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Plug In | Introducing Córdoba Stage

Plug In | Introducing Córdoba Stage

The Córdoba Stage is a radical development in the world of nylon-string guitar. With its innovative Stage Pickup system, comfortable neck and slim, cutaway, fully chambered solidbody, it’s as accessible to steel-string players as it is made for the stage—as well as the studio. Defying common hurdles like feedback and bulky handfeel, Córdoba Stage was thoughtfully designed to change the nylon-string guitar game.

We spoke to Product Manager of Córdoba, Mike Fischer, and Founder of Córdoba, Tim Miklaucic, to get an in-depth perspective on what went into—and goes into—the Stage.

Tell us a little bit about your latest guitar, the new Córdoba Stage.

Tim Miklaucic: Córdoba Stage guitar is a brainchild of mine from over 20 years ago. I had the idea of getting nylon-string guitars on the stage of rock, pop and jazz venues. Up to that point, a nylon-string guitar—an acoustic nylon-string guitar—couldn’t be amplified without too much feedback. So, the high-level idea guiding it was to get the nylon-string guitar on a concert stage—and I don’t mean Carnegie Hall.

What was the initial spark behind that idea? Was this a personal goal? Did this come from speaking to players?

Miklaucic: Well, it’s kind of part and parcel with my overarching mission for Córdoba which is to popularize the nylon-string guitar. We want to bring the “mother of all guitars” to the guitarists in the world that may play electric or steel-string that don’t have a lot of familiarity with nylon-string guitars—and may never have even touched one. So, it’s a personal mission of mine to get nylon-string guitar out there, and not just onto the concert stage of classical musicians. We want to get it on the concert stage of rock and pop—and more into popular music in general.

When did it shift from being an idea to become a planning and design reality?

Miklaucic: Well, it actually started with a request from the Gipsy Kings. This was about 20 years ago. They asked us to provide them a guitar that would work on stage that could be amplified, but would also give them the tapping sound that you get in flamenco. So, they were looking for a thin-body acoustic guitar that could be played on stage at a high volume and still give them the feeling of that sort of Spanish flamenco-style sound. That was as far back as the late ’90s.

What do you think was stopping you from bringing a guitar like that to market at the time? What were the challenges?

Miklaucic: The first challenge was getting a pickup that could both pick up the tapping sounds of a player tapping the top of the soundboard, but also avoid feedback on a large stage. When the Gipsy Kings and their manager came to me with this request, I designed a thin-body acoustic guitar, which we called the FCWE at the time. I brought that guitar to Larry Fishman and asked him if he could convert a two-way pickup with mic and piezo, to a pickup that had piezo and had soundboard transducers (instead of a mic) that would give you a tapping sound while also reducing the feedback effect. So he modified the pickup for me—and we put it in the instrument.

I flew to Miami and watched the Gipsy Kings play it on stage, and at soundcheck, it was immediately clear that it wouldn’t work. It was going to feedback. So, what they did was turn off the soundboard transducers, they got that kind of quacky piezo effect, and they made it through the concert like that. But it didn’t produce the sound we were looking for. So, that was the obstacle—and it had remained the obstacle for a really long time—until we finally came up with the design of the Stage guitar.

Córdoba Stage's Soundhole and Chambered Body

When did it start to become “viable?” When did you really feel like you would be able to pull it off?

Mike Fischer: With the development of more of a solidbody design, which removed some of the traditional building styles of a nylon-string guitar—very specifically that lightly built, Spanish-style that we’re so well known for—and working closely with Larry Fishman to develop the pickup system and the guitar at the same time, we were able to build a guitar that was resistant to feedback.

Larry was very helpful in finding a way to make this pickup and top work together. We manipulated the top bracing from the traditional style and working with Larry we were able to kill off some of those resonances that would feedback, but were still able to make it sound like a traditional nylon-string guitar. 

That came from the creation of a stiffer solidbody with a smaller air cavity and really refining the active top that we still want to act like a traditional soundboard, but not as active as a traditional nylon-string acoustic guitar.

How thick is the body on it? 

Fischer: It’s 1.5" and fully chambered.

This is the thinnest guitar you’ve ever built, right?

Miklaucic: Yeah. To add to what Mike had said here, the guitar is fully chambered, so it starts off being a solidbody, fully chambered. The top is added and braced. Unlike an electric guitar, which might have three chambers or something to lighten it. We do that with some of our Guild electric guitars, but the Córdoba Stage is a fully chambered hollow body to which we apply a flexible acoustic soundboard. And from a nylon-string guitar player’s point of view, that gives the guitar a response that’s different from a completely rigid top. It feels quicker. It feels more responsive. It feels like a nylon-string guitar, but its resonance is limited, so you can hear it acoustically, but when you amplify it, it doesn’t feedback too much.

