I did start playing the guitar about two years ago, on a whim. One afternoon, after not having too much fun at work, I decided that I need to do something different. Something that makes me happy. I decided to pursue a dream of my childhood. Learn the guitar.
Since then I got my hands on an electric and an acoustic guitar. I love them both. I did start learning myself the basics by using resources from the internet, talking to more musically educated friends of mine and lately taking some lessons too. The reason that I did start taking the lessons was mostly to understand the theory. I want to know why I’m doing what I’m doing, I don’t like black boxes.
The guitar is a black box
The instrument itself, for many people, is a black box. You pluck the string and noise comes the other way. You press the right strings and you have music. But as I said, I want to know how all of this comes together. I did watch countless videos on guitar builds and projects. So much so that after about a year I was ready to do it myself.
Sourcing the materials
I will admit that this is the first big hurdle. You think you know what a guitar is made of, but you really don’t. At least I didn’t. From the neck, to the body, to the pots there are countless options and possibilities. You are basically Victor Frankenstein and you are going to build your own baby. To this respect I found it extremely useful to have a bill of materials to list all the materials I needed, and the cheapest prices I found online. In that respect I found this amazing article which had this very useful excel document. I used that to list all the items I needed, and the links of the shops I found them on.
A big issue I had is to avoid paralysis by analysis. I spent too much time looking after pickups for example. Endless possibilities, and all more expensive than one another. I decided to draw inspiration from my favourite guitarist, David Gilmour, and since he is using a Seymour Duncan SSL-5 for his bridge pickup I got a full set of them. I got 2 Seymour Duncan SSL-1 for the neck and middle positions and an SSL-5 for the bridge. A great option. If you want to be more accurate regarding David Gilmour gear, Gilmourish.com is a great resource to all things related.
Kicking off the project
Once I had the list I did start ordering the materials. I did start with the body and the neck first, as I thought they were the most important. I went with a fiesta red American Alder body from Northwest guitars. The colour was 10 times better of what I expected. I was immediately hooked and in love. The next big piece was the neck. I opted for an Allparts neck, made in Japan. Allparts are an official supplier of Fender for their Japanese Stratocaster. I didn’t have a big opinion on necks I admit. I did some online search, found what’s available in the UK and ordered the best option. I was lucky enough and it turned out to be very nice.
For the rest of the guitar I chose to go with mostly Fender original parts. Fender vintage tremolo bridge, locking tuners, CTS pots (these are important), orange drop capacitors (never in my life did I think i’ll be researching capacitors) and a super sexy mint green Fender pickup. Most of those parts were sourced either via ebay or Thomann. The customer experience I got in both cases was top notch, just remember to go with reputable sellers on ebay.
Once everything arrived I did start with the simple stuff (or so I thought). I decided to start with applying a nice decal from Rothko and Frost. Well I was wrong, it wasn’t easy, I failed 3 times there, destroying all decals and ending up ordering more and spending 4 times more than I have originally expected. The end result though was amazing. The only recommendation I have here is to take it easy, and experiment with the sample they give you. I didn’t.
Once I finished that I decided to install the locking tuners. Turns out that the holes the neck came with were small, so I had to open them more. So i got familiar with a woodworking tool called tapered reamer. It’s basically a big wine opener type of thing. Big fun, big mess but I opened the holes big enough to fit the tuners. That was the first big success. Didn’t destroy the neck! Next was insulating the guitar cavities. The target here is to create a Faraday cage so the pickups won’t hum too much when they get closer to amplifiers. That was therapeutic in a way. You need to take it slow, and cover everything up.
Moving from that, I had to install the bridge. The bridge is THE MOST IMPORTANT thing on your guitar. It needs to be 25.5 inches away from your neck nut and it needs to be in such a position so the strings are properly centered on the neck. A really stressful moment that was. In order to that though I had to do the other stressful thing, drill holes on the neck joint in order to screw it on the body. Measure twice, drill once. I didn’t screw up! All went well and I ended up with a neck screwed on the guitar and a bridge in the right position (probably).
Last but not least was the electronics. This is the last mile of your build. I did install the pickups and the pots on my beautiful pick guard and started soldering. I had huge doubts about whether that would work or not. Honestly I had no idea what I was doing. I did follow the diagram though, took it easy and in the span of three days I anded up with, what looked like, a nicely soldered pick guard.
Putting all together
Once everything was in place I did screw everything together, drilled the last few holes and plugged the guitar to my amp! It made the wrong noise. A bit of panic here but when you are dealing with any problem (whether in soldering, photography or developing) you need to troubleshoot it step by step, starting with the most obvious. In my case the most obvious problem was the solder on the guitar switch (the bit that you put the plug into). It turns out I did solder the two cables the other way around. De-solder, re-solder and BOOM! It all worked, no noise, no hums, just the right noises. I was so happy. I still am! Completing a project, where you have no idea what you are doing and you are learning as you go, is a great thing. I’m really proud about it.
Final thing was setting the guitar up. For this I have to thank an Italian Luthier, Galleazo Frudua, who has the most useful YouTube channel out there. A true scholar! And here we are today. I am looking at my new guitar and I am properly excited. And proud. And in love. It looks killer! The project came out better that I would have hoped for. I obviously need to take the guitar to a few people that know more than me so they can give me feedback, because I’m sure I must have screwed up something. Still though. I made it this by just educating myself from resource on the internet!
Mistakes were made, lessons were learned
So let me start with the obvious. You shouldn’t be doing that to get the guitar cheaper. You won’t beat the mass production lines and the resources Fender has. You should do that in order to learn, and get an emotional investment with your instrument. You should do it to come out of this journey with more knowledge that before. The guitar cost me around 900£, that excludes the tools I needed to buy, and that’s another learning.
You will need to buy power tools, solder iron, cables and all sorts of bits and pieces that will add up to the cost. Hopefully those are going to be useful investments for the future. If not you can always sell them for minimal loss if you want to. Don’t forget that on a project like this the drill you have is super important. I went with a Bosch drill and I’ll be keeping this baby for many years. Really powerful stuff!
The one thing I really screwed up was the screws on the bridge (see what I did there?). I was very tired when installing the bridge and I got lazy. I didn’t drill the hole all the way through and I decided to do it halfway and use the screw itself with the help of the power drill to further drill the hole. I ended up not doing that and destroying the screw. Now I need to spend the time and remove the screw, fix the hole and redo it. One day…! If there is something to be learned here is to take your time. Don’t do things when you are tired, don’t take shortcuts, take your time. I won’t be doing the same error twice.
- Basic electronic principles
- Basic Luthiery
- How a guitar really works
- How to be patience and not cut corners
I recommend everyone to do a project like that. Build something with your hands! Maybe it’s a table, maybe an instrument, maybe just carving spoons, whatever it is I found it to be good for the soul. Finally the feeling of completing a project and coming out with a product of your labor is a feeling I can’t describe.