Strings and Tunings
he Emerald Guitars Kevin Kastning Signature 30-string Contra-Soprano guitar arrived in January 2013. I used this instrument continuously throughout 2013; in fact, it became my defacto main instrument. It was my only onstage instrument for concerts in New York City, and it appeared on the 2013 Greydisc albums Dark Sonatas and Nowhere, Now Here. In the recording studio in 2013, I also heavily utilized the Daniel Roberts Stringworks KK Series 17-string Contraguitar C1. I kept C1 in pure octave and unison tunings, while the 18-string Contra side of the 30-string remained in my own various altered tunings. Using C1 and the 30-string together in the studio allowed me to cover multiple tunings in the contra ranges and registers. For the 30-string, not only did I have two tunings on a single instrument with the 18-string Contra and the 12-string alto, but I was able to simultaneously access both sets of strings with my right hand, creating 30-string harmonic possibilities and colors that would otherwise be impossible. However, the limitation that emerged was similar to the limitation that birthed the 30-string; mainly that I was unable to access multiple tunings in the same register within the same composition.
I had not considered multiple Contra tunings within a single composition until after I'd acclimated to the 30-string. The 30 provided two tunings at all times in two very different registers. This greatly expanded and extended harmonic possibilities. It felt very natural to me. When I was away from it; for example, performing or recording on classical guitar, I missed it. I came to rely on two tunings, and felt at home in that environment. I began hearing and conceiving of single compositions that involved two simultaneous Contra tunings. Axiomatically, the only way to realize this would be with a Double Contraguitar, which at that time did not exist. A Double Contraguitar would allow for simultaneous octave and intervalic tunings, or two differing simultaneous intervalic tunings. Using the new right-hand technique I'd developed on the 30, I'd not only have two separate 18-string tunings, but would have the option of accessing all 36 strings as one massive tuning in a single instrument. This scenario would also allow for a third tuning for the Contra side of the 30; thus providing three separate Contra tunings.
Design and Build
In early spring 2013, I spoke with Alistair Hay at Emerald in Ireland about the concept of a Double Contraguitar. Alistair had done wondrous work in building the 30-string, and I suspected that a 36-string would be well within his realm. I asked if it would be physically possible, and Alistair replied that it would indeed. I asked him to slot me in to his build schedule while I got to work on the specifications. By August, I had the specifications ready, and Alistair planned to start work in October.
Throughout 2013, Alistair and I exchanged many emails about the 36 project, and discussed specs, design, and some unforeseen challenges during late-night Skype sessions.
Fortunately, when Alistair built the 30, he retained the special mold he'd made for the 18-string neck. This neck is possibly the most comfortable neck I've ever played; the profile is a shallow D profile, and it's thin and very fast all the way up to the body. He used the original 18-string mold from the 30 to create both necks for the 36; hence the neck profiles on the 36 are exactly the same as the 18-string neck on the 30.
Cello -- One notable difference between the 30 and the 36 is the addition of a cello endpin on the 36. I play the 30-string in a vertical cello position; achieved by using a strap in an unorthodox method. Alistair and I both felt that a cello endpin would be a better solution. It allows me to get the instrument up a bit higher, as well as achieve a better tilt and angle for it. Using the cello method, I can even shift positions of tilt almost imperceptibly when moving between necks. Since the arrival of the 36, I have added a cello endpin to the 30-string.
KK36 and Cervantes classical: size comparison
Soundholes -- The soundholes on the 30 are almost twice as large as those on the 36. Making the soundholes smaller on the 36 was a design feature about which I felt very strongly. I knew that smaller soundholes would enhance the bass registers over larger soundholes. This design change worked as expected. While I was happy with the voice of the 30, I felt that it could have a bit more in the bass registers and that the balance could be slightly improved. The smaller soundholes not only extended the bass response, but did indeed provide a more balanced voice. We maintained the dual soundhole design, as this had proven so successful on the 30; making for a true stereo instrument.
Bridge -- An evolutionary change from the 30 involved the bridges, or as it turned out, the bridge. Because the two necks on the 30 were of different scale lengths, the bridges were placed in an offset configuration. The scale lengths on both Contras on the 36 are the same scale length, so two bridges weren't required. Alistair and I discussed the options, benefits, and drawbacks of using two bridges placed exactly in alignment, versus one single bridge for both string sets. I had no strong opinion about either scenario, and asked Alistair to do what he thought would work best. He decided on one large bridge. Aesthetically, this works quite well. However, there is a big sonic advantage that I'd not considered. Having both sets of strings on a single bridge makes for an unusually responsive instrument. Playing a single note quickly turns into a single note with a choir of 30-plus strings singing out in sympathetic overtone vibration. I don't think this kind of overall responsiveness would have happened with two bridges, as the 30 doesn't exhibit this phenomena to this extreme degree. The single bridge on the 36 invokes a beautiful and all-enveloping sound texture; like a constant harmonic halo.
