Dr. Lex' Hand-made Guitars

Tips for building your own electric guitar

The purpose of these pages is to provide information to people who plan to make or customise their own guitar. Most of the things I know and most of the things you need to know are on these pages. Despite this, some people still mail me with questions of which the answer is obviously in this text. Please read this entire page and the electronics page before mailing me! If you do are lazy and mail me with a redundant question, don't expect an answer.

Please keep in mind, I am not a professional guitar builder. Building my electric guitars was an elaborate hobby project, albeit with excellent results. At this moment I do not have the time to build guitars and I don't sell any. I created this webpage to share my many experiences with anyone who wants to try the same endeavour, to give them a little head start.

Contents:

About my hand-made electric guitars

Back in 1995 and 1996 I built two electric guitars. Actually, my first attempt to make something guitar-like came before that. It was a thin wooden plank with two strings on it. You can find a photo of this contraption somewhere below on this page. It wasn't worthy of the name ‘guitar’ but served as a prototype to test some mechanical and electrical aspects.

Guitar 1Guitar 1

The first real guitar was built from absolute scratch: the only components that I bought in a store, were two of the three pick-ups and the tuning posts (and of course the strings!) The rest was all made from various recycled materials, like a piece of ‘multiplex’ that was originally intended to be a kitchen table. I got the only information on how to build a guitar which is “compatible” with regular guitars, from a book (“The Guitar”, by Ralph Denyer) and some people who had guitars themselves. I calculated the correct positions of the frets, only using the information that the pitch of a string doubles when its length is divided in two and that pitch doubles per octave, which contains 12 semitones… And it worked out, even though I was following the minimum amount of math courses possible at that moment (and now I am an engineer, you see how things can change… :)

The guitar is perfectly playable and sounds good and stable. Because even the bridge (with adjustable string length & height!) is made mostly out of wood, and the neck does not contain a truss rod, it only supports light strings. Maybe I'll mount a metal bridge some day if the wooden bridge doesn't hold. The guitar originally hosted an incredible amount of switches. I just wanted to try everything, but I soon experienced that the more is not always the better. I started out with five potentiometers and a whopping seven switches. Eventually I kept the pots but I removed most of the rest. The photo shows an intermediary state where I had removed two of the seven switches. Even then I still happened to bump into the topmost switch while playing. In the end I couldn't even remember what all the toggles did, so I only kept the two that flip the phase of the pick-ups, which proved to have the most noticeable effect on the sound. Two switches suffice to allow all possible phase combinations with three pick-ups. At the bottom was a slide switch that activated a high-pass filter. I never used it, so I removed this ugly black stain on the white pick-guard as well.

Guitar 2Guitar 2

The second guitar, of which you see a photo at the right, was built with three parts from old guitars: from my guitar teacher I bought the neck, bridge, and pick-guard fitted with three humbuckers and the necessary switches & potmeters. I then designed a body to fit the parts in and created it from a similar piece of kitchen table. The wood was again multiplex although now I would not recommend using it, as you can read in the ‘wood’ section. With my experience from the previous guitar I was able to make the shape more smooth and refined. This time I had the body painted by a specialised airbrush studio because I did not want to go through the same ordeal as with the spray-can paint I used for the first guitar. The result looked so good even my guitar teacher became jealous! This guitar does not only look good, it also sounds awesome. With its three 12KOhm Schaller humbuckers (as far as I can tell, it are two “2 in 1” and one “Golden 50 super” humbuckers), it has an output that can compete with quite a few commercial guitars.

Unfortunately I haven't had much time to play my guitars during the last years, and of course I didn't have time to make any new ones. Anyway, if I'll make a new instrument it will probably be a bass guitar because I think I am more suited to play bass than guitar. A bass is somewhat harder to make but I think I have enough experience from those two guitars.

