The story of the Pikasso guitar

The 42-string acoustic guitar made famous by jazz legend Pat Metheny is a masterwork inspired by musical innovation and vice versa.

Pat Metheny with the Pikasso Guitar

Image: Linda Manzer

Many custom instruments are visually striking, designed to enhance or support an artist’s stage show or persona. Other one-off models are meant to make an impact through their sonic offering.

Built by luthier Linda Manzer and used by jazz great Pat Metheny for almost 40 years, this 42-string acoustic masterpiece does both.

String theory

Born in Toronto, Manzer is a fearlessly creative luthier, having worked with everyone from Carlos Santana and Paul Simon to Bruce Cockburn and Gordon Lightfoot. Metheny is no slouch either. He has won 20 Grammys and holds the rare distinction of wins in 10 different categories. The pair have collaborated on many acoustic instruments over the years but none are as unique and innovative as Pikasso.

Pat Metheny with Linda Manzer
Pat Metheny with Linda Manzer. Image: Linda Manzer

The project began in 1984, with Metheny issuing Manzer a simple mission: design and build a guitar with as many strings as possible. The result? A 42-string hybrid acoustic instrument with four necks and two soundholes.

The Pikasso presented many challenges for Manzer, most notably string routing. With so many criss-crossing strings, the luthier had to anticipate and account for the playability of the instrument’s four sections. To aid in the comfortability of the instrument, Manzer created a new twist on guitar design too.

View it from the side and you’ll see that the Pikasso is actually wedge-shaped, thinner on top and thicker at the bottom, where the guitar rests on the knee. Sloping the instrument like this allowed Metheny to better see the array of strings that run across its soundboard at unconventional angles. The Pikasso was the first guitar to employ the Manzer Wedge, which has since become a standard feature on almost all the luthier’s guitars.

Pikasso Guitar
Image: Linda Manzer

Shape of things to come

Staring down at so many strings must have been stressful for Metheny but they present another form of stress on the Pikasso too. With all 42 strings tuned to concert pitch, about 1,000 pounds of pressure is exerted on the guitar’s wooden framework.

Manzer said that the first time she strung the Pikasso up she was “terrified it was just gonna explode. I even wore safety glasses just in case.”

The increased tension required some creative design when it came to the bracing patterns that lie beneath the guitar’s German spruce top. The Pikasso features an Indian rosewood back and sides, which also had to be reinforced, plus the four mahogany necks with ebony fretboards. The bridges and faceplates are ebony too.

Also incorporated into the design is a system of pickups that allows for an expanded tonal palate. Each bridge is equipped with a piezo pickup designed and installed by Mark Herbert in his shop in Boston, Massachusetts. The six-string section also boasts an additional hexaphonic pickup that allowed Metheny to use the guitar in conjunction with his Synclavier computer system, through which he could trigger sound samples.

Pikasso Guitar
Image: Brian Pickell

The guitar is heavy, tipping the scale at 6.7kg, almost 15lbs. But its wedge shape makes it surprisingly comfortable to play. Given the amount of string tension, it’s remained very stable over the years too.

Has the Pikasso had any alterations or modifications since Manzer delivered it to Metheny in the mid-1980s?

“It has been remarkably resilient and tough even with circling the globe dozens of times on tour with Pat over the years,” Manzer says. “At one point, it was dropped and the peghead at the rear of the guitar cracked, and I simply replaced that entire section and I re-designed it a little. Otherwise it’s pretty much original.”

Pikasso Guitar
Image: Linda Manzer

Painting a masterpiece

In the event that the Pikasso does require routine maintenance, Manzer can get to its innards via the access doors she wisely installed during the instrument’s construction, as well as its two sound holes – one on the upper player’s side and one at the tail block. The Pikasso features on much of Metheny’s work, including his Grammy award-winning album Imaginary Day.

As for the name, Manzer says the guitar had several working titles during the build. But people kept remarking that it looked like something Pablo Picasso would have painted, hence the name Pikasso.

The Pikasso took a year to design and complete. Later, in 1992 Manzer created a strictly acoustic version of the Pikasso for famed vintage guitar collector Scott Chinery.

Pikasso Guitar
Image: Brian Pickell

More recently, Manzer outdid herself and the Pikasso with an acoustic guitar with 52 strings and five necks – standard fretted, fretless, baritone, scalloped fingerboard and harp. Designed for Danish musician Henrik Andersen, it was based on a cartoon sketch he drew of the instrument.

The Pikasso broke many of the rules laid down by traditional acoustic guitar builders, toppling longstanding notions of what a guitar should look and sound like. Bravely unconventional, the design and implementation of the Pikasso is a fitting homage to the painter with which it shares its name.

[All photos approved by and courtesy of Linda Manzer]

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