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…


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.


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


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.



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:


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….