Meet The Family: The Catalpa Tele

I was eagerly looking forward to the November 2012 Philly Guitar Show, to see what Larry had come up with this time. Don’t get me wrong; I do not need any more guitars! But within a minute of arriving at his booth, I spotted this Catalpa body and grabbed it. He had it out on a stand, and was definitely showing it off. I’d never seen anything like it, and he filled me in. Apparently it’s quite unusual to see one-piece bodies in this stuff (it’s prone to decay of some sort) and the trees are mainly valued for their foliage and for their seed pods, which are used to feed livestock.

The wood is pretty soft, and has a faint greenish cast. As you can see, Tru-Oil worked its by-now-familiar magic and brought a beautiful warm amber tone to the wood, as well as making the grain pop spectacularly. The pictures really can’t do it justice; turning this body under the light is a religious experience if you enjoy cool wood grain.

Because it is a little softer than, say, the swamp ash, I was anticipating a bit warmer sound from it, as well as possibly softer highs. That made it seem like a great platform for a set of Joe Barden pickups with the new Modern T bridge pickup, which has a little more midrange than the familiar Danny Gatton bridge model. Great sound, and they are dead quiet.

I also wanted to build it up with an Allparts TRO-22 neck, which has 22 tall, wide frets. The 22nd fret is on a lip at the very end of the fingerboard, and the upshot of that is that you can’t remove the pickguard with first removing the neck. Big fat PITA! Ordinarily the guard needs to come off so you can adjust the height of the neck pickup, which is screwed into the body. I like the way that sounds, and fortunately an excellent answer presented itself.

I found a modern 3-ply black Fender guard with holes at either end of the pickup cutout for mounting the pickup. My spin on it was to mount the pickup into the wood as I usually do, but use a very thin Phillips screwdriver to adjust the screws through the holes in the pick guard. Quick and easy, and you can’t really see the holes unless you are pretty close.

Other features include a beautiful Marc Rutters vintage-style bridge with compensated brass saddles. Marc machines string grooves very accurately into each saddle, and gets his compensation that way, rather than angling the saddles themselves. Old school appearance, and it plays perfectly in tune. My usual flipped plate, Electroscket jack holder, and red chicken head tone knob ware all included, as are Dunlop Straploks, Gotoh vintage-type tuners, and a bone nut.

My hunch was correct. I got another great guitar, one which has undergone no parts swapping since I put it together. I got it just right the first time.

Meet The Family: The Swamp Ash Tele

I bought this body on the same day I got the pine body. This one is two-piece, but Larry does such a beautiful job of hiding the join that you really can only see it in the end grain. This guitar uses many of the same basic parts as the pine guitar, but with a few notable differences.

That’s a Glendale cold-rolled steel bridge with both sides cut down, and a mix of his brass and aluminum saddles. The pickups are from Jimmy Wallace, and are his ’50’s set. These, however, have staggered magnets, which is not their usual spec. They are the best sounding vintage-type set I own, and suit this guitar very well. When I need to get to twangin’, this is the guitar I reach for. But these pickups will work for anything; they just sound great. They’re SO vintage, they aren’t hum-cancelling in the middle position…and I don’t mind!

You may have noticed that I flip the control plates on my Teles, and I will never go back! I like the volume control to be within easy reach, and I don’t adjust the tone knob much during a song. That’s why the tone control gets the cool red chicken head knob. I don’t mind reaching a little for the selector, so this definitely the best set-up for me.

I also shaped the hard corner on the bass side of the neck, near the heel. When I wrapped my thumb around it before, it was NOT comfortable. So, I filed and sanded it down, and now it is.

Next up: Catalpa!

Meet The Family: The Pine Tele

This was my first build project. It’s got a one-piece pine body, under four pounds. I found the body on Larry Robinson’s “paint grade” pile at the June, 2012 Philly Guitar Show in Oaks. I grabbed it (I did pay first), went home, and started looking for info on necks. I’m an old hand at bridges, pickups, tuners, and electronics (for guitars), but the right neck choice is critical. I zeroed in on the Fender-licensed necks sold by Allparts and selected the TRO-C, which is a C-shaped neck, with 21 tall-but-narrow frets and a rosewood fretboard.

I like the rosewood for its color contrast. The frets are tall enough that I’m not touching the fretboard wood much, but still I am generally fonder of rosewood than maple. My other parts choices were pretty straightforward: vintage-style tuners from Gotoh (the ones Fender currently uses), an unbleached bone nut from a Stew-Mac blank, a Joe Barden bridge (well-compensated saddles), and standard Fender parts elsewhere.

