The Gittler Guitar

A Talk With Builder Avraham Bar Rashi

Avraham Bar Rashi

One of the most intriguing instruments to appear on the amplified-music landscape was the starkly-minimalist Gittler. An electric guitar constructed with as few parts as needed to render it fully functional, the original Gittler (a total of 60 were made in New York) turned a lot of heads when one was played or even seen, due to “reverse aesthetics;” i.e., given the fact that the instrument was made with only the “bare essentials,” what a Gittler didn’t have on it attracted a lot of attention, and many viewers of the Police video for “Synchronicity III” probably thought the small, stringed gizmo Andy Summers was manipulating was some kind of movie prop, when in reality it was an early Gittler.

The musician/inventor formerly known as Allan Gittler now resides in a Jewish enclave of the city of Hebron in Israel, and prefers to be known as Avraham Bar Rashi. Several hundred Gittlers were also made in Israel, under name licensing, but those are somewhat of a sore point with Bar Rashi; he felt so strongly that their quality was not up to what he had envisioned for his creation that he sent out a form letter to musical instrument dealers, disassociating himself from those items. He also created other unusual electric guitars after he emigrated to the Holy Land, and he still plays a solid mahogany instrument he crafted.

In a recent conversation with VG, Avraham Bar Rashi discussed his unique position in the world of electric guitar building and the unique instruments that placed him in such a position. And he didn’t hesitate to “tell it like it is” regarding certain facets of his guitarmaking history. Included with photos and the aforementioned form letter sent to VG‘s Southern office was a short, self-written profile that included the phrase “dropped out” at more than one juncture. The former Allan Gittler’s personal history also included many years in the movie making industry, so our first question concerned how Bar Rashi thought he should be described when his legacy is discussed among guitar lovers.

Vintage Guitar: I’ve heard you referred to as an “inventor,” “musician” and “artist.” Which term or terms do you think are the most appropriate
Avraham Bar Rashi: Musician, composer, writer, director, auteur, moviemaker, artist, poet, film editor, photographer, inventor – they are all appropriate, but if you would like to spare your readers a tour of my vanities, just label me “retro-Renaissance,” or simply “guitar player.”

Tell me about the jazz players who inspired you, as well as some of those you played with.
Remo Palmieri – his chord changes were inspirational to the American standard idiom. Elvin Jones – we made an incredible recording – just the two of us – after only 10 minutes of our initial meeting. Gil Evans – to me, he epitomized the American Big Band sound. I was privileged to have him arrange my music for my movie Parachute to Paradise. Bobby Durough – an exquisite singer and piano player who sang the title song, “Parachute to Paradise,” which I wrote on-camera. Lloyd McNeil – a most sophisticated flute player; for about a year, we electrified the streets of New York with our music. Gengi Ito Shakuhachi on percussion – he brought a samurai precision to his beautiful sound.

What kind of traditional guitars – acoustic and electric – did you play?
As a kid, the usual junk. Then a series of Gibsons, then a series of D’Angelicos, then a Velasquez classic guitar. I only wanted to own one at a time, so as to focus my playing discipline. I have found that anything is playable, even a cigar box, if it motivates you to love it.

When did you start considering traditional guitars too “bulky,” for lack of a better term?
When I realized that pure electronic enhancement is not dependent on sentimental design references to traditional guitar shapes. Shapes and materials – traditional and otherwise – do color a string’s sound, but the fundamental beauty of a stringed instrument – through its classic, and now electronic era – is that your flesh – your “vibes” – are in direct contact with its linear motor, the string. And the only thing I need to remind me that I’m playing a guitar is the classic pitch of its six strings, so I prefer to be holding as little as possible when I’m searching the nuances of my sound through the vastness of the electronic sea.

You spent two decades in the cinema business, and invented and patented several items in that field. Details?
I worked 15 years as a top film editor. During that period I was awarded patents for a photographic printer, a motion picture reel, and a motion picture container. I wrote a novel, The Rose-Colored View, and made an 18-minute short titled “New York, New York, New York,” comprised of 700 stills shot with a Minox, and the track of Elvin Jones and myself.

I had had enough of my editing career, and quit to ride my track bike through Central Park, and write the script of my movie, Parachute to Paradise.

After the heartiness of 15 weeks of pre-production, casting the principle players and 200 extras, seven weeks of principle photography, writing the music, and seven months of editing and enormous publicity, a fallout with my producer relegated the production to a couple of cans in the laboratory vault. I was now in the streets, playing my Velasquez through a battery-powered amp. This beautiful guitar was not designed for this, so I started thinking about designing a guitar.

To what extent did the “art factor” influence your design?
With any machine, form should follow function. I chose a discipline of only three sizes in milled stock-5/8″, for the body, 3/8″ for the pickups and tuners, 1/4″ for the frets, bridge, nut, and string anchors. The lengths of these parts were based strictly on the minimum needed for their operability within the instrument. The elegant geometry of a guitar’s fret system became incredibly intensified in this configuration. The purely poetic “art” lies only at the head of the guitar; this is a random length and could theoretically be cut off right after the nut.

When were you satisfied enough to seek a patent?
When I found I could take nothing more off!

What was the reaction to your instrument from musicians, artists, and others? Didn’t you pretty much begin making and selling them due to word of mouth?
Musicians hated it, as would anybody whose preconceptions are rattled.

Artists said it should be in a museum, and one other came up to me and said, “Thank you for creating another need.”

I started having them machined in New York. Forty of them were sold through the mail, and 20 from my apartment on the Lower East Side, where Andy Summers bought his.