So, since I don't have much spare time these days, if you want a hand made guitar you'll need to build one yourself! I'm not kidding, it is not impossible. I was only 17 when finishing my first one. However, it requires a basic amount of handiness. You must also be really sure you want to do it, for it is a long way to go, especially the first time. You will need to accept the fact that your first guitar will most likely not be perfect, but it will be a good learning platform to build a second, much better, guitar.
For those of you who comply to these conditions, I have provided some useful information on this page concerning the building of an electric guitar. Much of what I wrote here comes from e-mails which I sent to people who asked tips for building their own guitar. If you have a question not answered here, just mail me and I'll try to help you! However, please be aware of the following:

  1. Please first read through this entire text before mailing me. If you then have a question, read through the text AGAIN, maybe you missed something. Then, if your question still isn't answered, you can mail me. I simply won't respond to any mails asking for stuff which is in this text.
  2. I also won't respond to mails asking for plans, sketches or designs, so don't waste your time.
  3. At this time I don't build guitars anymore and I don't sell any.
  4. I don't live in the UK, even though this site is hosted by a UK provider. Don't ask me where to buy stuff in the UK because I have no idea.

Not too long ago you could read at this very spot that I might still be wanting to build a guitar on demand. However, things have changed now and I have other occupations that would make it very hard to find time to work on a guitar. So unless you would really have a very good reason for me to make a guitar for you, and you're willing to pay a lot for it, the only option is to build one yourself :-)

Books

If you know nothing about guitars yet it is highly recommended, not to say mandatory, to read some books about them first. A book I can recommend if it is still available, is “The guitar” by Ralph Denyer. This is a good book, especially for starters, because it offers a lot of information about all types of guitars, their construction and features. It also contains extensive information on how to play the guitar. I don't know how available this book is nowadays, so you may need to look for another book in your local library or book stores. There are probably books that specifically discuss guitar building. Do not settle for the first one you find, compare books and try to pick the one that seems best. Read it thoroughly before you start working on your guitar!

Solid or hollow?

The first thing you should make up for yourself if you want to build a guitar, is whether you want a solid-body or a semi-acoustic guitar. If it is your first: don't even think about semi-acoustic. Even after my two solid guitars, I would hesitate to try a hollow one. The reason for this, is that a solid guitar is much less critical to build: the shape doesn't matter. The sound of a solid body is mostly determined by the electronics (pick-ups, filters). A hollow guitar on the other hand, will sound poor or resonate like hell if its shape isn't right. This requires experience and expertise. You should follow some lessons or read specialised literature about this subject before attempting a semi-acoustic guitar.

The wood

The most expensive solid-body electric guitars are made from mahogany. This, however, doesn't necessarily mean that this is the only ultimate guitar material. The choice of material will determine the sound quality in a certain way. For a solid-body electric guitar, the influence of the material on the sound is not huge, but it is noticeable. The important rule is: the harder the material, the clearer the sound (a softer material absorbs more high frequencies) and the longer the sustain (i.e. the time a string keeps on vibrating). In general, guitars with a good sustain will also be pretty heavy because most hard materials happen to be dense and heavy, but this is not a necessity. There are materials, like certain types of wood, which are light but still quite hard.
Notice that I use the word ‘material’, because there is no reason why you couldn't use something else than wood. You could make a transparent guitar from a huge chunk of plexiglass, which would be an excellent (albeit very heavy) material due to its hardness. You could even use aluminium.

Both my guitars are made from multiplex — mostly due to the fact that it was lying around when I wanted to make my guitars. Multiplex is laminated like plywood, but with more and thinner layers (each layer is about 1.5mm thick). The layers alternate between a hard and soft type of wood. The presence of the hard layers makes it fairly good for sustain, but due to the soft wood layers, it dampens the higher frequencies a bit. The major advantage is that it is of consistent quality due to its laminated structure. The layers also make it easy to manipulate. One disadvantage, however, is its weight, and the biggest problem is that it absorbs paint like a sponge. It is very hard to cover the guitar with a smooth layer of paint or lacquer. Moreover, creating smooth curved surfaces is difficult due to the alternating hard and soft wood layers. And because the soft layers absorb the paint/varnish much more than the hard layers, painting such surfaces (especially the sides) is a real pain.
So to make a long story short, I would never again use multiplex for a guitar, unless I would really need a heavy guitar with a fat, warm sound, and I would find a foolproof way to paint the damn stuff. I don't really say you shouldn't use it. It is a pretty nice material to make your first guitar or a prototype to experiment on, but be aware of its limitations.

