The Joy of Homemade Guitars

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Necessity is the mother of the hex-nut saddle

The Fender Custom Shop’s slogan is, “When You’re Ready.” Could a company be more smug? It reminds me of the Maitre D’ from L.A. Story: “You think with a financial statement like this you can have the duck?”

Of course, if you are ready (that is, you have $5,000 lying around), then go for it. Fender makes some nice guitars. Now, realize that no way is your $5k Custom Shop Stratocaster going to be five times better than the American-series Strat, but it’ll be a really nice guitar, to be sure. And what could be cooler than a guitar made for you? Well, I’ll tell you: a guitar you make yourself.

Brian May made his first guitar. Now, I am not a person who is easily impressed, but I’ll bet you that underneath his clothes Brian May wears a blue unitard with a big, giant “S” on it. You know those Dos Equis commercials, with “the most interesting man in the world”? I’m pretty sure that guy is playing Brian May. The story goes that he’s somewhere in his early teens when he admires a guitar in a pawn shop window but can’t afford it. So he goes home and made a guitar from wood reclaimed from a fireplace mantle. Let me say that again: he made a guitar. The tremolo bridge was a knife, a spring from a motorbike engine, and a knitting needle. OK, his father helped, but that hardly diminishes the accomplishment. A guitar is a pretty complicated instrument. To get proper intonation at every fret requires a lot of precise measurement, and this kid just went home and did it. Must have done a pretty good job, too, because he’s still playing his “red special” thirty years later.

Now, making a guitar isn’t rocket science (did I mention that May, besides being one of the most famous guitarists of our time, is also a rocket scientist?), but it is pretty hard to do. Even at Martin Guitar in Nazareth (awesome factory tour, BTW), where you can see some pretty old-fashioned techniques, the necks are machined by computer. If you are inclined to make a guitar, my hat is off to you. By all appearances, it’s really, really hard to do right.

I have never made a guitar, but I have built a couple. By “built” I mean that I’ve assembled a guitar. There’s a little soldering and a little woodworking involved, but all in all it’s about a million times easier than making one like Brian May’s Red Special, and it’s a tremendously satisfying (not to mention educational) experience.

I built myself a banjo from the Grizzly catalog. You know, Grizzly, known world over for fine musical instruments. Never hear of them? Grizzly makes industrial tools for woodworking: lathes, planers, etc. For some reason, in the middle of their catalog they sell kits for musical instruments. I put it together in about a day and I’m pretty proud of it. How does it play? I have no idea. I don’t know how to play the banjo.

The first (and only) guitar I built, I bought from a mom & pop reseller on eBay. It was a Telecaster-style guitar, all parts included, again for about $100. I had to cut and shape the headstock myself due to some issue with Fender’s intellectual property (Strange that you can copy the body of a Fender guitar almost exactly, but the headstock is protected). I also spray-painted the body a cool silver-blue color.

Once I got it together I plugged it in and started jamming. It was a tremendously fulfilling experience. The only real problem was that I took a $100 kit and built a guitar worth, I reckon, about $100. In other words, it was crap.

The whole thing was pretty rough all around. To give an example of the quality of the kit, the headstock had pre-drilled holes for the tuners. The holes didn’t actually line up with the strings leading off the nut, though, so they all bent slightly. It’s like someone got a hold of a Telecaster and started making replicas without understanding why anything was the way it was.

And the whole guitar is like this. I had to set the action of the neck way high to avoid buzz. With all the barely-finished edges it has, playing this Tele is about as easy on the hands as wrestling an apple core from a raccoon. And the metal used on the saddles was so soft that as soon as you put tension on them they’d slip from the adjustment screws. (I won’t jump to conclusions, but apparently somebody once found lead in something made in China.) My fix was to put a hex nut on the saddle adjustment screw. It is probably the most expensive component on the guitar.

It only stands to reason that, unless you’re going to put some real, skilled labor into the project, your instrument is only going to be as good as the components you buy, and For that reason I suppose you’re going to have to put some money into the project if you want good results. But even if building your own guitar is not a money-saving proposition, it’s still worth giving a try. You learn an awful lot about what goes into a guitar while putting one together. It forces you to give at least some attention to every component as you handle it, and you gain a better appreciation of how everything comes together. It gives you a test bed for modifications that you might be considering making to your more expensive instruments. And The experience of playing an instrument that you created is sublime.

I’m planning on building one of Carvin Guitars’ kits next. They’re not inexpensive, but I’m hoping to end up with a truly usable guitar, so I’m willing to put a few bucks into it. I’ll post more as that project progresses. As for the Tele, sitting in my garage for three years (and occasionally falling over) has given it a terrific patina. I’m going to replace the neck and bridge, and I think that will improve it’s playability a lot. And if not, I’m sure to learn something in the process.

I guess this post wouldn’t really be complete without a sound sample, so here is one which I suppose shows that even a homemade Telecaster can sound half decent if you add enough pedals!
[audio:http://www.jimbriggsmusic.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/HomeMadeTele.mp3|titles=Homemade Telecaster]

Come on out to see me with Scot Silver and Kris Dragon at Baxter’s in Malvern on the 11th.

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