What’s going wrong with Gibson (and Fender), and more….

I blogged about the 2015 Gibson offering and their crazy ‘Robot tuners’ some time ago. I argued that the CEO Henry Juszkiewicz had taken a massive wrong turn with current designs and that their U turn had been an inevitable outcome of that.

But the real truth is that Gibson (and possibly to a smaller degree Fender) appear to be in serious trouble, and in part this is a product of their own making.

Gibson and Consumer Electronics – Diversification in a shrinking market:

Back in 2014, Gibson acquired Phillips consumer electronics arm (the strangely named ‘Woox Innovations’) for around $140 Million. Gibson’s intent was to move from being a guitar company to being a ‘Global Leader In Music & Sound’. It had already bought other electronics industries such as Teac, and owned Cakewalk/Sonar.

I was alerted by a news story that popped up yesterday again, that Cakewalk was to be shuttered, all development of the Sonar platform was to cease, to have a wider look at the Gibson situation and the underlying issues with not just them, but the music biz in general.

Leveraged growth

Do you remember the story of Tower records? It went stellar in the late 70’s, expanded way too rapidly into the 1990’s, and then found that there was no real way of paying back the money it had used to expand? It collapsed under a ton of debt and red lines.

Gibson is facing similar issues. In the mid 80’s, it was dying in the hands of the Norlin Corporation who seemed to know about as much about making guitars as I know about nuclear physics. HJ led the takeover and by the mid 90’s had not only turned the company around, but had it making the best guitars it had made since it had fallen out with Les Paul in the 1960’s. (I have a ’96 – its a great guitar- my main squeeze until I started building).

Gibson saw the reduction in guitar sales as a cue to diversify. Electric guitar sales have been on a steady decline for years, in the USA down by about a third over the last decade. There are multiple reasons for this, but I’ll return to those later. So the desire to diversify doesn’t on the face of it seem so strange. But its how they achieved this that has run them into trouble, in that they had to leverage their acquisitions quite heavily.

Early this year, they had to restructure a part of their debt. That amounted to taking on about $185M of new liabilities, but created liquidity for the company to be able to get on with the day to day business, rolling over in the process about $100M of looming repayments.

Moody’s just downgraded Gibson Bonds – (a debt creation tool, where the company takes money for a promissory note to pay the bond back with interest at a fixed date) – to Caa1. This is Junk status, actually way deep in junk status. Gibson notes (which pay their interest regularly like any other bond but don’t return their capital until the due date) are trading at well less than their face value – last I saw about 59c on the $. That suggests that investors are willing to lose some now to avoid losing more later, if Gibson defaults. The ‘market’ rates that at about a 40% chance. There’s some good research on the numbers by Eric Garland here.

Then according to reports there’s another load of debt due in August 2018 – Eric thinks about $375m, but other reports say more like $500m plus. Whichever is correct,we’re talking telephone numbers.

Inside the Corporation

So why are Gibson still haemorrhaging cash and losing market share, and why hasn’t diversification helped them? One reason is that they haven’t bought wisely, and their acquisitions aren’t fast growing enough or cash producing to cover the debt that they incurred. And that also their businesses aren’t very joined up. Too much, too quickly.

But another reason must be the culture at Gibson, which is an issue that would by all reports seem to start with HJ himself.

The CEO appoints all staff, personally. He micromanages at every level of the company. At the same time he has made some quite unusual decisions. (Who can forget the Firebird X model, or the dayglo Les Paul?) The 2015 Les Paul Standard range was a response to a number of production issues that had began to creep in – fret edges grabbing strings into the binding, poor tuning, etc. Rather than working this as a quality control issue, the decision was made to widen the necks and add a brass nut to replace the poorly cut Corian.

Then there’s the output itself. The credit ratings agencies have said that one issue with Gibson is that they have too few product lines, and that the product lines are decreasing. However, this is the opposite of what the customer is saying. What they want is good historic standard guitars, at a price that the working musician can afford. Evolution, not revolution. Gibson, for all its faults, is being puled in two directions by competing interests – guitarists and fund managers.

So they have closed Cakewalk – I assume that they thought this quick end would be less expensive than trying to sustain it while it was sold, and they might be right as DAW is a crowded market. But they are making other changes. The Crimson Custom shop has been quietly closed too, for how long it is not clear. The founder of the Custom Shop line apparently has moved on. The Nashville factory is up for sale, with Gibson planning to move out of there after a time to new facility in Nashville that they also don’t plan to own.

There’s a website that rates companies from a workers perspective – Glassdoor. I signed up so that I could have a look at what the staff thought of it. I have never seen a worse public profile for a business in a high spec production environment in the West! It’s employees seem to hate it, and they don’t seem to stay long. In fact, the culture is reportedly so toxic that managers seem not to last long at all, creating a disjointed feedback system to the top of the issues in production and quality.

Hours are long, relations with management poor, benefits pretty low and pay not much better for the level of skill involved. Output figures chased with relentless pressure, supervisors constantly moved about, a loss of personality. The shop floor workers report a great degree of solidarity with each other, but none with those above them.

Gibson, like Norlin before it, would appear to have become a numbers game, not a quality one, if the reports are to believed. Higher and higher output with less and less regard for the quality of the items delivered seem to be the antidote to rising debt. Now of course, reports from the shop floor like this, anonymised, should be treated with caution. But there are hundreds of them, and clearly there are some pumped responses that are so transparently management trying to alter the stats that it’s almost laughable.

Henry is just not listening, and nobody seems powerful enough to question his wisdom.

Out on the Street

Out on the street, something is happening in the music industry. The independent retailer is disappearing. And the ones that are there often don’t stock Fender and Gibson from the factory. Second hand, yes. But not new.

The Music industry is being distorted by venture capital. Mergers and Acquisitions are a way of creating economies of scale and rapid expansion, but they are having another effect. As FMIC and Gibson have grown in size bringing in many of the previously independent manufacturers, they have also changed their sale model into the retailer. They no longer use distribution companies. Those companies gave the independent retailer an opportunity to stock the big brands, because they also had accounts with them for consumables – strings, sticks, heads, spares, accessories, and some of the less exclusive brands. Gibson used Rosetti, Fender for years traded in the UK via Arbiter.

