Guitar Building: Bigsby Tele With Humbuckers, Part 5

In which I solve a small problem: I wanted to install my completed wiring assembly, with the jack. When I tried to fit the jack, screwed into its Electrosocket, into the hole in the side of the guitar, it didn’t fit. Much swearing followed. I found my shop ruler and measured the hole, which turned out to be a sixteenth of an inch narrower than it should be. I needed a hole 7/8″ in diameter, and I didn’t have it.

So, I’ve drilled these holes before, and the right bit for the job is a Forstner, a fearsome-looking thing with teeth and points that is actually very easy to use, even in a hand drill. You mark the hole’s location with something sharp like an awl, and the center point of the bit goes into that mark. You have to hold the drill reasonably straight, but the bit basically guides itself, and drills a beautiful, smooth-sided hole, right where you want it.

What a Forstner won’t do is enlarge an existing hole. If I’d tried that, the bit could have gone anywhere, and would definitely have torn up the side of the guitar. Not cool; more swearing. Finally it occurred to me to fill the hole with wood, mark its center, and drill a new hole. I found a stub of 3/4″ dowel, and built it up by wrapping it with masking tape. When it was almost too big to fit, I tapped it into the hole with a mallet, marked the center, fired up the drill, and got a perfect hole. I was definitely holding my breath, but it worked great, and didn’t damage my finish at all. I felt kind of proud of myself!

Guitar Building: Bigsby Tele With Humbuckers, Part 4

The electronics are straightforward, with a twist or two. I always flip the control plate for better access to the volume knob. I used 500k pots for the humbuckers and a .022 mfd PIO tone cap, with a 180pf “treble bleed” cap. I found a new brand of jack, called a Pure Tone, which has two contacts each for hot and ground. They claim an improvement in the sound with this design. I can’t verify that, but the plug fits very securely, and the jack looks well-made.

The bridge is a Marc Rutters “Chopped” model, modified by Marc with notches for the strings to pass through. Without those, the strings would rest on the back lip of the bridge. Not good! As always, his bridge is a beautiful piece. The saddles are cold-rolled steel, which sounds good and wears like crazy, so they should work well when I crank the Bigsby.

Marc also made the control plate, in nickel-plated steel, with his slanted selector switch slot and the middle control hole 3/8″ further away from the switch than usual. These modifications work really well. The plate is not cheap, but well worth it!

Finally for this post, the tuners are a vintage-style locking type from Gotoh. I wanted vintage looks, but needed the locking feature because I want to whammy and stay in tune! These took some tracking down, but Philadelphia Luthier Tools had them and got them to me in a couple of days. They install like normal tuners, but have staggered post heights and a thumbwheel locking mechanism which pins the string into place with a steel rod, much like the Sperzel tuners. I have high hopes for these. Gotta have locking tuners if you want to whammy, unless you just loooove tuning up after every song.

Guitar Building: Bigsby Tele With Humbuckers, Part 3

This beautiful neck came from USA Custom Guitars. Last December (2016), I needed a neck for this guitar and Allparts was out of stock on the model I wanted. On the internet I found the USACG site (I visit from time to time), and followed the pages to some information about a neck sale they were running. I was able to get this flame maple neck with the fretboard width and radius I wanted, with my choice of fret size, neck carve, and other features. Wow! With the sale pricing, the neck was only a few bucks more than the Allparts neck I would have chosen, and the options I could pick made it an amazing deal.

They were buried in orders and it took a few weeks to get it, but it was well worth waiting for. Very pretty wood and great workmanship! It needed only a little sanding to be ready for finishing. They had already rolled the fretboard edges, and I went a little further with that. The fret ends were beautifully rounded and didn’t need any further attention. The peghead’s shape is a slight departure from the classic Tele profile, but I like it and am happy with it as it came. Four coats of Tru-Oil and some 0000 steel wool later, the neck was ready for tuners and a nut, and the wood grain looked great, as you can see.

One option I chose was to get the truss rod adjustment on the peghead, instead of the heel. That’s a huge convenience! I’m good at getting the adjustment done the old school way, but it’s always a bit of a guessing game. This neck straightened with only a bit of adjustment. I’m anxious to see how it behaves under tension. The neck heel fits perfectly on the body. It always blows my mind a bit when I see a neck and body from different makers go together so well. So far, I’m really impressed with USACG’s work.

Guitar Building: Bigsby Tele With Humbuckers, Part 2

Continuing with finishing the body! Whoever said that finishing a guitar is the hardest part of this process has it right. I used Trans Tint bright red dye concentrate to get this color, and diluted it with water for easier handling. I kept pushing the dilution until I got the shade I wanted, and it’s exactly what I hoped for. More luck and perseverance than skill here.

