I think the first side sound port guitars I saw were in the Scott Chinery Blue Guitar Collection in a book called: Blue Guitar. I was intrigued and inspired and as always I had to try it.
Learn about the benefits of guitar side sound ports and how to make one on your next guitar in the 52 page eBook & Tutorial – click the eBook image to the right to learn more.
Learning About Ports From Bill Porter
While majoring in audio technology (and jazz guitar) in college, I had the privilege to study under Bill Porter, the famous recording engineer who captured many hit songs by Elvis, Roy Orbison, and others. What I found so enlightening about my time studying with him was the fact that he came from an era before there was Pro Tools and other fancy computer software and effects. He taught us to listen to a room and use physical objects to tune it. One of the tools he taught us to use was a Helmholtz resonator (or absorber in this application). We used different sized containers and objects and cut different size holes or ports in them to absorb different frequencies, and sometimes filled them with fiberglass insulation if needed. Then we placed them in different locations in the studio to help balance out the mix of frequencies in the room or kill other anomalies like flutter echo or maybe a certain drum that was hitting a overly active frequency, etc. It amazed me how a little bit of close listening, a touch of math, some attention to detail, and some simple trial and error could drastically improve the sound quality of the recording we were able to get, and all without anything digital other than the old reel to reel tape machine we were using. (Read More About Bill Porter Here)
Having that background, I always thought of the inside of the guitar much like the inside of a room and did what I could to tune it and get it sounding good to my ear. I say “tune” it in a loose way, I just want the relationships of the top, back, and body cavity resonance to sound pleasing together. I do listen to what the main notes of these components are, but not in a strict scientific way. I’m just looking for what sounds beautiful and harmonious to me. I go into detail about this in my book The Art Of Lutherie and even demonstrate it in the companion DVD. One way to tune a Helmholtz resonator (which is kind of like a room) is to change the size of the hole (port) in it. Chances are you have already done this before, probably many times and didn’t realize it. Think about driving down the highway in your car and rolling the window down. At a certain point conditions will line up in a way as to hit the resonant frequency of the inside of the car and may even feel pressurized and uncomfortable as the waves start building. Instinctively you roll the window down more to see if it goes away, right? Or maybe even roll down another window. Changing the size or number of the holes(ports), tuning the space inside the car in a way to make it more comfortable. Taking this concept and applying it to my guitars has been a great tool to have at my disposal.
Trying The Adjustable Side Sound Port
When I saw the side sound hole in a guitar it reminded me of my days in college studying audio technology and looked to me like a great opportunity to be able to experiment with changing it’s size to see what the tonal effect would be on the guitar and it’s main resonances.
So after being inspired by John Monteleone’s guitar and also Linda Manzer’s guitar with the sliding side door on the sound port from the Blue Guitar collection, I decided I needed to give it a try on my guitars to really learn from it first hand. I even remember calling Linda Manzer and she was kind enough to give me some direction and guidance on building a sliding ebony door similar to hers which I thought was beautifully done.
The first one I tried was an archtop guitar with an oval sound hole in the top and a side sound port with a sliding door that could open and close. I wanted to use it on an oval hole archtop because I felt that some oval hole model archtops I had heard sounded a little choked (stuffy) sometimes and my feeling was that adding the side sound hole would help to open it up a bit and add some air space to it’s sound.
Enjoying The Sounds Of Autumn
So my 17” “Autumn” model archtop was born around 2002. It was a great learning experience and thankfully turned out to be a wonderful guitar and a step forward in my understanding and guitar building. Like many of the topics I often discuss, this is yet another one of those things that really opens your eyes if you try it on your own guitar. It’s great to hear it on someone else’s guitars and talk about the theory of it, but once you hear it on your work it’s well worth the effort to create it, even if you don’t use it again.
I built the first Autumn archtop for a collector and great player who I knew well and we were able to do many comparisons to other guitars I made, and many other wonderful guitars that he owned. Making those comparisons is a critical step in putting your work in a frame of reference to understand the direction your recent changes are moving your sound.
I was confident that it would have an effect on the acoustic sound, but one thing that shocked me was how much opening or closing the side sound port affected the amplified sound. Keep in mind it was only amplified with a floating humbucker. Plugged into the amp, there was a very noticeable difference when the sliding side soundport was open and when it was closed.
A “Hole” New World Of Possibilities
The final verdict is really just an opinion and a matter of taste of course, but to me the sound of the guitar with the door open was much more airy, natural, and open sounding. Not bright, but open. When the door was closed, I felt it sounded like guitar with the tone control turned all the way dark. You know that suffocated lack of airspace or no headroom kind of sound?
The owner of the guitar reported that after playing it every day for over a year he never closed the door again (other than to just try it briefly, quickly remembering why he kept it open) which made sense to me because I also felt the sound port was a big improvement to the openness and natural qualities of the sound. To watch a video in which the owner of the guitar describes a little about it in his own words – click here
I then went on to use side sound ports that were always open (no door) and never looked back. I even went to the extreme after studying with Boaz Elkyam and started using only the side sound port (no hole in the top) on my steel string and nylon string guitars, but that is a whole different topic for another article.
Are You Ready To Try A Side Sound Port?
Now that you have a little bit of background on how I ended up testing and using the side sound ports on my guitars, you might be interested in trying it on your own guitars if you haven’t already. You may even be using them already, but looking for a better and simpler way to incorporate them into your design and building process.
If you fall into any of those categories then you should definitely check out the following tutorial and 52 page downloadable eBook where I share my step by step techniques for structurally reinforcing the side of the guitar and cutting a side sound port. I do it all by hand so there are no dangerous routers or things like that, but it does take some patience and a little elbow grease to get it right.
Thankfully I’ve found some tricks over the years that I will share with you to make it easier for you and also help you refine the outcome. Plus I will show you 3 special tricks I use to ensure the side sound port is elegant, balanced, and properly prepped for applying wood bindings.
Get The Full Step By Step Tutorial & Download This eBook
Learn about the benefits of guitar side sound ports and how to make one on your next guitar in the 52 page eBook & Tutorial
- How To make a special clamping caul for sound ports.
- Techniques for reinforcing the sound port area.
- How to cut a sound port by hand
- Tricks to take a sound port from good to great & prep for binding
- And More