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Roll Your Own

Hello Troubadourians! Last month we explored the idea of a new guitar. Need vs. want and how to know the difference. I’d like to go a little deeper into that but from a different direction. Let’s say you’ve decided that a new guitar is the answer for you. Let’s narrow that down a little more. Say, you have your heart set on an electric guitar. Excellent! What do you want? Solid body? Hollow body? Set neck? Bolt on neck? Is there a specific brand that you want? How about shape? Scale length? Wait, I thought we had narrowed it down… Well, we did, sort of. The truth is that there is virtually an infinite number of choices when it comes to guitars and splitting the decision between electric and acoustic instruments only eliminates half of an exceedingly large number of choices. That’s not much help, is it? But, I’ll bet you already know exactly what you want. The perfect guitar that caught your eye in an ad, or in a photo of a famous player, or in the hands of someone you saw in live performance. From that moment on, you knew that you had to have a guitar just like that one. No? Okay, you read an article where a certain guitar was mentioned, and you thought you’d like to have one. Not that either? Wait, you know what you want but nobody makes one just like that? Yes! I know what you mean. That is precisely how I feel whenever I think about adding a new guitar to my arsenal.

About four years ago, I decided that I wanted some specialized guitars that would play and sound different from the one electric guitar that I owned, my Collings City Limits. The City Limits, or CL, is essentially Collings’ take on a Les Paul-style guitar. And while the CL is a very fine guitar, it doesn’t do everything. Also, I use some altered and open tunings and retuning for those songs takes more time than I want to devote to that process. Retuning really breaks the flow of a performance and I’ve always wondered if I had an instrument that was specifically set up for a particular tuning, would I play differently. If you’ve ever experimented with altered tunings you know that tuning a string from a standard set down to a lower pitch—to dropped D for instance—causes the string to feel flabby and it is easy to push it off of the fretboard when playing on that string. Also, if you hit it with anything even approaching a hard strum, the string will go sharp on the initial strike before settling in. Do that with several lower-tuned strings and you can have a guitar that sounds out of tune all the time. Some players are able to alter their touch to compensate for the slackened feel, but others never get the hang of it. The converse is when your altered tuning requires raised-tuned strings. The out of tuneness isn’t likely an issue but the increased string stiffness can make the guitar feel uncomfortable and can make those strings easier to break. The solution is simple: use heavier strings for lower-tuned strings and lighter strings for higher-tuned strings. Of course, that means dedicating a guitar for that specific tuning. So, which guitar do you designate for this purpose? Well, if you only have one guitar, and you use the altered tuning often enough, you need to buy another guitar.

That’s where I was times three. I wanted a guitar for an altered tuning, I wanted a baritone with a vibrato bridge, and I wanted a plain Telecaster—just because. Knowing my taste for custom things, three guitars could get expensive in a hurry. My solution was to go cheap where it didn’t matter and expensive where it did. I’ve found that Mexican Fender guitars often rival their American counterparts in most areas, pickups and hardware excepted. I use a double-dropped D tuning a lot, particularly for slide, and Keith Richards is my “go-to” influence for open tuning, so I chose a Mexican Fender Esquire for that basic platform. Since I like a wider neck with a “V” shape, I ordered a one-piece maple neck from Warmoth with a 1.75-inch width and their Clapton profile. For the regular Tele, I found a Mexican Tele Thinline. These have hollow mahogany bodies so I complemented it by ordering a mahogany neck with an ebony fretboard—with the same features as above—again from Warmoth. The third guitar is the baritone. I’ve discussed baritones in previous columns, so I won’t go into too much detail about that other than to mention that one of the traditional features of a baritone guitar is a vibrato tailpiece of some kind. To that end, I chose a Mexican Stratocaster as the platform for the baritone. Baritones are usually an extended scale length – often 27.5″—as opposed to the normal Fender scale of 25.5″, but I have previously been successful converting a 25.5″ scale guitar to a baritone, so the Strat was an acceptable choice. I also chose Warmoth for the custom baritone neck but expanding the width to 1.875″ to make the string spacing of the larger strings feel less cramped. I also purchased a more robust bridge to handle the bigger strings. My plan was to keep the bodies and electronics essentially intact (except for adding Lollar pickups to the Tele) and transfer the tuners and everything else to the new necks. Well, I got as far as swapping the raw necks and then found that the demands of life and the day job left me with no time to complete any of the guitars. So, there they sat, in the closet, for four years.

Finally, I called the guys at Top Gear Pro Shop (http://www.topgearguitar.com/) and asked if they could finish the guitars. Dan did the intake and Mike did the work, and in two weeks I had three excellent new guitars! Even with the extra cost of the final work at Top Gear, I still spent less than $1,100 on any of the guitars and I ended up with exactly what I wanted from each one. I knew what to expect from the Tele and the baritone Strat but I was pleasantly surprised at how useful it has been to have the alternate tuning Esquire at arms reach and ready to go. No retuning or flabby strings to deal with, just plug and play. Whether you attempt to build something a little bit custom as I did, or just buy something off the rack, there are inexpensive, quality options for you to choose from to add to your arsenal and provide you with a viable instrument to express your yourself. So, don’t hold back. Just buy—or make—exactly what you want.

Need to know? Just ask… Charlie (ask.charlie@hotmail.com)

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