Córdoba Stage Neck, Fingerboard and Cutaway

Is there anything else that you’ve learned in building Guild guitars that carries over to the Stage?

Miklaucic: The difference between electric guitars, steel-string guitars and nylon is that when you amplify, you don’t have a steel string that will vibrate a magnet to produce an electric current. A steel-string or electric guitar has the benefit of the string, made of steel vibrating in a magnetic field, creating an electric current through a coil. A nylon guitar string can’t be sensed by a magnet the same way. We have to use these piezo elements that are pressure activated, and we use soundboard transducers which vibrate with the top, rather than with the motion of the string. So, there’s really not a a big connection between Córdoba Stage and a [Guild] electric, but I do think we got the style and the look and feel from that somewhat. You know, what it would be like to hold a nylon-string guitar that felt like an electric guitar. That’s where I think we benefitted from the crossover experience.

Digging into that a little more, what was the feel and playing experience that you wanted to really go for?

Fischer: We wanted to make it approachable to every musician. We wanted it to feel comfortable. We gave it our Fusion neck, which is an approach to take a nylon-string guitar to a customer that may not be comfortable with that wide 52-millimeter nut width and flat fretboard of traditional nylon-string guitars. It's got a 48-milimeter nut. It’s a little bit smaller. It’s got a 16" radius fretboard, so it’s a little friendlier. It’s got a thinner neck than the traditional nylon-string guitar. It’s all much more comfortable and more familiar to a traditional steel-string or even an electric guitar player.

With this body shape, it’s tucked close to the body with a belly cut on the back side, so it sits really close to the player’s body. It’s very comfortable to play. Someone can pick it up and try it, and realize, “Oh yeah, I really love this sound. I never would have approached a nylon-string guitar because it was "too big" or "too scary" or whatever it was. So hopefully this playability, this playing experience, gives people the capability to explore more tonal coloration than they have before.

Speaking to the accessibility aspect of it, where it’s going to appeal to more steel-string and electric players, have you been surprised at all as you’ve seen how people are playing it stylistically?

Fischer: It’s fantastic, actually. As Tim said, a big part of our mission is to get the nylon-string guitar into everyone’s hands. And so, we very specifically say “nylon-string guitar,” as opposed to “classical guitar.” We don’t build guitars purely for the classical guitar player. We make them for everyone, and these are nylon-strings that you can play anything on. Gypsy jazz, rock … everything sounds really good on these. It’s great to put it in the hands of someone and to see them rip up the neck playing a metal-style solo or something, and it still sounds fantastic. It’s familiar to them. It’s more recognizable as something that’s comfortable and easy to play, but it’s a tone that they haven’t heard before. It’s kind of a blending of worlds.

Córdoba Stage's Fingerboard, Nut and Headstock

Have you seen players plugging into any weird pedalboards or different amps than you might have anticipated?

Fischer: Yeah, it’s great. It’s perfect for a little bit extra reverb and delay, but the sky's the limit. And because of the tap capability that this top has, you can explore the whole tapping phenomenon of playing. If you’ve got a looper you’re able to lay down beats and tap on different portions of the top to get different sounds. You can really lay down complex textures, and build more and more with your looper.

Miklaucic: We did a video recently to demonstrate what the Stage can do. We have a soft, smooth jazz player. We have a Brazilian jazz player. We have a classical player. I’d like to see some videos with metal players! We’re just getting started. I’m really looking forward to releasing the Stage and seeing people try it out and tell us what can be done. That’s the joy for me. What can you do with this that I wouldn’t do? I already know what I’d do with a nylon-string guitar. I want to know what Mike would do, or what you would do.

That’s probably one of the most exciting things about putting it out in the wild, right? All the things you never ever expected you’d see people doing with it … 

Miklaucic: Exactly. I want to hear some Jimi Hendrix!

It’s going to be different, but what we really worked hard on is getting this beautiful tone that I think people hear when they hear a nylon-string acoustic guitar, but they’ve never heard it on stage. Usually when people go on stage [with a nylon-string guitar] they have to do things to the sound that make it less beautiful in my opinion. You have to sort of turn down all the bass and get it really bright. And they do that so they don’t get feedback.

What’s the idealized amplified nylon-string guitar tone for you?

Miklaucic: Wow, That is like asking about wine—what’s the most beautiful wine you’ve ever tasted. I think the answer is: I'm looking for an earthy, woody, very organic character. Beautiful sustain. Colors.

