|Graph Tech Guitar Labs founder and CEO Dave Dunwoodie, with furry pal Pepper.|
|Graph Tech Guitar Labs
Guitar parts specialist revs up R&D as RATIO line expands
For every R&D project that becomes a Graph Tech product, there are a lot of others that don’t, says company founder and CEO Dave Dunwoodie. What sometimes happens, though, is that ideas discovered in the process become the seeds of a new project that works. That’s how it’s always worked at Graph Tech Guitar Labs, starting in 1983 when Dunwoodie designed the company’s first product—the world’s first self-lubricating guitar nut—over his kitchen table. That set the stage for 35 years’ worth of innovations in nuts, saddles, bridge pins, and pickup systems that sell as standard equipment on some of the world’s top guitar lines, or as premium after-market options for players in search of something extra. Graph Tech’s RATIO tuned machine heads joined the mix in 2013, pioneering a design allowing each of a guitar’s strings to be tuned evenly with a single turn. In the latest development for the RATIO line, Graph Tech will soon be introducing a version for bass guitar and another for ukulele. “This is very new, and so exciting,” says Dunwoodie. “Our mantra is to define the future of guitar performance. We’re not here to copy a part or product that is popular; we’re here to improve the playing experience.”
Based in Vancouver, Canada, Graph Tech grew out of Dunwoodie’s own frustrations as a gigging guitarist. Playing one night in the early ’80s on his new Fender Strat, he remembers, he hit his tremolo bar and ran headlong into the problem of string binding on traditional guitar nuts. In search of a solution, he began tinkering with composite materials and ultimately landed on a formula five times more slippery than graphite, yielding his patented self-lubricating guitar nut and giving rise to Graph Tech Guitar Labs as a company. Back then, he recalls, prototyping meant balsa wood and Krazy glue. Today, it means CAD/CAM design and 3D printing. “R&D for me is a candy store,” he says. “The speed at which we can prototype, change, and do it again, all in the same day, is amazing.”
When it came to RATIO tuned machine heads, introduced in 2013, Graph Tech delivered an intuitive concept that’s still rippling through its product line. Before RATIO, because each string responds differently to tension, guitarists had to tune accordingly, giving the high E string an aggressive twist to produce even a small adjustment and giving a plain G string a much smaller turn while being careful not to overshoot the right pitch. RATIO’s solution: balance the machine heads by setting each to a different gear ratio, ranging from 12:1 to 39:1. With a single turn of the RATIO knob, each string is adjusted by a full tone. Each string feels and responds the same.
As Dunwoodie explains, though, adapting RATIO to the ukulele was a project of its own. In a nutshell, he says, the ideal gear ratio for ukulele tuners is 6:1, which becomes problematic when tuners made for guitars are used on ukes. “Guitar-style machine can’t get down to a 6:1 gear ratio,” he elaborates. “You get a thing called back drive, and the post just spins back when you let go of the tuning button. RATIO Ukulele tuners have zero back drive. They are also lighter than guitar machine heads, so the ukulele is much better balanced.”
Besides RATIO, Graph Tech has brought to market dozens of parts and accessories for the fretted instrument segment. Its TUSQ manmade ivory nuts, saddles, and bridge pins are engineered to transfer a full spectrum of frequencies from the strings to the guitar top, yielding improved sustain and balanced lows. Its TUSQ XL and String Saver nuts and saddles, shown to reduce string breakage by 90%, come impregnated with PTFE, a proprietary synthetic lubricant that cuts down on string friction and binding while enhancing tuning stability. In guitar hardware, the company engineered its Resomax bridges in a unique alloy to offer extreme durability while optimizing tone and harmonic richness. Its Ghost modular pickup system for guitar and bass installs easily to yield authentic studio-quality acoustic tone—or a range of tonal blends between electric and acoustic, with an option for MIDI-compatible output. On the accessories front, Graph Tech has brought its TUSQ material to a range of picks with “built-in tone”: either “bright,” “warm,” or “deep.” And in an entry for the guitarist as much as the guitar, the company followed up with its CHOPS PrePlay hand care product, which cleans and conditions a guitar player’s hands while also adjusting their pH level from a slighting acidic 5.5. to a neutral 7, helping to preserve the guitar’s finish, strings, and components.
“We take conventional designs and redesign them so that the end-user’s playing experience is vastly improved,” says Dunwoodie. “They become the next step in that part’s evolution—which can be refreshing since many musical instrument accessories and parts have been in a state of design stagnation for years.”
Across the board, Graph Tech reports that sales for the past year were up about 15%. That includes both after-market business and OEM sales to manufacturers including Martin, Taylor, Gibson, Godin, Guild, Yamaha, and many others. At one point it was hard to keep up with the orders, says Dunwoodie, who notes that because Graph Tech is selective about whom it hires—considering both ability and a shared set of core values—it can be a challenge to get staffing levels to the numbers it would like. One of the main issues, he explains, is that although the company’s base in Vancouver is only 30 miles from the U.S. border, the procedures for hiring foreign workers are lengthy and demanding, effectively shrinking the pool of qualified applicants for the skilled work done at Graph Tech. So when business got to be a little too good, Dunwoodie himself spent a month-and-a-half working seven-day weeks in the shop. Of course, that’s a lot like how he started out. “It was actually pretty cool,” he says. “It was nice to get back in the race car again and see how fast and smooth we can make this baby run.”