How I Chose the Parts to Build My Dream Guitar

After reading Jay Hale’s excellent article about building a guitar from parts, I decided that it was time for me to take the plunge too. I’ve admired the necks and bodies from Warmoth Custom Guitar and Bass Parts for well over 20 years, yet never tried to build one myself. I wanted to build something different from anything I have and different than what I might find from current guitar manufacturers. This article details my thought process- the what and why of what I chose, and hopefully it will help readers sort out the almost limitless options of either building or ordering a custom guitar.Where To Start?
First I had to decide what I actually wanted. This is hard. Do I go with tried and true combinations, or do I let my inner mad scientist out? In the end I looked at guitars I owned and the sounds they created. All of my current recording and performing guitars have two humbuckers, so to get a different sound I wanted to at least throw some single coil pickups in there. I’m known for playing some pretty non-traditional instruments (like Steinbergers), so I thought I’d go back to my roots a bit and start with a Strat shape.

My 1982 Strat is pretty different from typical Strats.

I started out playing a Strat for years. It was my first good guitar, at the age of 12. But mine was a 1982 The Strat model, and as Strats go it was pretty un-Strat-like. It was heavy, made of northern hard ash (baseball bat material) and had an unusul stock switching system which put the pickups in some odd combinations, like having all three pickups in series. It sounded great – still does – but at the time I had no idea what a ‘Strat’ sound was. Now playing it, it came from a time in CBS-owned Fender history where they were trying new things. and by now, I’ve had the experience of playing many good Strats. My guitar, while great, didn’t sound like a typical Strat.
Assembling from parts, my plan of action was to build a sort-of-Strat: use a Strat shape, but with non-traditional woods and looks, with tweaks for my playing style. I didn’t want to just build something I could buy off-the-shelf anywhere.

Hmm, which one will I choose?

I browsed the Showcase on the Warmoth site. This is the area where you can get finished and unfinished bodies and necks. I have to be honest about my skill level with finishes: I have no skill level at all. So, I decided I was either going to get an already-finished body, or one made out of a wood that doesn’t need a finish.
The Parts

This is the body I chose from Warmoth’s Showcase. It weighs 3lbs, 4oz.

Since I grew up playing one, I chose a Strat shape. The wood would be (properly) swamp ash. I picked a chambered body to get it lighter. I topped it off with a blingy flame maple cap in what could be called a black cherry sunburst. I had it routed for HSH pickup combo, even if I planned on using an HSS combo- no one will see the extra routing under the pickguard, and it is easier for me to switch out pickups later.
The neck is another thing I grabbed from the Showcase. I chose a wood that didn’t need to be finished, and that would be a contrast to the brightness of the body woods. I chose wenge wood, which I have usually seen in bass necks. It is an open-grain wood, which is very, very hard. It has great low-mids, and the one I chose was topped with an ebony fretboard, medium jumbo stainless steel frets (love them), and a black TUSQ XL Graph-Tech nut. Being in the Showcase, the price was considerably lower than if I had custom ordered it.

Wenge neck, ebony fingerboard, coral stone dots.

One thing I found out: Wenge wood, when cut, can be toxic. I had to slightly ream out the tuner holes because I gave Warmoth the wrong size. Wenge’s saw dust looks like pepper flakes, and can cause respiratory problems. It can also cause a rash on bare skin – I got both! Splinters can cause sepsis, and this wood’s sawdust is used to stun fish in fish farms! Good thing it’s safe for a neck!

The skunk stripe is satine, or bloodwood.

Finding the Hardware
I already had some of the hardware, but it was amazing what I didn’t have. There are a lot of parts that go into a guitar! I had to look at my Strat to see what I had and didn’t have.
The tuners were something I had, which are brushed chrome Schaller locking tuners. I like locking tuners for the very fast string changes. The string trees were also from Graph-Tech, and were made of their slippery TUSQ material.
I ordered an HSS matte black single-layer pickguard from Warmoth as well. I went with the matte black because it doesn’t show fingerprints as much. It also contrasted with the shiny body.
Strap buttons were something I already had – black Dunlop straplocks. I ordered a black metal neck plate, black jackplate, black pickguard screws, and brushed chrome knobs.

The Bladerunner pivots on a flexible steel spring.

