top of page

Things I’ve learned about guitar construction:

The first time I tried to build a guitar was right around the year 2000. I was a teenager living in Newbury Park California. By this time I was fully immersed in the dream of becoming a rock star and Newbury Park was a hotbed of activity with bands seeming to go “huge” left and right. My obsession with all things guitar eventually led to an attempt at making one. Armed with nothing more than the garage floor, and a reciprocating jig-saw, I got to work on a piece of particle board. The idea was to make two ¾” sheets and glue them together. One sheet would have all the pickup cavities, control cavities, and the neck pocket, and the other would be just flat. Needless to say the project crashed in a flaming pile of frustration. This was before the internet, and I couldn’t find any library books on electric guitar construction. Since then I’ve learned a lot, mostly by trial and error. 

First, the things that matter most are the neck and the pickups. Not to say that the rest doesn’t matter, but the neck is primarily responsible with how the guitar feels and plays, and the pickups are primarily responsible for how it sounds (which is why I wind my own.)

Necks: Fretwork and shape. C-shape, D-shape, etc doesn’t matter, it’s just a marketing gimmick from Servco Pacific (the private equity corporation that is Fender) and other corporate manufacturers. If it feels good, it feels good. Preferences and opinions abound on neck shapes. Fretwork is a different story though. Quality fretwork is quality fretwork and few people, if any, will ever pick up a guitar with bad fretwork and prefer the playing experience over a guitar with quality fretwork. My necks are thin, but not too thin, wider than the average to facilitate ease of playing when feeling enthusiastic on stage, my fretwork is a balance between trying to be perfect and trying to keep prices down, and I have a proprietary process for rolling my fretboard edges that usually elicits a response from new players of “ooooooh, that feels nice.” 

The finish material for a neck does deserve a quick mention. I oiled my necks for a very long time with good results, but recently switched to a satin nitrocellulose neck finish. In my opinion, anything but urethane should do the trick. 

Pickups: This is another topic where opinions abound. I’ll keep it brief. There are more than a few high quality pickup producers out there. In general, you get what you pay for. The ability to tune the sound coming out of a pickup can only be developed by study and experience, and a lot of both. I am 12 years into winding pickups and am just now beginning to feel like I have the control to fine tune the sound. 

I focus on two pickup designs; the “B-90” as I call it and a version of the humbucker I call the “Baldbucker”. Both are engineered for big rock and roll guitar sounds. Keep an eye out for future blog posts about those two designs and what makes them unique. 

Now, on to things that matter less than the neck and the pickups, but are still important. 

The neck joint. The neck joint is the piece that is responsible for taking two pieces (the neck and the body) and making them into one instrument. There’s a lot of research on this and zealots behind all the dogmas. Here’s my opinion after building and repairing instruments for over 20 years. The bolt-on neck balances all the factors. You may get more sustain from a glued in or neck-thru design, but what happens if there’s damage to the neck? The whole guitar is toast. Plus how much sustain do we really need (that’s a whole blog post by the way, so I’m not going to answer here.) Most bolt-on necks will provide enough sustain while still allowing for a better setup because you can manipulate the angle at which the body meets the neck. The takeaway here is simply that the neck needs to be solidly attached to the body. Beyond that, set neck vs. bolt on is just ford vs. chevy.

The nut. This is the part that gets neglected a lot on guitars. The second you fret a note, the nut no longer matters because the string is vibrating between the saddle and the fret. There’s more to it than that though, if there is any friction at the nut, you can have tuning issues. As you try to increase/decrease tension on the string, the nut can hold on to the string, causing the changes in tension and tuning to be delayed (usually until you’re a couple bars into a song.) The design of the headstock, the technique used for cutting the slots in the nut, and the material it’s made out of all play a big part here. If you MUST have a guitar with a tilt-back headstock where the strings do not continue in a straight line after meeting the nut, consider replacing the nut with a self lubricating material like tusq. Odds are you’ll just have to deal with tuning issues however. 

The Bridge. There are a ton of bridge designs out there. Opt for one that has a lot of travel in it’s adjustments. You need to be able to raise/lower the saddles, potentially a significant amount. You need to be able to lengthen and shorten the string to adjust intonation. Saddles need to be high quality and transfer their energy to the body of the instrument well. Don’t skimp here.

The weight of the instrument. Too heavy and you’ll never play it, too light and it feels like a toy. I shoot for 7-9 lbs. 

Body ergonomics. Again, it’s just about comfort.

That’s the basics. If you ever catch up with me at a show and want to talk gear I’m happy to go deeper on any of these topics and I'll likely talk your ear off all night.


bottom of page