Fred Carlson fuses elements of sculpture and visual art into the design and construction of custom stringed instruments.

When Fred Carlson designs a new instrument, he envisions something more than just a tool to make music — he sees a piece of art.

“I did a lot of theater as a kid, and have always viewed my work as being dramatic, in the sense of visually and sonically telling a story in a bigger-than-life way,” says Carlson, co-founder of Santa Cruz, CA-based Beyond the Trees, makers of custom stringed instruments. “As a maker of musical tools, there is always some element of function dictating form in my work. But as a sculptor and visual artist, I'm always seeing other things that I want to bring into a piece. Probably one of the major influencing factors in my work over the years has been simply wanting the instrument to dance, to have a visual sense of movement to its lines.”

Carlson was building custom guitars when his violin-building mate, Suzy Norris, inspired his foray into the world of sympitars. “She started setting up her fiddles with sympathetic strings that went over an Indian style bridge, called a ‘jiwari’ bridge, which gives the strings a little buzz or sizzle to their sound,” he says. “I realized I had to try that on a guitar. I wasn’t thinking at all about Indian instruments, even though I came up with a design that has some similarities to the sitar (an Indian instrument that utilizes sympathetic strings along with a gourd resonating chamber). I was just translating what she was doing on fiddles to a flat-topped, steel-string guitar.”

According to Carlson, the sympathetic strings on the sympitar are uniquely configured to run inside the neck, allowing the instrument to be played like a normal guitar. Once tuned to the desired pitches, the sympathetics sing along when their notes are played on the main strings, creating an ethereal, mesmerizing accompaniment.

Harp-sympitars are what Carlson is presently concentrating on, which he describes as basically a sympitar with the addition of extra strings called harp strings, because they are not fretted with the player’s hand, but rather played open like the strings on a harp. His harp-sympitars usually include the six main strings of a guitar, the internal sympathetic strings of the sympitar, and sub-bass and high-pitched treble harp strings. His most recent creation, The New Dream, has a total of 39 strings: the six main guitar, six sub-bass harp, 15 treble harp and 12 sympathetic strings.

Carlson says his building process is based loosely on a traditional Spanish classical guitar building technique, which is low tech and suitable to a one-person process. Without any solid molds or forms, the instrument is built on a 2-foot by 4-foot workboard called a solera, featuring a special work surface that has a slight concavity to it and a grid of T-slots in its top. “I use the T-slots to slide support posts in around the body as I build it up, creating an adjustable mold to support the sides,” says Carlson “This allows me to vary the shape with each new instrument, as I'm not tied to using an existing mold of a specific shape.”

The guitar top is placed on the solera with what will be the inside surface facing up, and a bracing structure is glued onto this surface, using go-bars (long wooden sticks or dowels that are wedged between the bracing and an overhanging shelf or ceiling) to clamp the braces in place, forcing the top into the dished shape of the solera. The top thus retains this shape when the glue has dried. The sides and back of the guitar body, as well as the neck, are built up onto the braced top plate as it lies on the workboard.

Once the basic box is together, edges are trimmed, surfaces are trued up, and the edge binding and decorative wooden edge purfling are installed in channels that were traditionally cut with a knife and chisels. “I use a router for this ornery task, plus a lot of handwork cleaning the channels and carefully fitting the wood strips,” says Carlson.

Next, metal frets are installed in the fingerboard. “These [frets] fit into slots that are either carefully measured, marked and cut by hand, or else cut using some manner of fixture that holds the board in the proper place for each cut, often on a table saw using a special narrow kerf slotting blade,” says Carlson.

The fretboard then gets glued to the neck, the neck gets shaped for comfortable playing and the string-bridge gets glued to the instrument’s face, either before or after the finish has been applied. “I currently used the traditional French polished shellac as a finish for my tops, and an oil varnish for the back, side and neck,” states Carlson. “I've also used nitrocellulose lacquer and a number of the newer waterborne polymers.”

Where wood is concerned, Carlson says spruce is the most traditional wood for many stringed instrument tops because it is where most of the sound is produced, and a light, resonant wood works best. “Various European spruces are most traditional for guitars, but North American spruces like sitka, engelmann and Appalachian red spruce are all excellent tone woods,” he says. “I use sitka often for my harp-sympitars, as it tends to be a very strong wood, good for resisting the stress of all those strings. I have also used a lot of western red cedar and coast redwood for tops. Red cedar is a common top wood, and highly thought of for its tone.”

The backs and sides of the instrument, Carlson says, are typically hardwoods. “Tradition dictates that Brazilian rosewood is the premier tone wood for backs and sides, but there are restrictions on its importation,” he says. “I generally prefer to use domestic hardwoods, where I can better know the source of the wood.” Among the woods he currently uses are figured black walnut, figured western big leaf maple, cherry, koa and black acacia.

Carlson's basic machinery includes a 12-inch bandsaw, a tablesaw, a drill press, a 6-inch by 48-inch stationary belt sander and a 16-inch thickness sander (abrasive planer). “I use a laminate trimmer router for certain specific tasks, and I have a couple of Dremel Moto-tools that get used for all sorts of odds and ends,” he adds. He has also had the same basic set of hand tools for over 30 years, including a block plane, a 9-inch smoothing plane and a basic set of four chisels.

In the future, Carlson hopes to expand and refine the harp-sympitar concept. “I have a lot of things I want to do with paint, some interesting possibilities involving electronics, and endless ideas for designs,” he says. “While continuing to make finely functioning musical tools for performing musicians, I'm also moving toward more and more sculptural instruments, and hoping to find a way to bridge the gap between tool and art so that my work will be at home in museums and galleries as well.”

For more information on Fred Carlson's creations, visit


Fred Carlson holds “The New Dream.” The harp-sympitar has a total of 39 strings: the six main guitar, six sub-bass harp, 15 treble harp and 12 sympathetic strings.

Photo by Alan Porter

Top left and above, “The New Dream,” Carlson's most recently built harp-sympitar. Left, The back and sides of “Big Red” were made out of papier-mache.

Photo by Alan Porter

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