There have been many times when I’ve asked myself, “What is a guitar?” Sometimes I ask this question when I’m considering “originality.” Does it matter if the pickups have been replaced? Tuners? A refin? Usually the answer is It depends, based upon how rare an instrument is. Sometimes it’s more philosophical. Like how basic can a guitar be? I’m not the first or only person to ask such a question. One who asked such a question and acted on it was an American luthier named Alan Gittler, who created perhaps the ultimate minimalist guitar. Or is it? So when the opportunity arrived to loan some guitars to the Museum of Fine Arts exhibition “Dangerous Curves” in Boston in 2000 and this Gittler appeared on eBay, how could I resist? It ended up in the show. Art. Gittlers and museums go together, as we shall see.
Whatever you call this instrument, the Gittler certainly pushes the envelope of what is a guitar! Alan Gittler (born in 1928) was originally a jazz guitarist in New York, heavily influenced by Remo Palmieri. He played music, composed, and even wrote and produced a film called Parachute to Paradise. He worked as a film editor for many years, invented a number of photographic-related devices, and even wrote a novel. At one point he was performing on New York streets with a Velasquez classical guitar run through a battery-powered amplifier. Gittler, by preference, only ever owned one guitar at a time. But he knew that the classical through a battery amp wasn’t right. So he began thinking about designing a guitar.
It was through this process that Gittler began paring down what a guitar was. While he acknowledged that a guitar’s shape and materials did affect the sound, he arrived at the conclusion that the primary mechanism that determines how a guitarist sounds are his flesh, his fingers, contacting the strings. Anyone who’s played guitar for a long time knows that your sound comes more from your “touch” than your equipment. All he needed to remind him he was playing a guitar was the sound of the strings. So he began stripping away as much as possible and arrived at his minimalist concept of the guitar. He took away as much as he could while still having a “guitar.”
The original American Gittlers were constructed of three sizes of milled stainless steel, with a master jack for output to a single amp plus individual jacks for each string. Plug into a string output and you disconnected it from the others for sending to another amp. They had a specially designed tuner concept that was later “borrowed” by Ned Steinberger. Andy Summers of The Police played one. Other musicians told Gittler that his guitar belonged in a museum. The Museum of Modern Art bought one. These two were among the few. Around 60 guitars and three basses were built in New York.
Gittler eventually moved to Israel and changed his name to Avaraham Bar Rashi. In Israel he was contacted by Astron Engineering Enterprises in Kinat Bialik, Israel, about licensing and manufacturing his design. Bar Rashi agreed. Unfortunately, he should have been more actively involved with Astron early on, because they took some shortcuts that ended up producing guitars that were not sufficiently up to specifications for Bar Rashi’s way of thinking. Bar Rashi even went so far as to send letters to dealers who bought them disavowing the instruments.
But not before they made 500 of them. The Astron Gittlers were known as the Gittler II. They were made of a mix of coated metal and stainless steel. Unlike the original Gittlers, the Israeli guitars have output via a single 1/4″ jack and/or a DIN plug. These also have a little metal spar you can screw on the body for holding the guitar in your lap. The Astron Gittler IIs started with serial number 61. The one shown here is #134. Just when these guitars were produced is uncertain, but it was probably mid- to late-’80s.
So, in the end, I guess you have to say this Gittler II is a guitar, or at least a skeleton of one! It’s fairly comfortable to play and once you get used to the weird frets (which feel almost scalloped), it works fine. Nevertheless, as you might guess, it doesn’t get played very often! When I go to pickup a guitar, I’m a bit more conservative, I guess. I guess this guitar does belong in a museum, after all!