If you go for a solid chunk of wood from a tree like mahogany, beware that it may have weaker parts or defects in some places. If you want to use such a piece of wood, you must be very careful in choosing it. It is a better idea to either buy this wood in laminated form (i.e. several thinner layers glued together, with each layer perpendicular to the previous), or laminate it yourself (see the Body section). Laminating two or more panels has the additional advantage that it will be easy to incorporate hollow parts in your guitar, or cut holes through it, since you can work on the parts separately first. It is easier to cut two holes through two thinner panels, than a single hole through a thick panel. This was how I worked with the multiplex panels.

Somebody asked me whether MDF would be a good material. MDF (Medium Density Fibre) is a synthetic type of wood, created by compressing fine wood fibres at an extremely high pressure. It is commonly used for high-end speaker cabinets. I haven't tried MDF myself for building a guitar, only for speakers (with great success). But I am quite sure it is a good material, since some guitar manufacturers use it for their models. Its main advantage is its consistent quality.

Due to the way it is produced, the hardness of an MDF panel varies from hard at the outside to soft on the inside. This may raise some concerns about sustain, because soft materials dampen vibrations, and to get a good sustain you need a hard material. (Some people say that the ideal electric guitar should be made of concrete, but you understand it would be quite unhandy hanging a 20kg stone lump around your neck!) Indeed, it would not be a very good idea to use one single thick slab of MDF for a guitar because only its outsides would be hard. Therefore even in this case it is recommended to use several thinner panels glued together.

So, MDF would be an interesting material to try. You can get it in a wood store. It is not cheap, though probably cheaper than most hardwoods. Someone called Mark has actually built a guitar from MDF, and mailed me his experiences. A summary: 1. Cutting special shapes out of MDF is not so easy due to its high density. Make sure to use suitable tools, and take care not to overheat them. 2. It's heavy! Either keep the body small/thin, provide enough holes, or hollow out large parts. 3. Painting it is easy thanks to its hardness. 4. Despite its density, sustain is only similar to mahogany, probably due to its dampening abilities.

Even more interesting would be carbon fibre. Carbon fibre is often used in tennis racquets, bicycles and sports cars, because it is both very light and extremely strong. Woven mats of pure carbon fibre are impregnated with an epoxy glue or other polymer, to obtain a strong composite material that can be easily shaped until the polymer has hardened. However, it will probably be expensive to build an entire guitar out of it. The low weight might also make it more prone to resonate from external vibrations (e.g. loud sound waves), so a proper design will be challenging.

The pick-guard or cover plate (which will contain the switches) is mostly made from plastic in commercial guitars. However, it could also be made from thin wood, or even metal (iron wouldn't be a good idea, however, because it may interfere with the pick-ups). Or you can just omit it, and run the switches and potentiometers through the guitar body itself. This requires accurate milling of the wood so that only a thin layer at the top remains, so don't try it if you lack the experience. I used a kind of compressed wood board for the pick guard of my first guitar, and painted it with spray can paint. The result is very nice and actually looks like real plastic, but is a bit less resistant to scratches, of course.

Hollow-body or semi-acoustic guitars are a different story. The two guitars I made, were solid, so I can't tell you much about hollow ones. As far as I know, acoustic guitars, hence semi-acoustic ones too, are often made from fir-wood or maple. The best thing you can do if you plan to build a semi-acoustic guitar, is asking advice of someone who is specialised in wood for musical instruments. At any rate, it is again recommended not to use one single piece, but laminated wood, i.e. several layers glued onto each other, to get a more consistent quality. The largest problem with semi-acoustic guitars is resonance, for the wood mass is small, hence picks up vibrations easily. Therefore a good design is essential.

The design

Guitar 1 designOnce you have an idea of how you want your guitar to look like, you need to transform this idea into a usable “plan” of your guitar. You can use classic tools like pencils and paper, but it is very helpful to do it on a computer instead, and use a vector drawing program like InkScape, CorelDraw or Canvas. This allows to draw the shape in actual size, and zoom in and out for details or an overview respectively. A great advantage is that once you are familiar with the drawing program, you can easily tweak the shape without having to rub out and redraw things. You can also easily align the components this way, for it is crucial that the pick-ups line up with the strings, which on their turn must line up with the neck, by correctly placing the bridge. You actually can “draw” the strings in your drawing program, and correct easily. Of course your guitar won't fit on a single A4 or Legal page. You'll need at least four pages for the body alone. However, it is recommended to add the neck to your design too, even if you are not going to make it yourself. This will allow you to determine its correct position (see next section).