Another bridge progression is to eliminate the bridge pins for the diapason bass course strings (B, E, A, D). These eight strings load from inside; in other words, rear-load instead of top-load. On the Contra side of the 30, the bass courses are of such a heavy gauge that the bridge pins no longer fit. For the 36, we decided to eliminate them entirely.
Pickups -- In the recording studio, I use a four-mic double-stereo setup for both the 30 and the 36. The 30-string has no pickup system, but instead uses an internal mic. For concerts, I use the internal mic; however, with two large soundholes, the internal mic is overly sensitive to feedback and almost unusable. For the 36, I knew I wanted a pickup system instead of an internal mic, and not an undersaddle transducer. As I am an artist endorser for K&K Sound, makers of my favorite pickup systems, I began speaking with Dieter at K&K about a specially designed stereo Pure Mini pickup system for the 36. This system places the output of each neck onto its own channel in a stereo field; in other words, the left neck is on stereo left, and the right neck is on stereo right. Dieter at K&K created a wonderful system; the pickups sound very similar to microphones. In concert settings, this provides a very natural and realistic sound without the feedback issues of internal mic systems. I've also been experimenting with mixing the stereo K&K system with the four-mic setup in the recording studio.
Fingerboards -- On the C1 and C2 Contraguitars, the fingerboard radii are different. C1 has a classical (non-radiused) fingerboard; while C2 has a raduised fingerboard. I've found that the classical fingerboard works better for octave/unison tunings, and the radiused fingerboard works better for altered tunings. The Contra side of the 30 has a classical fingerboard, even though it spends most of its life in altered tunings. For the 36, the left neck has a classical fingerboard and remains in octave/unison tuning, while the right neck has a radiused fingerboard and remains in altered tunings.
"After completing the incredible Triocha 30-string for Kevin Kastning only a few short months ago, we expected he would be preoccupied for many months getting to grips with all those strings and we wouldn't hear much from him, but within about six months of him receiving the Triocha and quickly mastering it, he emailed me about the possibility of a 36-string version.
If anyone other than Kevin asked me to build a 36-string guitar I would probably think they were just dreaming but with Kevin he doesn't just dream up fantasy instruments, but he also has the ability to play them and I feel the need to make them reality.
We discussed the design challenges over a number of Skype calls and numerous emails and soon we had come to a design solution that seemed to make sense.
Actually the 36 ended being quite a familiar project as it was essentially a doubling of the 18-string neck from the Triocha.
We started production in September 2013, and finally the strings were added and the guitar was complete in January 2014. Undoubtedly it was one of the most challenging builds to date to get the accuracy and strength we needed; yet still having a responsive top able to create a strong acoustic voice.
I'm really looking forward to hearing what Kevin can create on the KK36. It was a privilege to have the opportunity to bring this dream to life."
The Way Forward
The 36 arrived in early February 2014. I could not be happier with it. Alistair created an instrument of stunning aural beauty and depth. As successful as was the 30-string, the 36 is an order of magnitude beyond it. The voicing, the responsiveness, the balance, the playability, and the flawless action are wonderful. The intonation is very accurate; no mean feat on an instrument with 36 strings. I feel as if the 36 is the culmination of the past ten-plus years of my instrument development and evolution. It will be on several album recording projects in 2014 and beyond.
I have seen the future, and it has 36 strings.
To Alistair and everyone at Emerald in Ireland, my sincere gratitude.
– Kevin Kastning
22 March 2014
Update: I played the KK-36 on some compositions on the Greydisc albums Watercolor Sky and In Stories. Click those links for KK-36 audio examples.
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KK36 design specifications
Nut width and string spacing exactly the same as the the 30-string
Two adjustable truss rods per neck
Neck thickness/profile same as the 30-string
String spacing at bridge: same as the 30-string
Bridge saddle: carbon fiber
Bridge pins: black with no inlay or dot
Bridge: 14 pins per bridge; the low four bass diapason strings are pinless
Tuning machines per neck:
3 Gotoh mini-bass tuners - black (20:1)
15 Grover mini locking Rotomatics - chrome (18:1)
Headstock tuner layout: same as the 30-string
Nut: carbon fiber
Nut width: 3 3/8 inches
Left neck: Radiused fingerboard
Right neck: Non-radiused fingerboard
No fingerboard inlays or position markers
Side-dot markers for both necks
Number of frets: 24, with no fretless area
String sets consist of mixed bass and guitar strings; refer to Strings & Tunings
Same body as the 30
All body specs same as the 30-string
Color: graphite black
Endpin output jack for pickup system
Pickup system: K&K Pure custom system, wired in stereo
Soundholes: smaller than the 30-string
Strings and Tunings
Contraguitar tuning (bass to treble):
For actual string gauges and string types, refer to the Strings and Tunings page.
All strings by John Pearse.