One of my favorite things to do in this business is save great old guitars. Especially the cheap ones because you can get creative with very little stress. Awhile back one of my customers, a local player named Gus Campbell (www.guscampbellmusic.com), brought me his old 1950’s Kay guitar.
He was rather distraught having found that after restringing it the bridge, which was a string through wrap around design, had broken.
The usual remedy would be to remove the old bridge, make a new one and string it back up except this guitar was old and to ever play right it would need a neck reset as well and it just wasn’t worth it monetarily nor would it be an easy job! So I started asking questions about the guitar…when did you get it, what songs are you using it on, anything to get a feel for how it was used. Then he mentioned what I wanted to hear. “I mainly use it for slide” he said. Then the lightbulb went off…why not make Miss Kay a slide machine? With the high action that suits a slide guitar, the neck reset would be unnecessary and I could use the existing bridge as a base for a tune-o-matic bridge. With the addition of a trapeze tailpiece I could make this thing work! So I started off. First I routed off the broken part of the bridge.
It would need to be gone to instal the tune-o-matic, but doing so would weaken the area significantly and I’d need something to sink the bridge posts into, so I decided to create a simple brace that would mount to the inside of the bridge plate.
I figured I could kill two birds with one stone and pre drill the pilot holes for the posts in both the bridge and the brace. I figured out the measurements to get good intonation with the new bridge and marked and drilled the holes. But then, how to align them while glueing? Easy, I grabbed two toothpicks and inserted them in the brace. Then it was quite simple to spread on some wood glue, reach into the guitar, and push the toothpicks up through the holes.
The glue held the brace in place while I applied clamps and once secured, I just pulled out the toothpicks…easy.
Once the glue had set it was just a matter of installing the posts and setting on the bridge. I found an old Kay trapeze tailpiece and installed that as well.
A set of strings later she was up and running!
Gus was happy and played some gigs using Miss Kay for his slide songs and a few weeks later called and said he loved it so much he wanted to make it electric, I was definitely on board for this! So we chose a pickup, in this case a McNelly Stagger Swagger (www.mcnellyguitars.com). I didn’t want to have to modify the guitar too much so I made a mounting plate for the pickup that would clamp itself in using some ebony blocks (much like a Sunrise acoustic soundhole pickup or any number of others).
I airbrushed a little colored shellac to match the guitar, but I wanted it to look a little old and amateurish, this was a 60 year old Kay after all, no need to get fancy…just make it work. We decided to add a volume and tone control to the upper bout.
This was easy enough, I mounted the harness to a thin maple plate, drilled the holes in the body, and once it was wired up, they were mounted to the side. I popped on a couple of old speed knobs and she was ready to rock!
A friend recently brought me two of his Teles, one was a stock Fender Roadworn and the other was a parts tele…Warmoth neck on an American Tele body. Neither of them was “useful” to him anymore so we discussed what to do. We decided to mod the Roadworn body, adding an offset vibrato, a B-5 conversion plate with a Mastery Bridge (by far the best offset bridge available…if you have a Jazzmaster or Jaguar, etc, and you don’t have a Mastery on it, GET ONE!), and use the Warmoth neck which was a beautiful flame maple neck w/ rosewood board. The neck however had been finished years before by another builder and was not up to par…thick finish with a badly applied decal…so we decided we’d refin the front of the headstock, black it out, and add my company logo in metallic green. I also modded the electronics just a bit, replacing the stock capacitor with an Emerson PIO cap (available from Stew Mac and a very good cap. I prefer NOS Cornell-Dubilier, Sprague Vitatmin-Q’s, or Russian military caps on my custom builds, but the Emerson works fantastic as an upgrade to stock electronics). In the end we arrived at a whole new guitar, here’s the end result…
Curly maple back and sides, Sitka spruce top, ebony binding w/flamed sycamore lines, and maple burl end graft.
This model is my answer to the current resurgence of the Parlor guitar. It has a small, asymmetrical body (though it doesn’t look like it at first glance), a 24.9″ scale and a 13th fret joint so that there are a full 12 frets above the body joint. It is a small guitar, but it has huge sound. The next one will be under construction shortly.
In Part 2 the carve began to take it’s final form. The recurve was added with the aid of a curved scraper, so we are ready to go back to the random orbit sander. I will burn thru a few more discs of 80 grit, often times using the front edge of the sander to hog off a lot of material where needed. I try to blend from a generally flat surface under the bridge/tailpiece to a smooth sweeping curve down to the recurve and back up to the edge (binding). Here’s what it looks like after nearly all the “carving” is done…
The next step is to finish off the neck end. I will fit the neck blank in, without the fingerboard, and check the centerline and the pitch. When this is all correct I simply trace along the fingerboard surface inside the neck pocket and sand down to that line…
Now when the neck is attached the fingerboard will follow the carve right up to the correct pitch. The last step for me, besides the eventual rear control cavity routs, drilling, and finish sanding is to make sure the recurve and transition areas are all smooth. I do this with a round rubber sanding block and 80 grit, knocking off any peaks and valleys, especially in the recurve area. You can see here how I try to shape things, like the recurve, based on the tools I have available or the tools I prefer to use. It is no accident that my favorite sanding block and the recurve on the guitar are nearly identical.
