Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Pickup Lines

Of everything that goes into an Electric Guitar, the component that ultimately gives the instrument its voice is the pickups. The controls (volume/tone, switches), strings, construction, and amp (as well as the musician) all matter to different extents, but for the guitar itself, the pickups are where, “You get what you pay for,” truly comes into play in the marketplace.  One of the reasons I wanted to take on the project was to see if I could actually make my own pickups. As the perpetual scientist, the idea that I could potentially turn out a set of custom-wound pickups for my Strat (or Tele… or LP Jr… or Firebird… or, well, you get the drift!), and then make a change and wind another set, maybe using alnico II instead of alnico V slugs, winding with vintage-spec wire vs. modern spec, winding with 43 gauge vs. 42 gauge, 10% over/under winding, etc. etc. etc. is stupefyingly attractive.

Part of my learning process is getting to understand as much as possible of the HOW with regard to the construction and electronics.  Beyond the very basics of electronics, I am out of my element. People considerably smarter than me figured this all out long, long ago and I’m not going to start reinventing the wheel, but I hope to learn enough to be able to make informed decisions about my pickups. At a very high level, a guitar pickup is made from a fiber (or, in cheap guitars, plastic) base & top (called the flatwork) through which metal slugs (called poles) are inserted to make a bobbin about ¾” tall and 2 ½” wide. The tops of these poles are what you see when poking out of the top of an electric guitar. In most cases, there is a cosmetic plastic cover with holes for the poles that covers the flatwork. To turn the bobbin into a pickup, there is nearly a mile (4000’) of extremely fine gauge wire (42 or 43 AWG, about the size of a human hair) wrapped around and around and around the bobbin somewhere in the neighborhood of 8000 times.

Typically when you’re wiring something small & local, you can use a multimeter to check for resistance (ohms) on the line. In most circuits that are simply a point-to-point wire (like running a line from you’re Home Theatre Receiver to a speaker at the back of the room), the speaker wire is relatively big and the run is short, giving a resistance very close to zero. Pickups, on the other hand, are a very fine gauge wire run for an extremely long distance. On this scale, the resistance is measurable and for a single-coil (one wound bobbin) pickup like you see in a Stratocaster (or Telecaster) has a measurable resistance of about 6-7 thousand ohms. This is a meaningless number to the lay person, but the resistance of the pickup is one of the key factors influencing its tonal qualities.

Having a really long wire wrapped around the poles doesn’t do anything… until the poles are magnetized. Once the pole pieces are energized to become magnetized, all the components necessary to make noise are in place. This is the point for me where ‘science’ becomes ‘magic.’ Plucking an electric guitar string over a pickup causes a disturbance in the magnetic field of the pickup which is picked up by the windings, transmitted through the controls and eventually to the amplifier and voila! Sound! (or magic).

Awful, horrible Strat-copy
body that's barely worthy
of being gutted
My project guitar won’t be ready for electronics for several months. I expect there’s going to be some trial & error in the whole winding process. If it turns out that I really CAN’T make it work, I’d like to know now so that I can start budgeting for pickups (and likely significantly altering the long-term guitar building plan).  My plan for the next few months is to see if I can snag a cheap ($20) Squire (or similar) Strat-style guitar as a test bed and try my hand at winding a few pickguards worth of pickups using a few different options, both to experiment with the tonal differences as well as seeing if I can actually make something that sounds good.

I also have a “Standard” Strat that I bought a decade ago. I swapped out the stock bottom-tier electronics with what (according to the eBay listing) were some pretty solid Fender Custom Shop Texas Specials. At the very least, they sounded considerably better (and I now have the tools & knowledge to actually make a reasonable assessment if that’s actually what they are!) That entire pickguard assembly is going to stay intact. It sounds great and there’s no reason to mess with it!  That said, what I have really always wanted is a Strat with pickups that come as close as possible to Mark Knopfler’s Red strat that he played on the early Dire Straits albums. Based on some basic research, it’s likely that the pickups are from a Strat made somewhere between 1957 and 1962. So my interim project is to

-          Strip the neck pickups out of the Standard Strat’s pickguard that’s in the basement, rip it apart, and try to rebuild it to roughly the same spec as the middle pickup and see how they compare (understanding that there is some difference solely based on the position of the position of the pickup)
-          If the neck pickup works, try a repeat on another, possibly making a change in the wire or magnets.
-          If the middle pickup works, I’ll try something different with the bridge, possibly either an underwind to (hopefully) accentuate the bark of the treble *or* overwind to (hopefully) reign in the quackiness of the Strat bridge pickup and round out the tone a little more.

