Thursday, 8 November 2012

Guitar project, initial thoughts

So, it’s done. No, not some new novel or other. Something that doesn’t quite come along quite that often. My guitar. After almost a year, it’s together, even if it isn’t quite the way I expected it, so how better to celebrate than by putting together a blog post about the process of construction and what I’ve learnt? Writing people may want to look away now.


First, a quick note about the finished product: it’s a telecaster style guitar in korina with a Warmoth standard thin maple neck featuring a bloodwood fretboard and stainless steel frets. The hardware is mostly Wilkinson (three saddle compensated bridge and E-Z lock tuning pegs). The pickup combination is unusual, in that it’s a Creamery standard size wide range copy in the neck, a Creamery strat style dual rail in the middle and a Creamery tele style dual rail in the bridge. The overall effect is of something similar to Brent Mason’s setup, only with what has ended up as simpler strat style controls.


So, to things I’ve learned:


1.      Building a guitar from scratch will never save you money, and should only be attempted either because you genuinely enjoy the process, or because you can’t get what you want off the peg. Even then, it will be cheaper to modify an existing design than to build from the ground up.

2.      Sufficient research will reveal a wide variety of guitar models in the world, many of will fit that hole in your imagination very neatly. Perhaps if I had heard about the Baja telecaster or assorted Fret Kings earlier, things would have been different.

3.      It’s important to have a clear idea of what you want before starting planning the details, because additional features quickly add themselves to the list otherwise. I ended up with a very unusual pickup combination because I didn’t pay attention to what I needed at an early enough stage.

4.      It’s important to look at all your options for achieving what you want (if you want a strat style in between sound, my advice to you is not to add half again to your pickup budget by putting in a third pickup, when you can just add a phase switch. I found this out too late). The internet is surprisingly full of helpful people.

5.      Yet there is also a place for ignoring advice. My current choice of neck pickup is down to outside advice, and though it sounds great, I think if I were doing this again, it isn’t the way I would go.

6.      The time and effort in building, along with the cost of the tools and unexpected materials, is always going to be more than you think. Small things won’t fit, so that you’ll have to spend time doing things like expanding the tuner holes.

7.      Compatible parts are worth a little extra expense. I bought a beautiful Warmoth neck, but I didn’t want to spend the money for one of their bodies. Instead, I bought one from TK guitars. There are problems with it. The string through body holes on it are slightly too far back from the bridge pickup rout, meaning that stringing through the bridge is now the only option. Two of the three pickup routs had to be expanded to fit the pickups they were supposedly designed for. The neck pocket had to be deepened to allow the neck to set up properly. In short, fixing the problems probably cost me as much as getting it done properly in the first place, and I have a marginally worse result.

8.      Not all guitar techs/part builders are created equal. The good on my build include Colin at the Beverley Music Shop, who solved a problem in two days that had foxed the local guitar shop for three months, Jaime at the Creamery, who built wonderful custom pickups and repaired them when they were damaged in the process of construction, Wudtones guitar finishes, Warmoth, and the guys at Trinity Market Place music, who finished the project.

9.      Though having said that, they still weren’t able to give me the wiring I wanted, which included either a blend control or a neck on switch. Instead, I have standard strat wiring. So even with good people, you sometimes don’t get what you want.

10.  The end result will never be perfect. It’s not a custom shop guitar. It’s one you’ve made, with all the imperfections that go with that. I’ve ended up with a guitar I like, but could it be better? Of course it could.


Actually, let’s play that game. If I were designing it again, what would I do differently? Aside from immediately checking out off the peg options? Well, first, I think I would find an existing guitar I liked the neck from to use as a base. Probably still a t-style, but if you can find a complete cheap guitar you like the feel of, you can have a neck and finished body (probably in solid alder or basswood these days) for as little as a hundred quid. It would be two pickup, not three. I would still go with hum-cancellation, but I might go with a fraction higher output, because even on my high gain settings, my pickups don’t crunch the way I expect them to. They’re beautifully clear, but almost too clear. I’d use a phase switch for the strat tone, not a pickup. I’d still use a tele bridge pickup, but in the neck, I might use a strat style pickup.


That’s if I were doing it again. I’m not. At least not for a while. My basic theory with musical instruments is that you have to get to know them. And if this sounds like I’m a bit ambivalent about this one, I should point out that there isn’t a single one I have ever owned that I haven’t hated after about twenty-four hours, with the possible exception of my acoustic guitar. I have to learn to love them over time.


Julie Luek said...

I have a friend who builds mandolins-- my instrument of choice to learn. But have never met someone who crafted a guitar. What a process. I think I'll stick to the instruments I've bought.

Jeremy Bates said...

C'mon. The hard part is over. The next one will be easier because you now know what not to do. I have a friend that makes homemade mandolins. He told me over a beer one night how much it pissed him off when he built the first one. After his 10th or so, he wasn't satisfied. Now all of these years later, he's a veritable master.