Once again it’s Tru-Oil for the topcoat, working up to six thin layers and scuff-sanding between each coat with 2000 grit paper. At that point I rubbed it back pretty hard with 0000 steel wool, and then applied two more coats over the next couple of days. I like to allow 12 to 24 hours between coats, and then I let the body hang for a week before another rub-out with steel wool, followed by buffing and polishing.

I don’t grain fill, and feel that the bright, responsive sound I get from the guitars I assemble has a lot to do applying a very thin finish. Tru-Oil gives great “grain pop”, and plenty of moisture protection, but very little impact protection. I’m fine with that trade-off. I also like to see the texture of the wood I’m working with. I sanded this body very smooth, raised the grain with water, and re-sanded until I was happy. Heavy applications of the dye solution re-raised the grain a tiny bit, but I liked it and decided not to re-sand.

I’m not interested in a glossy commercial finish, though I certainly appreciate the skill it takes to do that. I can get a hand-rubbed bright satin luster with Meguiar’s #7 and some buffing pads, and then a final buffing with Virtuoso polish. Looks good to me.

Guitar Building: Bigsby Tele With Humbuckers! Part 1

The body for this guitar is a single piece of Eastern White Pine (IIRC) from my pal Larry at Clearfork Designs. It’s about 3.5 pounds and very resonant. As you can see from the photos in this first installment, I’m dyeing the body RED, using an awesome black and white shell pickguard, and installing a Fender-logo Bigsby B5. Once the color is right, I’ll topcoat with Tru-Oil, rub it out with 0000 steel wool, and buff it with Meguiar’s for a bright satin gloss (if that makes any sense).

To come: a neck from USA Custom Guitars (en route as I write), maple and rosewood, which will get a bone nut, and a new (to me, anyway) type of Gotoh locking tuner. Final pickup choice will rely on how things are sounding, but I have a brand new set of Electric City low-wind humbuckers that I think will work great. The bridge will be a Marc Rutters “Chopped” model, notched for the Bigsby. Standard wiring on a flipped plate, and we’ll see where we are. Much more to come!

Guitar For Sale: Gibson Advanced Jumbo Acoustic

I’m selling a very nice Gibson AJ from 2002, with its original hard case. This is Gibson’s round-shouldered dreadnought design, originally from the 1930’s, which has a huge, loud sound. This is also partly due to the 25.5″ scale. I believe the AJ is the only Gibson acoustic with that Martin-like scale length. You can see from the photos there’s only normal handling wear, with one tiny ding on the top and very little fret wear.

Spruce top (probably Sitka), Indian rosewood back and sides, and a mahogany neck. The guitar is very well set up and comfortable to play. The intonation is great, and came that way from the factory. I made and installed a bone nut, and put a new strap button on, with a matching one on the underside of the neck heel. I have the original button, and the warranty card from Gibson. This guitar is ready to go!

And it’s gorgeous! Nobody sprays a sunburst like Gibson, and the grain in the top is outstanding. This is the best example of this model I found, which is why I bought it. It’s going for $1800. Check it out!

Updated Guitar Gallery

Not complete, but you get the idea, I think. Putting these guitars together is FUN, and a little addictive!

What My Builders Are Up To: Pine Strat!

This is the second pine Strat-style guitar to come off my bench, and both have been winners!
Leo Fender built several early Broadcaster models from pine, but never any Strats, so far as I know. Many people look down on pine (too cheap, too common?) but it sounds fantastic and looks great, too.

Check out this beautiful example, with its blue streaks and intergalactic knot placed right on the arm cut! Graeme, the builder, chose this body for his second project. Clearfork Designs body, Allparts neck, Fender bridge, tuners, noiseless pickups, and plastic parts, and a Tru-Oil finish. It’s simple: gather good parts and put them together properly, and you really can’t miss.

What My Builders Are Up To: Lefty Mahogany Tele!

This one has been awhile coming, but was well worth waiting for. The body is African mahogany, and was originally destined to get an Allparts Strat neck. Long story short: AJ, the builder, also has an American Strat. He decided he wanted to have his new Tele set up for slide playing, while the Strat would become his guitar for other styles. He felt the Strat would benefit more from a neck with fresh frets. It’s a good move, and both necks fit their respective bodies with no problems.

As you can see, the bridge is a six-saddle Gotoh, and the pickups are Fender’s Pure Vintage ’64 set, which I had not heard before. They sound great on this guitar! We opted to flip the plate, in order to improve access to the selector switch; otherwise the control setup is standard.