This entire body was taken from a shaped blank to it’s final form in one morning before lunch. Of course there is a lot of other work to do, but this method allows you to quickly produce a pretty killer carved top body. Here is the finished product…
I hope this has been informative. Cheers!
For anyone with some wood working skills and the correct numbers, building a flat top electric guitar is really pretty simple. But a carved top seems like more of a daunting task. Well, it isn’t. With the right tools and a little finesse (and confidence) it can be accomplished quite easily. No CNC, no gouges, no planes. All you really need is a router and router table, a panel cove router bit, a router speed control, a random orbit sander and discs, and a cheap curved scraper. This is a bit of “guerrilla luthiery” for ya’ll…
Start by designing your instrument. Make a full size drawing, measuring carefully along the way. This method will not work well on a guitar shaped like Norway, so rein in the craziness. Just about any “guitar” shaped guitar can be made with this method so if it’s your first time, think Les Paul or PRS, not F5 mandolin! Once you’ve arrived at a shape, cut it out and glue it to a piece of 1/2″ MDF. Then cut and sand to the lines, and there’s your body template. That can then be double stick taped to a body blank and you can cut and sand to the edge of the template. Remember you generally want the edge of the guitar to be in the neighborhood of 1 3/4″ AFTER carving, though it’s possible to make the guitar thinner at the edge, so make sure you plan, draw, and double check your design…numbers are important in this business. Once your body is shaped, you’ll end up with something like this…
I work with, and sometimes at, a guitar shop in Scottsdale called Guitar Gallery, I have since I was 15 years old. Occasionally we get people bringing in some beautiful classic guitars. One day a lady came in with 8 instruments. There was a ’57 Gibson Switchmaster, a ’78 LP Jr, a ’52 reissue tele…great guitars. The last one she showed us was in her words, “some ugly piece of junk”. At first glance, she was right. Strat style body with a terrible spray paint refin. But, I immediately noticed the neck, a well aged Lake Placid blue Jazzmaster neck with the transition headstock, so mid ’60’s. Having worked in this business for 20+ years I knew there was something to this guitar, ugly as it may have been. So I told her I would investigate what was up. She was prepared to give it to me, but I couldn’t in good conscience take it, not with the feeling and vibe it was giving off. So I began…
The neck was indeed a ’65 Jazzmaster neck with schaller tuners on it, an ill advised mod on an old Fender because to function correctly more string trees are needed, and this had them…so the neck’s value was pretty much shot. The Fender neck plate dated to 1972 and I began to piece together a theory. Perhaps sometime around 1972 a Strat had suffered an unfortunate accident? Perhaps, since at that time a ’65 Jazzmaster wasn’t valuable, the neck had been replaced…hmmm. Well, the body WAS something special. My first clue was the tremolo, a wonderfully aged, but relatively clean Strat trem with “Pat. Pend.” stamped saddles, SCORE! With the pickguard removed I was able to completely date everything, body, pots, switch, cap, and the pickups to 1960. This was a gem, not a terribly valuable vintage guitar (besides the pickguard, of course), but a dream for a player. So I thought “I’m a player, and even after 30+ builds, I’ve never built a guitar for myself”. I called the lady and proposed that I buy the body and neck, and broker the sale of the very valuable 1960 pickguard assembly, which she agreed to quite ecstatically, having believed that this was a junk guitar. It was now my future guitar.
I immediately got to work stripping the finish.
I quickly found the signs of the original guitar’s, and it’s neck’s, unfortunate demise.
Since this part of the guitar isn’t actually very structurally important, this was an easy fix with a flood of superglue and some wood putty. Upon further inspection, I also discover it’s original color behind the tremolo claw, Fiesta Red.
She must have been a beauty.
As I prepared to lacquer the body, I decided to not use the Jazzy neck on my finished instrument. The tight 7.25″ radius just didn’t fit my playing style. I wanted a compound radius, 7.25″ to 10″. So, I made a new neck, one piece birdseye maple.
I chose to lacquer the guitar in black and with that neck, and for a Pink Floyd fan, there was only one option for the rest of the hardware and pickguard, right? So I made a pickguard of 1/8″ black acrylic, rounded the edges, collected the parchment parts together along with some Tone-Pros vintage style Kluson tuners, and with the lacquer cured, set to putting together my new instrument.
I loaded up the pickguard with Curtis Novak’s vintage Strat pickups, Mojo CTS pots, a vintage NOS Russian military capacitor, and traditional cloth wiring.
Then I assembled my new instrument. Here she is…
She’s light weight, plays like a dream, and sounds fantastic. I am a happy man, a happy man who plays a vintage 1960 Strat…almost!