Alistair Hay of Emerald Guitars
Master Craftsman Builder of the acoustic 12-string bass
Emerald Guitars is located in Cavanacaw, County Donegal in the Republic of Ireland. The owner of Emerald Guitars, Alistair Hay, has been building guitars since 1998. He is the creative force behind the design and building of the world’s first acoustic 12-string bass guitar!
How did you become involved with carbon fiber?
I grew up working with composites in the family business from the age of 12 but my main exposure to carbon fibre came when I worked in St. Louis building Formula 1 race boats for the "Bud Light" Seebold race team. Somehow my love for composites and love for guitars came together and sparked an idea that became Emerald Guitars.
What are the strengths and limitations of carbon fiber?
The strengths of Carbon fibre is that there are very few limitations. Structurally it allows me to build instruments that are nearly impossible with wood and sonically it can be tailored to create beautiful tone. It is a magnificent material for unusual high tension instruments like the 12-string bass because it can be made so strong and stable.
When did you start building guitars? Why did you decide to specialize in carbon fiber guitars?
I built my first guitar in 1998, seems like a long time ago now. I decided to specialize in Carbon fibre guitars because I knew very little about wood. Composites was the medium I felt comfortable with and it just felt natural to me. I could see the endless possibilities with carbon fibre that needed to be explored. I now have a pretty good grasp of how to work with it and get the best from it but it was a long steep learning curve.
How long does it take to create the instrument molds? Do you create all of your own designs?
I design all my guitars myself and I personally build the moulds as well. I love taking the design from the initial idea right through to the magic time you pop open the mould and see that first guitar. All in that can be as short as two weeks or as long as three months depending on how complex the design is.
What are your favorite finishes, and why? Are veneers tougher to work with?
It's hard to pick a favorite as each time I come up with a new finish that tends to be my favorite. I guess some of my woody finishes would come out on top if I were held at gun point. The veneers do take a bit of extra work but we have created a unique system that fuses the veneer to the carbon during the moulding process which leads to a beautiful and stable finish.
Tell us about the electronics that you use. How would you describe the sound of your instruments?
I generally use B-Band systems. I find them to be one of the most acoustically transparent pickups on the market. I like the amplified sound to reflect the guitar not just the pickup. It's hard to describe a particular sound as we do so many different instruments but general characteristics are that they are incredibly resonant instruments with great balance and sustain. The B-Band really did a great job of capturing the full acoustic voice of the guitar. I guess the more time I spent with the bass the more I got to love its acoustic voice and think the best approach is to get a natural representation of its tone.
How stable are the necks? Do the truss rods function the same way as in a wood neck?
The carbon necks are incredibly stable and are unaffected by temperature and humidity changes. We use truss rods to allow adjustment to the necks depending on playing style and string gauge but generally when you get it set right you won't need to mess with it. The truss rods in a carbon neck are really just there to fine tune the relief depending on string gauges and playing style. The neck won't react to temperature and humidity. The main reason to use two is that I will be building the neck really strong and one wouldn't have sufficient force to move it.
What strings do you recommend?
Right now I am using D'Addario Phosphor Bronze on my acoustic basses and D'Addario EXP coated phosphor bronze on my guitars.
Your basses have been attracting a lot of attention. What is it about your basses that sets them apart from other companies?
Yes the basses have been drawing quite a fan base recently. My acoustic basses are loud and alive unlike many acoustic basses on the market and the use of carbon means you have an instrument that you can take around the world without worry. Hugh McDonald from Bon Jovi bought one recently for that very reason. He wanted an acoustic bass that he could reliably tour with but it has now become his main acoustic bass because he says it is just so much more alive than any acoustic bass he has played before. My basses have a loud bright tone. The carbon gives a great clarity and definition to the notes and even the low B has good volume and punch. Some people worry that carbon will sound synthetic but really these sound natural but with a distinct tone.
You were able to show your basses to Joe Satriani. What did he think?
Yeah, I got to show him the 12-string acoustic bass, he loved how it looked and sounded but he was a bit intimidated by the number of strings. It was fun to see his reaction when he first heard it.
Were there any special steps you needed to take when building a 12-string bass?
Building the 12-string bass took a while to work out. Firstly I had to understand the instrument and its voice and work out how to get the best out of it. Really we haven't had to move too far from our standard 5-string but we have added a good deal of extra strength in the neck and also double truss rods.
You have also built a 6x2 12-string bass. Tell us about that.
The 6x2 12-string was quite a unique instrument. The customer wanted a 12-string guitar but a full octave lower so we built a 30.5" bass tuned E to E with string gauges going from .105 right down to a .009. Its really an amazing instrument with a huge tonal range. I think it's the instrument that shocked me the most when I first put strings on it. It just sounds so big. I love it.
In 2010 you toured the USA and demonstrated your instruments. What was your favorite part of the trip?
That was a great trip with great memories but I think the highlight was climbing Squaws Peak in Phoenix in 105° of the midday sun and then while on the top we had a jam with the guitars we carried with us. Its not somewhere you would haul your fine wood guitars. That was a long hot day but we spent the afternoon in the pool cooling off.
What's up with the monkey playing guitar on your website? It reminds me a LOT of a guitarist with whom I used to work! ;)
Yeah I met the monkey on a trip to Thailand in 2008. He really loved playing that guitar but I had to take it off him as the elephant wanted a go.
With lots of time spent running your business, do you get to play much? What's your favorite music to play?
Since I started building guitars my playing has seriously suffered. It's just so hard to pick up a guitar after work when you've had a guitar in your hands all day in some form. Right now I'm mainly a listener and guitar-wise Steve Vai has my heart. He is the reason I first picked up a guitar and I have been lucky enough to build Steve three guitars over the years.
Is there anything in particular you would like to be known for?
I want to be known as the guy who stretched the limits and made new guitars possible
Finally, if you could live anywhere in any time, where would it be and why?
I often wish I had been born 30 years earlier so that I could have built guitars for Hendrix and Rory Gallagher.