Creating A (Friendly) Monster

As of the most recent Philly Guitar Show (November, 2019), my builders and I have completed more than 30 guitars and basses. This doesn’t include the dozen or so (I was warned it could be addictive) for myself! These are now the guitars I most often  play live, since I’ve been able to get the particular features I want into each guitar. I’ve done several recently with dyed finishes, which are definitely flashier than the natural wood. But I love ’em all!

In 2017, I built and delivered my first custom Tele-style for a client who just couldn’t schedule the sessions to build with me. So, we put our heads together to spec out the features and details he wanted. We started with a beautiful obeche body with arm and belly cuts from Clearfork, and detoured to USA Custom Guitars for the neck. He enjoyed being able to pick out what he wanted from several options, and loves the guitar he got. In fact, he ordered a second Tele-style guitar with two humbuckers and a swamp ash body that I completed in May, 2019. He loves that one, too!

If you’re thinking this sounds like fun, get in touch! It’s NOT a way to get a great guitar cheap, nor is it a sky’s-the-limit custom guitar program. It IS a way to build a Strat or a Tele at the workbench with me, and get your hands on every step of the project, while choosing from a nice menu of hardware, pickup, and wiring options. You’ll sand, get your hands dirty, learn a bit about how to solder, and get to know the issues that create a well set-up instrument. At the end, you’ll have a great-playing and -sounding guitar that really is “yours” in ways a factory guitar can’t ever be. The final cost varies, with your choice of parts being the biggest factor. Plain or fancy, it’s all good.

Head on over to my Blog section, and you’ll see many posts that will show you what we get up to in the shop!

A Bit of History

In June of 2012, I went off to the Philly Guitar Show as I always do, and found a new vendor. He was standing in a square space with tables on three sides, and was surrounded by stacks of unfinished Strat and Tele bodies. I walked over and picked up a Tele body. It was very nicely made, a single piece of pine with impeccably clean routing, and there was a sign on the stack: “$35 each, paint grade”. I couldn’t believe it. The body did have some uneven color, but no knots or cracks, and it was very light, maybe 3 1/2 pounds.

Fender fans know that Leo built some very early Telecasters from pine, and the consensus is that it’s a great tone wood. I tucked my find under my arm and struck up a conversation with the owner, Larry Robinson. Nice guy, from Ohio, and his company is called Clearfork Designs. He explained a little about what he was doing, and while we were chatting, I noticed a beautiful swamp ash Tele body. Incredible clear grain, really high-grade stuff. I had to look at it for a minute to realize it was two pieces, joined at the center with a lot of attention paid to blending the grain at the glue joint. I really couldn’t see the joint from the front. It weighed 4 pounds, and he wanted $90.

So now I’m standing there with two bodies and suddenly I’m full of thoughts of building up a couple of guitars. I’ve been interested in assembling Fender-type guitars for years, but I’d seen too many other people take the plunge, spend a LOT of money, and wind up with guitars that looked nice enough but were really pretty unexciting to play and hear. These bodies that Larry was making were inspiring, beautiful to look at, the right weight (which really matters, I think), and NOT overly expensive. I’d had no intention of getting into this that day, but I fell fast and hard.

Next Steps

So, off to the internet, where people sing the praises of Allparts necks. All the other parts, especially the pickups and electronics, and setup processes were very familiar to me from many years of repairing and modifying my guitars (and other people’s), so no fear there. My first Allparts neck was (and is) beautiful, maple with a rosewood fingerboard, great shape, with nice grain everywhere. I installed tuners, made a bone nut, wiped on a Tru-Oil finish, and it was good to go.

There was a bit of drilling to do on the body, which also got Tru-Oil, and assembly was glitch-free. I was very glad to discover that the neck and body fit like they were made for each other. Vintage-style bridge with compensated brass saddles, vintage-type tuners and modern Esquire electronics with a 3-way switch, and the guitar was ready to play. And it sounded GREAT. I was hooked.

Swamp Ash and Catalpa

I went to work on the swamp ash guitar, with the same type of neck, a Glendale bridge and an amazing set of Jimmy Wallace pickups. The result was equally stunning, and if anything, even more Tele-ish. I went back and leveled and crowned the necks on both guitars, which I’ve found is a necessary step for getting the Allparts necks to play their best.

Next came an amazing one-piece body of Catalpa that I bought from Larry at the fall guitar show in November. Joe Barden pickups and a Marc Rutters bridge this time, and a 22-fret neck. This guitar is so powerful that I thought I might want to get up that high, and I do. It may be the single most versatile guitar I’ve ever owned, and that’s more than a few guitars.

Spreading The Word

By this time, some of my students were noticing and really liking these guitars when I had them in the studio. They started asking me to put together a building class, so they could get guitars similar to mine. Long story short: I put a lot of thought into developing a step-by-step process, timing the steps, and tooling up a bit. Once I’d located and cleaned up a good space in which to hold the class, and gotten my hands on a drill press (very useful!), I signed up four hardy souls who were willing to take the plunge. We had a lot of fun, and got really good guitars out of it.

I  enjoyed how everyone worked together, and I think that interaction was inspiring for all of us. Certainly the mood at every session in the shop was good. We did six sessions, about three hours each, and worked at a steady, unpressured pace. There was plenty of time for “do-overs” and boo-boo fixes, and, as the guitars came together, getting the sound and playability well dialed in. It couldn’t have been more of a success, and no one could have had more fun doing it than we did.

Around the same time, I put a new Allparts neck on my Fiesta Red parts Strat, and then built a complete Strat with a swamp ash body and a cool set of Ron Ellis’s nearly unobtainable 50/60 pickups. I was very happy with the results, and as a result felt ready to offer Strat-building as an option in future building classes. That should come together this summer, and some of my Tele builders will be returning to try their hand at putting together Strats. Maybe it’s time to think about building a bass…

What’s Happening Now

In the last several years, my building program has really evolved. I’ve built guitars for myself using bodies of swamp ash, pine, catalpa, african mahogany, obeche, alder, and spruce. All builds are one-on-one now, in response to many requests for a more tailored fit than even a small class can allow. Different people need more or less help in different areas. Well, I run my lesson program that way, and for that reason, so why not? Also, we’re building Strat-, Tele-, Esquire-, and ’51 Precision Bass-style instruments now, with maple or rosewood fingerboards, and a wide variety of pickups, wiring designs, and hardware.

As you can see from the blog photos, a wider variety of finish colors is available. Some builders have worked out how to do wipe-on sunbursts successfully, and I have finished seven guitars for myself with single-color dyes (the black Esquire, orange Tele, red Bigsby Tele, purple Strat, blue Esquire, and red and amber humbucker Strats). We can do this without increasing the finish thickness by much, keeping a very lively, resonant tone but giving people more to look at. It’s cool!