Battle Scars – the JR1 returns

Finally, the JR-1 (the James Ready signature model) has returned for its proper service.


It came in briefly once before to repair a slightly raised fret, but not for its full setup post delivery. It’s been on the road about three and a half years now I think, and been featured very heavily on Walkway III as the main rhythm guitar – especially on anything drop D tuned.

It’s had an unbelievably hard life already, which was one of the reasons I originally wanted to work with James. Walkway is a proving ground for my building method, in that if it can survive that kind of heavy gigging then I’ve got it right.

The main issue was that James was reporting a little buzzing from the top E. I hit the strings fairly hard and it was rattling a bit, so I lifted the strings very slightly and the problem disappeared. The truss rod was just about right though, so I just unwound it about 1/4 turn, then slowly put the pressure back on a touch to add a little more clearance. That seemed to clear any buzz but the action was not noticeably higher.

Then it’s time to look at the bridge.


The pickup and the bridge are carrying a fair amount of corrosion. Now destrung, its time to see what moves. The posts on the bridge are held tight with grub screws. I can’t adjust the height at the Bass end (though I’d already moved the treble end slightly) because the screws are rusted solid. In fact I can’t even get an allen key into one of them, so badly has the rot set in.

So I freed it up with a little heat and oil, then took the bridge off its posts to clean it up and try to stop the corrosion in its tracks. You can see how bad it is below.

Some of the rollers are seized, which rather defeats the object of the exercise to reduce breaking against bending. Although there aren’t any sharp edges, they have to be freed up.

The best way is just to soak them in oil, to dissolve any crud and hopefully soften any surface rust.

Everything that will come out goes in the oil bath. The saddles come off, but the grub screws were tight so I left them in initially for an hour, returning to them to unscrew them when the oil had done its job.


After a couple of hours while I was working on something else, I came back to a much better situation. Putting the bridge back together, the screws went back in with almost no resistance at all which was rather more reassuring.

Of course, getting all the surface oil off was a bit of a task, but the best way is to leave a film on anything the hand doesn’t touch, which will repel at least some moisture for a while. There’s no harm in putting a little Vaseline into screw threads on a guitar, just to keep the rust away, when restringing – especially if you’re one of those players who rots guitars for fun every weekend.


Next is to have a good clean up. You can see what looks like glitter on the headstock – that’s shredded string and metal pick from the last few gigs. There was lots of it all over the guitar. Then it was taped up and the frets polished. There’s a bit of wear, but nothing too serious and there’s no point in a dress at this point.

Considering the use it gets, the frets have held up fairly well – and possibly in some way aided by the use of elixirs because the string doesn’t become more abrasive on its underside through corrosion.

And so then it’s time to put it back together and set it up. With the bridge now working properly, it’s a piece of cake. Really, apart from the bridge the guitar has survived almost intact, and that will last a few more years before it needs replacing. The electronics are fine, and sounding great. The Bare Knuckles in this one are the VHII pair – bright and spanky, and apart from the Mules my favourite to fit.

The paintwork however….well that’s another story!



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.


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!)


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…

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:


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.

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.


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.


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!


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.


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.


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.


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:


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…


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!


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.


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.


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.


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.


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).


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


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.


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

The 70’s Superstrat Prototype

So, about a month ago I wrote a post about the ‘Superstrat’ and its origins in the 70’s. My aim was to replicate that , but to see if I could iron out some of the problems that often occurred with the tuning, especially when the trem was abused fairly heavily by the likes of Van Halen!


What you see above is the first of the finished articles. I decided to go for the very original feel first, so it’s a very stripped back and basic approach to the guitar. I also went for a ‘worn in’ feel. The neck is stripped and oiled, polished with 2000 grade paper to simulate 40 years of playing. The body is meant to be recovered junk, the sort of thing that we used to buy as kids for next to nothing when others had got bored of experimenting. It’s a proper ‘Frankenstrat’

Pretty early on I decided that if it was going to have that feel then it had to be a ‘non Floyd’ guitar. Firstly, and most significantly, because I realise that I just don’t like them. At all. I just finished working on a customer’s Floyd, and you know what, after sodding about with all the little pieces of string block, Allen keys and the suchlike, I felt like a I needed a stiff drink! What a pain in the arse. OK it didn’t help that his was a floating bridge, and I’m not a fan of those either – and that’s because I usually sing in most of the bands I have played guitars in. There’s nothing worse than getting two lines into a song when a string drops off, then you have to decide whether to carry on with the guitar woefully sharp or give up the vocal and retreat for the spare!

The biggest thing is the sheer bulk of them. And then you get to another downside – a good one is very expensive, and the cheap ones are rubbish. A vintage trem has many fewer parts (and none of them fall out when the strings are off, so you don’t end up crawling around the floor of the pub looking for them). And on top of that, I wanted to find a different solution to the one that was initially sought by Mr Rose. Because let’s face it, time has already proven his solution to be exceptionally effective. I just think it has other drawbacks that I don’t particularly enjoy.

