Several years ago, during a time that I was playing a lot of upright bass, I had a dream that I was inside a stone grotto. In the center of the grotto there was a metal pipe coming out of the ground. Attached to the top of the pipe there was a neck for an upright bass. In the center of the pipe a bridge was welded and at the bottom of the pipe there was a tailpiece. I stepped up to play the “bass” and, because the grotto was acting as a echo chamber, the result was that the sound from the bass surrounded my head. I’ve had a similar effect on my sense of smell with fennel growing in our garden. The smell from the fennel pollen goes beyond your nose and encompasses your whole head. In the dream, the sound was going beyond my ears and surrounding my whole head, my entire body. Needless to say, the dream made quite an impression on me. Over the years I’ve described it to many musician friends, and I’ve dreamed up different fantastic instruments that would try to recreate this effect. I’ve never put pen to paper, or tried to realize any of these concepts, but they’ve always been on the back burner. This year though, I figured it was time to bring one to life.
I live in Wisconsin and we can have brutal winters. We’re all accustomed to it though and we put down our heads and soldier on. I’ve come to regard winter as a good time to buckle down and get otherwise tedious projects accomplished. It’s actually when I get most of my work done. By the end though, we are all ready to get outside and we are yearning for the smell of the earth to return and to see green again. This winter was particularly long and toward the end cabin fever was beginning to set in. I needed a distraction to keep my sanity. I decided that it was time for me to realize one of these concepts, so I decided to go with the most straightforward, a deep guitar with a hole in the lower bout, into which a person could insert their head. I rolled it around in my head for a few days, drew some rough sketches and got to work.
The first thing that I needed to figure out was the dimensions of the average human head. I have a relatively large head, and I decided that I at least needed to make the hole big enough to put my own head in the guitar. I made some measurements and cut a hole out of a piece of cardboard to see what size the hole needed to be in order to comfortably slip my own head in and out of. When people would come to visit the shop, I would have to try fitting the template over their head. I measured my kids heads and my friends heads, the distance from the shoulders to the top of the head, to the ears and eyes. I came conclusion that I could use one of my larger models for the body of the guitar, it just needed to be extremely deep in order to accommodate a hole large enough to fit a head in.
The depth was my next challenge. The clamps I use to glue my bodies together only open 9 1/2″, so I was limited to that measurement for my depth. I decided to use 1/8″ birch plywood as my wood for the sides, figuring that the sides would be at risk of cracking or warping due to their extreme depth. This is the wood I use for my cases, and I knew it was stable and that it bends very nicely over an iron. I then realized that my standard bending iron would not work for a piece of wood that wide, so I was going to have to make a new iron. For this I used a 2″x12″ iron pipe and attached that to a 2×6. In order to get heat over the entire pipe, I used an industrial heat blanket, held onto the pipe with two hose clamps. I worked perfectly.
I had one of my sons modify the mold for my Francesca, by simple putting spacers between the layers of the mold. It’s good to involve the kids in projects like this.
Somewhere along the line I decided that was going to paint this thing black. I think it was a reaction to wanting to keep things simple so that I didn’t have too much time involved in the experiment. I then though it fitting that the guitar be called “The Black Hole”. Consequently, the day that I finished the guitar, I heard that Stephen Hawking had died. One of those odd mysteries of the Cosmos.
When I finished it, I couldn’t wait to get my head in there and experience it. I stuck my own head in the guitar, but due to the layout, it’s really difficult to play in with your own head inside. I was able to strum some chords and I was struck by how loud it was in there. I didn’t think it would be so loud because there is a solid object inside the sound chamber, but it is a big sound chamber! My kids were the next ones in as they helped out during the project.
Since then I’ve friends, neighbors, children and adults experience the guitar. Two wonderful musicians were at the house and while one picked in Merle Travis’ style, the other sang “Take This Hammer”. I’ve had the pleasure of having my own head in there while fantastic players like Charlie Parr and Jake Sanders played it. Jake played Eddie Lang’s April Kisses. I was in heaven.
It’s quite an experience to be inside the box. For starters, you get to see what it looks like inside a guitar. For a guy like me, that’s not so exciting, but I suppose that for people who don’t build guitars, that would make an impression. I tend to see the things I could have done better. The sound is intense as you’re hearing it right as it is created from the strings vibrating the top. You don’t hear the effect that the rest of the box has on the tone. It is immediate, somewhat underdeveloped.
From the perspective of the player, the guitar is not especially easy to play. For starters, you are reaching around an extremely deep body. The height of the listener is also a factor. With a kid inside, the guitar sits much lower, at a somewhat normal level. With a taller person you have to reach over the guitar and it makes playing challenging. One unanticipated factor is personal space. Everyone has to make compromises, but it is much more evident to the person playing as the listener is somewhat oblivious due to the fact that there is a guitar over there head.
I don’t know what the point of this project was. Maybe it was just to bring a little more joy and absurdity into the world. If that was it, I’ve done my part.
In closing; I was having coffee with my buddy Clancy Ward who is a really terrific fiddler. We were talking about the guitar and I asked, “Do you think you could play fiddle with your head in there?” “I don’t see why not? Let’s give it a go.” And so we did. Here ladies and gentlemen, I think I can confidently say, is the first time a man has played a fiddle with his head inside a guitar. Enjoy.