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02.26.2011 – Guitar Project: Codename “Eternity”

Guitar hardware

So here is the full historical rundown of my guitar-making shenanigans. The tone is a little clinical, but I had a lot of information to put out there, so if that bothers you then you can just look at the pretty pictures :)

When I started building this guitar a year ago, I had pretty high hopes. I felt pretty good after successfully building the hammer dulcimer, and if anything felt like the guitar would be simple in comparison. 3 guesses how I’m feeling about it now. I’ve teased it with some pictures on facebook, but I wanted to more or less keep it under wraps until it was finished. Well, I don’t think I could really say that it’s “finished”, but I think I’m at the point where I’m going to set it aside strategize how to improve/revamp the original design. I predict that it will be a long time before it’s completely optimized, thus the “eternity” project title!

One reason that I wanted to do this in the first place is that I felt like I could come up with a design that used custom components to create some kind of super guitar that would be really versatile and have a great sound. The body was built out of pieces of ash. I was really inspired by looking at the design of PRS guitars and thought a body based on the Les Paul shape with the curves of the PRS would be a good place to start. I was using a really great book as a guide but as soon as I started reading about the work involved in making the neck, I made the decision that I would rather order a stock neck that was already fitted with a truss rod and fretted. All I had to do on the neck was drill the tuner holes and carve out the shape. I had some fun designing the shape of the head – I gave the under-side sort of a mobius curve so that when I painted the face black, you would see this subtle transformation in the geometry.

One big problem I had was when I started cutting out the shape of the body. Let me say at this point that I do not own my own set of shop tools yet so a lot of the carpentry was done in my Dad’s garage with his help. The first thing I tried was a bandsaw. I realized pretty quickly that the wood was heavier and thicker than our saw could handle – it kept jamming up every 30 seconds. We ended up rip cutting a close rectangular shape on a table saw, which even then was a constant struggle. After that, I cut some angles that got pretty close to the outline. Once I had done that, the bandsaw was finally able to handle the contour with some versatility. When it was close enough, I fired up the router to clean up the curves. I had used the bandsaw earlier to cut out a plywood template so that I could use a deep cutting router bit and smooth the edges. Finally the body was done.

For the body cavities (pickups, electronics, whammy bar) I probably should have tried to make some more templates. I found out that I need more practice on the router to be able to cut things freehand, so I ended up using a drill press and a chisel to make the cavities. Super rough, but in the end it was super effective. At this point I was ready to paint it, which once completed would take around a month or two to cure completely. I fitted the hardware components to make sure everything lined up the way it was supposed to. I actually strung it up and played it for a couple of weeks before finally finding a place where I could let it hang for a couple of months without being disturbed. During this time I was thinking about what I would need to do with the finish once it was dry. I researched a lot of options for polishing and finishing and whatnot, but when it dried the glossy enamel I used turned out to be hard and smooth enough to stay on its own. Apparently I didn’t do a good enough job of sealing the wood before applying the paint because after it had dried there was still a faint suggestion of the grain visible. Eventually I came to terms with it and decided that the grain gave it a unique look, so it remains.

Now let me tell you about the electronics. In a way, working on the carpentry was a nice diversion because as long as I was cutting or chiseling or painting, I didn’t have to think about the insane work of wiring all of the components together. I ordered two humbuckers from guitarfetish.com, 2 double pots, a 4-pole 5-way selector switch, 2 orange drop caps for a creamy vintage tone, and an active electronics circuit that includes overdrive and EQ presets. So basically I combining all the best assets from gibson and fender design and added as many configuration options as I could. With the 5-way switch, I was able to wire the pickups in a way that you get standard humbucking but also single coil action. The problems came when I realized what kind of frankenstein monster I would have to hide inside the control cavity. It took a lot of research and planning to come up with my theoretical wiring diagram. Eventually, I was able to come up with a design that preserved 99% of my conceptual objectives. The only thing I lost was the individual volume control for each pickup. I just couldn’t figure it out, so I ended up sending the master output through a single volume pot.

Circuit "diagram"

I have never had a huge amount of experience with wiring and soldering, although I felt comfortable enough to give it my best shot. Using my super amazing diagram I drew up earlier, I spent about a week soldering when I had the time. It wasn’t the cleanest job in the world, but it seemed pretty solid and the solder points didn’t fall apart when I finally installed everything into the cavity. I must admit that I was a little apprehensive because during my reading I had read a few cautionary tales about electrical safety when hooking up the amp. After trying it out with a pair of gloves for an extra layer of safety, I felt confident enough to give it a proper test. The kitchen wasn’t on fire and I was still alive, so the test proved to be mostly a success. What I discovered, though, was that I was getting sound out of one pickup but not the other. There’s also this nasty hum whenever I touch the strings, so I guess I’ve got a bad ground somewhere.

Cavities

I have cavities

At any rate, version 1 of the Eternity guitar is about a 60% success. I can hear it in the amp, and what I hear sounds pretty nice, but more work needs to be done. I think I will probably take it down to a bare-bones wiring setup and after I get each stage of it working, I’ll add the next component. For now, I just need some more time to think and plan before I come back to it.

If anyone has any ideas or input, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Stay tuned for more developments!

  • Elizabeth

    I like the wood grain. Are you ready to make a miniature one now? ;)

  • Mark Fryklund

    Nice work on the guitar!