The Creative Luthier

Dateline: 06/25/99

Paul Rubenstein is one half of the Seattle based World Fusion duo Bakshish (Viren Kamdar is the other half). The band's secon album, Yao's Question, features Arabic, African, Indian and even Chinese rhythms and influences.

Viren provides the percussion backbone of the duo's music, while Paul invents most of his own instruments. Some of Paul's creations include the electric saron, cellotar, and mechanical monk. And his inventions sound as unique as their names. I recently asked Paul about how he goes about developing these instruments and what particular skills it takes to "cross-breed" guitars, cellos, and more.
Paula: What inspired you to start combining instruments to make totally new ones? How long have you been doing this?

Paul: The first instrument I built was the microtonal guitar in the spring of 92. This was an electric guitar with movable frets made of fishing wire. The idea for the design of the frets came from observation of the movable gut frets of middle eastern instruments such as the saz (Turkey) and the tar (Persia). Up until that time my only instrument was the guitar. I've always been interested in music as music, and not limiting it to any particular style or theory. At the same time, I didn't want to discard the idea of theory altogether, and began studying the music of different cultures to find the similarities and differences to try to answer the question "what is music?". One thing I was particularly interested in was the different scales used in various styles of music from around the world, and was frustrated by the frets on the guitar limiting the available tones to twelve notes per octave. The movable frets got around this problem, and opened up all kinds of other possibilities.

After that, I wanted to have a wider variety of sounds. I attempted to make a bowable guitar- I'll say more about that later on. I learned to make electromagnetic pickups almost by accident (there's probably not enough space for that story here). (Electromagnetic pickups are the part of a guitar or other instrument that picks up the vibrations and converts them into an electrical signal to be amplified). Once I could do that, I sought out all kind of things to amplify to get different sounds. One house I lived in had an iron fence I put pickups on. I hit different parts of it with mallets to get different sounds and ran it through some effects pedals.

More recently, within the past two or three years, I've started working with motors- setting up stringed instruments that essentially play themselves. This was mainly to fill out the sound when playing live. We were only two people in Bakshish (now there are three) and it's challenging to keep people entertained for long periods of time. At some shows we had to play three forty-five minute sets. Having automatic drones takes a lot of pressure of me as the sole melodic player.

Paula: In order to make instruments that actually work requires some sort of technical skill -- do you have any training in this area? If you are self-taught, how did you learn?

Paul: I learned by doing. I found that when I first started thinking about building the microtonal guitar, people I talked to would say "you can't do that. you have to study for years at luthier school to build a guitar", so I stopped talking to people about it. At that time I had no power tools at all or even any decent regular tools. I carved the neck with a kitchen knife. That was in the spring of 92 and I still use it (the instrument, not the knife). As time has gone on I've learned a lot, mainly through trial and error. If something doesn't work, you figure out WHY it doesn't work, and fix it. You can't go by what manufacturers do, because a lot of the time things are done a certain way all the time not because it's the only or best way, but because it's cheap of easy to mass produce.

Paula: What is your favorite instrument that you have built, and why?

Paul: My favorite instrument is probably the one I'm working on right now. It's called the "ubertar". It is a stringed instrument which can be either plucked or bowed. It has 8 melody strings with a separate tiny pickup for each string. The range is close to that of a piano. Inside the instrument run two drone strings which are vibrated by a wheel spun by a very small motor, like a motorized hurdy gurdy. Also inside are two long springs for a natural, built-in reverb. One reason it's my favorite is because it's new and I'm still very excited about it- actually it's more than new, it's not quite done yet. Also it's the ultimate of all of my instruments of the "tar" series- the viotar, invisitar, and cellotar, while combining the automatic drone feature as a built-in part of the instrument.

Paula: Confession time -- what is one instrument that you tried to build but in the end it just didn't work out? What did you learn from the experience?

Paul: The first thing I tried to build after the microtonal guitar was a bowed version of a guitar. I started with a cheap electric guitar and cut away the body to gain access to the strings for bowing. This was back in 92, so I don't remember all of what I did, but to make a long story short, it didn't work. Most of what I learned were basic physical things- if you have a curved bridge for bow access of each string individually, you also need a curved fingerboard so the notes will line up properly (intonation), and the pickup must maintain an equal distance from each string so they will all have the same volume. Real basic stuff that I might have figured out if I had thought things out more beforehand- or maybe these things only seem obvious after the fact. I also learned that it's best to start from scratch rather than try to modify existing instruments. Existing instruments are made to do certain things, and they are built the way they are for a reason. If you have an idea for an instrument, you can design it exactly how you want it to be. It's really fun to come up with ways to make things work. It really gives you a feeling of power and accomplishment, and what you end up with is truly your own.

Paula: In general, what have been people's reactions (audience, critics, etc.) to your instruments?

Paul: The most common question I get is "is that a sitar?". It doesn't matter what the instrument looks like. I could be playing one of the instruments I've made or a rebab or oud, or something else. Partly it's because of the kind of music I play, and partly it's that the sitar is the only "exotic" instrument people in the US seem to know. Critics tend to be a bit more sophisticated and don't have the sitar problem. They seem to focus on the "bong-like" shape of instruments like the cellotar and invisitar, though. OK, the invisitar does look a hell of a lot like a bong. Sometimes it can be frustrating because people can focus on the instruments and overlook the music. This seems to be happening less over time as I improve my playing skill and general musicianship. I was recently on a tv show that featured inventors from the Pacific Northwest US and they seemed to think I was a freak because I wasn't trying to get rich manufacturing instruments for sale. They couldn't understand that I make them out of love for playing music and the amount of time and effort it would take to try to manufacture instruments for sale and then try to convince people that they wanted one would take away from the time and energy needed to do what I really want to do, which is to play and record original music.

Yao's Question is available from as well as the band itself. You can email paul with further questions about how to get a hold of an album, or anything that he discussed here.

Graphic courtesy of Bakshish.

Previous Features