One of the things that we have in nylon-string acoustic guitars is an extreme range of colors, from very bright at the bridge, to very warm and silky toward the soundhole, or even at the neck. And you imitate that a little bit with the various pickups on electric guitar—the neck pickup, the bridge pickup, etc. But we do that with our [playing] position. And now we’ve got tone controls. But the ability to move your hands around on a nylon-string guitar … a beautiful nylon-string guitar has great dynamic range and great color possibilities. And I think we, surprisingly, were able to achieve that, at least some of that with this Stage guitar.

I want to go back a little bit. You talked about working with Larry Fishman. Fishman is in Massachusetts right? And you’re in Santa Monica?

Miklaucic: Yeah.

How does that development process work? Do you send Fishman a prototype instrument? Do they send you prototype pickups?

Miklaucic: Well, the way this started out is we built a prototype. We asked Larry to install a pickup to start with something existing. And the feedback we got was, “This top is too stiff.” At that stage, it was a chambered guitar with two or three chambers in it, but the top was absolutely rigid, and he was concerned that it wouldn’t move the soundboard transducers enough to really make a difference.

So, I asked him what he would do, and he said, “Well, if you’re okay with it, give me a shot, and I’m just going to tear this thing apart and try to modify the body.” And, he did that, and he sent us back a kind of a Frankenstein sort of thing. Then we worked on it, and then we talked about how we could separate the important elements that we get from the piezo from those that we get from the transducer, the two soundboard transducers. We went with two. One on the bass side and one on the treble side so we could make adjustments. We also talked about adding a microphone at very high frequencies for kind of an airy quality. We ruled that out based on the complexity and the number of knobs you’d need to manage it, and we think we got that with the soundboard transducers. Really, at some point, there was a back and forth of deciding exactly how the tone control would work. For example, and Mike can explain this better than I, but instead of having a treble tone control we did a kind of a—what do you call that, Mike?

Fischer: A smiley face, a mid-cut.

Miklaucic: Yeah, a mid-cut. So, when you use that tone control, you get more bass, more treble, reducing a little bit of the mid. We went back and forth on exactly what frequencies we wanted to remove, how much volume we’d wanted to give the piezo, soundboard transducers, and where they should be placed. We found that it was really critical where we placed the transducers. That completely changed the outcome. It became a very fine-tuned process. We probably sent prototypes back and forth seven or eight times.

Córdoba Stage Controls

What period was that over?

Miklaucic: Maybe like a year or so? Roughly a year. And then we got really, really close. Then we fabricated a prototype, our own prototype, so that it wouldn’t be this Frankenstein top with a neck from somewhere else. We were putting this thing together after tearing it apart. So, we did one and reproduced the soundboard that we thought worked the best with the right amount of flexibility, and not so much that it produced too many overtones, too much feedback.

We had that produced and Larry fit two or three versions of the pickup in it. We made some modifications, and we decided that that was the right pickup, the best iteration of the pickup. We took the body and installed that pickup, and then decided to produce. We felt like we had gotten close. At one stage, we had done some production with a few hundred guitars, and we realized that the placement of the soundboard transducers was off by, I don’t know how much.

Fischer: Like a couple millimeters, yeah.

Miklaucic: Very, very slightly, but it changed the sound, so we then made that adjustment, moved them all back to where they needed to be, and we feel like this is it.

Were all the other aspects of the guitar settled at that point? Or was it like, “Okay, let’s take care of this first, then we’ll go in and fine-tune the neck and some of the aesthetic qualities?” I interviewed [pickup designer] Tim Shaw at Fender a few years ago, and he talked about how it’s not just “tweak the pickups and you’re good.” Every little thing has an impact.

Miklaucic: Well, we were lucky in the sense that we knew we wanted to use the Fusion neck. We had an existing neck for our acoustic guitars that we thought was the right balance between playability, that a nylon-string player, a classical player, can play it beautifully and perfectly, but an electric guitarist can adapt. So we’re kind of in that middle ground of what we call the Fusion neck. I think that was pretty well established, but we’ve had the design of the three arches, which is in the soundboard, for ten years. That was the original idea.

So, the look has been around for a while. We just couldn’t get the right balance between electric, acoustic, amplified, weight and so forth. It was only when we put all those things together that we felt like we had a finished product. But I think in a nylon-string guitar with any kind of acoustic properties the point that [Tim] Shaw brought up is even more relevant, because it’s really an acoustic instrument. The neck has a very big impact on the sound of a nylon-string guitar and an amplified nylon-string guitar.

Fischer: And to speak to that point, in working with Larry Fishman, once we had kind of found that new bracing system, we knew we were very, very close. The development of the bracing and the pickup together, we knew we were 95 percent of the way there. At that point, it was kind of just small, little adjustments—little circuit adjustments—taking those little bit steps forward until we all looked around the room and had played it together and said, “Yeah, this sounds right. This is the way it should be.”

What type of amplifying systems were you testing on?