But when they cut out the middle man, they also cut away the independents. They raised capital investment and minimum inventory holds for the stores. Then when they made disastrous product changes they discounted heavily through online retailers to shift unwanted stock, leaving many independents with massive losses to bear on unsellable items – items which they had forced them to stock against their better judgement in the first place. Many of those that survived the 2008 crash and the collapse in demand, simply walked away from Fender and Gibson (and the brands they also own).

That restricted the visibility of the big brands to the big chain stores, but also their feeder brands like Squier and Epiphone. But not all of those big boys have fared well in the past few years either. They bought into huge numbers of brick and internet platforms. Competition became fierce and margins fell, taking Soundcontrol with it in the UK. In the USA, Guitar Center teeters on the brink, massively leveraged and a mere showroom for the low end Internet sellers that the Guitar companies are now supplying (including Amazon!)  When you walk into these stores now, where once they were alive with the sound of guitarists trying out new gear, now largely there are three or four guys behind the counter, outnumbering the customers 2-1. Piped music plays in the background.

To keep visibility and find new sales, both Gibson and Fender have ventured online at prices which undercut their own dealers, especially the independent ones, causing even more to walk away from the brands. But would you drop £2500 for a guitar online? I wouldn’t. It’s a risk.

Culture wars

In the UK and the USA the culture has shifted significantly in music as in many other areas in the last 20 years. Yes the X Factor type TV shows have caused some of it. But some of it comes from the immediate nature of life itself in the technology age. Kids can gain instant gratification from Computer games and other technology. Learning to play is becoming less popular. It’s slow, can be difficult, and requires patience. And those who do learn in the school system are often squeezed into the ‘Rockschool’ system which if misused can stifle individuality and therefore the desire to continue into adulthood.

But there is another significant issue; who is the next guitar hero that will ignite a million fingers? In the last ten years, that guitar hero has been…….Taylor Swift.

Yes really!

Back in 2004/5 when I returned to full time music after 12 years out in industry, it was Billy Joe Armstrong. But at the end of the day, neither of them are ‘great players’ in the vein of Hendrix, Van Halen, Clapton, Vai, or even the early players like Charlie Christian, Jango, B.B. King or Scotty Moore. You might learn to play based on the modern guitar heroes, but you’ll never really open up the possibilities of guitar playing Punk or Pop. The only players pushing the envelope are in the fringes of prog, jazz and metal, which get no airtime.

That is the real reason why the electric guitar market is shrinking and the only growth market is in Ukelele and budget acoustic instruments. The majority of kids get where they want to go fairly quickly, or get bored and drift away. And because their target is quite low, there’s less chance of them playing into adulthood because the satisfaction is also lower. Fender are reportedly trying to combat that by creating online courses that come with their guitars in the USA. The realisation that they won’t sell their top end products to a new generation unless they can nurture them and keep them in the game for a number of years has become apparent to them. You won’t buy an expensive guitar where a cheap one will do, and only when you have matured as a player will you pay out for a ‘Made in the USA’ premium instrument.

Meanwhile, my custom build customers over the last two years have all been in their 50’s or above. Many of my repair customers are the same. Younger students seem less abundant, the desire is less than it was ten years ago, and they buy and sell cheap guitars but never invest in that lifelong instrument. Always tinkering, but never settling. The high end customer base is ageing fast. And they already have their ‘lifetime Guitar’ in most cases.

If there’s any growth in the electric guitar industry, it’s in the heavy drop tuned 7 and 8 string market. But these aren’t really premium instruments in many cases just as the 80’s spank planks I played in my youth often weren’t, and they aren’t something that either Fender or Gibson do much trade in. that is in the mid priced pointy end of the far Eastern Market, and its doing fairly well by all accounts. And when my younger students come in and ask to to learn a specific song now – the chances are it will be Offspring, Blink 182, or something far heavier that I’ve never heard of. If not that, its an acoustic song in a non standard tuning. Mainstream music is not guitar driven any more. The next Ace Frehley is not just around the corner.

So where does the industry go from here?

In Gibson’s case, unless it can restructure its debt next year there is a possibility that it will be broken up. The most valuable part will be its intellectual property in the Brand itself, and the historic models that encompasses. There’s a lot to work with for the right investor, just as there was when Norlin finally gave it up in the 80’s. But they will have to understand that the market is unlikely to grow significantly now, and that they must offer better value.

Fender seem in much better health, but they still face the same issues on a much smaller scale. Their current modern series of American Standards have not set the world alight. and this after in a similar time to Gibson having come back from the brink when they rose from the CBS era. But they have a wider portfolio into budget instruments, and a more solid one. If Gibson production were to end in the USA though, Fender would surely look at that and have to make a decision as to whether they would need to compete on the ‘made in USA’ badge. Mexico would invite an uplift in production I suspect.

Even PRS have apparently reduced production at the top end, and increased the Korean range. At the same time, in the UK they supplied new standard model instruments to retail to a company that is essentially a Pawn Broker. I nearly fell out of my boots when I saw that a few years ago.

But the real lifesaver for the guitar industry will be a new hero to come along and ignite the imagination. And every guitar maker, large or small, will hope that it’s their guitar around that hero’s neck.

In the end, that’s what we do – We’re in the imagination business

 

 

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Back to Building…

It’s been a long while since I started a new build – late last year I think. I’ve been working on other things – playing partly, making furniture, but mostly my rather long neglected Victorian house. We’ve been here two years and we’re now really getting into the restoration.

But in an attempt to separate youngest from the bloody playstation (by choice rather than by force), I’ve been encouraging his sudden enthusiasm for playing the bass. Now this isn’t the first time this has happened in the family – his eldest brother also took a shine to the bass in an attempt to boost his grade at GCSE music – and his bass now sits in my studio largely unused. But we continue undaunted.

Smallest boy is clearly being fed the wrong diet, because at 12 years old he just can’t reach the business end of his brother’s P bass. But he likes the shape, so we went to look for a bass for him in Norwich.

Well to say that the choice in short and medium scale basses is pretty poor would be an understatement. The three quarter bass in one shop was little more than a toy, and a good way to waste £100. For about £140 you can buy a kind of ‘no name’ Fender/Ibanez clone with a loose tuner and a neck like a boomerang. It would appear that apart from Hofner, nobody really takes the Short scale, particularly seriously. Of course there’s always and exception to the rule, and that’s the Epiphone EB-0 or 3. But I don’t buy guitars unseen, nobody stocks them, and they aren’t a sound that’s adaptable to every style.

