Aluminum Guitars - A Primer

Luthiers have experimented with aluminum for over a century now, likely starting with The Aluminum Musical Instrument Company in the mid 1890’s, a manufacturer of aluminum-bodied mandolins, lutes, banjos, and guitars. Other builders followed, with the more well-known pioneers of this tiny sub-industry including Travis Bean, Kramer, and Veleno. While never quite catching on in the mainstream, aluminum instruments have always had a small, fanatical following among builders and players convinced of the metal’s superior sonic and structural properties. Besides being the most plentiful metal in the Earth’s crust, and the third most plentiful chemical element after oxygen and silicon, aluminum is light, highly corrosion and warp resistant, and possesses a rich, unique musical resonance. As guitar players, we love to prattle on about tonewoods, but “tonemetals” like aluminum don’t get nearly enough attention. A good aluminum guitar exhibits a very full-frequency tone with piano-esque low end, a detailed midrange, and a complex treble brilliance that lends it a chorus-like three-dimensionality. In many ways, an all-aluminum instrument is much more resonant than a traditional wooden one. This affects the feel in interesting ways, as well as the tone, because aluminum doesn’t soak up string vibrations the way a plank of wood might. Instead it takes your picking input and spits it back at you with an immediacy that no wooden instrument can achieve. Because of this, an aluminum guitar can feel startlingly alive and responsive, especially to a player accustomed to the traditional dead plank of alder or ash.

Travis Bean TB1000A Artist Natural 1978

Besides its tone and resonant properties, a case for aluminum guitars can also be built on the material’s durability and sustainability. As one of the most abundant elements on our planet, it’s in much less danger of being severely depleted than, say, mahogany or rosewood, and once the instrument is built, it will effectively last forever with little to no energy devoted to upkeep. An all-aluminum instrument requires virtually no maintenance, and one good setup will last indefinitely, as there’s no truss rod to adjust, and no wooden bits to warp, swell, or shrink.

Though the market for aluminum guitars has always been niche, appreciation for these instruments has been growing rapidly as of late, with business following in its footsteps. High profile supporters of Travis Bean’s iconic guitars, including Steve Albini and The Jesus Lizard’s Duane Denison, have done a lot for the aluminum guitar’s reputation amongst lovers of caustic underground rock, and this influence has been gradually, but perceptibly, trickling into more mainstream corners of the guitar universe. While aluminum instruments will likely never achieve the widespread acceptance of their traditional wooden brethren, they have achieved a level of visibility and cachet that may foretell a coming of age for these underdogs of the industry. With this in mind, let’s take a look at a few of the modern torch carriers of the aluminum guitar movement:

Travis Bean

The original Travis Bean Guitars company made, by most estimates, somewhere around 3600 guitars between 1974 and 1979, before closing up shop, at least partly due to outside pressures to cheapen the product. The original models were wood-bodied with an aluminum neck and center section, to which the pickups were mounted directly, allowing the pickups to translate the unique resonances of the aluminum directly. Another attempt by Bean was made in the ‘90s, with a small run of prototypes featuring a new design, featuring an aluminum neck and a hollow rear body pan machined from the same billet. This concept never got off the ground, though, and Travis Bean himself passed away in 2011. Luckily, Electrical Guitar Company had hit their stride by this time, and the company’s efforts were noticed by Travis’s widow, Rita Bean. She commissioned EGC’s Kevin Burkett to re-launch the company as Travis Bean Designs, with updated classic models debuting at NAMM 2014.

Electrical Guitar Company

EGC, based in Pensacola, Florida, has been at the forefront of the aluminum guitar resurgence since 2003. Machinist and musician Kevin Burkett started the company after taking note of the rapidly rising market value of his beloved Travis Bean guitars, and wanting something similar that he could play at shows without fear of damaging a rare, vintage instrument. Since then, EGC has done Bean one better, making instruments entirely of aluminum, rather than just an aluminum neck and center section with a wood body. They do make hybrid instruments as well, with aluminum necks and wooden or acrylic bodies, but the all-aluminum models are the company’s singular achievement, one unmatched by any of their competitors in the tiny world of metal guitar manufacturers. EGC instruments are all over the place in the world of heavy, weird guitar, with players from The Melvins, Failure, Isis, Neurosis, Mastodon, and Shellac, singing (or riffing) their praises. EGC makes a wide range of production and custom guitars, as well as signature models for Duane Denison, Buzz Osborne, Scott Kelly, Brent Hinds, and Agostino Tillota of Uzeda. The prices are reasonable, considering the incredible quality, but it’s a small company and the wait for an instrument is 9 months to a year, so get in line now.

Electrical Guitar Company Tyranny


This odd little design collective has created everything from entire dwellings, to minimalist metal wallets, to similarly minimalist metal guitars. In total, it has made but a handful of guitars since making the first one in 1999, but these guitars are well known by players of a certain persuasion. Baltimore noise anti-heroes Oxes and the Knoxville band New Brutalism are notable endorsers. Obstructures guitars are completely aluminum, totally indestructible, and absolutely no frills, fully embracing the minimalist “guitar as tool” aesthetic. They have a photo on their website of one being run over by a truck, if that tells you anything. Prices aren’t listed and production is extraordinarily limited, but if you contact them, they’ll probably make you one.

Obstructures 0.750b Machined Aluminum Electric Guitar


This company, started by Chicago sculptor Ian Schneller in 1984, began making guitars as more of an art project than a proper attempt at traditional luthiery, though it now makes a wide range of gorgeous, unique instruments of many varieties. In the world of aluminum guitars and ugly underground rock music, Specimen is known primarily for making the signature aluminum-bodied instruments of John Mohr and Tom Zaluckyj of Chicago band Tar. These guitars are nearly band members at this point, famously gracing the cover of the Tar’s beloved Clincher record. They make use of wooden necks and distinctive looking bolt-together aluminum bodies. Specimen has also made guitars (though not necessarily aluminum models) for Liz Phair, Alan Sparhawk of Low, Andrew Bird, and Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand.

1993 Specimen Products Aluminum Guitar

Normandy Guitars

Since 2007, Salem, Oregon’s own Jim Normandy has been making aluminum-bodied guitars and basses, creating the first aircraft aluminum archtop. These guitars have the classic look and feel of a vintage Gretsch or Gibson, but with a decidedly modern flair and aluminum’s distinctive full-range resonance, combined with a more traditional feeling wood neck. Normandy’s archtops feature Bigsby vibratos, Normandy pickups, and a variety of finishes, from chrome, to powder coats, to anodized, in many colors. In addition to their affordable production models, The Normandy Custom Shop is quite prolific as well, turning out instruments in varying styles, finishes, and feature sets at prices that are surprisingly low. Normandy endorsers include Frank Black, Billy Zoom, The Eagles of Death Metal, and My Morning Jacket.

Normandy Aluminum Archtop
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