Steve Harvey overviews some revolutionary new production techniques developed by Mike Miltimore, owner and chief designer of Riversong Guitars. Warning: they are not for the faint-hearted traditionalist
The acoustic guitar as we know it today hasn’t changed much over the years in terms of design and construction techniques.
Structural bracing is very much part of the production process, and intonation and action continue to be an issue, particularly for the travelling musician.
In an effort to stabilise what is essentially a moving, breathing instrument, some have experimented with alternative materials for bracing. The mind recalls Chris Griffith’s Garrison Guitars in the early 2000s, which employed an injection mould of glass fibre. The guitars sounded great but, unfortunately, the business didn’t fly.
It was with a great deal of interest that we here at Acoustic Towers recently became aware of Riversong Guitars and the revolutionary approach employed there. Not to be confused with Rainsong Guitars of carbon fibre fame, Canadian-based Riversong is the brainchild of Mike Miltimore.
Miltimore’s background is in retail, working in the family music store from a young age. In 2008 Miltimore expanded the repair shop in the back of the store into a custom shop making traditional, one-off guitars. One key issue that Miltimore sought to address was that of the tension created by the strings (when tuned to pitch) and the resulting structural pull. It wasn’t until 2012 – and some 30 prototypes later – that Miltimore arrived at the fundamental techniques Riversong Guitars boast today.
At the heart of the new design and construction process is an adjustable neck. Nothing new there, you might think, but the adjustments possible on a Riversong Guitars are quite unlike anything you’ve seen before. A Riversong Guitar neck is one piece of wood that extends well-past the usual meeting point with the guitar’s body, down the entire length of the guitar to the end block. As a result, the fretboard is attached to the neck throughout. Miltimore claims the patent-pending design eliminates what he describes as ‘bad tension’, which can cause common problems such as a 14th-fret ‘hump’, which occurs when the neck wood expands at a different rate than the body wood leading to terrible problems with a guitar’s intonation and action.
Remember too that, contrary to what you might have been told, the primary function of an acoustic guitar’s bracing is to create stability and rigidity. In essence, bracing reduces the amount of resonance a guitar has – that’s its job. The need arises due to the tension created by the pull of the strings. However, if you can create a guitar where the required stability comes from elsewhere, the majority of ‘traditional’ bracing is rendered unnecessary, thereby increasing the vibration range of the soundboard and resonance of the guitar as a whole.
Improved tension loading also means that Riversong guitars do not need the same amount of kerfling. Kerfling is an interior binding glued to the guitar’s sides where they meet the soundboard and, again, its function is to create stability and help stop the guitar’s top from pulling away from the body. Reduced tension on the soundboard means less kerfling – one third less in Riversong’s case – and a freer, more resonant soundboard optimising energy transfer.
Riversong Guitar necks are removable, which is an obvious advantage should it need repair or replacement, and this allows it to accommodate 24 frets (on the highest strings), as opposed to the customary 20 or 21. But of most interest is Miltimore’s proprietary design for adjusting the neck angle. The aforementioned single piece of wood that runs through to the base of the guitar actually creates an interesting dynamic. With an adjustable mechanism and an Allen key it is possible to change the neck angle and thereby the guitar’s action. The adjustable nature of this aspect of the guitar’s design gives millimetre control over the action in seconds. This removes the need to remove the strings, extract the saddle and sand it down – an exercise which generally needs doing more than once to achieve the desired result. Not having to take out the saddle also removes the possibility of fouling the undersaddle transducer used by many electro acoustics. For a UST to work at its optimum it requires a perfect contact with the underside of the saddle – something that sanding invariably destroys.
Another benefit of Riversong’s adjustable neck angle mechanism is that the break angle of the strings over the saddle remains as it should be. Speak to any repairman or technician and they will tell you that the string break angle is crucial to a guitar’s acoustic performance. Removing and sanding down a saddle impairs this performance.
Riversong’s guitars also include a straight pull headstock, meaning that the strings run through the nut to their respective tuning posts in a straight line, without a post-nut angle. Sideways pull can sometimes be an issue when heavier gauge stings are used as the thicker E and A strings exert a great deal of pressure. Miltimore claims his straight-through design ensures no sideways tension through the nut, resulting in better tuning stability and tone.
Riversong’s neck adjustment system means that, with just the twist of an Allen key, the action can be tweaked. We all know that aeroplanes play havoc with stringed instruments and so this is ideal for travelling musicians. But it’s also perfect for those that like to have different set-ups for different styles. Some will want a very low action for solo work or single note runs, whereas a marginally higher action might be better suited to straightforward strumming in first position chords.
Miltimore and his team are to be congratulated. Trying to move forward production techniques for acoustic guitars is a monumental task. Throughout our lifetimes we have become accustomed to guitars looking and being produced in a certain way, and bold is the man that endeavours to change that. But, as Miltimore himself observes, if the car industry progressed in the same way as the acoustic guitar industry, we’d all be driving Ford Model Ts. The biggest challenges faced by Miltimore and Riversong Guitars are our own preconceptions – and maybe our stubbornness. For sure, the traditionalist will suffer nose-bleeds just looking at a Riversong. But first impressions of the tone and playability of Riversong guitars are good – so good that it’s led me to think about introducing blind-fold testing to these pages!
For those willing to embrace new concepts, ideas and visuals, and venture beyond the traditional, Riversong guitars could just be the next ‘big’ thing. Read our review of the Tradition 1 Performer here.