So my answer was to elongate the neck by about 3/8″ and insert a Zero Fret. By keeping the string angle over the zero fret very light, I could ensure that there was no friction. This negated the need for anything like the Fender LSR roller nut (which aren’t cheap either and are prone to wear). As a precaution against the Zero fret wearing out I used stainless steel fretwire. In fact, I went against my usual practice and used Stainless for the whole guitar.

Well I have to be honest – it worked, and it didn’t. Using the usual tuning method for strats with tremolos (Tune it, wang the bar hard, then tune any sharp notes back to pitch and then leave it alone unless it goes flat), it behaves much better than any vintage trem strat I have ever had or used.  But you still have to tune it ‘like a strat’. You can’t just tune it how you would a non trem guitar and hope it will stay in perfectly. Now knowing that there is no friction in the nut (because it doesn’t have one) and the guide isn’t touching any string, the reason for this is a bit of a mystery. I find it hard to believe that the zero fret is causing any friction, and the tuners are ‘Sperzel’ style back locking ones, the same kind I have used exclusively for many years. So I’m sure that’s not an issue.

I think the next experimental model will have to have a modern two point tremolo on it. I’m not convinced that many of them are very good in terms of the base plate and locating pins, at least at the budget end of the market – the bearing edges can be a bit soft. I’ll do some research with my suppliers. But I’ll have to try it as I can’t answer the important question without doing so.

One big success of this guitar however, has been the pickup. When I build a new guitar, I usually put a Bare Knuckle Mule straight in. I love em, but they are a bit too well behaved for this kind of guitar, smooth and rich but never really jumping out at you. I like the Stormy Monday Alnico II pickup for the bite it has, but it isn’t powerful enough for a guitar like this. The VH II has that classic Van Halen sound which is actually quite bright – but with the stainless frets I thought that might be a bit too sharp. (The VH II is a more modern design utilising the strength of the magnet rather than classic overwinding to get the power. Those went In James Ready’s  Signature model).

So I went to a company called AxesRus in Hull who I do a lot of business with when it comes to bringing in parts for repairs and improving budget guitars. They have a lot of proprietary hardware made for them now which has turned out to be very good. Their tech guy Craig has been recently having pickups made to his specifications – one of which I tried on a customer’s guitar and was very impressed (especially as that particular model was half the price of the Seymour or Dimarzio equivalent). In their range they have an Alnico II overwound to about 10K. That allows it a bit more bottom end to even out the potential brightness. And that’s also classic 70’s hot rodding. Eddie Van Halen took a pickup from his 335 (probably a II but maybe a IV), rewound it with about 1/3 too many turns and then soaked it in paraffin wax. So I took a punt.

Well what a good move that turned out to be. I fitted some ‘Slash’ Alnico IIs a while back to a customer’s Epiphone  Les Paul and ended up sitting there for about an hour playing it. Just didn’t want to give it back. This ‘Mucky Puppy’ is as good as that, at least as good as that! It has a bit more midrange in it because of the hotter winding and harmonics just jump out of the guitar, even at low volumes in the teaching room. Playing faster picked runs the attack is always there, but the note is there too, it’s not just percussive noise. Slow it down and it sings! I can see me fitting a lot of these!

So overall I think the project so far has been a mild success. I’m going to use it for a while, I have absolutely no problem in abusing the whammy bar so that the strings are loose and still keeping it in tune.

In the meantime, I’m going to make a second guitar. This one will probably now be a test bed for a two fulcrum point tremolo rather than the vintage one. As much as possible I want that to be the only difference, because that might be the best way to find out if the vintage trem itself is casing this sensitivity to tuning method that sees the G string especially go sharp on return to resting position.

Off to recapture my lost youth….now where did I leave those leather trousers?



If anyone has anything to add to the experiment in the way of experience with the vintage or two point tremolo systems, please share in the comments. Every time I undertake one of these experiments I find something that I thought was pretty much fact slips into ‘grey area’. I now no longer ‘know’ why strat trems come back sharp on the G string. I’d always assumed it to be simply the nut/string tree/tuning pegs. And in most cases it possibly was. But maybe not this time….

The Super Strat

Don Grosh Bent Top

This is the Don Grosh Bent Top Custom HSS. Gorgeous piece of work, fantastically finished, and probably plays like butter. This is the modern epitome of the superstrat – AAA+ quilt top, false binding, mahogany back.

It sells for $4000 in the States – but clearly you get what you pay for in this world and it is an exquisite example of the modern superstrat.

