[in progress] I am building a 100% custom guitar, something like a signature guitar, MY signature guitar. There, I said it.
It has been a while since I have started experimenting with guitars, changing pickups, bridges, electronics, and even swapping necks and bodies, while looking for a different sound and feel when I play the guitar.
I have certainly not been the first, nor I will be the last one to go on the quest of the perfect guitar… something one knows it does not exist, but something that is present when one goes for the aspects which are values the most, either if it is sound, looks, feel, or a combination of them all.
Now that I think of it, my first electric guitar (an Ibanez RT-250) only has the original woods and pickguard… pickups, tuners, vibrato unit, electronics, everything was changed. Or, as I prefer to say, upgraded.
A guitar has to sound well. Period.
There is no point in building a guitar if it does not meet the standards of sound quality. And by standards, I mean high ones. If it is going to be a signature guitar, it is going to speak on my behalf, it is going to sound the way I envisioned, and either if other people like it or not, that has got to be a subject of discussion in terms of taste and never in terms of quality.
A guitar has to feel like an extension of me. End of discussion.
I do not want to adapt to “my” guitar, I want to play it effortlessly… well, I don’t mind adapting to other guitars, as I value them for the purpose they were designed for, and also the time when they were designed. When I think of this, it is truly remarkable how the Fender Stratocaster and the Gibson Les Paul have stood the test of time, knowing they have had virtually no design changes since they were first built, more than 60 years ago.
The other aspects I value are more subjective (in terms of priority), but I can say that I want a guitar to play a wide array of styles, to be dependable for a ling time and, if possible, to look good either when I play it or when I hang on the wall.
Having that said, for me, and in order, the priorities are:
There, those are set. On with the show.
There are several guitarists I look up to, in terms of sound and playing, names such as Nuno Bettencourt, Steve Vai, Pete Thorn, Slash, Zakk Wylde, Eric Johnson, John Petrucci, Paul Gilbert, Chris Broderick, Gary Moore, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Pat Metheny, Guthrie Govan, Mark Tremonti, to name but a few, but I would highlight two of them:
- Eddie Van Halen – after getting his first guitar, a Teisco Del-Rey, because it was the one with the most pickups, he went on the pursuit of the perfect balance between the sound of a Les Paul and the playability of a Stratocaster, ending up with a guitar with one bridge pickup and no controls other than a volume knob; his trial-and-error process that led to the “final state” red/black/white Frankenstein went on for several years until Sterling Ball finally convinced him to sit down and design his signature guitar, which he did;
- Steve Morse – he was a teenager when his parents lent him the money to get his first guitar, a Fender Telecaster he completely revamped, and properly named Frankenstein; the neck soon was replaced by a Stratocaster one, the pickups and electronics were changed more times than a woman changes clothes, the bridge was successively adapted to meet his needs, but he ultimate goal was always the “all-in-one” guitar; it was also Sterling Ball that promised him he could replicate his guitar to the tiniest detail and specification.
Common denominators here: bridge humbuckers, maple necks, and that factory at San Luis Obispo, California (USA).
As many guitarists have in the past – and the whole “superstrat” catalogue will prove -, my preference goes towards a full bodied sound in a comfortable shape/design.
The rich and full sound of humbuckers is more appealing to me than the crystal sparkling sound of single-coils. On the other hand, I do like those “2” and “4” positions on a Strat guitar, so it is very likely that I may end up having some sort of an H-S-H configuration.
So, what are the consequences, regarding woods, hardware, and electronics?
On to the next chapter.
Note: the red, white, and black striped Frankenstein made popular by Eddie Van Halen has gained an iconic status throughout the years, and the first replica (out of the 301 units built by Chip Ellis of the Fender Custom Shop) was offered to the American History Museum by Eddie himself, and subject of a part of an interview with the Smithsonian.
I believe the pickups have the #1 influence on the overall sound of the guitar, so my choice of woods will be basically one that focus on some frequencies and tames others.
The combinations of “neck + fretboard” and “body + top” that appeal to me the most have some sort of a multiple personality, in order to resonate the low, mid, and high frequencies of the string vibration.
On the neck, maple is bright whereas rosewood is warm.
On the body, basswood has an even and broad response while a maple top brings out the mid and high frequencies.
On the neck, I feel that pau ferro has a similar response that of rosewood.
Ont the body, it seems to me that poplar has a similar response that of basswood; some mahogany bodies could also work, but they are often too heavy for the likes of me.
I wish I could incorporate the Stephen’s Extended Cutaway that Nuno Bettencourt has on his Washburn N4 signature series, but I don’t know if my level of costumisation will come to that detail.
In terms of feel, oil and wax blends used on Ernie Ball/Music Man guitars are near to perfection. From my experience, there have been no better neck finishes since I started playing them in the 90’s.
And, once again, Eddie Van Halen and Steve Morse’s signature guitars are some which use this finish (in Eddie’s case, his Peavey EVH Wolfgang – produced from 1996 to 2004 – kept that good characteristic as a standard), which is the most appealing to me.
It wasn’t until recently – less than two years – that I’ve tried a Suhr guitar, and the feel I get from playing them is similar to the wax and oil finishes, although John Suhr describes the finish as a result of a satin acrylic urethane use, something I admit I would never guess.
Cutting a long story short, I need a warm wood to tame the maple brightness.
And that applies to both the body and the neck.
On the neck/fingerboard, smoothness is key.
This is going to be a stage guitar, so I am ready to sacrify some of the sustain I would get from a string-thru guitar, in order to incorporate a vibrato unit… a “lowers-pitch-only” one, as I don’t remember the last time I needed to increase the pitch of a note in a way that bending a string won’t be adequate or suficient.
And, just like Eddie Van Halen discovered and clearly pointed out in the early 80’s, there is quite a lot of unstability inherent to the use of a fully-floating Floyd Rose system.
So, either via a trem-stopper, a Tremol-No, or the vibrato plate sitting against the body (without the use of a coin), my option is for a Floyd Rose that only lowers the pitch of the strings.
There is not much science regarding the tuners of a Floyd-equipped guitar; the locking nut takes care of holding the strings at “fret 0”, so I will grab the first reliable/durable tuners I have in hand, either if they are locking or not.
I’ve worked with Schaller, Grover, Kluson, Sperzel, Suhr, PRS, Fender, you name it… in this particular case, I don’t see much difference from working with either of them.
Pickups & Electronics
Low output or high output pickups?
The most important thing about pickups is sound definition and string separation, and not merely the output (same applies when people only care about the megapixel resolution when buying a digital camera).
I don’t use a pick but rather the nails of my pointer and index fingers asif they were picks, hence the need of a pickup that capture that sizzle resulting from the contact with the string, which is actually very distinct with up or downstrokes.
It has been a while since my preference goes to medium output humbuckers, preferably with 4 conductors, in order to have a classic full sound and also a decente single-coil option (by using only one of the coils).
A few years ago, while browsing the Seymour Duncan forums, I stumbled upon a group discussion that was literally “building a pickup” with the Custom Shop, something that would eventually become the Fugly Bucker, based on forum users input.
A few months later, Maricela Juarez’s build arrived. It’s definitely “fugly”, “wacky”, but unique.
As one can read on the Custom Shop website, “the Fugly Bucker got its name for the unique combination of a blade coil with a parallel axis bobbin. Designed for clarity the, Fugly Bucker can also deliver hard hitting lead distorted tone thanks to two Alnico 2 magnets. It can also be split for more unique tones“.