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21-May-2013

Since the dawn of the modern electric guitar (which obviously includes the electric bass guitar), there have been more than a fair share of builders who have put together some pretty wacky builds. Some of the more-wacky include bodies made out of stone or concrete, and the modern variant is 3D printed guitar bodies of plastic (and trust me, you’re going to see more of those as 3D printers become more common).

A body material that’s been around for a very long time is acrylic. Or at least that’s what it’s commonly called now.

A quick explanation of what acrylic actually is

The technical description for acrylic is a transparent thermoplastic, meaning a transparent polymer that when heated up enough can be molded into whatever shape you want, then when cooled retains that shape.

Acrylic’s technical name is polymethyl or polymethacrylate. This material has been sold under several different names including Lucite, Plexiglas and Acrylite, but regardless of what you call it, when seen on a guitar body, builders will simply call it acrylic.

The most well-known earliest guitar made from this material was the 1961 Stratocaster made out of Lucite. Construction started on it in ’57 but it wasn’t completed until ’61.

Basically speaking, “see-through” guitars have been around for over 50 years, so it’s nothing new.

Are acrylic-bodied guitars still made today?

Yes, and frequently. While it’s rare you’ll see an acrylic-bodied guitar in the guitar store, you can easily find them on eBay, and custom builders typically will build at least one acrylic-bodied guitar “just because”.

Should you build a bass guitar using an acrylic body?

Not unless you’re very skilled at weight reduction design. More on that in a moment.

The Strat made of Lucite mentioned above is – get ready for this – 18 pounds (that’s 8.16 kilograms for you metric types); a ridiculously heavy guitar.

To put this in perspective, a heavy bowling ball weight is 16 pounds. Imagine wearing that strapped around your body + 2 pounds more. Not fun. Easy way to wreck your back and probably your guitar strap as well.

To put this into even further perspective, a Fender Jazz Bass is anywhere from 8 to 11 pounds, depending on when it was made. In the 1970s specifically is when Fender J’s put on the most weight, but to the best of my knowledge they never went over 11 pounds – although I could be wrong. If anyone out there has a 70s Fender J with original hardware that’s over 11 pounds in weight, feel free to correct me on that one.

Weight is your #1 enemy when using acrylic. Always. In your mind, you see the clear body and may think, “Well.. it looks light, right?” No, it’s not. That solid piece of thermoplastic is seriously heavy.

Methods of acrylic weight reduction for a guitar body

You basically have 3 options.

1. Chambering (or outright holes)
2. Smaller body
3. Thinner body

With chambering you keep the body thickness but strategically place chambers throughout the body in such a way that you think will look good to your eye. Alternatively, you can just have holes go all the way through the body in specific areas. Or you can use a combination of chambers and holes.

Smaller body sounds exactly like what it is. Make the body smaller.

Thinner body means the overall body shape retains its size but you thin the body by 20% or “as much as you can get away with” before the electronics would poke out.

All of this should (operative word there) be done in the body design stage before the body is made.

Why would anyone want an acrylic body?

Mainly because you can make it light up easily, which admittedly looks pretty cool. Good for a cheap stage trick. :-)

Watch this video of an acrylic-bodied bass with LEDs in it, and you can see how people in an audience would be wowed by this thing:

An acrylic light-up guitar is a really easy way to command the attention of an audience. Like I said, yes it is totally a cheap stage trick, but you’ll definitely look cooler compared to other bass players because sometimes it’s all about the gimmicks, right? :-)

Does acrylic do anything for tone?

Acrylic bodies do not do a damned thing for tone and never did. In simple terms, you’ll be exclusively relying on the voicing of the pickups as far as tonal character is concerned.

You can choose whatever pickup you want for your build, obviously, but for an acrylic body the general rule of thumb is to use hot-output pickups. Why? Because when in doubt, blare it out. You basically will have no idea what the bass will sound like until it’s all put together, and have the added unknown of what pickups sound like when mated to an acrylic body. Best to compensate for that with hot-output pickups. If you find the bass sounds “too flat”, you can slap an overdrive effect that will work better with more signal and compensate for the “flatness” of sound.

I’ll put it another way. It’s highly unlikely your acrylic-body bass build will be your main guitar. Your only reason for having it is just so it looks cool (especially with LED lights) on stage, and that’s fine. Do not expect it to sound great. If you get lucky and it does when the build is complete, good for you. If it doesn’t, “drive it” until it does sound good since it will mainly be used for stage-trick purposes anyway.

(Image credit: The Renaissance Acrylic See Through Bass Guitar)

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5 Responses to “Thinking of building a body out of acrylic? Tread carefully…”

  1. “Acrylic bodies do not do a damned thing for tone and never did.”

    This is not true. Acrylic bodies sound like, well acrylic. I have built acrylic bodied guitars. They have a very clean tone with a lot of low end and top end. You can plainly hear the tone unplugged, and it sounds the same way plugged in. No instrument will ever sound like the pickups, since the pickups don’t really have a tone of their own, just variations on the tone of the instrument.

    While it is a very dense material, it’s not very hard.

    May 22, 2013 at 1:30 pm - Reply or Post a new comment
  2. The thought had not occurred to me, but I will have to try this. Maybe a polycarbonate or similar would work better on the weight end? Definitely a chambered and or hole thing as well…

    May 22, 2013 at 1:41 pm - Reply or Post a new comment
  3. I have an all original ’77 Fender Jazz that weighs 12 pounds 4 ounces. There are some porkers out there, but for the most part 11 pounds or less is accurate.

    May 22, 2013 at 1:58 pm - Reply or Post a new comment
  4. I’ve owned 2 Dan Armstrongs (an original & a reissue) as well as used a friend’s acrylic Renaissance (all basses!) & feel that the pickups are more crucial than on wood basses. The active circuitry on the Renaissance was a BIG plus!

    May 23, 2013 at 9:48 am - Reply or Post a new comment
  5. I think that acrylic bodies sound similar to glas. I have an old IBANEZ DanArmstrong Copy one of 250 pc, and it sounds realy hard. Murder output with a dimarzio Superdistortion, no Pot, just a Killswitch.
    So plug in an play.

    June 23, 2014 at 10:01 pm - Reply or Post a new comment

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