Miklaucic: I’ll give a little bit of feedback and then I’ll let Mike elaborate. We wanted to test with two kinds of systems. One with a high-quality PA, which we have at our facility, and the other we wanted to try on a typical acoustic amp. A Fishman Loudbox acoustic amp. We also tested it through a Fender Deluxe Reverb electric guitar amp. We thought those were two amps that were fairly standard for electric guitar players and a person with an acoustic guitar looking to amplify their guitar. Those were at least the three that I’m aware of.

Fischer: We’ve also played through some other options, and also sent it out to artists of ours and had them play them, whether it be direct in or through an amp. Everybody’s response back was, “This sounds perfect, this sounds great.” Even through an electric guitar amp, it’s a surprisingly great tone. That kind of surprised everybody when we plugged it in. It’s not ice picky and horrible sounding through an electric guitar amp. I’d love to see somebody plug this into a Marshall stack and see what happens.

Well, now you’re giving me some ideas … We do have some of those handy. Have these been with anyone out on the road yet?

Fischer: Yeah. We’ve had them out with some of our artists, kind of like behind the scenes. We’ve had them out with quite a few artists that aren’t posting anything on social media, or sharing anything. But nonetheless, they’ve been tested on the road and tested on stages, so it’s kind of nice R&D preparation with that.

How did you settle on the aesthetic look? Was that also driven by the idea of helping electric guitarists feel comfortable with it?

Fischer: Absolutely. We settled on the concept of doing one, and it was really important to deliver to the customer the one version of the Stage that is just kind of, “Here it is. It’s perfect. Take it. Try it.” Something that we’ve been attempting to do in the last couple years is really try to catch the eye of people when they’re looking at a wall of nylon-strings. For the most part, everybody looks at a wall of nylon-strings and sees very, very similar looking guitars. So, we’ve been experimenting with colors and woods and things. You just walk up, and you see it—it’s beautiful, and it doesn’t necessarily close off your mind to whether it’s for an electric guitar player or a nylon-string player.

Córdoba Stage and Gig Bag

Yeah, it doesn’t immediately make you think, “Oh, it’s just one type of sound.”

Fischer: Exactly, yeah. I want to add it was very important for us when we developed this to have a solid top, and so a solid spruce top was, from the very get-go, a design concern that we wanted to stick with. Even though it has the flame maple veneer that covers it, which gives it this incredible look, underneath that is a top that vibrates how a top should vibrate. We just couldn’t start with the pickup until that aspect was decided upon.

Did you have to compensate in any way, bearing in mind the veneer on top, to get the responsiveness that you wanted?

Fischer: Just a little bit. It’s essentially like adding on another layer of finish, so we had to make sure that we didn’t bulk up the top too much to make sure that the top still had the flexibility that we’d expect. It was important that it moves naturally.

Miklaucic: That’s something we’re working on for our acoustic line as well. We feel we can get the look, any look we want, with a very thin veneer. As long as we’re using a solid spruce or cedar top we can get that, with the beauty of a flame maple on a spruce top. So, we’re going to explore that further.

Yeah, which is, again, how do you make it look different, right?

Miklaucic: Exactly. It also adds stability, interestingly enough.

You’re using recycled material for the gig bag. Can you talk a little bit about how you settled on the material?

Miklaucic: It was very purposeful. I think that comes from our preference to use recycled materials where possible and to be as sustainable a company as we can be. We’d been looking for this material for quite a while and finally found something which is as durable and as beautiful as any new nylon denier, and we discovered this material originally in Taiwan and found that they’re making nylon fabrics from recycled fishing nets. 

Wow.

Miklaucic: So, they’re pulling fishing nets out of the ocean, using this as the raw material to make the nylon material that we then use for bags. It’s a little more expensive, but we like the concept, and the bag we use for this particular guitar is really very pretty. It kind of looks like blue jean material, and it’s durable. The bag is well padded and since it’s a solidbody—or nearly a solidbody—guitar and very narrow, we wanted it to be sufficient protection, so you wouldn’t be worried about its safety if you were carrying it around, toting it around or even traveling with it. 

Someone walks into their local Guitar Center, an electric guitar player, and they grab Stage off the wall. What’s the best way for them to really get a feel for the guitar? What should they play? 

Fischer: I would say that they should play what they don’t think should be played on it! That would be a good proof of just how surprisingly good it sounds. But, you know, for my personal preference, I think chordal things, anything with complicated textures really, really shows off just how good this system is. There’s this interaction of the whole system when it’s plugged in. You can really use the controls and kind of figure out where your tone is and how you want that to sound. It’s phenomenal. It’s a really inspiring experience to sit down with the Stage and realize just how incredible it sounds.-->{C}

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