A few months ago I got a call from an old friend Paul Handgraaf in the Netherlands. I hadn’t expected it, I thought we’d probably said our final farewells in March when he’d invited me to the Rory Gallagher international Tribute gig as an acoustic soloist – a show I practised for weeks to be able to fulfil and only scraped through with a lot of help from Frank Van Pardo on the harmonica. As many of my friends on here will know I have struggled a little with a left hand injury in the last year – my guitar playing has not quite been what it was (and my acoustic playing hardly stellar to start with!)
But he asked me if I would come and play some electric in 2016 and before I’d really thought about, I’d said yes (which is exactly what I’d done the previous year!) So when we spoke again a few days later, I put it to Paul that I shouldn’t come alone – we should put the old band, Secret Agent, back together, and bring it back for one final lap of honour. Paul was excited, Tim and Mark quickly agreed to it, and it was on.
We have had some great fun there, and a few mishaps. The first year we almost didn’t make it to the gig at all – the weather kept our flight on the ground at Norwich for four hours. When we did land in Schipol, the pilot had to come in almost sideways to battle the crosswinds and we almost touched a wing down (and a Lufhansa 737 had already done that rather famously that day). That weekend ended with a four and quarter hour gig in Jan Van Bodegraven’s pub ‘the Rose’ to celebrate what would have been Rory’s 60th birthday.
And of course the following year I famously left my car keys in the hotel room and Theo Van Baar broke the Dutch land speed record by getting back to the hotel and retrieving them before the flight left for England!
There was one thing I hadn’t thought of. I no longer own a strat! All my guitars are Gibson length 24.75″ and P90 or Humbucker guitars. My one single coil beast is lying in two pieces after an accident from the recent house move (and is loaded with TriSonics). It would work for this but somehow it wasn’t the right choice. So the idea soon occurred to me to build something specially for this particular gig.
I remembered a body that another luthier down in the West Country had offered me some while back. I had a potential customer for it already – so I had him send it up to me. My customer however, wants something carved and the elm isn’t ideal. So I had a body.
So now I needed a neck. For this I wanted something special, because is going to be a special guitar for a special occasion. I had recently made a Strat for a customer using some birdseye maple. So I selected a cut from the stockpile and cut it to rough shape.
Next job was to cut a fretboard. Using the dimensions from a standard B fender neck (from the 60’s), I cut a section of ebony to shape (because this is after all, a guitar for a special occasion). I should explain here that there’s a lot of false info out there on Fender neck shapes. In the 60’s, Fender had 4 neck widths – the A neck the narrowest and D the widest. So a C neck was nothing to do with the depth or shape of the back of the neck, it was merely a fretboard width. I used to own a 60’s strat, it was initially B neck but there was so much wear on it that it was almost an A, with the rosewood fretboard having been eroded at the edges and the frets cut back several times in its life.
I cut a slot into the neck for the truss rod, slotted the fretboard and glued the sections together with Hide Glue. Once it was set, the next task is to shape the fretboard. I like to do this before I trim the neck material because it gives me a really solid base to work with – and also because I like to glue the fretboard to the wide blank so that the glue never contaminates the finished shape of the wood. It’s not the easiest way to do this, and most Luthiers shape first and then glue, but it was a method I got used to due to limitations in my original workshop and I have largely stuck with it (i.e. I didn’t have a router table or reliable templates!)
Fretboard shaping is done with a freshly sharpened hand plane – this gives a compound fretboard shape, rather than the standard Fender or Gibson radius. Imagine the fretboard as a section of a cone. When you take the plane along the lie of the string, you are setting the straight edge to taper towards the centre. So this is the most efficient way to get the perfect lie of the string. My fretboard goes from 7.25″ at the nut to 20″ at the 22 fret (yes, I cut an extra one!). The neck was then trimmed on the band saw, and the edges pulled together with the small hand plane. You can see that the birdseye maple has taken a small nick on the side of the headstock. This is because the birds eyes are are very hard ‘seeds’ that have been overtaken and contained in the growth of the wood – they tend to be held in but prone to coming away under force. I’ll have to back fill that later.
So next the shaping of the neck. I’m not a fan of the small early 60’s Fender neck – it doesn’t suit my hand at all (even though I have small hands). Recently I worked on my good friend Bob Youngs’ 70’s strat. That thing has a largely untapered ‘U’ shape to it on a B shape fretboard. That was incredibly comfortable to play so I decided to replicate that as close as I could – 0.9″ at the first fret, almost an inch deep at the 12th.
I set to work with a Draw knife (mine is over 100 years old and a gift from an old friend whose Grandfather had bought it new) – and the spoke shave. That gave me the rough shape, which is then refined more with the cabinet scrapers.
And this is where the choice of Birdseye Maple really becomes a pain in the rear end – and why luthiers often don’t like to use it. It really tears a lot. It has no consistency of density or fibre – the grain pattern is interrupted by the seedlings. So even with a well sharpened cabinet scraper it’s going to be very rough to the touch. So it will need to be hand sanded for a very long time with very fine papers to get to a smoothness that can be finished with lacquer.
So here’s how far I am this morning:
The neck is shaped, the body has been fine sanded and cleaned. So now it’s off to order pickups and hardware for the guitar so that I can drill for the bridge and the neck plate, and also to choose some pickups for it.
See you all for the next instalment….