Unique Guitars Are Made In Bethel, Born On The Road

Feb 16, 2015

One of Vermont’s most unique manufacturing companies lies behind a nondescript red door in downtown Bethel.

Alpaca Guitars makes a musical instrument designed to go to some far-flung places.

The Alpaca is a weirdly shaped instrument that Pablo Picasso might have designed. But company founder Chris Duncan says there’s a reason behind each design feature.

For example, the prominent sound hole isn’t located in the center as it is on most guitars. It’s up in one corner. For a reason.

“So we can shove our socks and undies in there,” Duncan says with a laugh.

The corner sound hole also makes it easier to get the water out if you happen to dunk the guitar in a stream, as they do in a video on the company’s website.

The Alpaca is a backpacker's guitar, designed to be light, compact and rugged in a way that standard travel guitars are not. Duncan calls it an adventure guitar.

“We have a guitar down in Antarctica for the summer. We have one that’s traveling around the world on a sailboat. We have one that’s planning a trip to the headwaters of the Amazon and we have one that’s going on a cross-country American bike trip in the summer.” - Chris Duncan, founder of Alpaca Guitars

“We have a guitar down in Antarctica for the summer. We have one that’s traveling around the world on a sailboat. We have one that’s planning a trip to the headwaters of the Amazon and we have one that’s going on a cross-country American bike trip in the summer,” he says.

The molded carbon fiber bodies of the guitar are made to withstand hard traveling and weather extremes.
Credit Steve Zind / VPR

The Alpaca is made of carbon fiber and flax injected with epoxy.

What emerges after the pieces are fully assembled by machine and by hand is a hard, lightweight instrument.

The tuners are a unique stainless steel design located at the back of the guitar, where they’re less likely to snag on a branch or bang into a rock when the guitar is strapped onto a pack.

The materials and technology are similar to those used in aircraft and race cars.

Duncan says the difference lies in the company’s use of more natural glues and solvents. It’s required a lot of trial and error to develop the right formula, and taking a more eco-friendly approach to manufacturing the guitars has its challenges.

Duncan would like to get away from carbon and use natural fibers. Alpaca is already making all-flax guitars and has plans to use hemp as well.  The problem is both are heavier than carbon fiber.

Carbon fiber fabric is used to make the lightweight guitars.
Credit Steve Zind / VPR

“It’s substantial in that the guitar itself is only three pounds,” he explains. “Especially for hikers who are cutting the ends off their toothbrushes.  We don’t want a guitar for them that they have to add an extra pound on their backs for.”

The guitar also requires trade-offs in the way it sounds, compared to a quality acoustic guitar.

But Duncan says it’s not enough for it to be rugged, so adjustments have been made to improve the sound quality, like adding a little wood.

As he strums one of the finished products, Alpaca luthier Jay Burstein points out a few of the sonic features of the guitar.

“We have a hollow neck, which has resulted in a really great sustain,” he explains.

Burstein is one of five full-time employees at the company, which is turning out about 20 guitars a month  - priced at $899.

Jay Burstein, one of five full-time employees at Alpaca Guitars, fine tunes the guitars before they're shipped.
Credit Steve Zind / VPR

Each guitar is given a name instead of a number, to help personalize it and differentiate it from the other identical looking instruments.

The demand is greater than the supply and Duncan has to turn away business.

“A lot of people can’t wait,” he says. “They’ve got a trip that they’ve got planned and they’d like us to be a lot like a retail store where we could just put one in a box for them and send it but we just don’t have that ability.”

“A lot of people can’t wait. They’ve got a trip that they’ve got planned and they’d like us to be a lot like a retail store where we could just put one in a box for them and send it but we just don’t have that ability.”

Duncan says the company has yet to reach a point where its sustaining itself from guitar sales. To do that may require moving from the current location in an old general store in the center of Bethel.

Duncan started Alpaca two years ago with a Kickstarter campaign that raised more than $67,000.

Credit Steve Zind / VPR

He says it’s taken a lot more in private investments to finance the company, a figure he won’t disclose, adding Kickstarter’s value wasn’t really in the money raised.

“As far as its ability to market us initially and vet the product to make sure it was something we should pursue, it did a very good job of that,” says Duncan.

While the Alpaca is made in Vermont, it was born on the road.

Duncan says the idea for the guitar came to him when none of the instruments his family took on a long road trip survived.

He’s confident the Alpaca guitars would.