Canadian Plastics

U.K. design team hopes to strike a chord with all-plastic guitar

By Mark Stephen, associate editor   

Jazz saxaphonist Ornette Coleman famously played a plastic instrument in the 1960s, but the idea never caught on. Now, Cool Acoustics -- a team of design researchers at Loughborough University in Leic...

Jazz saxaphonist Ornette Coleman famously played a plastic instrument in the 1960s, but the idea never caught on. Now, Cool Acoustics — a team of design researchers at Loughborough University in Leicestershire, U.K. — believes the time and technology are right for an all-polymer acoustic guitar.

Cool Acoustics’ FFS2002 model all-plastic acoustic guitar — designed with input from guitar craftsman Rob Armstrong, who made guitars for Beatle George Harrison — began in 1996 as a PhD project, spent the next several years in development and was unveiled at Germany’s Frankfurt Music Show in 2002.

From the start, Cool Acoustics’ goal was to combine the tone and resonance heard in a wood acoustic guitar with the manufacturing and performance benefits of durable plastic.

The guitar design that the company ultimately hit on combined several plastics processes: the FFS2002 is made from a Reaction Injection Molding (RIM) foamed virgin polyurethane (PU) body shell, a RIM solid virgin resin fretboard and an extruded sheet foamed virgin polycarbonate (PC) soundboard. For the guitar’s moldings, Cool Acoustics is working with the Leicester, U.K.-based design and prototyping consultancy Rapitypes Ltd. Finally, for the finishings, it’s working with Hallam Plastics Ltd., of Nottingham, U.K.


Getting a good sound and good resonance were the most important requirements. The FFS2002 reproduces the sound of a wooden acoustic guitar through the millions of bubbles in the foamed polymer, the company said. The foam PC soundboard was also key to mimicking the wood guitar sound, Alan Greensall, Cool Acoustics’ licensing consultant, said. “If you inject different qualities of hydrogen into (the soundboard), you can replicate the densities of different woods. And (the plastic) is not inert; it resonates,” he added.

In addition to good sound, Cool Acoustics believes that an all-polymer guitar has practical and economic advantages over even the highest quality traditional wooden models.

First, the FFS2002’s polymer body and soundboard won’t warp, expand or crack due to changes in humidity or temperature, according to Dr. Owain Pedgley, a research and development (R&D) consultant, at Cool Acoustics. These are problems that have always plagued traditional wood guitars, especially those of touring musicians, causing set-up and tuning difficulties, and also, over time, affecting the instrument’s sound and durability.

Second, wooden guitars are expensive and time-consuming to manufacture. “(By comparison), molded polymer soundboards do not require labour-intensive manufacturing, so their adoption by western-based companies can be a strategic move to compete against conventional instrument imports from low labour cost countries,” Pedgley said.

And the relatively low cost of polymers is an obvious material solution to the forecasted shortage of the often rare tonewoods currently used to make guitars, a shortage that industry analysts believe will begin to have a real effect on the cost of wood guitars in the next few years, Pedgley added.

Chuck Majic, a guitar technician with Steve’s Music Store in Toronto, believes that, provided the sound of a wood acoustic guitar can be replicated, there is a definite market for the FFS2002. “It’s a great idea if it would work. I love the idea of a guitar that is virtually maintenance-free, that is durable and has all the advantages that go with plastic,” he said.

At present, Cool Acoustics is planning a limited edition manufacture of the FFS2002, as well as of its ENOP1 model semi-hollow recycled-polymer electric guitar. If mass produced, the guitars could have retail prices on par with low-cost wood guitars.

“Groundbreaking technology takes time to filter into the market but the commercial response is very promising,” Dr. Eddie Norman, Cool Acoustics R&D consultant, said. “We’ve proved that the sound rivals that of high quality wooden guitars. The next step is to develop the technology for low-cost mass manufacture.”

If Cool Acoustics’ vision of durable, long lasting polymer guitars for the masses comes true, it could be a blessing for touring musicians everywhere — other than those who want to smash their instruments at the end of the show, that is.


Stories continue below

Print this page

Related Stories