Saturday, 25 May 2013

...And the Gods Made Guitars

A while ago, after spending far too much time on guitar forums, I decided to try building one myself. There are a number of ways to do this, the most adventurous involves finding an axe and a likely tree, but you don't have to go to those lengths.
In my last post I mentioned the straightforward bolted-together construction of the Telecaster. With well-made parts the tele is probably the easiest guitar to put together.
What finally persuaded me to try building one was that I could pick the features I wanted. I'd previously tried both the Squier Classic Vibe Telecaster and the Fender Standard Telecaster, both are good (I got on with the Squier a bit better), but there are things I'd want to change on both too. Since this isn't my main guitar I could risk experimenting a bit.
The classic telecaster has an ash or alder body with a maple neck, a steel bridge plate with three brass barrel saddles and two single coil pickups. Never having liked the traditional telecaster finishes (solid colour or the very opaque butterscotch-blonde), I'd been inspired to try finishing the body myself.

Wood

Yes, the body. If you're going to finish the body yourself you need to start with an unfinished one. Guitarbuild.co.uk will make custom bodies to order, but they also sell their popular designs on eBay as woodwoo2 (unfortunately their courier is expensive for shipping to Northern Ireland, but mainland UK is okay).
For the finish I knew I wanted to try out Wudtone. They're a Welsh outfit who make custom guitars, but also sell a few components, including a range of body finishing kits. It was tempting to try a green guitar, but I decided the body I was using would go better with burning sun...
With an alder body and a wudtone kit I set to work with the steel wool and a spare tea-towel.

Steel

While the body was in preparation it was time to prepare the rest of the parts. I wanted to go for the classic all-maple neck and, though a flatter radius was briefly in the running (in the UK Northwest Guitars have a good reputation for doing custom necks fairly cheaply), decided on the modern tele 9.5" radius, to be a bit different from my current guitar. It did seem worth going for 22 frets though (because you're at 21 frets and where are you going to go?), so the neck is a Mighty Mite from Axecaster.
Drilling for Wilkinson locking tuners
If you don't have a drill press then a
dremel tool and a steady hand will do.
Another modern touch is going to be the bridge. The traditional tele has three barrels, so strings are intonated in pairs. Instead I wanted to use a 6-saddle bridge. Here it gets tricky, the traditional bridge and modern have different screw placement to mount onto the body and the Guitarbuild body is drilled for a traditional one. Fortunately I found Axecaster sell a modern 6-saddle bridge with traditional screw placement, but this would be an easy mistake to make in planning.
The last major pieces still missing are the pickups. To keep the budget down, and because I've liked their other pickups in the past, I went with Irongear.

Rock



Shielding and hardware in place,
drilling for the pickguard
...that's not quite the whole story. When I saw these: IronGear Steel Twin-II, it was one of the things I wanted on the guitar from the very start. These are high output coil-taped telecaster pickups, so you can have them mellow and then kick in the high-octane. The wiring diagram is not complicated, just IronGear's suggested wiring, though I've changed the tone pot to log and the tone capacitor to a more subtle .033uF (just to try, Axecaster again). Most of the electronics and other hardware (strap-buttons, jack socket and plate, electronics cover, pots, copper shielding, switch, and switch and pot tips and knobs) came from Axetec.
DIY of course stands for "Destroy It Yourself," it isn't a DIY project unless something goes terribly wrong. In this case trying to get an over-wound pickup through a bridge plate with a sharp edge. When you see the tape pulled off with broken wire on it you're having a bad day.
The next morning was spent unwinding the pickup, in the hope of getting back to the break. There turned out to be three, by the time I'd finished the bridge pickup was down from 16.1k to 12.6k, but after some tricky soldering we were back in business.
Before trying again I attacked the bridge plate with an engineer's file and some sandpaper (from underneath to avoid scratching it). If you ever find yourself fitting a telecaster bridge I'd recommend doing that until you're certain it's going to fit.
If there's one complaint about the telecaster design, you can't get at the bridge pickup without taking the bridge plate off. On a block-saddle bridge you can't do that without taking the saddles and the strings off too, so be sure you're happy before putting them on.
If there's a second complaint it's that with a 22-fret neck you can't take the pick-guard off without talking the neck off. Since that's ridiculous I re-cut and filed down the neck slot on the pick-guard.

Sparks


At least the wiring is simple, unlike the strat the tele has a separate compartment and cover for this. With all the shielding in place I tried doing it by wiring the pickups into barrier strips (screw terminals) to connect to the soldered control module. Getting this into the cavity is a bit of a squeeze, but it means when you discover the pickup switch is the wrong way around (yes), changing it is a five minute job with a screwdriver.

Let there be light...

The last task (apart from a bit of setting-up) is naming it. After a bit of thought, the burning sun and black scheme made me think of dawn, so it's named for the Greek dawn goddess/titaness, Eos. Doubly appropriate since most of the work was done at Easter which is probably named after her German equivalent Eostre.
The transfer is from Rothko and Frost. Despite lacquering and sanding, the surround hasn't turned out invisible, but in most light it's good enough.

The finished product. It spends most of its time about 300 miles away, so I haven't managed to record a good sample yet. The sound goes from glassy to woody. As you might expect with half the extra windings on the bridge pickup removed the extra kick is less impressive than it might be, but I'm happy with how Eos turned out. Doing this with decent parts wont save you any money (a Squier CV would be cheaper), but it's an interesting (sometimes hair-pullingly frustrating) way to get to know your guitar.

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