Making Music

Laser cut aluminum guitars produce classic rock 'n' roll sound

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by Laureen J. Belleville

Laser cut aluminum guitars produce classic rock 'n' roll sound

A life-long love of rock 'n' roll and an appreciation for classic guitars guided Jim Normandy in the pursuit of his dream. In his teen years that dream was to take the stage like Jimmy Hendrix or Jimmy Page. More recently, and perhaps more realistically, the dream was to create an aluminum archtop guitar.

Normandy—a music lover who also has a passion for drawing, painting, and sculpting—began the move from making music to making musical instruments about 15 years ago. In addition to playing bass in rock bands playing crowded concerts and putting out an album in the mid-1980s, Normandy studied at Portland State University and earned a master's degree in industrial psychology.

With the help of a welder friend, he crafted 15 prototypes to get to what he believes is the perfect shape and sound for his aluminum guitar. Because of various tonal qualities and different grades of aluminum, it took time to get the right tone and sound.

By design, the archtop enables sound to travel more smoothly throughout the chamber of the instrument. "Sound waves are like water," explains Normandy. "If the angles inside are sharp and 90 degrees to each other, the sound waves bounce around and get garbled. Having the arch allows for more 'round' waves that travel across the expanse of the surface inside and spread across the sound bar inside (under the bridge) in a smoother, more fluid manner. This results in a richer tone. Also, aesthetically, it lends to a more organic appearance and feel." The top or belly (and often the back) of the traditional archtop guitar is either carved out of a block of solid wood, or heat-pressed using laminations. The arching of the top is similar to the violin family, on which these guitars were originally based. "Our goal all along has been to be different but not too weird or 'space age,'" explains Normandy, "…to offer the guitar world something new and modern but with classic sound: an affordable but 'top of the line,' high-end masterpiece."

The Normandy guitar is made from 5052 aluminum, which the company says results in sustain qualities that are better and have been touted as far superior to the traditional wooden-bodied guitars. "The purity and length of time a single, plucked note can ring out clean and true are far superior," says Normandy. "This is important to most guitar players, especially those who play lead guitar."

Normandy Guitars has enlisted the help of Zephyr Engineering, a South Salem, OR, contract manufacturer, to produce the guitars. Zephyr utilizes a machining cell that comprises three lasers—ranging in power from 3000 to 4000 watts with a cutting capacity for up to 0.750in plate—from which they report getting superb edge quality on mild/stainless steel and aluminum. The lasers also feature automatic load/unload systems and provide 24-hour lights-out production.

Using a TRUMPF 3030 3kW laser, Zephyr is able to cut 12 guitar bodies from each 4 x 8 foot sheet of aluminum. Although Zephyr operates a number of other machines, including units for punching, forming, robotic and non-robotic welding, and CNC milling and turning, the laser has been determined to be the best method for working with compound curves. Design engineer Doug Jones admits the cuts could be accomplished with a punch press, "But there would be more finish work involved, including milling, which is time consuming and requires additional work holding fixtures." TIG welding is used for the guitar assembly, and that's what Zephyr considers the slow part of the product process.

As explained by Normandy Guitars, early metal guitar manufacturers attempted to build their product out of solid billeted aluminum, which must be custom made and tends to be costly with limited availability. The Normandy guitars are manufactured in a production environment, which makes the product more consistent, readily available, and affordable. "We are able to make the body in a fraction of the time it takes other folks to create theirs. So our price point is considerably less than what you'd pay for other guitars, somewhere between $2000 and $3000," says Normandy.

The guitars are available in nine colors and three different finishes: chrome, powder coat, and Candy Apple Metal Flake finish. The chrome finish is triple electroplated, a process during which the body is initially buffed, electrically charged in a hot bath with Zincate, then dipped in copper, covered with nickel, and completed with a flashy chrome finish.

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The classic vintage feel of the guitar is a hit with its players. "The guy who I played with in my first heavy metal band is now playing for Black N Blue with a Normandy guitar, so in a way we are still creating music together," says Normandy. And, he readily admits that he considers himself a lucky man: he has been able to combine his musical expertise with his entrepreneurial spirit to realize his dream.

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