Why did you design it to have a unique strap system? Was it to maintain the symmetry?
My guitar was designed as its own entity – how to support it was a secondary consideration. For example, the structure of a violin evolved toward optimizing the vibrations of a double column of air for its particular pitch and timbre. Holding an instrument under your chin – which is rather strange – would be more a discovered posture than a point of departure for designing an instrument.

The central rod or “spine” is intriguing, because if a player’s thumb is placed there – as many guitar instructors would tell students to do – it could have a good “training” effect, versus the tendency of untutored players to squeeze both E strings from each side of the frets. Was that part of your design intentional?
The legitimate position – centering the thumb behind the first finger is what enables a player to fly, but I have seen players who clutch and drag their hand over the neck fly, too. But that position, and how it shifts up the shoulder, always looked gross to me. So, happily, the legitimate position is what enabled my design to fly.

How many instruments were U.S.-made? Did you ever show them at a NAMM show?
A total of 60. I did show once at a NAMM show; the guitar was lying on black velvet, under a single spotlight. Of course, it stopped everybody, and one player came up to me and asked, “What’s different about this guitar?” I had to answer, “It’s playable underwater.” Not recommended, but possible.

Three Gittler basses also exist. They were made in New York and numbered 1, 2, 3, respectively.

Were all of the U.S. Gittlers simply the stainless portion with the six phono plugs?
The stainless “portion” is the guitar, incorporating a pickup and output for each string that could be amplified and modified through a separate system for each string, and sextra-phonically arpeggiated over an entire stage. They were released with an inline battery-operated mixer the size of a cigarette pack – six inputs, six outputs, a master output, and a slide pot for each.

The master output carried all six signals to one amp. Plugging into any string would disconnect it from the master and send it to its own amp, and this could be done until you reached to full sextraphonic freakout and blowout of six separate power systems.

All add-on boxes and bodies to the guitars made in Israel are an abomination to the original design – a result of my producers’ misguided attempt to make a radical design immediately “user-friendly;” initially, mastering a musical instrument has never been a user-friendly affair.

How did you feel when the Museum of Modern Art, in New York City, purchased an instrument?
I always enjoyed having a cup of coffee and hanging out at the museum. And later, after meeting with their board of trustees and the cogniscenti for a perusal of the instrument, they bought one. I was delighted.

Right or wrong, a lot of people became aware of your instrument due to an early ’80s – video by the Police, on which Andy Summers played a Gittler. What was your reaction to seeing it in a rock video?
In my reclusive manner, we had just come to Israel quietly, without fanfare, without money. Three small cartons, three small kids, and no phone. I had no idea the video was running, and that a hundred people were trying to reach me; a short while before, I had cut off all communication with my machinist in New York, due to Ned Steinberger mysteriously finding his way to him and getting an intimate look at my tuner.

I was amused to hear that he brought Washburn Guitars to court for infringing on what he was already considering to be his tuner design. Washburn’s attorney introduced a copy of the Gittler patent; the judge threw the case out.

Do you feel like discussing your name change, and your move to Israel?
When I was a child, my grandfather told me I was a descendant of Rashill, the eleventh-century commentator par excellence on Torah and Talmud. This went in one ear and out the other, until I met my wife, a WASP, coming from an illustrious heritage including John Adams and her grandfather, John McGuire, the Royal Professor of Law at Harvard University. She had never known a Jew before, and through no proselytizing of mine, began a most zealous course of study that’s been going on for 24 years. She wanted to be a Jew; she became a Jew. She wanted to go to Israel; we came to Israel. I changed my name to Bar Rashi, meaning “from Rashill. I now sit in the Creator’s designated land for his priestly people. I want to be a Jew, too.

It’s been reported that other instruments were licensed by you to be manufactured, and that you were dissatisfied with those. Can you offer a synopsis of the Bar Rashi Company and/or Astron Enterprises efforts? What does the Hebrew inscription say?
The only license – and it was immediately violated – went to Astron Machine. They were to produce the first guitar for my inspection, but in the blinding glow of potential big dollars, computer-machined 500 of them, all with an extra hole, and drifting off-scale fret spacing. They hoped the metal box and plastic body would work as a cover for their sloppy machining. Their serial numbers continue from number 61, and the Hebrew inscription says “Bar Rashi, Israel.”

Then there were the plywood instruments with wing nut tuners. Details about their construction and why they were designed?
After recovering from my misplaced trust, I decided to design the simplest guitar I could, without the aid of “big business.” The wing nut ones were made on the way to this objective. They were experiments in plywood, and even MDF – I believe they have all warped, but I reached my objective with the guitar I play now, made from beautiful solid mahogany, incorporating only 12 pieces of identical hardware that serve as nut, bridge, and tuner. It is the only one I play now, and can be heard on my CD, Deep Hip. I personally supervise their construction, and sell them.

What keeps you busy these days?
I am presently contemplating the elements for another CD.

These days, your original-design stainless instruments are usually referred to as “Gittlers,” not “Gittler guitars.” In other words, not as a brand name, but as a unique electric stringed instrument. Comment?
I am honored.

It’s not surprising that a conversation with Avraham Bar Rashi would end up being as intriguing as the instruments he has designed. One can use as many terms as desired in describing the individual, his history, and the instruments he’s created, but the fact remains that Bar Rashi and his creations occupy one of the most unique and interesting facets of electric guitar history. The man, the chronology, and the instruments are unconventional, to say the least.

VG would like to thank Bob Elswick for his assistance obtaining this interview.

Gitler photo: Ward Meeker

This article originally appeared in VG‘s Mar ’00 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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