Your “plan” should contain almost every part of your guitar: body shape, pick guard, components like pick-ups, switches, potmeters, cable connector (jack), and bridge. In other words, you should have a complete “paper” guitar. This requires accurate drawing of the components, especially the pick-ups and the bridge, so that you can align them correctly.

You should try to make the whole “balanced”, i.e. the mass should be evenly distributed. Otherwise it may be unhandy to play it. Of course this is hard to determine beforehand, for you must also take the weight of the electronics into account. Also, try to make the guitar not too heavy: although a heavy guitar might have a better sustain, it could be a torture to hang it around your neck! The problems of balance and weight can both be reduced by incorporating hollow spaces in the body in the right places (which is easy to do if you're going to build it by laminating layers of wood). If you are going to do this, just make sure to leave the middle part of the guitar (near to the strings and bridge) solid, otherwise the sound will be affected.

Guitar 2 designOnce the “plan” is ready, print it, without the neck. Since most of you won't have an A2 printer, it will consist of several pages which you'll need to glue together. Again, do this accurately! You can draw some additional lines onto the page borders before printing to improve accuracy (see image at the right). What you then have, is a complete “paper guitar”. If you plan to make the pick guard yourself too, make a separate print-out of it.
Of course, you can also do this without a computer. If you are using paper & pencils, you should draw your guitar at a reduced scale (like 1/4), and when satisfied with the design, you can enlarge it to real-life size on a large sheet, by measuring distances on your sketch and multiplying them by the scale factor.

Once you have your ‘paper guitar’ plan, you can easily transfer it onto the wood: cut out the guitar, lay it on top and use a marker to draw the shape. Cut away all parts in the paper which should be in a hole in the wood, and draw these holes too. The same with drill holes. (Imagine you'd have to determine all those positions by measuring only!) It can, of course, be easier to just lay the component itself onto your block of wood, and then mark its position and the position of the drill holes. This is something you'll have to see for yourself, as there are no general rules.

Please do not mail me asking to send the designs of my guitars. Be original, make your own. The files are so old anyway, even I can't open them anymore. I won't respond to any mails asking for a sketch of my guitar or any other model.

The neck

The neck is without any doubt the most crucial part of the guitar. If a guitar's neck does not have the right shape, it may be difficult to play. If it is too thin, it will bend too much, or even break, under the tension of the strings. Necks are often made of maple wood, which exists in various qualities. More expensive necks can be made of ebony or other rare wood types.
There are two construction methods for necks: the first one features a neck which runs from the top all the way down to the body. In other words, the neck is a part of the body of the guitar. This construction is used in a lot of commercial guitars. It has the advantage of the entire string-bearing structure being one single piece, hence no absorption of vibrations by loose connections. The disadvantage is that once the neck is damaged beyond repair, the entire guitar is ripe for the scrapyard. Also, the properties of the wood are more crucial as one needs a longer piece of consistent quality.
The second construction is a separate neck, which is connected to the body by glue or screws. Acoustic guitars have a glued neck, mostly with a dovetail connection.

Adjustable neck screw system Lots of electric guitars, like Fender's Tele- and Stratocaster, have a screw connection. This means the neck can be easily replaced, or disconnected for repairing. Another great advantage is that the angle of the neck can be made adjustable, as is the case with the Stratocaster. A disadvantage is that if the connection is not tight enough, you will lose sustain. I used an adjustable system on my first guitar, as shown in the image on the right, and it works well. The rightmost screw pushes the neck upward, while the other large screw pulls the neck towards the body, ensuring a fixed position. The leftmost screws (2 or preferably 3) serve as the canting point. If you only use normal screws to fix the neck, you can still adjust its height or angle by placing metal or wood strips underneath it.