So we designed something around the 51 P bass shape, but only 32″ in scale, and with the curve in the lower body just a little further forward, to bring the bass across the body a little when seated with it.

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The body has been made from a piece of Tulip that I had in stock since last year, joined just below the level of the neck pocket. The body is a couple of inches shorter than a P.

I wanted to keep it simple, passive, and as light as possible. The tulip is light, but has a tendency to tear a little (it’s about Alder weight, but can behave a bit like Mahogany without the grain complexity in that respect).

Lastly, he’s decided on a particular paint job (decidedly not very 51 P) and doesn’t want any plastic on the face. To make it easier to play, I have turned the pickups in the opposite direction to the normal – so he can put his thumb on the pickup without one half getting in his way.

We started on Monday, taking a trip out to get some maple. Youngest has bored himself rigid sanding the body (which at least got him doing something constructive!)

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I let him use the power sander. But after cutting the body out this morning, he took most of the flatspots from the bandsaw out with a rubberised block and some sandpaper. He didn’t complain very much. I got a couple of solid hours work out of him, so that’s one objective met!

So by the end of the first week (and not necessarily the most full on week in the workshop), we have a neck block with a glued fretboard and a body fully sanded and ready to be sealed and painted.

Next up is sealing that body – which is really important because Tulip is a bit of a sponge for finish on the end grain! While that’s drying I’ll be carving the neck shape and slotting the fretboard.

I might have to get back to building this winter…

Prototypes – Would you like to own a bargain guitar?

Hi folks.

There’s been a long silence from me on the blog as I’ve found it hard to find the time to write at all recently. Although I’ve been quiet on here and on Social Media, work has continued on a number of projects across the winter with some more guitars going to custom design customers.

At this point, there’s a few guitars in the house…..actually quite a few. Some are part of my collection from the ’90s and early 00s – and some are prototypes that I kept because I became attached to them.

However, it’s become clear that they cannot continue to pile up as I build experimental models – I simply don’t have the time to play them or the space to store them. So I’m going to refurbish them and market them to you at some pretty remarkable prices for a hand built instrument.

First up though is a brand new build this year: the Sapele Viola:

Excuse the video rendering quality, but the idea was to get the best sound, not picture.

The original idea behind building this guitar was to use reclaimed  wood and the best of the ‘non branded’ parts available. That didn’t go totally according to plan as I used branded Pickups and Wilkinson hardware. But all in all the budget was kept manageable because the wood was sourced from offcuts at my local hardware store.

So the long and short of it is that the parts for the guitars cost about £300 to bring in. I had finish and sundries in stock so I won’t count those. The guitar then took about 60-70 hours of work (which even at the minimum wage of £7.50 p/h equates to £450 – 525, and you can’t get even a reasonable chippy to fit a door frame for less than £30 an hour these days). It’s in a hard case which cost another £70.

So I looked at all that together, and at the lowest labour price, the guitar should be around the £720-795 mark to just break even on it.

So here’s the bargain:

I’m accepting any sensible offer for this guitar around the £550 mark – which is what roughly it’s going to cost me to renew the heating in the workshop so that I don’t half freeze to death this winter!

 

This is an entirely hand built guitar, mostly with non powered hand tools, and there is (and will only be) one of these guitars as it was a purely experimental build to try a range of parts and techniques all in one project. The video above shows the success of the idea, it sounds absolutely wonderful despite my rusty playing.

It has Wilkinson Hardware, Alnico 2 Humbuckers and is made almost entirely from Sapele and Ebony, including the control covers. The truss rod is BiFlex, frets are Dunlop and jumbo, dots MOP, nut is bone. It’s a set neck construction with a scalloped heel for ease of access to the top frets. The scale length is 24.5″ – the neck is a full C/D shape but plays incredibly fast with the 12″ radius. Switchcraft jack and Switch for reliability, Japanese Pots and strap locks. It weighs about as much as a solid body Les Paul (not one of the modern chambered jobs).

 

So contact me through the normal channels  to come and have a look at it and play it. It will be very much first come first served for this absolutely unique bargain of a guitar.

All the Best

Tony

 

Building to a cost – is Sapele an answer?

Wandering around my local hardware store, I happened across a few off cuts of Sapele in early December. I had just built myself a guitar with which I had planned to start playing live again, but one of my customers had taken a shine to it so I let it go. So it seemed an opportunity. Could I turn cheap offcuts into a gigging instrument?

Brian May famously made his own guitar from reclaimed wood, I wasn’t thinking of quite so grand a project. But a good instrument on a budget, why not. It would prove once and for all that much of what we sell as luthiers is about the quality of the work, not just expensive parts.

The Wood

Here are the off cuts.

I went to put them through the planer/thicknesser. Unfortunately, the cold had got to it and it developed a fault. So another challenge presented itself.

Planing Sapele

Sapele presents complex grain. Planing it therefore becomes problematic, because the ribbons flow in opposing directions. Often, one way to approach thicknessing or removing cups from it is to use a gouging plane blade, across the grain at positive and then negative 45% angle. The gouging plane can be made cheaply by using a cheap and nasty plane, and rounding the end of the blade. I took a little depth this way from both halves of the body and then went to the smoothing plane to prepare the back. (The front is going to be carved).

The smoothing plane has to be used in the best direction possible – it will dig in if you work against the grain, but the complex grain causes some tear out. To reduce this, the edges of the smoothing plane are rounded slightly, the blade sharpened to a fine polish, and the depth of cut is set to the shallowest useful point. There is still a little tear out, so sanding had to be rigorous.

Jointing the two parts of the body is done by the usual method. The two pieces are placed faces together in the vice, and the joint surfaces are squared with the plane, and tested for straightness with steel edge.

The two halves are joined together in sash clamps, but I have seen joints like this made without clamping at all – either bound or held between bench dogs. It’s not going to under much strain.

Making the Neck

Taking the solid block, it’s clear that the headstock is not going to be very wide. The block had to be squared up, so that the truss rod could be laid in. That’s done with a router, a domestic use 1/4″ one rather than anything more industrial, and a 9mm bit. The rod, a biflex twin part one, is designed here to sit under the fretboard alone – the access to it is carved in to the headstock with a gouge.