But hang on just a minute, as wonderful as it is, (and it is wonderful), have we forgotten how this guitar, and thousands of others, came in to being? What is the Superstrat? Where did the modern superstrat evolve from, and just when did it become a boutique instrument?

The superstrat comes from humble origins – and perhaps the earliest of the hot rods isn’t really a strat at all –


This was the guitar that Seymour Duncan hot rodded for Jeff Beck. It’s basically a Telecaster, given a kind of ‘Les Paul’ kick. So why didn’t Jeff just play a Les Paul? I can’t tell you his motives precisely, but I can guess at them.

Firstly, it’s about weight. A telecaster is lighter than a Les Paul. A lot of players prefer a guitar to be pretty lightweight, and in fact it seems to be one of the things always sought after in a strat. I’m only a little fella and it’s never really bothered me, even as a vocalist, but there’s no doubt that it’s a consideration for many.

Secondly, it’s a tone thing, or more specifically a ‘Twang’ thing. Tele’s and strats are 25.5″ scale length, Gibsons only 24.75″. The difference that makes is quite marked. The extra tension makes for a very different string response. I notice it most when the neck pickup is played up around the 12th fret – there’s a chime to the sound that even a Les Paul with p 90s doesn’t really get.

Third, feel. The tension, balance and neck of a fender is very different to a Gibson.

Lastly, Harmonics. On a Fender length instrument, it’s much easier to get the harmonics to sing out, especially in the places where they don’t exactly coincide with the fret wires. So we’re talking about the really high up ones, the dog whistle stuff so beloved of Metal players in the 80’s.

So what makes a great superstrat?

Well for me, I like the point where it all started: And for most of us that was the same point – and it was this one guitar in particular:


Yep – Eddie Van Halen’s Frankenstrat. It’s a Charvel body and neck, purchased as factory seconds from Boogie Bodies (the body had a knot in it). It’s only 21 frets, it’s probably about a 9″ radius (as it was purchased in 1974 and we hadn’t got to the flatter radius yet). Most importantly, the trem is standard fender, and the pickup standard Gibson (from a 335).

It’s basically junk, bolted together as an experiment. Eddie got a bit sick of the paint job being copied, so in 79 he painted it red – but carried on playing it live until the Diver Down era, when the Kramers with locking tremolos came along.

So is that the ultimate SuperStrat? Probably not, because it didn’t really stay in tune, even after Eddie had put a brass nut on it! Floyd D Rose made a gift of one of the original Locking Tremolos to Eddie, and suddenly the tuning issue was gone. And that’s when the superstrat craze finally took off.


Yes, that is the same guitar – the one from VH1.

Then everyone else dived in – Kramer, Charvel, Ibanez, Jackson, Washburn – pretty much everything you could buy had a daft headstock and a locking trem.

Pretty much the only two guitars that still emerge with massive street cred at the end of the (actually rather short) production boom of the superstrat were the Ibanez (RG & Jems made famous by Satriani and Vai), and the Charvel (especially the San Dimas guitars). Charvel was played by just about everyone in the Rock & Metal scene, even if they didn’t play them live. From Richie Sambora (who endorsed Kramer in the 80’s, but played a lot of his most famous stuff on a Charvel in the studio) to George Lynch of Dokken (who later moved to ESP). Even Allan Holdsworth used Charvel.


So why have they remained so sought after? Well they were very well made for a start. For their time, the necks were incredibly slick and straight, and they took a hammering without much complaint.

But most of all I think it was the simplicity of them. The original ones seemed to stick very closely to the spirit of the thing. They weren’t particularly fancy, they were hot rodded strats. They had stuck to Van Halen’s original idea and just made the best of it.

But the production superstrat isn’t really the best superstrat. The best ones were the ones we built ourselves, mainly because we were broke.

I remember my first. It was a Vesper Strat. This is how it would have started out:


I purchased for about £70 from Thetford Music – and a reclaimed Floyd. I used a Kahler top lock that I found on an old Washburn that had been stripped for parts, and a Super Distortion that I bought for £20 from a friend. I stripped all the finish off the maple neck and attempted to dress the high spots on the fretboard. Then I disconnected everything but the volume control! I never bothered with the tremolo arm, I just stuck my hand under the fine tuners and lifted the bridge off the wood to shake it. I came across some video on Facebook a while back of me actually using it. Abusing it actually – the thing screamed. And while I had owned a Jackson Dinky and a Washburn at various times, this was the guitar I remember most fondly from that era – despite that on the stand behind me in the video was a 1969 Les Paul Deluxe that I’d also hot rodded with a Seymour pickup.

So the first project of this year in the Workshop is to try to return to that ‘essence of superstrat’  – to build a run of three guitars that take the best of the features of that era of great superstrats. Not only that, I want them to feel like relics of the original era – worn in.

If you’d like to get your hands on one of these, then get in touch….I’m off to start cutting wood!