Les Paul Jr. Template over a
Cherry/book-matched-Maple/Cherry body
Once I finish the rebuild of the Standard Strat pickguard, the next step is to move on to lovingly build a set of replica ’59 Fender Strat Vintage pickups and a new pickguard before moving on to wind the pickups for the Telecaster and the Les Paul Jr. project that I’ve started. 

Of course, then I’ll have one or two more pickguards than I have Strats.  Whatever shall I do then…

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Pining Away (or Sticking Your Neck Out)

One of the challenges of building a guitar from the ground up is that there are many, many opportunities to make one small mistake that turns many hour s of work on an instrument into many hours of work on firewood.  Building and shaping the outline of the body has been an exciting and enjoyable process, but it’s also the one part with a HUGE margin of error. I could cut one of the horns off and bore a 2” hole n
ear the tail and it wouldn’t make a bit of difference in how it sounds through the amp when it’s done. But if the neck pocket is too big, the neck joint will be sloppy. If I carve too much of the neck, it may not hold up to the tension of being strung.  There are some things like this where there is literally one shot to get it right and I really don’t want my first time doing some of these things to be with the wood that SHOULD be the final piece.

This project started out on a recommendation from one of my mentors to NOT use top-quality lumber for the first pass, but to take my first run using a cheaper hardwood, such as Poplar (which I did). Taking that to the next step, even though my $13 Poplar body isn’t made from Walnut or Mahogany or something ridiculously expensive, I have quite a few hours into taking it from a slab to a guitar body and I’d rather play it around a bonfire this summer than fuel the bonfire with it.  So I made a decision to hack together some pine boards and make an initial pass as constructing the neck and machining the pockets for the pickups, control cavity, and neck pocket.

Gluing and Clamping
the pine neck.
Starting with the neck was relatively easy. I had a length of 2x2 in the garage that, with a little bit of effort, was cut in half and joined together to make a neck-width and neck-length hunk of wood.  Cutting the outline without a bandsaw was a pain, even using the same drill-press/coping-saw method I used on the body, but it was relatively uneventful.  The board wasn’t really wide enough to support doing the headstock I wanted (either Reverse Firebird or a Reversed Telecaster), but I got enough for a reasonable look.  Since I’m shooting for a 50s vintage Telecaster, I figured I’d shoot for a neck that would be from that era.  I found this awesome picture online of a 52’ Telecaster “Boatneck” that seemed like a good place to start and a pretty simple shape.  Here’s the problem. I have a “1st Fret” profile and, with a little manipulation in Photoshop, a 12th Fret profile (the neck gets wider as it moves from the nut/tuners toward the bridge/pickups).

1st fret and 24th fret profiles (green arc) for the prototype neck. 

Rough outline, half-shaped.

But what do I actually DO with this? I can’t chop the headstock and heel off to trace the profile and I can’t make a sanding jig since the profile changes as you move down the neck.  About all you can do is mark the depth of the vertical from the fretboard (basically the bottom of word “Reissue” in the images, above), cut the neck to a its depth (taking into account the fretboard thickness), and just start hacking away at the edges with rough wood working tools to get down to the point where finer & finer tools can be used to smooth the neck to a general profile.  The nice thing about working with pine is that this went very quickly.  The lousy thing about working with pine is that it’s SO soft that it rips and tears easily, but it does offer a lesson in taking the time to do the work at the pace the wood wants to work at and not try to force the pace.

Drawn outlines of cavities.
The next step was to do some test work with a set of Forstner bits to see if I could reasonably do the body “routing” with a drill press. (Ed. note: How is it that no one has ever told me that I need a set of Forstner bits? I CLEARLY do, but for this project I am content to borrow the set my father lent me. Next I expect you people will be telling me that I need a plunge router…).  The most direct work was the Control Cavity.  1” Forstner + Chisel made short work of getting the pocket done (to a somewhat random depth).  Lesson #2 learned is that my small drill press is NOT going to be deep enough to do this project on my equipment.  I was able to complete the body work with my 18v Ryobi hand drill, but it was definitely not clean.  The Bridge pickup was connected via a 12” long x ¼” drill bit, angled from the pickup to the control cavity.  The neck pickup will either be drilled from the neck pocket down to the bridge or routed under the pickguard and drilled into the control cavity.  The jack will be Fortner-drilled and covered with a cover plate.
"Finished" Pine guitar
(or the most work ever put
into a piece of firewood).

