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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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 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 (split) & middle
– Neck (split) & Bridge (split)
– Middle & Bridge (split)
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.
What pickups would you choose for your custom guitar? What features do you want that you can’t find on any production guitar?