The Creative Luthier
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
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
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 Amazon.com 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.