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The reason for squaring up in two directions is to put the headstock through the bandsaw and get a vertical cut. (Of course this could be cut with a sharp handsaw).  This is then planed back with the No5 Jack plane and a hole drilled through to the truss rod with a had drill.

The Fretboard. This was a piece I had to order in, (at about £25) – it was a second grade Ebony blank (A grade, but not AAA grade!). That said, it was a good piece, and worked nicely. I marked the shape for the fretboard, cut slightly wide of it with the bandsaw, and then used the no5 plane to run a smooth edge back to the line on the Shuting board. The centre line was marked, and then it was stuck down to a block with double sided tape and that block held down to the bench between the dogs. The rough radius was put into the fretboard with the plane. Then it’s removed and the frets marked and sawed.

The neck is still a solid block, with the headstock angle in the top. The Fretboard is glued down to it with standard bench clamps creating plenty of pressure. I use a staple at each end, gunned into the sapele and then cut off to create a short spike, to stop the ebony moving about under the clamping pressure.

Dots are then drilled into the fretboard with a 6mm drill bit, then the fretboard is sanded, carefully checking that the radius and straightness along the length is maintained. Then the neck is cut roughly to size, and the plane used to square up the heel at its full depth.

The Body

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The body block wasn’t wide enough for a normal ‘Les Paul/Strat style shape, so I designed this around a cross between the  Gibson EB-1 Bass made famous by Jack Bruce, and the classic Les Paul shape. I measured up, cut a the shape from my template on the bandsaw, and routed my pickup shapes in based on the middle line I had marked.

Then the neck joint, had to be routed, but the neck is going to go in at a slight angle. So to achieve this, the neck is lined up on the body so the end of the fretboard is in the right place, and two straight pieces are put up against it and clamped. With the neck removed, the joint can be routed to about 3/4 of the depth necessary.

Then the neck joint pitch had to be calculated to raise the strings over the bridge – which is clear from the drawings (always have detailed drawings). This is put in with a hand plane up to the back of the neck pickup to the end of the body, all the way across the guitar. Now the router was returned to the body and the full depth route completed, using the previous edges as a guide.

Then the rest of the body can be carved down. The level edge is marked all around the side, and then the shape is carved down to the edge with a wide gouge. The bridge is the highest point on the body. I used a finger plane to smooth out my marks, then a lot of sanding!

The routing holes for wires have to be made before the neck is glued in – if you forget, you’re in big trouble!

Back to the neck.

Now it can be shaped, the headstock cut out and the volute cut. I made up a pine block to clamp it to to shape the back of the neck.

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The shape was cut with two rasps, but the heel at this stage is left unformed, though cut close to the marked line. This is because its going to be blended into the body. At this point, I drilled the tuner holes and fretted the neck.

The neck was then glued into the body.

Finishing Up

It’s time to drill for hardware, open up the electronics bay, and make a cover for it. I drilled through to the outer edge for the jack socket, and made a template to cut the back plate hollow.

The next stage is sealing up the wood ready for spraying. I used Z-Poxy – but in the very low temperatures of an English winter it takes a while to go off and it’s a messy job. I spread it onto the wood and scrape off the excess, just leaving it filling the grain. But there are other ways – for furniture I often use Shellac and sawdust by rubbing in the shellac with 320 grit paper. The problem it that this will shrink back, so it will tend to allow the finish to sink a little – an interesting effect for ageing the guitar.

Once dry, it was sanded back, and the guitar taped  up and hung for Spraying with Nitro. I have a gun and compressor set up, but you can still buy Nitro in cans from luthier supplies, or more easily from your local car paint store (as they often stock clear Lacquer for restoring old cars, and there are plenty of classic auto clubs still in the UK). The joy of Nitro is that its easy to use. Just spray on lightly and leave, lots of thin coats. If it runs, wait til it’s dry, sand back and do it again. At the end, wait for a week until its nice and gassed off, and flatten any surface with 1200 – 2000 grit wet and dry. T Cut is a great polish (and probably in your garage anyway) for blemishes too. Then its all about elbow grease if you’re buffing by hand.

So then its assembly and set up left to do, cutting a nut and stringing it up.

Here’s the Result:

 

So is it any good, and Sapele a good answer to the price of mahogany? Well it’s half an answer. It’s often very heavy, the grain is complex and can be hard to work. But if you pick your pieces carefully, and don’t build heavy deep bodies, then it works fairly well. The grain can be very striking, and it doesn’t need to be stained or coloured unless you really want to. The more dense it is, the less it tends to soften the attack of the string, so Sapele can give a similar bright strike sound to a maple cap on a Les Paul.

I  like my cheap guitar, I’ve already taken it out and used it at a rehearsal and it performed very well.

Despite the low cost (though well chosen) hardware and pickups, the performance is very good. It does prove that much of what makes a good guitar is in the way that it’s constructed and the care taken over the craftsmanship. So even if you’re having a guitar made by hand by a luthier, it’s not always necessary to use particularly exotic woods – if the materials are stable then it’s possible to make a working guitar from them.

And then there’s the whole debate about ‘ToneWood’…..I’ll let you argue that amongst yourselves!

 

 

 

A New Prototype

For the last month I’ve been working on both a prototype and updating my methods for making modular instruments, in an attempt to streamline the process.

When building a modular instrument, the production process should be such that every neck and body should fit each other – that way the customer can choose from any number of combinations (and I can keep a few different bodies and necks in stock). So for example, I could have a few bodies made of Alder, sealed and ready for painting, and a few neck blocks (necks part finished with a different fretboard materials, ready for hand shaping to taste). This way, the customer gets a shorter turnaround, but still gets a guitar built to the general design, but with a neck shaped to their own hand, with whatever frets they want, whatever fret markers they want, whatever colour they want. But I’m still slightly ahead of the game. I can even make special orders from exotic woods, but having accurate templating will still make the process quicker.

When you’re making guitars, or any other product, the price that you need to charge the customer relies on two things: Raw Materials costs, and productivity. In guitar making, I have absolutely no control over the cost of parts – there simply aren’t any deals to be had, the price is the price and I’m stuck with that. But what I can do is raise productivity, and therefore reduce prices to the customer. This is where I have to compete against those companies who can cut by machine. I still have to do all my cutting by hand, CNC is out of my reach, and just not my bag. By grouping actions of a similar nature, the fact that I don’t have a lot of workshop space can be made less of a disadvantage. Making bodies for a few days, then necks, then scratchplates.