Someone once mailed me to ask whether to buy or make the neck himself. This was my answer:

It is very hard to make a neck, because:
1. there must be a special rod, called a “truss rod”, built into it to compensate for the tension of the strings. If you make a neck without it, it will bend too much and the guitar will be impossible to play. However, such rods are sold almost nowhere separately. I made the neck for my first guitar myself, but it's quite thick because it doesn't have such a rod, and this makes the guitar less pleasant to play. And the piece of wood you use for it must be of perfect quality, which is not obvious.
2. you'll need to install all the frets yourself and this is a horrendous work which involves some mathematical calculations and very precise work. And, if you do something wrong, you have to start all over, that is: with a new fretboard or at possibly even a new neck.
In other words: I strongly recommend to buy a neck, like I did for my second guitar (it was a second-hand neck, but in great shape). If you're really good at woodworks you can try it yourself, but it's likely you'll have to go through a few prototypes to arrive at a decent neck.

If you should want to try it, or just if it may come in handy: this is the formula which can be used to determine the correct distances of the frets, where l0 is the length of the strings (see image), mostly around 65cm (25.5"), and x = 0 (nut), 1, 2, … up to 21 or 22:

l(x) = l0 - (l0 / 2x/12)

Fret distances

Example: if the strings are 65cm:
l(0) = 65 - 65/20 = 0cm (the nut),
l(1) = 65 - 65/21/12 = 3.65cm,
l(2) = 65 - 65/22/12 = 7.09cm,
… and so on.

If you use an existing neck, there is only one thing you must take care of: the middle fret (with the two dots right above it) must be in the middle of the strings. This determines the correct position of the bridge.

The fretboard

If you are making a new neck, or if you want to replace the fretboard on an existing neck, here are some considerations.
Typically, ebony, maple or rosewood are used for a fretboard. But any other material that is hard and durable could do. It doesn't even need to be wood, you could try some kind of hard plastic or even glass if you really want to try something special. Don't use soft materials because they will reduce the sound quality and wear out quickly. Also, avoid painting or varnishing the fretboard. I made this mistake on my first guitar and although the varnish still holds, it will eventually wear out and make the fretboard look ugly.

For the frets, you should use special fret-wire. This is a T-shaped wire, with little hooks at the bottom of the leg of the ‘T’, to make the wire clutch into the wood. To make sure the wire fits well, you should pre-bend it to approximately the same curve as the fretboard. A little glue is recommended to make sure the frets are seated properly. Thermal glue, or some other glue which can melt, would be a good idea. This allows to easily replace worn out frets later on, by heating them.

Making the actual body

You can either make the body out of one solid slab of wood, or multiple layers glued together, with each layer perpendicular to the previous. The second method is called ‘laminating’ and is preferred for multiple reasons. First, it is easier. You can create hollow parts in your guitar by simply sawing holes in some of the layers. This reduces or avoids the need for milling away large parts of the wood afterwards. Plus, thinner layers of wood are much easier to manipulate than a massive block. Second, the quality of the wood is less crucial. If you use a huge slab of wood it may have a defect at a very inconvenient place, and even cause your guitar to break eventually. With multiple perpendicular layers, defects in one of the layers aren't that bad because they can be compensated for by the other layers. Plus, if a layer is really bad, you can replace it instead of having to replace the entire body.
The amount of layers is a trade-off. Many layers will ensure a very consistent wood quality all over the guitar, but it is more work and the advantage of laminating may be cancelled by defects in the actual process of laminating itself. Strictly spoken, my first guitar has two layers, and the second one three layers (two thick panels with a thin one in between). (Of course, the structure of the multiplex taken into account, they have dozens of layers.) Most commercial guitars also have two to four layers. Mind that the layers do not need to be of the same wood. You can combine the qualities of different woods by laminating them, and you can hide ugly but acoustically excellent wood with a thin top layer of nice-looking wood.

If you use thick layers, you will most likely need to make holes in the wood that do not go all the way through the panels. For the pick-ups for instance, or to mount (some of the) potentiometers and switches directly onto the body instead of the pick-guard. Making through-holes is pretty easy with a combination of drills and saws, but hollowing out only at one side is harder. There are two methods to do this: the slow, hard, but cheap way is with simple tools like a chisel and hammer. The fast, clean, easy, but expensive method is to use a milling machine. This is a kind of drill that cuts sideways as well as downward. It is often mounted vertically in a fixed position, so you need to move the piece of wood around to cut away the wood. There are also milling machines that can be shifted around on top of the wood. Instead of buying such a machine, you can try to rent one, or find a woodworking shop that will let you use theirs.

