Sometimes you have to tackle things head on. In my work life I mostly sit around and work on concepts, governance, architectures and have discussions about IT and business things. The downside of this otherwise brilliant job is that you don’t ever work on physical things. Maybe Marx was right in “Das Kapital” that the separation of people from the physical end product is not good for them. In any case to adjust I build guitars. Not that I am any good at woodwork or understand how to read wood. All I do is get a guitar neck, a bit of wood and see if the two fit together. I enlist the help of experts in this approach. Not people who have build guitars, but people who know how to keep your fingers and toes when using tools such as band saws, routers, hacksaws, electric sanders, and so on. I have build with their help so far two very raw prototypes and performed one ghost pick-up modification.
When my friend Chris (who owns and runs his own marketing company) suggested that he had a piece of Wood that was 300 years old I was very interested. The wood was a 300 year old shelf unit, about 1.3 inches thick (thin for a guitar!) and oak. Oak is not ideal for beginners as it is very open pored, difficult to work with and generally not used for guitar making as it weighs a ton. That has however never stopped me especially when I heard that one of the guitar heroes Brian May has a guitar containing oak. The oak shelf was black from age, had seen some unsuccessful approaches from wood worm and was otherwise in good nick. So we went for it.
The design idea
The idea was to create a very simple guitar. This is after all my first complete body build. The idea was to make it a studio guitar with no tonal control, and just one humbucker neck pickup. The only control would be a volume control. I was looking for a dark deep bluesy sound, but did not want to loose the high notes. Being only 1.3 inches thick meant that the neck cavity would be the biggest issue. Having a low string clearance for the neck also meant that everything had to be very straight. So the main effort would be on that. The neck would come from an old and busted Peavey which my friend Andrew had picked up in Yorkshire. The Peavey was made from plywood, the electronics were from “rubbish r us”, but the neck was not too bad (including truss rot) and so only the neck measures and the neck itself survived.
Most of the work was done in Yorkshire after Chris helped me plain the worst of the black stuff off, and cut out the basic shape.We biscuit joined two halves together to achieve the design width. Apparently that is also not done, but it worked for us. I spend the first 2 weeks just trying to sand the board level. The trick there is to be careful not to burn the wood, and to build a guide. The next step was to completely ruin the neck cavity, by having a router that didn’t stay in a fixed height position. Not to smart (the nudge in the wood is still there where it is deeper :/. I then learned to route soft corners, routed out the pick-up cavity, routed out the electronics cavity at the back (which is much larger as drilling through the neck cavity was not an option due to the size. I also tried to router the jack cavity – big mistake! That needed a drill. The wood actually split and only glue got that back together (72 hour warm area drying under tight clamping conditions). It is worth pointing out that all mistakes came when
a) I was on my own and
b) I was getting over confident as a couple of preceding tasks had gone well.
One other thing became clear as I continued to slowly sand down more and more of the surface after the routing. The wood was beautiful. My friends joked that it would make an interesting cheese board if it all went wrong, but in my view it looks stunning just in wood. Once all the cavities existed we drilled through from the electrics cavity to fit the volume control straight onto the wood. The color black is used for all controls. One day I might even replace the string nuts with black ones. Soldering was incredibly simple as you simply earth everything on the top of the pod, and fit two cables to connect the pickup to the volume and the volume to the output jack.
The result is what you see on the left. The sound is surprisingly rich and complex with a definite tendency for long sustain and rich depth, and highs. No overpowering mids either which is nice. Just warm. I have not yet treated the wood, lacquered it or anything. I am worried that I end up killing the look of the guitar, but on the other hand it can not just stay this way. It is very porous so I would have to use grain filler to deal with that, which I think will not help the look either, even if the grain filler is clear. So while I ponder this I play the thing and enjoy its rich tones. It is nice when an experiment works. There is still the neck cavity to fix. The neck sits about 1.5 millimeters too proud and that effects the playability a bit, but given my experiences with routers I am somewhat reluctant. But I think I have found an approach which I will try. I will create a wooden bracket around the neck cavity that will provide better control then the current route and hope method. I will nail onto that a metal guide to avoid enlarging the cavity. This will require sawing metal, which I am not great at. More filing. More sanding too as one works down to the right granularity for the lacquer.
The next build is going to be a proper body project. But this time I am going all out for complexity. The guitar will support everything, acoustic, midi, neck humbucker and two single coils for the rhythm stuff. It will have build in octaver and modulated tonal management if I can find a unit small enough. It will be the complete opposite of this one, based probably on Northern Ash. After that I will build my first non project guitar. But that is a while off yet. I will definitely keep building as it is so much fun and you always get to try something new. I learned also that a lot of opinions in this field come from people who repeat others or make stuff up. Having done it I would not consider Oak ideal building material from a visual point of view, and it is heavy. But if you aim for a thinner guitar, and are not afraid of hard work, then it does repay you with a uniquely warm and friendly sound.
Thanks for reading this, and have a listen to it here, if you want: