Musical machinist gets sweet sounds from CNCs

Published
May 20, 2014 - 07:00pm

In 2003, Kevin Burkett was offered $30,000 for his 1978 Travis Bean "Wedge" guitar and realized it was too valuable to perform with. Most guitarists would make do with using a similar, less-valuable model, but Travis Beans have a distinguishing characteristic that makes them hard to replace — they're made of metal. So, Burkett did what any self-respecting DIY musician would have done: He visited area machine shops with a hand-drawn schematic and some scrap aluminum, until Will Fitzpatrick at Performance Machining Services Inc., Pensacola, Fla., agreed to teach him the machining process. 

At the encouragement of recording engineer and muscian Steve Albini, Burkett started his own Pensacola machine shop, Electrical Guitar Co. — a nod to Albini's Electrical Audio studio in Chicago. 

"I love aluminum guitars for two reasons," Burkett explained. "First, they're basically indestructible. Myself and a lot of people who played the old generation of aluminum guitars in the '90s played them [irresponsibly, but they still survived]. Second, the denser the material you use for the guitar, the better resonance you're going to get. Steel is completely impractical because of the weight, but aluminum can be very light and resonates beautifully." 

EGC guitars feature a neck and headstock made of T-6061 aluminum, chrome-plated hardware and a stainless steel bridge plate, with everything but the tuning heads and electronics machined in-house on a Haas VF-4 vertical machining center. 

In addition to producing wood and sonically neutral acrylic bodies, which are mounted to the aluminum neck and resonator plate, ECG machines bodies from aluminum. An aluminum body makes the guitar extremely durable and enables sonic nuances not otherwise obtainable. Profiling, detailing and fine adjustments to necks and bodies are made using a pair of Bridgeport semimanual EZ Trak machines, which save time by allowing minor adjustments to be made without reprogramming a CNC toolpath. 

"Because of the high speeds and feeds, we've had a ton of different endmills break," Burkett said, noting the longest-lasting one is from Accupro, which is distributed by MSC Industrial Supply, Melville, N.Y. "When the CAD/CAM guy who programmed the software told me the speeds and feeds it would be running at, I didn't really believe it could handle it at all, but I ate my words. It's pretty amazing to watch." 

The process uses a ½"-dia., 3-flute, TiNC-coated endmill run at 10,000 rpm, a 0.800" (20.32mm) DOC and 600 ipm (15.24 m/min.) for roughing. Once the body is roughed, a ½" ballnose endmill is applied for finishing. 

What started as a way to preserve his existing guitar collection while still getting the sound he wanted has, more than 10 years later, made Burkett the designer of signature instruments for Tom Petersson of Cheap Trick, Brent Hinds of Mastodon, Duane Denison of The Jesus Lizard and Tomahawk, Scott Kelly of Neurosis and Melvins bandleader King Buzzo. In addition, after Bean's death in 2011, Burkett resurrected the beloved, short-lived 1997 design, with the blessing of his former business partners and Rita Bean, Bean's widow. 

"It's amazing and kind of bizarre to get to make the first guitar I was really obsessed with," Burkett laughed. "I'm really glad Rita was supportive of it, because that design is so good." 

Yet after all his success and acclaim making guitars, Burkett doesn't consider himself a luthier. 

"There are really good luthiers around who know their stuff really well, but it seems like everybody who works with guitars says they're a luthier as though that term carries some sort of inherent weight," he said. "It's like artists —  if people come up and tell you they're artists, they probably aren't very good. I definitely prefer being called a machinist." 

— E. Jones Thorne

Related Glossary Terms

  • computer numerical control ( CNC)

    computer numerical control ( CNC)

    Microprocessor-based controller dedicated to a machine tool that permits the creation or modification of parts. Programmed numerical control activates the machine’s servos and spindle drives and controls the various machining operations. See DNC, direct numerical control; NC, numerical control.

  • endmill

    endmill

    Milling cutter held by its shank that cuts on its periphery and, if so configured, on its free end. Takes a variety of shapes (single- and double-end, roughing, ballnose and cup-end) and sizes (stub, medium, long and extra-long). Also comes with differing numbers of flutes.

  • inches per minute ( ipm)

    inches per minute ( ipm)

    Value that refers to how far the workpiece or cutter advances linearly in 1 minute, defined as: ipm = ipt 5 number of effective teeth 5 rpm. Also known as the table feed or machine feed.

  • machining center

    machining center

    CNC machine tool capable of drilling, reaming, tapping, milling and boring. Normally comes with an automatic toolchanger. See automatic toolchanger.

  • profiling

    profiling

    Machining vertical edges of workpieces having irregular contours; normally performed with an endmill in a vertical spindle on a milling machine or with a profiler, following a pattern. See mill, milling machine.

  • toolpath( cutter path)

    toolpath( cutter path)

    2-D or 3-D path generated by program code or a CAM system and followed by tool when machining a part.

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