The bridge was going to be something new to me. I’m a fan of non-locking tremolos but hate their instability and lack of range. I tried a Super Vee Bladerunner on another guitar and really loved it. It differs from most trems by having the front plate screw directly flat to the body. It pivots on an extremely durable piece of spring steel. There’s no friction, and solid contact to the body. It provides more range than traditional trems, and gives more sustain.
Pickups and Electronics
The electronics were easy. I wanted a versatile HSS setup, since I love having a humbucker in the bridge. The bridge pickup would be a Custom 5, a great beefy PAF-alike with more bottom end. This pickup has a high enough output to split well but still have an open sound when played full on.
The neck single coil would actually be a single coil sized humbucker. I chose a Classic Strat Stack Plus, after reading a blog post about them. I use the neck pickup most often on a Strat, and I hate the hum that goes along with it. It is important to me to get that quack in the in-between positions too.
The middle would be a true single-coil, and I chose the Five-Two, my favorite true single coil. It has that twangy bottom of Alnico V magnets on the three low strings, and mellower Alnico II magnets for the thin strings. This is available with a RW/RP wind specifically for the middle position. I never use the middle pickup alone, but love it in conjunction with the neck or split bridge. Withe a RW/RP wiring of this pickup, it will be hum-cancelling in parallel with other pickups.
I have a Super Switch (24 pole switch) to give me the combinations:
– Neck
– Neck (split) & middle
– Neck (split) & Bridge (split)
– Middle & Bridge (split)
– Bridge
I round this out with a 250k master volume, a 250k tone for the neck & middle and a 500k tone for the bridge pickup. Both the volume and the tone for the middle & neck are YJM High Speed pots. I use these for tone pots too sometimes for an easy ‘almost wah pedal’ effect.

This is a fun project, and will have additional articles detailing the looks and sounds of the finished product. In the end, I can’t say building a guitar from parts is any cheaper than buying a great already-made guitar, but for those that buy an expensive guitar and change everything on it, this certainly makes more sense. It also gives you exactly what you want – and it’s fun too!
What pickups would you choose for your custom guitar? What features do you want that you can’t find on any production guitar?

Join the Conversation

15 Comments

  1. The full pic looks a bit brighter as it is the early morning sun. Now that the parts had a month or so to ‘settle’ and I got the setup kinks worked out (I never installed a Super Vee trem before, so it was a little strange), it is one badass guitar that surpasses any other Strat I have played. Every pickup position is hum-canceling. I changed the bridge pickup to a 59/Custom Hybrid, as the output matched better, and it doesn’t sound as scooped as the original C5. With strange combos of wood, sometimes you have to re-think pickups when it all comes together. I would do this again, too! Warmoth was amazing to work with, and I would recommend ordering from them to anyone.

  2. Thanks for the honorable mention – and I can’t believe you have the same “The Strat” I had as a kid! The ONE guitar I regret getting rid of. Very cool!

  3. How the strings trees had worked out for you? Didn’t the schaller locking tuners are staggered? IMO it might be a little unecessary to put more stress to strings and in some way this might diminished sustain on ’em. BTW excelent humbucker choice, what cap. did you used on your tone pots? Have you considered to add a low pass filter on your volume pot? Whatsoever congrats on this beauty, you made a terrific work Dave!

    1. Thanks! The string trees are Graph Techs, and I’d call the tuners ‘slightly staggered.’ In that, there are 2 heights, and they don’t go low enough..and the smaller strings certainly need a string tree. It sustains just fine though. I used .022 for the humbucker, and .047 for the single coils. I have never needed a low pass filter on the volume, as I am really happy with the response of the YJM pots.

  4. Cool project man. I’ve sometimes considered building a Warmoth strat. I was wondering. Since you chose wenge for the neck and a chambered body, do you experience any neck-diving due to the inevitible weight differnece?

  5. A RWRP single coil middle pickup only cancels hum when it’s matched with a FWFP coil. The only possible way to use it as it’s intended (to cancel hum) on your guitar is to match it with the FWFP coil of your humbucker. If you want to use it with your neck pickup, then either both pickups should be single coil, or both pickups should be hum-canceling.

    1. Couldn’t you use the RWRP middle with a split STK-S4 as described here or what are you hinting at?

  6. Did you really get those problems from working with wenge? Ive been working with and cutting wenge for quite a while and ive never had any kind of skin rash or respitory problems.

  7. @Prestocat:disqus I want to use this with a Schaller MegaSwitch E. For a full hum cancelling setup which pickups need to be RWRP? The neck or the middle pickup?

    1. For the MegaSwitch E, you need to have the neck RW/RP. This makes sure it is hum cancelling with the middle pickup and the split bridge pickup. All positions will be humcancelling…yay!

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