I definitely went into the Pine Neck project with a lot of questions and came out with a quite a few answers, or at least directions. The Pine Body project was more straight-forward and there was less figuring out to do.  Coming out of this exercise, the key pieces of learning is that the neck is likely going to be the part of the project where I can’t realistically get a quality product with the tools at my disposal, so I’ll be spending time down with my mentors making the neck.  I’ll also need to do the bulk of the body routing/drilling work there as well.  Although I could easily do the cavity drilling with the Ryobi, getting the neck pocket right is going to be a critical part of the construction and something that would be unwise to attempt myself.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Sourcing the Parts

My typical approach to, um, just about everything, is to figure out what, “Acceptable,” is and then go a level or three beyond that.  Especially when it comes to anything that’s manufactured, there is more junk than ever in the marketplace. At least in America, people seem to be willing to trade cheap-in-price for poor workmanship and product longevity.  Yes, that widget was only $9.37 at Wal*Mart, but the $18.99 one you put down probably would have lasted until you died, but you’ll be back at Wal*Mart in another 2-4 years to replace that cheap widget (after griping for those 2-4 years about how lousy it was).  There are few things in this world that don’t abide by the saying, “You get what you pay for,” at least at the middle-class level.  There is an obvious leveling of the QPR (Quality:Price Ratio) as you approach Luxury items, but as a general rule for the 99% who are reading this, buying up a level (or three) of quality is a wise, long-term investment.

Having said that, one of my challenges for this project was to keep the budget minimal.  As much as I would love to drop 18:1 Gold Grover Rotomatic tuners ($160ish), Vintage Fralin pickups ($200ish), an acoustic-enabled bridge (another easy $200), and any number of other high-end parts, I don’t have remotely close to the budget to bleed $800 toward one instrument, let alone whatever the costs would be for the 3-4 I intend to have either built or participated in the build of at the end of this year.  So what to do?

I have been using a combination of Stewart-MacDonald and Allparts as my baseline source for parts to get an idea of what the common luthier has access to get a ballpark idea for brands, styles, and prices.  Predictably, eBay has been an extremely good source of (so far) quality parts at excellent prices. In several cases, I’ve been able to purchase directly from an American small business and have correspondence with the proprietor about my project and get some sage advice for incorporating their product into my design.

 Another somewhat unlikely source for parts comes from Craigslist and Freecycle.  I have acquired two acoustic guitars from Freecycle.

  • One is a Jasmine (Takamine’s entry-level) ¾ sized Classical Style guitar that had a snapped headstock (which I easily, if crudely, glued back together to make a perfectly playable instrument). This gives the girls something they can play with as they graduate from the awful kids guitar I bought them a few years ago.  Cost to me: $0.00
  • The other is so poorly made (or refurbished) that there are no identifying marks on it. The value point here is potentially some tuners for the Ukulele project and a truss rod for a guitar neck later on.  There may be some use for the back as the top of a Ukulele, but everything else is so bottom-drawer that the value with this guitar will be solely tearing it apart to see how an Acoustic is put together. Cost to me: $0.00
Blank Headstock
A very unusual adjustable
 acoustic saddle/bridge.
Likely will cut one tuner off each
 side and use the tuners on a Uke.

Quality abounds! Laminate top and a gorgeous ebony paint job on a clearly-not-ebony fretboard.
No markings inside the guitar either. Must be the company that made it didn't want to be identified!\

...and why not a painted saddle, too? Lifting off the soundboard, too.
I don't think there's enough adjustment in the screws to compensate for that!