That doesn’t mean that I want to stop making bespoke instruments, but that if I know I can diversify a little, I can invest more into the workshop – and hopefully reach the next necessary step – rebuilding the bloody thing to keep out the damp, cold and rodents!

The new model:

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The aim was to create a new and unique shape, but one that would support a huge number of possible configurations for pickups, switching and hardware. Also, I set myself the task of making a guitar that would stand up against the amp without the risk of falling over – it had to have two points of contact with the ground.

The prototype had to be one that was a real utility instrument, so I went for a two humbucker guitar, with coil taps and a tremolo. Because I’m going to be playing it, the tremolo only goes one way, something achieved by cutting the neck pocket a few millimetres deeper than the design would normally require.

The basic design revolves around the 25 1/2″ scale length. There are a few reasons for this. The first is that because of the raised tension in this longer scale, the range of tones available is slightly wider. Listen to the neck pickup on a strat – it’s not the materials alone that allow that ‘chime’ and attack – the tension changes the way that the string reacts. Of course, top end can always be rolled away with the tone pot. Putting a single coil in a 24 3/4″ scale guitar rarely gives  a similar effect in terms of tone, there is a noticeable lack of that spank and attack. In this case I originally started with a piece of Ebony for the neck, but it had a fault in it and I had to scrap it, hence the maple. However, the extra attack that seems to generate has made the guitar even more reactive, especially for the neck pickup.

The other thing that really changes massively in the tighter string is he reaction to both pinch and natural harmonics. For me, in the 25 1/5″ scale they are often more prominent and certainly pick harmonics seem easier to coax out of the guitar. Note that many of the late 80’s shredders used Strat length guitars. Lastly, the increased tension I think, aids tremolo stability – more string tension balanced by more spring tension. All together there is more force seating the block against the pins.

The wood used for this was leftovers. The piece of Tulip wood that was used for the body was brought in as a long plank, but the end was a bit green so I left it to one side – so that was cut and glued into a blank. The maple for the neck was a leftover that had warped slightly, so I had put it to one side earlier this year, but managed to plane it straight enough to use. The fretboard was was the last piece of a block I’d already made two necks from, both of which had subsequently warped and had to be binned, but for a fretboard was still fine.

I didn’t worry too much about the colour scheme, on the basis that I had a large piece of black scratchplate – so the body had to work with that. White seemed the obvious choice, so a spray can was purchased.

The neck shape is a little faster than I would normally design for myself, it’s a bit flatter too. When I first set it up and plugged it into an amp, I didn’t like the action because it was too low!

Lastly, the pickups. I’m a massive fan of the Bare Knuckles Pickups – my go to has always been the Mules. However, for prototyping they are a reassuringly expensive. So as an experiment I ordered a set of ‘Rolling Mill’ pickups from Iron Gear. Are they as good as the Mules? For me, no not really. But at three times the price are the Mules three times as good, absolutely not? The difference is subtle, partly in the smoothness of the bottom end of the pickup. But there’s no doubt that what Iron gear have done is create a pickup that at this price point I haven’t seen matched. They stand up against pretty much any of the non boutique brands that I’ve used here for replacement work, and destroy anything else I’ve heard that still resides in the budget market.

The prototype took about a month to make, from the templates to the finished guitar, which is pretty quick for me. I did a lot of re-tooling, especially in terms of the router and table. Whatever happens that will be of benefit later. In design terms, it’s certainly a departure from the more traditional shapes that I have tended towards, let me know what you think of it. I’m not sure whether it will prove popular, but it’s certainly growing on me!

PS: It doesn’t have a name yet. I think it’s going to need one.

PPS – As an alternative, I could also make a ‘custom’ model using exotic woods and load the guitar from the back, using the same basic shape and neck design – no plastic at all.

Prototype build – Pt 3

Delayed post (from early August 2016). I forgot to press ‘publish!’ I should stick to wood and leave computers alone I guess….

When I left you last I had just joined neck and body and started in on the hardware. Now the guitar is almost complete, it’s time to round off on the woodwork side of the job.

Because this is a total prototype, I strung the guitar up without worrying about a proper fret dress and finish – mainly because I wasn’t sure how I would react to the balance of it in the hand and I wanted to be sure that my design parameters had been correct.

The first thing I noticed was that despite the curvature of the body, the 22nd fret was still a bit of a reach – it was still to much a Les Paul type of feel. So I took a chisel to the body and the heel and blended them together. While it’s something I had considered before, it’s had never really been necessary with my other designs – especially the 24 fret Mk1 design, because I had such good access. But the problem here was the desire to get that almost ‘strat’ like weight distribution and balance which brought in the upper bout.

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It wasn’t long before I had a completely different feel above the 17th fret, and much closer to the feel I had envisaged for the design.

Now it was a case of smoothing the joint out and making the transition work properly.

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This is with the chisel alone. Then the convex scraper came into play, and a lot of sandpaper. The end result was much more pleasing. Sometimes you have to be prepared to almost ‘make a mess’ and be confident that you can make a smooth end to the job. When you’re this close to the end then it can feel that you’re taking your life in your hands a bit!

Here’s the finished joint before the fine sanding

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This felt totally different now, so I strung it up (sans electronics) and had a good play. The dimensions of the neck are on the large side – as this is a prototype I’ll probably end up keeping it as I have with many of the others.  So I have gone with the neck dimensions of my original guitar (a bit of a club really), wide at the nut (1 13/16th”) and an inch deep.

Somehow though, it just didn’t feel the same. The old girl has this real easy feel , despite it’s size, but this wasn’t quite right. So I cut into the shoulder of the neck shape again, removing more material without removing any real depth, That made a  lot of difference, but she still felt a bit of a handful, even though the dimensions were now technically smaller than the original from which it was derived. A quick look at the fretboard edges showed much of the problem – with the binding edge they were just a little too square. So I took the fret file to the edges and rounded the fretboard edges quite heavily. Again, it was making a massive difference. The guitar suddenly had a more natural feel.

The last step was to cut the the cavity covers from some of the left over Mahogany from the body. The pot cover is made by using the template for the router hole. The totally round switch cover is turned on the lathe using a body depth off cut, then sliced off with a mixture of a parting tool on the lathe and a handsaw. the final finish depth is made with a bench sander.