The finish is a light application of Tru-Oil, rubbed out with 0000 steel wool. I wanted enough finish for protection from dirt and moisture, but was curious to hear what effect, if any, a thin finish would have on the guitar’s sound. This was the biggest surprise of the build. I love the sound of a thin finish! Make no mistake, thicker commercial finishes are at least filtering the highs in the guitar, if not strangling them outright. It’s a win in every way, in my opinion. The finish is easy to apply, rubs out to a beautiful satin gloss, and contributes a lot to (or maybe just stays out of the way of) the sound of the guitar.

The pickups? Well, I always have fun with that. These are Bill Lawrence Micro-Coils, said to be the final design refinement from Bill before he died. Not traditional but great sounding, very quiet, and easily adjustable for an even string balance, unlike actual Tele pickups. These were in another guitar at first, but have found their way to this guitar, and are here to stay.

A few tweaks: I installed a no-load tone pot and a treble bypass cap on the volume control. The jack holder is an Electrosocket; again, my preferred part. Otherwise this guitar is simple, great sounding, resonant as hell, and all around a good time.

Next up: swamp ash!

’51 P-Bass Build, Part 6: The Reveal!

I need a thumb rest on this bass. The Barden pickup isn’t housed in a plastic cover, so it won’t really do for that job. Bring on the trial-and-error! The standard black plastic Fender rest works well, but doesn’t contribute much of anything visually. The full-blast bridge and pickup cover combo is a bit Flash Gordon for me. But the pickup cover alone is perfect. Just enough flash, and a wide range of thumb positions for getting nice tones.

And that is the final touch. This bass looks and sounds killer!

What My Guitar Builders Are Up To, 1/10/2015

Two builders came in yesterday to work on their Teles. The first picture shows a beautiful one-piece African mahogany body, and we spent our time sanding. There’s LOTS of sanding to do, and we went over the use of a sanding block, running the grits from 220 to 600, what to expect as the grain changes, and the importance of really good lighting, so you can actually see what you’re doing.

It’s a meditative job, if you approach it a certain way. You can feel each new grit as it sands, and then slides more smoothly, and you constantly touch the wood to feel what is right and what isn’t yet. Not fun if you’re impatient, so try not to be; it’s well worth the time. This is one of the phases where the builder makes the guitar truly theirs, and has much to do with how pretty it will be when it’s done.

The next five pictures are of the second build we worked on. This guy really impressed me with the gloss he achieved wet-sanding the Tru-Oil finish (our standard favorite) on his obeche body with a little water and some 4000 grit paper. Beautiful work! We drilled properly-sized holes for the tuners, pressed in the bushings, lined the tuners up, drilled the screw holes, and installed them. We also got a pretty perfect ferrule installation, screwed on the bridge, and fitted and aligned the neck, which was a snug fit. That’s a very good thing.

We roughed in the nut, measured for and started the E-string slots, and drilled the screw holes in the neck heel. It looks like a guitar now, instead of a pile of parts. Plenty still to do, but it’s coming out beautifully!

’51 P-Bass Build, Part 5

And more progress! The Barden pickup is in place, and so are the pick guard and control plate. Finding parts that fit together well was not the easiest thing. But patience wins out, and those parts are right where they should be. The nut is slotted but not fully shaped, and the string guide is installed. Nice clear unplugged tone from every string. I’m excited to hear the same bright punch that my other project instruments have!

And it’s nearly done. I’m still on the fence about installing a chrome bridge cover, or just a simple thumb rest alongside the E string. And if I opt for the thumb rest, will I go for the bridge cover, too? The parts have been ordered, so stay tuned!

’51 P-Bass Build, Part 4

Lots of progress, and again I’m letting the pictures tell the story. And again, the Allparts neck fits the Clearfork body perfectly, with absolutely no sanding needed. The electrosocket that holds the jack needs a flat area to rest on, so out came the files and sandpaper. Lining up the neck lets me see that the geometry will work. The wiring harness is sporting a NOS (new old stock) Sprague Black Beauty .05mfd cap in the tone circuit. It’s not a Fender-ish part, but will sound good, and it looks cool.

The nut gets roughed in and the outside strings placed in shallow slots before I drill the holes for the neck screws. The Hipshot tuners were very easy to install, and weigh about a half-pound less than conventional tuners; I don’t want the neck to “dive”. A clearer shot of the clamps that hold the neck in place before I drill the screw holes. And last, the pickup mounting holes are located, and the Barden pickup is ready for installation once they’re drilled.

Click on the pictures to see details. More to come!

’51 P-Bass Build, Part 3: Lotsa Pictures!

Lots of progress! Sanding is done, ferrule and string holes are drilled, and most of the parts are here, so I spent a few minutes getting things in place to see how it will all look. HAPPY! On to finishing, and when the neck gets here, I can start in on that.

My YouTube Channel Is Live!

The Hayride Tele-Matic demo video got such a great response on Facebook, I decided it would be a good way to get my YouTube channel up and running. It’s a cell video but looks and sounds surprisingly (to me, anyway) good. Here it is!

More to come. Please comment/like/get the word out everywhere. Thanks!