The body, as usual, is from Clearfork Designs, and is stunning. AJ did one of the best arm- and belly-cut jobs I’ve seen yet, with beautiful lines and execution. It’s a favorite way to modify a Tele body, and he really got it right. He applied a Tru-Oil finish, also with great results.

I may sound like I’m just cheerleading when I write these posts, but I’m really proud of the work all of these builders have done. And it’s interesting to see that in many cases they really bond with these guitars. I know I have, and the whole process of getting your hands on all the parts as you work through the steps is very satisfying. Plus, you have a cool instrument when you’re done. Another beautiful job here, Thanks, AJ!

I Needed A PURPLE Strat!

Regular readers know I’ve been working with TransTint dyes lately. I did the orange Tele body and liked it so much, as did pretty much everyone who saw it, that I went looking for another color. I found this purple on their website and bought a bottle of the liquid concentrate at Woodcraft.

This project, like all my builds for myself, involved some loose experimenting. Not in any scientific way; more like, “What happens if I do this?”, and “What the hell is THAT??”. I bought a very lightweight two-piece swamp ash body from Larry Robinson at the 2015 Fall Philly Guitar Show to replace a three-piece body I’d bought from him a year or so ago. My intention was to move all the parts from the older Strat to the newer body. I figured that this was the closest I could get to a meaningful comparison between the two bodies. The older Strat sounded good but some people love the lighter bodies, so I wanted to see if I heard a difference.

Of course, that wasn’t enough. I decided to assemble the guitar with the body unfinished. Years ago I met a violin maker who told me that, in his opinion, violins sounded best “in the white”, or unfinished. You can’t play them without the protection of the finish for long, but he felt that even a thin finish changed the sound. Now, Strats and fiddles are different animals, but I’ve already heard the results of applying the thin Tru-Oil finishes I use on all my guitars. The guitars are acoustically brighter than commercially finished instruments tend to be (though there’s a LOT of variation there). What would I hear with no finish?

So off I went, and the short version is that I now had a much different sounding guitar. Strats are bright anyway, and this one had the extra top end I am used to hearing with the thin finish, plus a bit more. The guitar was also clearer and more open sounding than with the other body. Great bass response, which some people say can be an issue with a lighter body. So far, that has not been my experience; the orange Tele body is spruce, and also very light, and it has all the tone I want.

Most of the difference I heard I chalked up to the body weight, and this was borne out after the new body had been completely finished. No doubt the unfinished body was brighter and a touch livelier, but the effect was very subtle, and I don’t need more brightness than I’m already getting. Interesting, glad I did it, time to move on.

The dye concentrate can be mixed with with water or denatured alcohol. I tried the alcohol dilution first, since I’d had good results with that on the orange Tele, but it was harder to get an even, blotch-free color because the alcohol evaporated so fast. I switched to using water and solved the problem. I applied a few coats, to build up the color. I did some tests on pine, but pine isn’t swamp ash, and I couldn’t entirely trust what I saw. Easy to apply more, not easy to remove it.

Finally, I wound up with a dilution that was opaque in the plastic bottle when held a few inches away from a 100-watt bulb (scientific, like I said). This led me to the final dye tone you see above. The color changes amazingly under incandescent, camera flash, and sunlight, but looks cool everywhere. On to the Tru-Oil.

I wiped on eight coats, with plenty of drying time, and more light sanding (1500 grit) between coats than usual. I wanted a higher gloss this time, and no “brushy” look to the surface, which happens with Tru-Oil if you aren’t really careful. On previous builds, I’ve gotten great satin finishes rubbing out with 0000 steel wool, and more gloss from using the aerosol Tru-Oil (the mahogany Tele). The orange Tele got rubbed out by hand with Meguiar’s No. 7 after the steel wool, and that gave me a brighter satin than the steel wool alone did.

This time (another experiment), I went for a lighter rub with the Meguiar’s, just enough to knock down the shine a touch. It’s my glossiest finish so far, and I think it suits the guitar and the color well. The grain is clearly visible (I like that), the color is deep, and the surface looks as though it could have been sprayed.

There’s no doubt in my mind that the lighter body leads to a different sound. I like it! It’s a bit leaner in the bass, and the mids are complex but clear. The whole guitar is very responsive and fun to play. It’s a great chord guitar, but also holds together very well for single notes, and clean or dirty amp settings. The final experiment was a new bridge with narrower string spacing. That solved the E-string balance problem I’ve heard on every Strat I ever played, and completed this guitar. Enough workbench “science” for now. It’s time to play!