Once the different layers are ready, you need to glue them together, which is not as simple as it may seem. Of course you should use proper wood glue, but the main problem with most of these glues is that they require the parts to be pressed together with a considerable amount of force during the entire time span the glue is drying. Most glue manuals prescribe a pressure expressed in kg/cm2 or PSI. If you multiply this pressure with the actual area you need to glue, you end up with a force that equates to parking a cement truck on your guitar. However, this pressure is calculated for extreme applications like small parts that need to withstand large forces. In the case of our guitar, the area covered with glue will be enormous, so the quality of the glue layer is not that crucial. Nevertheless, you should try to apply as much pressure as possible. The most important thing to note is that glue on itself is not strong. Its job is to hold the panels together, not be a main part of your guitar! Some glues are said to be “stronger than wood”, but this only applies if they are used according to the instructions and in the right amounts. This means you should use the minimum amount of glue required to fill the tiny gap between the panels.

If you are using many layers, you'll want to saw the panels only roughly to their final shape, glue them together, and work on the laminated result. If you are only using a few layers like I did, it is better to almost finish the panels before gluing. Once the body is glued, it will be a lot harder to make holes and hollow parts in it! What I did, was using a few screws at strategic places to hold the panels together. This enables to assemble and test the body before it is glued. Moreover, while gluing, the screws will exercise extra force on the panels, and keep them aligned. Once the glue has dried, remove the screws and fill the holes with wood chips dipped in glue.

The bridge

Bridge from my first guitarBridges come in all kinds of flavours and types, from the most simple type which is a metal plate screwed onto the body, up to the sophisticated Floyd-Rose bridge & nut combination which is designed to prevent detuning while using a tremolo bar. Most bridges also allow to adjust their height, which determines the so-called ‘action’ of the strings. The photo at the right shows the custom bridge that I built for my first guitar. It is fully adjustable, but being a mix of wood and metal it only supports light strings. You could make a similar bridge completely out of metal, but there is nearly no advantage in doing that compared to just buying a new bridge as a spare part or custom component. Crafting your own bridge will most likely even be more costly unless you happen to have all the required tools.

Despite the fact that it is written in the ‘neck’ paragraph, people keep on mailing me where to position the bridge. I'll repeat: the bridge should be positioned such that the half of the strings coincides with the middle fret. Actually there is a complication due to something called ‘intonation’. Due to the fact that the strings are raised, pushing them down will increase their tone slightly. To compensate for this, the length of the strings has to be increased slightly. This effect is more pronounced for larger string gauges. This is why acoustic guitar bridges are positioned slanted, making the thicker strings longer than the thinner. Electric guitar bridges allow more fine-tuning by having adjustable saddles for each individual string or pair of strings. To determine the correct position for the bridge, extend these saddles almost to their maximum (i.e. loosen the screws), and then align using the saddles as reference.

Setting the intonation right for each string comes down to adjusting the saddles such that the first flageolet (played by shortly holding but not pressing down a finger on the middle of the string while picking it) has exactly the same pitch as when the string is pushed down onto the middle fret. If the flageolet sounds lower than the middle fret, the length of the string should be increased.

The electronics

The first prototype You may want to open the page dedicated to the basics of electronic circuits in a separate window or tab while reading this part. Or, you can either first read that page or the other way around. In the latter case, there's another link below for your convenience ;)

Pick-ups

The most important electronic part of an electric guitar are the pick-ups. These convert the mechanical vibrations of the strings into electric pulses which are sent to your amplifier. In technical terms this means they are transducers. The very very first version of my prototype (see photo at the right) used a microphone for this, causing more noise than tones to reach the amplifier. A microphone does not only record the sound coming from the strings but also every sound in its vicinity. That is why pick-ups are based on magnetic fields and strings are made of ferromagnetic metals (iron and nickel) such that they can influence this magnetic field. The result is that the pick-ups will only ‘pick up’ the vibrations of the strings, not vibrations of the guitar body or other nearby sounds (like drums, speech) as a microphone would. The core of a pick-up is a magnet or several magnets with a copper-wire coil wound around it/them. After I upgraded my crude prototype with crude pick-ups made in this fashion, the parasitic noises were mostly gone.

