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Making their own music

From duck calls to harpsichords, MIT students craft their own instruments
Recent graduate Adam Leed strums a few chords on his Hobby Shop-made electric guitar.
Recent graduate Adam Leed strums a few chords on his Hobby Shop-made electric guitar.
Photo courtesy / Adam Leeb
Sophomore Zachary Bjornson painstakingly shapes the body of his harpsichord.
Sophomore Zachary Bjornson painstakingly shapes the body of his harpsichord.
Photo / Donna Coveney
Recent graduate Cody Edwards holds one of his acrylic duck calls.
Recent graduate Cody Edwards holds one of his acrylic duck calls.

When some MIT students want to hear the sounds of success, they go right to the source and build their own instruments. And whatever notes emerge, the result is always the same: Hands-on work is its own reward.

Adam Leeb (S.B. 2007) estimates that he spent about eight months researching and about 300 hours designing and building his own electric guitar. The sounds of success were apparent in the first notes he heard from its strings.

"It wasn't until the very last moments, when I plugged it in. Then I was able to see all of my labor had been worth it," says Leeb, a mechanical engineering major who finished his guitar after graduating in June. "It has a very clean sound."

Cody Edwards (S.B. 2007), an avid hunter who grew up on a farm, heard the sound of success from a different instrument--an acrylic duck call that mimics a Mallard hen.

"When I made the first squeaks on my first attempt at a soundboard, I was very happy. But it sounded terrible," he says. "Making it sound correct involved long hours with a file."

All six of Edwards' duck calls are in use; they sound great.

"Seeing a flock of migrating ducks respond to your call is one of the most satisfying aspects of a duck hunt," he says.

For Raphael Peterson, a sophomore in mechanical engineering who spent nine months building a bass guitar, the long, sometimes frustrating process was so rewarding that he plans to build another.

Currently, Zachary Bjornson, sophomore in biological engineering, is halfway through his second year of building a harpsichord.

"Historical builders, at their prime, were producing an instrument a week. I console myself by hoping that they had a staff of 50 working for them," he says.

It's a long walk from mind to hand to the sweet sounds of success, the builders admit, but the creative satisfaction has outweighed their frustrations.

"A guitar offered everything I was looking for in a project: utility, relatively few parts, lots of space for creativity," Leeb says.

That means he could go way outside the guitar-building box in his design: Furniture legs inspired his guitar's ball-and-claw shapes on the cutaways. A watch-making technique gives its metal plates their stippled surface. And the MIT Hobby Shop's water-jet machine tapered his guitar's metal inlays.

As in any work of art, there's a leap of faith, Leeb notes.

"Reading books and looking at other guitars helped. So did designing on Solidworks [a software design program]. But in the end I had to take the plunge on things I didn't know would work until everything was finished," he says.

The true art in duck-call making is shaping the soundboard and reed, Edwards says. Mastering that consumed more than 20 hours of computer-aided design, plus four hours of machining and polishing--and those long hours with a file to make the duck call call ducks.

Along the way, many of his efforts ended in failure. "There was a big learning curve. But looking back, the learning process was the biggest reward," he notes.

As Bjornson is discovering, rewards occur even in the early stages of long-term projects: New connections open up--some leading right back to MIT.

"I hear from other harpsichord builders around the world. And R.K. Lee, who drew up the plans for the harpsichord I'm making, not only apprenticed to Frank Hubbard, who built the one at the MFA, but also went to MIT!" Bjornson says.

Both Leeb and Edwards have encouraging words for MIT students now building instruments by hand--and by choice.

For ambitious guitar-builders, Leeb urges them to just do it.

"Every project is an adventure," he says, recommending an investment in quality parts. "There is no point in putting a lot of time into a project only to have it be hampered by crappy hardware."

He also urges enthusiasts to read as much as possible about the process, to get their hands on a set of plans, and especially to talk with Ken Stone and Hayami Arakawa in the MIT Hobby Shop.

Edwards focuses on persistence. For him, every stage of the duck-call project was a challenge. "I had never used the software, or a CNC lathe. I spent at least 20 hours of solid work before I produced my first successful prototype," he says.

"Don't get disappointed in whatever your final outcome is. I found great enjoyment in setting a tough goal for myself, and overcoming unforeseen challenges," he adds.

Bjornson, who has already put in 300 hours of research on designing his harpsichord, expects to spend about 1,000 hours building it. For him, previous MIT generations are inspiring.

Plus, he can already hear the sound of success from his harpsichord. "Once I'm done, I would like to perform on it in a small concert: For a solo piece, one of Scarlatti's later sonatas; for an ensemble piece, any of Vivaldi's brighter concertos, like his one in G major," he says.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on December 12, 2007 (download PDF).

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