Chry Salis Guitar

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A History of the Development of the Chrysalis Guitar

From Earliest Prototypes to the Present


The pictures shown here record the evolution of the Chrysalis guitar design over the last 20 years.

Black 12 - The original experiment - a traditional 12-string with the broken face that I fitted out with a "drip-castle" formed graphite grill face back in the fall of 1981. At that time modern shiny Mylar balloons did not exist. A rubber weather balloon worked OK, but popped too easily. A Mylar K-Mart shopping bag was strong, but did not hold air well. So we put a weather balloon inside a K-Mart shopping bag, and stuffed them together under the grill. Inflated tight against the grill, the results were truly amazing. A breathtakingly brilliant sound, significantly louder than an equivalent wooden soundboard 12-string. The inexplicable success of this first experiment with a grill-membrane soundboard served as a beacon through all the travails that followed.


Big Ugly, the original inflatable guitar. Built like a graphite epoxy drip castle in late 1982, this monster had everything wrong. Lead in the rim, bridge tied tight to the

Big Ugly - The original inflatable guitar, December 1982.

center frame, maple neck, body made of black leather and lots of fiberglass tape. It weighed about a ton and sounded like a Les Paul, unplugged. But the grill looked cool, it bounced like a basketball, and it collapsed for packing. Given that Black 12 made so much noise, I knew the design could be fixed to make good sound. Fancy mylar balloons did not exist yet, so we used a weather balloon inside a KMart shopping bag. It worked. Sort of.


The Box - A handmade guitar in under two hours.

The Box - Making an educated guess on how to proportion a grill for good sound production, this last spring we machined a flat rectangular aluminum grill, glued a mylar membrane to it, and fitted it to an open backed pine box made of 1 x 4's with an old 6-string neck attached. It turned out to be about 30% weaker than an equivalent unbraced piece of spruce soundboard, and couldn't support more than two strings without getting twisted out of shape. But it provide us with a crucial data point on how to design the basic grill to roughly match a traditional soundboard in overall stiffness. It also showed us how the grill material really determines the sound. It is very loud and resophonic sounding. When I first heard it I thought "It growls!".


The Ghost - Our first view of the dream.

The Ghost - After the Box taught us how to proportion the grill, we went to work on designing the real Chrysalis grills. When the design was about two-thirds done, we made an SLA model of the frames and grills together just to see what it looked like in three dimensions. God it was beautiful, faint whitish yellow, clear with a smooth shiny surface. Though SLA epoxy is not designed as a structural material, we later found, after building the complete prototype with the aluminum grills, that this model, when attached to the finished neck, could support up to 4 strings up to standard pitch. This allowed us to hear what a plastic grill sounded. We looked at each other, and grinned broadly. Great! MUCH better than the blue aluminum grills. A very good sign, as it meant that a decent sounding instrument can be made very inexpensively.

Chrysalis #1 - The view out my back door.

Chrysalis #1 - This is the fully engineered Chrysalis prototype rendered from CAD data. It was rendered in nylon-filled polycarbonate with CNC'ed aluminum grills. It didn't stay in tune and sounded terrible. The parts from this prototype were modified and used as patterns for the second generation graphite Chrysalis, rendered in graphite, the most magic material of all time.


The All-Graphite Chrysalis - By the front door, ready to travel.

The All-Graphite Chrysalis - The first complete working Chrysalis guitar with accessory-loaded travel case and fabric-covered mylar soundboard. The case meets the airline carry-on spec, and the expressions on the faces of security personnel looking at the X-ray image makes all the development work worthwhile.


How Does it Fit in that Case?

The case opens down the middle with all the parts and accessories held in by Velcro or under fabric covers. The inflatable body folds under the left frame, and the electric body cover folds under the right frame. The current case is molded plastic, without the metal trim, and includes a variety of additional items. A couple of 260 caliber bullets are included as plugs for the balloon tube, creating great fun with airport security. It takes 30 seconds to assemble to pitch and looks like you are assembling a rifle, then it really is a guitar, and there is general astonishment and grins all around.


And Now Going Retro - The "Woodie"


The Chrysalis "Woodie"

The "Woodie" - There are some who find the grillwork soundboard upsetting, inducing a kind of guitar motion sickness. For such folks we now are working toward a cure - spruce soundboard inserts in place of the grills, and detachable rosewood back and sides in place of the inflatable back. Otherwise it is a stock Chrysalis guitar. A shallow body version two inches deep will fit in the standard attache case. 


The Chrysalis Woodie prototype, with deep rosewood back and sides partly visible.


The Devil's Popcorn Popper - The bare-bones Chrysalis in pure graphite electric mode, no fabric anywhere.


Now we begin to play with colors. Unscrew the graphite grills, hang them on a bush, and head for the paint store. Here the grills are sprayed gold against a metallic green electric back.


Here you can see the outline of the inflated guitar body most clearly, with some patterned fabric under the black grills.


Pardon the long download, but this picture captures the Chrysalis guitar like no other. The gold grills are backed by blue lamme fabric with the puckering of the inflated body visible between the grilwork. The background is fake, but the guitar is not.


This kind of flexibility gets one thinking ....

What about Dobro inserts?

What about glass as a soundboard?

What if you want to play a standard electric guitar configuration with humbucking and single-coil pickups?

The list grows exponentially, and our company is just getting started. Stay Tuned...


Grill Production


The grills are made by a "wet lay-up" process where epoxy-impregnated graphite fiber is laid into the mold strand by strand. It is a time consuming process, but easy and within the budget of a small shop. From start to finish, each grill has about ten hours of labor in it. The mold has to be replaced after 20 - 30 impressions.


Our first grills. At the top of the picture is the original aluminum master grill (painted blue). The lower grills are our first four graphite-epoxy prototype grills. The picture below shows one of the grills held up to the light. The lightest treble grill weighs 56 grams.

The opaque black braces are the major load-bearing members, and are graphite impregnated. The lighter braces are plain epoxy. We are experimenting with how much graphite to put in the grill, which grill members to make graphite and which to make epoxy, etc. If you look closely, you can see that there are differences between the four grills in which braces are graphite impregnated and which are left epoxy.

It takes about six hours of hand labor to make a single grill, including mold prep, materials prep, hand layup, mold closing, mold opening, mold cleanup, and part cleanup. Then there is the painting and finishing. The grill is a woven structure, and nimble fingers are important in yielding a grill with the graphite where you want it. This is a whole new kind of guitarmaking, and we are teaching a new generation how to do it.

Indispensible master grill-fabricator Heather White, age 14.


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