perfectly fitting components.
As for finishes, I consciously used only clear finishes that allowed the grain of the wood to show through. No opaques or sunbursts on the tops, although the back of the instruments are painted an opaque black. The topcoat is a thin yet durable poly/acrylic automotive finish. Remember, the tops don’t vibrate and move air, so there was no reason to use an ultra-delicate finish on these instruments. The rock maple necks use a gunstock oil finish that provides a slick – almost bare wood – feel.
Q: What about the headstock shape? It’s quite unique.
A: Like every guitar designer, I wanted something that was simple and instantly recognizable. I wanted the tuners to be symmetrical, rather than all on one side. The large holes are purely cosmetic and do not serve any function – they lend an almost art deco look to the headstock. The gentle curve at the top was my subtle way to honor Ned Steinberger, who employed a similar (but tighter) curve on the top of the headstocks of his NS Design instruments.
Q: Nice logo. Is that your design?
A: Yes, I am as proud of the design of the logo as I am the design of the instruments.
Q: What have you learned over the past year?
A: Regarding the instruments, I learned that the original shape of the guitar neck was a bit too thick for many players. There was a great Strat I owned years ago that had a thick “V” shape and I told myself that I would use that profile on my own line of instruments. Well, I learned that what I like isn’t necessarily what everyone else likes. Ergo we’ll be offering a more traditional shallower “C” shaped neck on the guitar, which is a profile that I probably should’ve started with.
I also learned that dealers are smart and ask good questions. Mine are a relatively expensive niche “boutique” instrument that will not sell in numbers like a cheap Chinese-made Strat copy. I am seeking to find the right dealers who will recognize these instruments as something that will truly delight their discriminating customers. Remember that this isn’t a “sit around the campfire” acoustic instrument – it needs amplification. They’ll need to learn how to compare and sell these instruments against a $3000 traditional acoustic guitar hanging on the same wall – and not lose either sale. Their target customer, quite candidly, is a professional or semi-pro touring musician who needs a road-worthy acoustic instrument that is unaffected by the changes in temperature and humidity on the road that plague traditional acoustic instruments.
Q: What’s next for DeMars Guitars?
A: We’re still busy talking to dealers around the country, trying to identify who would be best fits for these instruments. We’ll be back at NAMM in January, with a few exciting developments. First is the 5-string Long Trail Bass Guitar – a 35” scale length instrument, available with a fretted rosewood fingerboard or a fretless ebony fingerboard. The 5-string is the result of inquiries from the NAMM show as well as a request from Hugh McDonald, bassist for Bon Jovi. The next is the offering of the thinner guitar neck noted above. The last is something I probably shouldn’t mention, but I can give you a hint: if you liked these first acoustic instruments, you’ll probably love these new prototypes that we’ll unveil next January.