There are two basic types of pick-ups:
Single-coil pickups (like those on a Stratocaster) consist of one row of magnets with one coil around them. The higher and thinner the coil is, the clearer the sound. This means: a pickup which looks like this in side view: Thin pickup will sound very clear, but won't have a high output. On the contrary, a pickup which looks like this: Wide pickup will have a warm sound with few trebles.

The same rule holds for humbuckers. Humbuckers (like those on a Les Paul or Gibson SG) consist of two single-coil pickups next to each other. They sound in general less clear than single-coils, but they have a much higher output. The most important feature of humbuckers is that, thanks to their special construction, they don't pick up interference from magnetic fields like single-coils do. Humbuckers also have the advantage that they can be used in several different coil combinations, just by throwing a switch. This allows you to choose for instance between a heavy sound or a clear sound with only one pickup.

As for making pick-ups: don't even think about it if you don't have steel nerves. I made two pick-ups, a single-coil and a humbucker. Both were rather experimental and the single-coil didn't produce enough output, so I took it apart to make the humbucker. It was constructed from a few magnets from a cupboard lock and wire from a damaged pickup. It works and sounds good, but I do not recommend trying this yourself if you are not too patient! It requires basic knowledge of magnetics and it takes a lot of time and care to wind that hair-thin wire around those magnets. I used a “Technic Lego” construction for this, but it still wasn't easy. The risk that the wire breaks is very big and you really don't want the wire to get entangled. It almost made me mad at some moments!

In other words: it may be a much better idea to buy the pick-ups. There are lots of custom models available today. Mind that the same model of pick-up is often available in specialised versions for neck and bridge positions. As for the brands, I can recommend Schaller, which has good pickups. I bought two Schaller pick-ups, a single-coil for about $40 and a humbucker for about $50. Schaller does not seem to have a website, but there is a good unofficial site at http://besides.ipc.ru/schaller/. Other good brands are: Mighty Mite, Bill Lawrence, Seymour Duncan and DiMarzio. You could also order genuine Fender or Gibson pickups, but get ready to empty your wallets when you do.

If you want to know more about pickups, check out this page too: http://www.cybozone.com/luthier/instruments/pickups.html (if it still exists). The guy who made it seems to have quite some experience with them, so mailing him looks like a good idea if you want to know more.

Circuitry

Once you have the pick-ups, you need to provide some circuitry to select, mix and/or filter the signals, and send them to the output jack. There are two sorts of circuits: active and passive. Passive circuits are most common and do not require external power (batteries). Active circuits do, but offer more possibilities and an amplifier-independent sound quality.
The information on passive circuits in “The Guitar” is pretty extensive, but it tells not too much about active circuits. However, if you haven't worked with any electronics at all yet, it is better to start with passive circuits and eventually upgrade to active circuits when you are more experienced.

A precaution: do not feel tempted to implement all possible circuitry in your guitar. If you'd make the entire circuit described in “The Guitar”, you won't be able to play through the jungle of switches and knobs! As often, less is more here. However, it is hard to tell what circuits will have a profound effect on the sound. The best thing you can do, is experiment, e.g. with a separate board with all possible circuitry on it outside your guitar, before you decide for the final circuit.

Most active guitar circuits are based on a single preamplifier which offers different sound ‘flavours’. Koch is well known for its preamps. If you know enough about operational amplifiers (op-amps), you can create your own preamp. The most important thing you must take into account, is that the preamplifier must be able to deal with a high input impedance, for instance many pick-ups have an impedance around 8 kOhm!

Of course you need to be able to handle a soldering iron, so if you haven't touched one in your life yet, make sure to practice a lot before starting with the real thing, or you will end up with a guitar that crackles and short-circuits the whole time.