So here it is in it’s almost finished state

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And the front. Here’s how it looks with a little white spirit to clean out the dust from the grain.

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So now I’m sending this out to be spray finished. It’s something I have never done before, but I think it will pay dividends in the end. I have access to guys in the custom motorcycle trade who have been friends for years and have often helped me along the way when it comes to spraying guitars. They are also experts in dealing with vintage finishes like Nitro. In all honesty, my thing is the woodwork and although I can achieve a good finish on a guitar, these guys are top pros and will do a great job in half the time – and then I can move on to the next job knowing that the finishing process is in the best hands. It’s a massive de stress for me.

So, now to order the pickups….

Touring – It’s Tough (on your guitar)

Touring can be a tough experience. Travelling from town to town, eating in fast food joints, sleeping in grotty hotels, driving all day. Then there’s your gig –  most of which will be support shows with almost no time to get on and off the stage, instruments have to be in cases almost as soon as the last note has stopped ringing to avoid them being stepped on or flight cases rolled over them.

Yes, touring can be hard on the soul, but it’s really tough on your instruments.

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Toured and then stored – an extreme example of what can go wrong!

This week I had a great Rickenbacker bass come into the workshop, but it was showing real signs of tour fatigue. Moving parts were no longer moving – rusted totally hard. The neck was so out of adjustment that Eddie the Eagle could have made use of it, the bridge pickup was held in one piece by some camouflage gaffer tape. One pickup showed no output at all. The customer brought it in with the request to just give the wiring the once over, because it’s ‘got one loose’ somewhere.

This is entirely common. Instruments deteriorate over a long period of time, and with bassists who generally only tend to play the one instrument for long periods of time, they often don’t notice as the instrument gets tired and out of shape. Playing simply adapts to the instrument, in the shape it’s in.

In this particular case, once I opened it up I found that the pickup itself was broken, and needed to be taken apart and fixed. When the player came to pick it up, I talked him into a proper service- and the result have been dramatic. I’d take this bass on the road now. It’s a stunning player.

So how do you avoid some of the problems?

First priority is to make sure your instrument is clean and dry when it goes in the case. When you get off a hot sweaty stage and by necessity throw the guitar straight into a case, you are trapping in heat and moisture. That then attacks metallic parts, and anything with a thread gets rusted. If you have to do this, get the bulk of the gear out of the venue and just find somewhere to open up the case again and clean up the instrument, a hotel room if you have one – backstage after breaking down if you can.

That alone will remove half the problems I tend to see. Secondly, take Vaseline on tour with you. If you feel comfortable setting up a guitar, look at the moving parts such as bridge saddles. Put a little Vaseline in the threads – it will help to keep moisture out, and therefore rust. You can do it during a string change, and it doesn’t take long. Even if you don’t want to take screws out for fear of upsetting the setup, you can put a little into the hex head to stop it getting rotten and decaying, and in the visible thread which will stop moisture working its way in. You don’t need a lot.

Servisol 10 (or an equivalent). Switch cleaner will get you our of jail quick when it comes to crackly jack sockets, pots or switches. Spray a little in and work the item to clean the surface. It’s usually just smoke, sweat and dust. It’s rarely a permanent repair once the surface of a switch or socket starts to decay, but as a temporary measure it will probably get you out of a fix.

NEVER USE WD40 anywhere on a guitar or amp!!!

Tour repairs – we know they have to be made, and we know that it’s often difficult to find a local luthier to do them. So if you have to make a temporary repair, especially to a moving part, be careful. So for example, avoid using copious amounts of superglue, because you’ll have to remove it later and it’s pain in the arse. If you have to use more than a dab of superglue, then it’s the wrong tool. Double sided sticky tape is ok, but use sparingly. These usually get used to repair pickups, and especially loose covers which cause feedback.

Strap pins pull out regularly. How many guitars do I see with a strap duct taped to the the body. Don’t do it, ever. Get a box of matches and shove several of them into the hole and screw the strap pin back in. Your Luthier will then remove those and put a hardwood plug back in the space later for a permanent repair.

Post tour servicing.

Post tour servicing is actually more useful than pre tour servicing, if you’re on a tight budget. When you first tour, you want your instrument to absolutely in top condition when you first go out, and that’s cool. But then it comes back off the tour or a long run of gigs and sits until the next tour, when the process starts again.

That’s a bad move. It’s taken a battering, which it doesn’t take in the studio or in rehearsal. Get the guitar stripped down, cleaned and set up again as soon as the tour ends, and you stop the rot there. The chances are that you will avoid worse decay by getting things sorted quickly at the end of a tour, and actually save yourself time and probably money too.

Happy Touring folks.

New build – second stage

It’s been a while since I reported the relaunch of the workshop for building – other tasks  have rather overtaken the run of play. This week though, I have been back to the new prototype to make some progress.

The first port of call this week is the neck. The headstock angle was marked in the block before gluing on the fretboard and then cut and planed with the No.5 Bailey plane. Then the fretboard was glued on to the block and the basic shape cut and the headstock ‘wings’ glued.

Why use wings? Partly it’s about not using routers for neck edge shapes. I don’t like rotating blades – they quite simply scare me. In the table, the router blade is exposed. In the hand held router, the potential to slip is great. So the router gets used only as a last resort for any job. I like to cut close to the edge of the fretboard, and then plane the entire edge with the longest plane body I have. This gives a great straight edge.

That’s where I am here. It’s then a matter of gluing on the edges of the headstock which will be hidden by the headstock veneer.IMG_20160701_131225[1]

With that complete, I turned to the body. The router is used to make a channel for binding with a stepped bit and follower. This is then reset to cut in at the top of the binding channel to create a 1/4″ step around most of the body which then marks the level of the edge for the carve process.

The carve is mostly achieved by hand again, as is the point of this whole process.The instrument here is a small gouge, which is largely pushed through the wood without the use of a mallet. Most of the work is across the grain, but at times I have to almost ‘feel’ which way the wood wants to work and just go with it to get the cleanest cut.

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The last part of the carve was then to work in the angle towards the neck, so that the fall off at the horn is not too steep. This is similar to the construction of the Les Paul, where the maple is thickest at the bridge and runs down to the neck joint at a gentle angle, facilitating the slightly back angled joint. This is another job for the hand plane. Once the general angle is set, I can put in the neck pocket route. The final act is to sand and smooth the entire shape.

