Sep 30 2005

Guitar Project

Published by at 6:28 pm under Art,Entertainment,Gratitude,Music

Many years ago Brian, my friend and band-mate in Poor Old Joe, disassembled a guitar he had and gave the body to a co-worker who painted a lovely surrealist image onto it. When he got it back, all the parts went into a box.

Flash forward a good number of years. Brian’s sister, Judy, calls me to say that she found the box and Brian, now living in Korea, told her to give it to me. When I collected it, all the hardware and electronics were gone, with only the neck and body remaining. Although it took me several years to get motivated, I finally decided to see if I could put the thing back together with new hardware and electronics.

I met with Steve Soest, who is widely known as a guitar expert, having worked with Danelectro to reverse engineer their early instruments for modern production. He took one look at the body and stated that it was made of 15 thin layers of wood that had been glued together. The glue, he said, was death to the natural vibration that needs to pass freely through an instrument for it to sound good. Investing the expense of new hardware and electronics into such a body was wasteful, he said.

The neck was from a 60’s era Italian Vox guitar. I thought that, with the neck, I could buy or craft a guitar body and use the existing neck. I launched into some research, considering buying a used body, ordering a new one, or making my own. I began to think about what I’d want in a guitar… The kind of wood, the electronics, the neck, frets, etc… and decided that I’d buy some wood, design the shape, and have Steve do the hard work of shaping and sanding. From there, I’d finish it and give it back to him for set-up.

After reading tons of articles, and speaking with Steve and many others, I decided on African Mahogany. Not only is it a beautiful wood, but it has tonal characteristics that I value. For example, many Gibson solid-body guitars use mahogany and it is known for producing a warm, rich tone. Also, from my time doing wood refinishing, I have developed a love of complex and interesting wood grain. So, in my nievity, I decided to find Figured African Mahogany. Much to my surprise, I quickly discovered that I couldn’t find such a thing at home depot, or even at the local lumber yard. In fact, I couldn’t find it anywhere locally.

Once again I returned to the net and found a place called West Penn Hardwood. I called them and one of the sales guys actually photographed and emailed me examples of several woods they had in stock. Because I wanted to use a single piece of wood, rather than gluing pieces together, this narrowed the field some. Although I was first attracted by a grain called Beeswing, and he initially suggested a grain called Ropey, I settled upon a piece of Curly African Mahogony. I ordered the wood and, in about a week it arrived. The piece, 2″x24″x15″, was finely sanded on one side, and the wood clearly oxidized. The oxidation highlighed the beautiful grain. Holding it in my hand, and seeing how beautiful it was, made me very excited.

Now, after receiving the wood, I began to rexamine the merits of using the Vox neck. For one thing, Vox guitars are somewhat collectable, but were never considered fine instruments. The fingerboard, for all its ‘rosewood’ appearance, was clearly some sort of inferior wood that had been stained black. Additionally, small cracks were clearly visable. As I thought about building a guitar, it began to move from restoring or reusing to building my dream guitar. It was at this point that I abandoned the idea of reusing the neck.

There are a number of places where one can purchase guitar necks. Many of the larger guitar companies sell necks, and there are a number of aftermarket products available as well. Warmouth, however, kept coming up as “the” place to go.

Now, I have to say that I have a guitar, one that I’m very fond of. It is, to the best of my knowledge, a Gretsch BST-1500. Gretsch is known for their hollow-body guitars, popular in Rockabilly. This, though, was a more modern instrument, one that attempted to compete with Fender and Gibson. Like most Fender guitars, it has a bolt on maple neck with a rosewood fingerboard. The neck profile, or shape, is quite different, though. It is wide and flat, a design that I find very comfortable. It has a solid mahogany body, made from several pieces that are joined together. Gibson guitars are known for their use of mahogany, both in bodies and in necks. The pickups are more like Gibson guitars, being DiMarzio Super-Distortion Humbucking Pickups. I must admit that I find Fender Strat guitars, which use non-humbucking or single coil pickups, to be annoyingly noisy. I like humbuckers. Another desirable feature of the Gretsch is that the strings are threaded through the back of the guitar before they go across the bridge saddles. This somehow connects the strings more fully to the body, and allows the wood to interact more fully with them.

So, I decided to use this Gretsch guitar as a model for my new one, with a number of modifications. First, I decided that I only wanted one pickup. I find that I rarely use the ‘bridge’ p/u, and can get a variety of interesting tonalities simply by moving my pick toward or away from the bridge. Also, it became clear to me that I wanted to preserve as much of the beautiful wood as possible. To this end, I chose a mini-humbucker. Dimarzio makes a minihumbucker, as do many other companies. I contacted DiMarzio, but they didn’t seem interested in producing a custom pickup that met all of my criteria. So I went with Seymour Duncan because they’re still small enough to do custom work, and I’ve used their products in the past with great success. They asked me to write down exactly what I wanted, using whatever descriptive language I could muster, which I did.

Back to the neck. I reviewed the Warmouth website very carefully, and narrowed down my choice to a specific neck. Even with that choice, there are many custom options available. I chose what they call an LP (Les Paul) conversion neck. It as a headstock with three tuners on each side. I decided that, although it makes no significant difference in the tone, to opt for ‘Flame’ maple, and Pau Farrow for the fingerboard. Pau Farrow has many of the qualities of rosewood, but actually is much more beautiful. There were many practical and cosmetic decisions to make, but I finally completed my order.

Looking at my Gretsch guitar body, I began to realize that there were a few things that bugged me. First, I play seated quite often, and rest the bottom edge of the guitar on my thigh, with the neck tilted up at about a 45 degree angle. The bit that rests on my leg is quite rounded, and isn’t at all stable. This was the first change I made: Cut out a bit that’s the shape of my leg. With this chunk removed (all on paper) I felt that the shape lacked symetry, so I decided to remove a similar piece on the top side, where my right arm lays across the guitar body. By removing this chunk, however, it actually made it easier for me to access the guitar strings.

I spoke with Steve again and he told me that it would take him quite some time to do the work required, and suggested finding someone else to cut out the body shape. I’d read that cabinet makers have all the requisite skills and tools for this kind of thing. I remembered a fellow, Randy Simon, who once had a cabinetry shop. I tracked him down via a friend, and he agreed to help me. The first step was removing nearly half an inch of material from the board. This was done with a giant sanding machine. Then, he traced my cardboard cutout onto the wood and used a bandsaw to cut out the shape. He then used an occilating spindle sander to smooth the cut marks, and then routed the edges to round them. So, then, I had my guitar body in its most rough state. I have to say that, once I had it in my hands, it felt wonderful.

Two days ago I delivered everything to Steve. I was missing a few small parts, and will have those next week. After that, within a few days, I’ll have a fairly clear idea of how everything will come together.

After that, the instrument will be disassembled, sanded, and finished with several coats of boiled linseed oil followed by several coats of tung oil.


One response so far

One Response to “Guitar Project”

  1. Marvin Wolffon 14 Oct 2005 at 3:21 pm

    Sander, Your description is clear, concise, and carries with it a sense of the excitement in seeing this instrument come alive. I hope that you continue and as you proceed the output is consistent with the meticulous input. Love, Dad.

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