Have you ever heard of the instrument known as the theorbo? If not, you are not alone. Needless to say, you might be surprised to see one at the next performance of your local Philharmonic Orchestra. You might be more surprised to see an electric theorbo developed by a Seattle composer who seems to always push the envelope of centuries-old musical styles.
The Sun Break published a story in November featuring Seattle musician Aaron Grad and his one-of-a-kind electric theorbo. Grad discovered the theorbo while still in school, instantly falling in love with the lute-like instrument and the Baroque music that made it so recognizable in the 17th century. Yet Grad was not content to satisfy his musical interest with a traditional wooden theorbo. He set out to create an electric version that could be used to create an entirely new sound.
Before explaining Grad’s invention, a basic understanding of the theorbo is necessary. A classic theorbo is a wooden instrument from the lute family. It has a curved sound box with a neck long enough to accommodate a minimum of 14 strings divided into fretted and open sets. Some theorbos have up to 19 strings.
The theorbo is played by plucking the strings with one hand while generating notes with the other based on where the fingers are placed along the neck. Traditional theorbo strings are gut strings, creating a unique sound the lute is known for.
The Electric Theorbo
Creating his electric theorbo was no small feat for Grad. He spent months in his garage working out the logistics, according to the Sun Break. One of the first things he had to work through was creating a neck capable of supporting the load of more than two dozen steel strings. After all, you cannot make an electric instrument with gut strings.
To accommodate the tremendous stress of 14 steel strings, Grad settled on two engineering principles. First, he would split the single neck into two, one for the open notes and another for the fretted. The open neck would be situated on top as the player would not need access to it. The fretted neck would sit below.
Next, Grad needed a neck material that could withstand the load of steel strings. He turned to carbon fiber. Knowing what carbon fiber was doing for the aerospace industry, Grad determined it would be the perfect material for his theorbo. It could handle the load without affecting the sound of the instrument.
A Perfect Choice
Rock West Composites, a Utah company that sells carbon fiber prepregs, tubing and sheets, says that carbon fiber was the right choice for the electric theorbo. Not only can carbon fiber withstand the load of 14 electric strings, but it can also hold up to the wear and tear of regular use much better than wood.
As for the instrument’s sound, Grad doesn’t have to worry about the carbon fiber neck having an adverse effect because of the way electric strings interact with the theorbo’s pickups.
With a traditional wood theorbo, a wood neck makes an enormous difference. It creates a rich sound as vibrations from the gut strings resonate inside the wooden sound box. Attaching a carbon fiber neck to a wood-bodied theorbo would cause the sound to come out flat and dry. This is not a problem for the electric theorbo.
It turns out that carbon fiber was music to Grad’s ears. The revolutionary composite material is what made it possible to create this one-of-a-kind instrument that, at least for Grad, is changing the way classic Baroque music is played.