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Here it is with the neck laid in as a test of the angle and depth of the cut. I used this layout to set the bridge position and route a valley for the the underside of the bridge to sit. Unlike a Les Paul, I prefer the strings to sit quite close to the body – so the neck angle and the body angle are the same, and the lie of the strings is much more Fender like in comparison to the top of the body. This then requires a little space to be made for the tunomatic bridge.

Back to the neck, it’s time for the shaping process. This is also a totally unmechanised procedure now (whereas many luthiers use sanding wheels on a grinder to remove excess material). I have done this in the past, but I don’t like wearing the necessary protective equipment!

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The main part of the process is performed with the surform, a ‘cheese grater’for wood. Then the heel is cut with a straight chisel and sanded to shape. The heel will be over depth at this stage, and then planed to make an edge to the correct level.

As you can just see on the picture, the excess material for the volute is only in the central area – it isn’t wide enough for a Gibson style volute. The volute is absolutely vital on a guitar like this. Although the head angle isn’t as sharp as a Gibson (about 10° for mine as opposed to 17° for the Gibson), it is still the case that the truss rod at the headstock removes a significant amount of wood from under the fretboard, just as it transitions into the headstock. It’s an exposed weakness. So the volute is about replacing that mass, so that there is a good structure as the angle changes and the end grain is beginning to be exposed. So it doesn’t have to carry to the wings, and in this case I have carved a diamond volute with chisels. This is part finished here, It still needs sanding. Even though it’s quite large, it’s situated well behind the first fret – and unlike some 70’s Gibsons, you won’t feel it when you’re playing the guitar.

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For this guitar, I have decided to go with stainless steel fretwire. It’s not particularly large, a fairly old fashioned 50’s Les Paul size. I won’t square it off though, no need to do that. Each fret is cut so that the tang is recessed from the binding and filed flush. Hopefully, with such hard fretwire it will never require a refret. And this Jascar fretwire was damned hard, filing the fret ends took an age even with the big dress file.

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A mother of Pearl headstock decal was cut into the rosewood veneer with a chisel and a scalpel. This is then backfilled with a little hide glue and rosewood dust to make the job smooth.

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Finishing touches now need to be made to the body – pickup and wiring routes need to be exposed and the binding fitted. As I’m not colouring this guitar at all, I opted to use a CA glue to fit a plastic binding. Although I experimented with a rosewood binding, in the end I stripped it off and changed to cream plastic as I just didn’t like the look of it. I also made rosewood pickup surrounds but I’m not sure about those either now and may just opt for cream plastic. Had I wanted to dye the top, I would have used a ‘fake’ binding edge exposing the un-dyed maple – but part of my inspiration for this guitar was a ‘Peter Frampton’ 3 pickup LP Custom that one of my customers brought in a long time ago. It’s a real rarity from the 70’s, and it had a very light flame simply coated in Nitro with no dyes or tinted lacquers. It was rather understated but incredibly classy, so I wanted to replicate that feel.

So binding on, holes drilled, pickups routed, wiring cavities and switch routes complete – it was time to glue in the neck. And this is where we are now:

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Double checking the joint angle reveals a perfect lie for the strings to the bridge. A quick lay out gives a feel for the final look of the guitar.

See you next time…

 

Squier Jazz: On the workbench

I get a a great number of ‘budget’ guitars across the workbench in the course of a year, it has becomes a much more substantial part of my workload in recent times. Part of this is because there has been a glut of them on the market that are actually quite playable (rather then the junk that I was subjected to as a kid), so the shops are stocking more of them. The other (and probably the larger part) is that the economy is still in the toilet, and doesn’t look  like it’s going to climb out for many years to come.

This has left the working musician often looking to less prestigious names to adorn their gigging headstocks. So as they come into the workshop, I’ll take a good look at them and try to give a fair rundown of their strengths and weaknesses.

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The instrument on the bench this morning is a Squire Jazz Bass. It’s fairly new, a 2014 build from the serial number. Black, with a black scratchplate and the maple neck reminiscent of the 1970’s Fender. The owner is reporting the action a little high for his taste, but that’s not the issue that strikes me first. It’s the fret job. Its not uneven along its length – its not buzzing out. I can lower the strings significantly without choking. No, its the ends that seems to me to be at issue. It makes the bass feel harsh on the hands, especially on the treble side when fretting the low strings, your hand can’t avoid the sharpness and very shallow pitch of the fret ends.

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So my first job was to tilt the fret ends in with the end file, a large and course file that is run along the length of the fret ends and takes equally from them to create an even profile.

Each fret end then needs to be shaped with the fine file and then the frets are polished. The amount of difference this makes to the bass is very significant. Suddenly this feels a much more expensive instrument, it’s smooth and fast and the action now lowered is very smooth.

The bass has been fitted with a heavy string set, but its not affecting the neck setup at all because the owner has been very smart about his tensions. This is a trick I’ve been advising players on for many years – how to keep your bass straight when you tune down. Its all about string tensions. DiAddario publish a string chart(pdf), where string weights are compared through both note and string tension. The trick is to decide what tension you like at standard tuning for feel and then for down tuning to choose a string set that as closely as possible matches that tension. That is what the owner had done here. This has left me a minimal amount of work to do on the neck tension itself, because it has not been over tensioned. It also means that you don’t get the effect of floppy strings bouncing off of every fret because they’re too light.

On plugging it in post setup, I’m pleasantly surprised by the tone of the beast. Its not the most aggressive sounding Jazz bass I’ve ever heard, but even at Drop C (C,G,C,F) it has a pleasingly articulate tone. It’s not over boomy either, the bottom string is not overbearing, and its fairly even across the fretboard.

The neck is fast and smooth, the finish is good and now that the fret ends are dealt with it would be hard to tell the difference between this and for example a Mexican Fender. The body is a little light for  my liking, which makes it a touch head heavy, but for the player who likes a fairly lightweight bass that won’t be a handicap. It sustains well all the same, and intonates without too much messing about.

When you consider the price that these are being offered for – (I think this is probably the Squier 77 vintage modified model), you just can’t argue against them on sheer bang for the buck. Yes, to a degree you get what you pay for, and you’ll hear reviews on the web and on youtube of Asian built guitars that tell you where they save their money – mainly on the hardware and pickups. (Phillip McKnight has a good stab at that here in video format).  But in the bass market, while this matters, it matter less. So long as the pickups have a good range and the tuners stay in tune, you can get a great instrument for absolutely peanuts here. Some things will inevitably wear out quicker than their USA counterparts – mainly the potentiometers (volume and tone controls) and the Jack socket for example. But that’s not going to cost you the hundreds of pounds you’ve saved over the Mexican or US equivalent.

