• [ Thumbnail ] Technologies That Transform: Reimagining the Future of Music #1

Technologies That Transform: Reimagining the Future of Music #1

Exploring New Horizons for Guitars

February 7, 2024

Imagine a marimba-themed guitar. How would it look? How would it feel? Picture the body made up of wooden pieces, aligned like the tone bars of a marimba. Imagine the edges embellished with golden binding, inspired by the metal marimba resonators. The result is a unique guitar that gives a warm but indelible impression. The prototype of this guitar was designed by Yamaha and released in March 2023.

While the elegant appearance may make it difficult to imagine, the guitar is made of wood that was left over from the manufacturing process of marimbas. This unique instrument is part of Yamaha’s new endeavor, Upcycling Guitars. The project aims to transform unused materials* into new guitars, making instrument manufacturing more sustainable for both the environment and musical culture.

  • *“Unused material” refers to pieces of wood that are eliminated or left over from the production line. Yamaha refers to these materials as “unused” to imply the potential they hold as a resource.

A New Path for an Overlooked Resource

In 2021, a new team in the Research & Development Division at Yamaha was tasked with the challenge to invent a guitar that breaks conventional norms. Hideto Matsuda, a member of the project, reflects on the team’s thought process. “What does it mean to design a new guitar? Surely, it’s not just about incorporating the latest digital technology or giving it an eccentric shape. Our starting point was to imagine the future of musical instruments and what values they could and should provide to society.”

What caught the attention of Matsuda and his team were the piles of unused wood at the company’s instrument factories.

[ Thumbnail ] Hideto Matsuda of the Research & Development Division
Hideto Matsuda of the Research & Development Division

Yamaha takes great care in procuring fine wood and minimizing waste when making its instruments. But some of the wood inevitably goes unused because of irregularities such as knots and grains that can make it visually or structurally unusable. “We often use these pieces of wood as fuel or to produce things other than musical instruments,” says Matsuda. “But these applications do not fully bring out the quality of the wood. The team agreed that upcycling* the wood into instruments would be the best way to cater to the growing need for sustainable solutions.”

  • *Upcycling refers to the process of reusing items or materials that would otherwise be discarded, creating a product of higher value than the original material.

The Essential First Step

Making guitars from unused wood, however, is easier said than done. The materials that Matsuda and his team collected were originally intended for a range of musical instruments, which meant they varied widely in shape, size, and hardness. Some even had holes, or were curved in specific ways during the manufacturing process. Joining such a diverse set of materials together required a high level of skill and ingenuity.

“At first, many were skeptical that we could make an instrument out of a random assortment of wood. That’s how unprecedented this project was,” Matsuda explains. “But we wanted to at least try. You can’t understand the real difficulties or potentials of a challenge unless you take the first step.”

Matsuda and his team visited Yamaha’s musical instrument factories to learn about the status of unused materials. They also looked for potential collaborators in other departments. “Sustainability is an urgent issue, so we aimed to finish the prototype as fast as possible,” Matsuda says. While processing the wood and gluing together the different pieces was a challenge, the team focused on getting the job done quickly.

Within six months, they completed the “first prototype” of what would later become a series of Upcycling Guitars.

The design of the completed prototype is an eye-catching patchwork of various types of wood. According to Matsuda, the team’s biggest concern was the sound, but they were pleasantly surprised when they first heard it being played. “The timbre of the different materials blended together nicely into a sound that we had never heard before,” Matsuda says. Once the guitar was completed, people saw the project in a very different light. “The first prototype got a lot of positive reactions. I think people began to see the potential in our project once they saw our idea take shape.”

An Instrument That Tells a Story

The first prototype successfully confirmed the potential value of the Upcycling Guitars. The next challenge was to maximize the value. “Because the first model was a patchwork design, it was visually obvious that it was made with unused wood. While this was a success in itself, we knew we had to be more creative if we wanted to enhance the value of the guitar and make it more appealing as an instrument,” Matsuda explains.

For the second model, Matsuda asked the design department for help. The designers brought a new perspective to the table, and the team decided to narrow down the type of wood by collecting it from the production lines of specific instruments. They focused on rosewood, which is used for marimba tone bars, and spruce, a wood used to make soundboards in grand pianos. The goal was to utilize unused pieces of these two woods to make guitars that are inspired by marimbas and pianos, respectively.

Matsuda says the team emphasized “story” over practicality. For example, because rosewood is hard and dense, they knew that the marimba-inspired guitar would be much heavier than a conventional one. They could, of course, reduce the weight by mixing in other types of wood, but this would result in a guitar that looks and sounds mundane. Rather than focusing on the small drawbacks, the team wanted to prioritize the marimba motif because it adds a unique value to the guitar.

“The wood changes the sound of the instrument too,” Matsuda reveals. “Heavier woods result in increased resonance. We wanted to focus on the uniqueness of the instrument, even if it meant it would be a little inconvenient to play.”

By focusing on the story and letting the character shine through, the team succeeded in completing two new, one-of-a-kind guitars — the Model Marimba and Model Piano.

Gaining Experience to Generate Value

Some may wonder why the team is so focused on increasing the value of the Upcycling Guitars. Matsuda explains. “Nobody chooses an instrument just because it’s good for the environment. Instruments are not something you purchase very often either, so people want to buy ones they genuinely like. That’s why we think it’s important for the Upcycling Guitars to not only express a dedication to sustainability, but also to have characteristics that are appealing to players.”

Doing this requires a deep understanding of the relationship between the wood and the instrument. “The material and design of an instrument are practically inseparable,” Matsuda says. “Changing the material will not only change the sound, but also the weight, durability, color, and shape. That's why the combination of material choice and design is generally set in stone.”

By studying the characteristics of other types of wood and how they affect the sound, design, and feel of the guitar, Yamaha might someday be able to make unique guitars out of practically any kind of wood. This could completely change the norms of guitar manufacturing.

In the meantime, Matsuda is thinking of ways the team can apply their newly found knowledge to real product development. The prototypes that the team have developed so far are not suitable for mass-production, especially because unused materials cannot be obtained consistently. “However, we can still leverage our experience by making products that partially incorporate upcycling technology,” he says. For example, unused materials can be utilized in specific parts of the guitar like the body or neck. This is only the beginning of the team’s grand challenge.

The Upcycling Guitars team transforms unused wood into guitars with unprecedented value. Stay tuned for the next article of the series, in which we feature TransVox, a technology that transforms the human voice.

(Interview date: July 2023)

Matsuda is a member of the Research & Development Division. He joined Yamaha hoping to utilize his experience in engineering and physics, as well as music. While he worked on production technology in his first few years at the company, most of his career has been focused on guitar development. Currently, he is leading the Upcycling Guitars team in the R&D department.

*Bio as of the time of the interview

Information about the exhibition:
The second line of Upcycling Guitars, Model “Marimba” and Model “Piano,” can be seen at the Musical Instrument Wood Exhibition (in Japanese only)
Dates: September 2023 - May 2024
Location: Yamaha Ginza Shop (Tokyo)

Three-Part Series: Technologies That Transform: Reimagining the Future of Music