You must also provide enough electrostatic shielding in your circuits. This means: make sure all ‘ground’ pins of the components, starting with the one from the output jack, are connected together without making any loops. You should encapsulate the entire circuit in a ‘cage’ of foil, preferably copper foil, but I have always used aluminium foil with success. This foil must be connected to your circuit's ground (again, at one point only). You should also use coax cable for the longer signal connections and connect the outer conductor of these cables to the ground too (on one side). If you follow all these directions your guitar will be practically hum-free. If you don't, you may have to pick your strings with a chainsaw before the signal level exceeds the noise level.

I made a separate page which explains the basic concepts of electrical schemes like volume and tone controls. It also shows the complete scheme of my second guitar. You should definitely read this if you don't know what a ‘potentiometer’ or a ‘ground’ is.

If you have no experience with electronics whatsoever, you may want to take a look at the following book, which tries to fill the gap between zero knowledge and the typical academic books of a frighteningly high level. The book's site also has a links page with a section dedicated to guitar circuitry.
Electronic Circuits for the Evil Genius: “Beginning Electronics 100% Hands On! No previous knowledge required. Being self taught, the author experienced many common beginners' errors. You avoid those while you learn Beginning Analog & Digital Electronics. You develop a depth of knowledge quickly. It is written by a teacher, not a techie.”

Other components

Next to the electronics, there are the other components, namely the tuning posts and the bridge. For the tuning posts, there are two options: you can put them all at one side (like on most Fender models), or three on each side (like on most Gibson models). Don't forget this when you buy them!
I used Schaller tuning posts for both guitars, and I am satisfied with them. The first guitar had chromed posts, which costed around $45 back in 1995. The second one has copper posts, of about $65. Of course, there certainly are other good brands available. Just do not try to save money on cheap stuff, quality simply is not for free.

I made the bridge of my first guitar myself, but I do not recommend this. It is partially made out of wood and this does not allow the use of heavy strings. However, it is fully adjustable in height and individual string length. The bridge of the second guitar was a second-hand one, probably from a Stratocaster-type guitar. I don't know how easy it is to find new bridges but they must certainly be available, be it as replacement parts. Mind that there are three types of bridges:

Most music stores with a large supply of guitars should also have guitar parts. It may also be interesting to look for second-hand parts, e.g. on eBay or from people who have guitars that are damaged beyond repair. Just inspect such parts thoroughly before buying them!

Painting

It speaks for itself that you test your guitar thoroughly before thinking about painting. You may need to file off some sharp corners, or mill away some wood to adjust the balance, and these aren't good ideas when your guitar would already be painted with an expensive lacquer. Before painting, sand the entire guitar body: start with rather ‘rough’ sandpaper, like P100, then use P360, and end with P600 or even P1000.

“The Guitar” by Ralph Denyer provides some useful information about painting your guitar. I painted my first guitar with ordinary spray cans. However, because the ‘multiplex’ wood absorbed the paint so thoroughly, I had to spray a lot of layers before the result was decent enough. The massive amount of paint took months to dry completely, and is not very scratch-resistant. When painting some speakers with spray cans recently, I experienced the same phenomenon: spray can paint tends to take a very long time (I am talking months here) to harden completely, and during this period it is very vulnerable. In other words: I don't recommend using spray cans unless you use special lacquer paint and you know what you're doing.

The second guitar was painted with car lacquer by a specialised airbrush studio, and this is definitely the way to go with solid-body guitars: the paint is much more scratch-resistant and will wear off much slower. If you have the tools and the experience you can do it yourself. (Mind that you may never mix or overpaint single-component paint with two-component lacquer!)
Otherwise, make a sketch on paper or on your computer, of what you would the finishing to look like. Take this sketch and your guitar body (without any electronics or other parts of course!) to a paint studio and explain your wishes. Mind that it'll cost a lot (I paid about $200, you should not go much higher than this unless you want a complex design), so if you plan to make several guitars you may consider buying the paint tools and doing it yourself, which will be more profitable. In the case of one guitar however, having it done will be much more profitable — and safer. If you only want a single tint on your guitar with no effects, you may also try asking a garage keeper who has a spray cabin. This may be cheaper than, yet as good as a specialised studio.
When the painting has been done, you can use car polish to polish up your brand new guitar, and then re-assemble it… and finally play it!

© 1998-2014 Alexander Thomas (aka Dr. Lex)

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