The only thing that puts me off this slightly is the physical lightness of it as an instrument – those fret ends are nothing that any local luthier can’t deal with as part of a setup. It just leaves it with a balance that doesn’t suit me particularly. I like my basses a little heavier so that their balance is very much a product of their body mass. But most younger players actually don’t like a heavy instrument at all, and I’m 5’11” and far from waif like – and this is advertised as a Punk players bass – they didn’t exactly have me in mind!

So here’s the crunch – there are a lot of these kinds of instruments on the market. What you aren’t going to get from an Indonesian built guitar manufacturer is the quality control levels you would get from the USA Fender plant. That’s not to say that they are going to churn out trash guitars, but they are going to let go some things that the USA workshop would reject – it’s a cost issue.

Therefore the message is simple – don’t mail order, buy in person. Play the bass. If it’s fretting out all over the place, leave it on the shelf. If it sounds good, don’t worry about a few sharp fret ends – even if you have to pay a luthier £35 to set the bass up and file the fret ends, you’ve still got a good deal if the bass is generally sound and you like it. There is one hidden problem on far some far eastern guitars: The Truss Rod!

The most common big fault I find on them is that the truss rods don’t support the neck. So unless the neck is fairly straight in the shop, walk away. It proves that the shop is not one to be buying from – would you sell your car with a flat tire and cigarette ash all over the seat covers? If they haven’t set the instrument up then they are in one of two positions – either the don’t care enough or they don’t have the technical skills. If it’s either of those, you have to consider whether you want to shop there. If I had a shop, nothing would go on the wall until it was at least given a polish and a setup. Fret ends are a different order of magnitude, it requires a little more tooling and experience – but if you can’t get the neck straight, the guitar intonated and the strings at a playable level, and you’re a retailer, it’s time to get a different job!

So, ready to pack this one back in the case and back to its owner. It’s a good bass, it’s more than just playable, it’s quick and it has a pleasing tone. It’s well finished, the hardware works well, and the electronics are plenty good enough to gig. At the price these go for, that’s a lot of bass.

 

Back to the Workshop..a Re-launch!

Well it’s been an interesting winter and spring – in the proverbial ‘Chinese’ sense! A wet winter followed by a wet spring has left me bailing out the workshop more often that I’ve actually making anything in it. Added to that, the wet weather has driven the rats away from the the local water courses and, yes you guessed it – into my workshop. Yet another inconvenience that I might have been happier to avoid. Unfortunately for me, there is a ready food source nearby, and there’s absolutely nothing I can do about it.

But back to the future.

Because the workshop has been partially shut down across the winter I haven’t been taking commissions (and I’ve been turning away repair work, something that I won’t be doing in future I hope). I needed to get the workshop relaunched.

To do that, I have decided to move even more into the ‘by hand’ process and even further away from the machines that cause me so much grief. And to perfect new techniques and raise the quality of the finished product further, I needed a test bed: A new guitar. So with chisels and planes sharpened, and a new drawing made, off I went!

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I jointed two halves of Honduran Mahogany. They were run through the thincknesser, but jointed by hand with a 1930’s bailey plane. I’m going to need a longer one and a bigger shooting board! The top which was one I had already jointed,  was cut and the edges sanded as a template for the body shape. I opened up the necessary channels inside the mahogany for wires, removed much of the excess wood and then glued the top in place.

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The next step was to sand and shape the body. A close cut was made on the band saw, then a quick spin with the bobbin sander took the worst of the saw marks out. Next the entire body was hand sanded to smooth any imperfections in the shape.

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That process took a couple of hours alone, and holds a strange degree of satisfaction. Whereas before I would have used the bobbin sander with finer grades, now only the roughest work is done by the machine. This is definitely the way to go for me, however technically inefficient!

Then it was onto the fretboard. I have some Indian Rosewood, which I used the trusty old Bailey plane to shape to about 12″. Next it was slotted and cut to shape. For this project I wanted the luxury of a Les Paul, without the conformity of the design. I also wanted a different neck pickup tone s I often found my own LP just a bit lacking at the neck for me – I want something slightly brighter. So I designed around 25.5″ – a telecaster length, to get a little more string tension. That won’t make a lot of difference to the tone at the Bridge Pickup, but hopefully will lift a little more bell like quality to the neck.

The fretboard was then ready for the inlays. I haven’t done a lot of inlay work to be honest, because a lot of my designs haven’t had them- the idea to create a look which has been more stark and a little different. But this time I wanted something more traditional.

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The inlays were bought (mostly) pre shaped. But the shaping was rather poor and they needed quite a bit of finishing. Then they were cut into the neck using nothing more than a scalpel blade and two very sharp chisels. That took me over 8 hours! In previous inlay work I have used a small router to remove some of the material, but this time I wanted to see if I could do the  entire process by hand. I’m not sure that there’s any real point to that, but just the satisfaction!

To this, flamed sycamore binding was added, and the edges cleaned up with the finger plane.

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The final step for now is to prepare the neck block and insert the truss rod and head angle. Normally, I would run the biflex truss rod so that the flat steel of the rod would rest against the fretboard. This means that it is necessary to add two small ‘steps’, one at either end of the truss rod channel allow the stays to sit. This maximises the depth of wood from the back of the truss rod channel to the back of the neck. Because this is for me, and I like a deeper neck, I went for the more traditional method normally used with single way truss rods, a capped channel. This means with the biflex that the bottom of the channel is flat, but about 1/8″ deeper. It will also put a little more pressure into the middle of the flat rod, generally inducing the rod to have more back pull if needed (though reducing the ability to push the neck forwards – which for a mahogany neck, heavier strings and a long scale length I am never likely to need).

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Then the finger plane is used to remove any excess maple in the channel and bring the neck block back to level.

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So that’s as far as I have got since the end of last week. I’ll post more of this one as I get further through the building process. And just as a final teaser, here’s one more picture which I took after making a final check on the string path by laying out the parts with the bridge.

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See you next week, hopefully with a finished neck shape and a carved body top!