What Is a Sympitar?

The SYMPITAR is a six-string, acoustic, steel string guitar with the addition of sympathetic resonating strings, similar to those found on instruments such as the Indian sitar. The sympathetic strings on the sympitar are uniquely configured to run inside the neck, allowing the instrument to be played like a normal guitar. Once tuned to the desired pitches, the sympathetics sing along when their notes are played on the main strings, creating an etheric, mesmerizing accompaniment. Although over time a player may develop techniques to control the response of the sympathetics and best integrate the unique sound into their own personal style, no special skill is necessary. That's part of the magic...they just sing along.

Sympathetic strings have been used on instruments for hundreds of years, and by many different cultures. Some of the more familiar instruments that feature the use of these "strings that sing along" are: the Indian sitar, the Norwegian Hardanger fiddle and the early European viola d'amore. The Sympitar represents a unique use of these magical, ringing strings on a contemporary acoustic guitar. The sympathetic drone strings of the sympitar run inside the neck, in a special channel fabricated of epoxy graphite material (which also serves to stiffen and strengthen the neck). They run beneath the fingerboard and pass below the sound-hole, inside the instrument, where they can be accessed for tuning. Their sound is transferred to the top via a small bridge located midway between the "main" bridge and the lower edge of the sound-hole, on the underside of the top. In India this bridge is called the"jiwari" bridge; it has a flattish surface that the sympathetic string buzzes slightly against, making it more audible and lending a distinctive flavor to the sound produced. There is an internal damping mechanism for the sympathetic strings, operated by a small lever protruding from the upper left side of the sound-hole.A small movement of this lever with the thumb of the right hand easily turns the sympathetic strings on or off. The .007" diameter steel strings are anchored to the main bridge by the ball end. Replacement of sympathetic strings is accomplished by threading the new string in through it's tiny hole in the main bridge, then pulling it through the neck with a special tool. Because there is very little wear on sympathetic strings, they rarely break or need replacement.

I build each Sympitar as a custom instrument, tailored to the needs and desires of the individual customer, but based on a model that I have developed over 12 years of experimenting and refining. The basic Sympitar has 18 strings: the standard 6 of an acoustic guitar plus 12 sympathetics. I prefer an assymetrical body shape that creates a visual feeling of motion, allows for a graceful cutaway to give easy access to the upper end of the fretboard, and has a physical balance that is comfortable to the individual player. The exact dimensions, shape and materials can be adjusted for an individual's needs in terms of tone, comfort and aesthetics.

Recent improvements in Sympitar design include a removeable access panel in the back of the instrument, to facilitate adjustment of sympathetic strings, internal repairs and installation or adjustment of pick-up components. The Sympitar is available with separate electronic pickups for the two sets of strings (main and sympathetic) for lots of exciting possibilities in mixing and enhancing the sounds in an amplified situation, or when recording. There are many options for customization, including: body shape, size and materials; neck specifications; number of sympathetic strings; flat or arched top; pick-ups; carvings/inlay/ornamentation; custom case, etcetera.

Some Sympitar History

Back in the early '80s, my partner, violin builder Suzy Norris, had a vision of a new kind of fiddle that led to the development of the Suzalyne, a 5-string violin/viola with 5 additional sympathetic resonating strings. A chance meeting with a follower of Indian artist/musician/guru Sri Chinmoy led to Suzy getting flown to New York, where the guru had an enclave. Sri Chinmoy played an Indian bowed instrument, the esraj, that had many sympathetic strings, and he was very interested in the Suzalyne.

The whole adventure was rather unusual; the most important thing that came out of it was that Suzy got to see how the Indian system of sympathetic strings worked. She decided to try to copy the wide, flattish bridge that gives instruments like the sitar their characteristic "buzz", as a feature of the Suzalyne. It worked splendidly, and I wanted to do it on a guitar. It took about a year for me to get the first prototype Sympitar together, and I was amazed and delighted with it. I showed it to guitarist Alex de Grassi shortly after finishing it; he was intrigued and asked to borrow it for a few months. During that time he used it on a recording (Deep at Night; Windham Hill), and thought a lot about ways in which the instrument might be improved (he eventually purchased a later model, which can be heard on subsequent albums). I took Alex's ideas and feedback, and incorporated them into later versions of the Sympitar. This process of evolution is continuing still.


Quoted in "Guitar Player" magazine (April,1992, p.49) guitarist, composer and recording artist Alex de Grassi states it simply and clearly: "It sounds wonderful and records beautifully". Alex can be heard playing his 18-string sympitar, as well as an earlier 12-string prototype, on several albums. Although he makes beautiful use of the sympathetic strings on a number of pieces, his sympitar also appears on his most recent albums with the sympathetic strings muted. It's a great sounding guitar for recording or live performance, with or without the sympathetic strings.

Take a Closer Look at These Sympitars
Click on the thumbnails to see fine details.

A custom 18-string Sympitar, built from Engelmann spruce and Indian rosewood. The customer made a drawing of his vision of the instrument, which became my starting point for working up a design. He had a very specific idea of what kind of sound he wanted, and together we chose woods and made design decisions to realize his vision. This is a great example of how much a builder can learn from a customer. I never would have come up with an instrument quite like this on my own.

Redwood Sympitar
This 18-string Sympitar features a top of beautiful recycled redwood, salvaged from refuse from an old logging operation. It has a 24 fret fingerboard, and incredible access to those upper frets via the deep cutaway. My partner, Suzy, calls this the "Plaid Pantry" guitar, because the striking contrast of the striped redwood and the cross-flamed maple gives it a plaid look.
The beautiful flamed bigleaf maple back and sides are trimmed with walnut binding. The walnut design in the center of the back delineates a removeable access panel. The neck is also black walnut.

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