My best find to date has been a Craigslist purchase on my last Anaheim trip.  I found someone offering a pretty thoroughly thrashed Ibanez electric guitar for $50. The neck was broken, the electronics were compromised, and the body was pretty well beaten up. I offered $20, he countered with $30. When we met to swap cash for product, we started chatting and it turned out he had a project idea for the body (which was essentially useless to me) and my main want was the tuners. So we took the neck off, I gave him $15, and walked away with 6 tuners, a fretted Rosewood fretboard, a truss rod, and a template for the neck pocket & heel (somewhere in the neighborhood of $80- $100 in project materials).  The extra bonus of getting a broken neck is that the whole thing easily came apart and fit in the suitcase for the trip home!
Yeah, that's going to affect the playability.
The fretboard was clearly glued down, but I'm pretty sure
the headstock-to-neck joint was simply a pressure-fit.

Another view of the break.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Holy Poplar!

Note: There will be a handful of posts coming to catch up on the project. Rather than blurt them all out at once, I'll post one every few days until the blog is caught up with the project (at which point I'll go back to neglecting my readers). 

The PROPER way to cut a body from a block of wood is to use a band-saw.  I don’t have one of those, so Plan A was, “Use a coping saw to cut the perimeter of the Telecaster.” Plan A was stupid and lasted about 2” into the process. 

Not only would it have taken an insane amount of time, a coping saw (at least the one I have) is not intended to cut through and inch and half of hardwood and was making wandering cuts as the blade flexed trying to get through the block.  After sawing in to the outline, I realized I need to make about a 45 degree turn to start cutting the perimeter. The problem was that the saw/blade really did NOT want to make that turn, so I decided I’d drill a hole that would allow me to easily turn the blade and get on the right line. What started as a way to make the turn from cutting in to the guitar to cutting the perimeter became the primary “cutting” process for the perimeter.  The drill press not only ensured I stayed on track around the perimeter, but it also kept the sides perfectly vertical, something that was NOT going to happen with the coping saw.
Starting to cut the perimeter.

Most of the way cut out!
One of the first cast-off pieces.

Coping saw work complete.

Very rough edge to start with.

From the VERY rough outline, I used a rough wood rasp to get down close to the final dimension and then used a home-made drum sander in the drill press to give most the guitar its final smoothed shape.  A little bit of work remains in the tighter spaces that I couldn't reach with the larger-radius drum sander, but those can be hit either with a dremel, hand-sanded, or sanded with a smaller drum.

Glue & clamp some 60-grit on and VOILA! A sanding drum!
Homemade sanding drum using disks cut with a hole saw, a length of threaded rod, and a few washers & bolts (all things just lying around in the workshop).
Before sanding
After sanding.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Building the Body

I've realized that approach to this Telecaster project is very similar to my approach to brewing beer. When I brew, I always have a lofty vision of what I want from the final product.  However, there a lot of things that can go wrong on Brew Day (and beyond) that affect the final product, often in a less-than-desired way.  So when I start a new brew, my A#1 goal is "make drinkable beer." Goal #2 is, "make a beer I want to drink." Somewhere further down the line is, "Final Product = Perfect Realization of Vision."  Lofty goals are great to have, but there something to be said for being able to be satisfied with a less-than-perfect outcome.

With the idea that this guitar build is a "learning project," my primary "build a guitar" goal (other than to learn so that the next project is better) is to keep the expense as low as possible. A lot can be learned without spending a mint.  The secondary goal is having a playable instrument. I know I have the ability to make a great sounding, great playing electric guitar using parts someone else made (I've made two so far), but I really don't know what goes in to the whole process of making/routing the body or winding the pickups. The more you can do/make yourself, the more the final product is your own and the more you learn about how it's really made.

I got my first glimpse at reality when I took the rough hunk of Poplar into the cellar and started working with it. I haven't done a lot of wood working, but I've done enough to know that working with power tools is a lot like approaching a strange dog. As much as you might be a little bit afraid, you need to be bold, confident and decisive, yet fluid in your actions. Being jumpy and tentative typically doesn't end well in either case.

The workup on the hunk of Poplar went down like this: 

  • cut the 36" length into two 18" lengths.

  • With the crown up, trim about 1/4" off one side to get a flat edge.
  • Flip the board around and cut the other length to get a total board width of 7" (finished width needs to be 6 3/8")

  • Now that I have [what should be] two parallel surfaces, I stood the board on its edge, cranked the table saw up to its 3" max height and ripped the length of the board, flipped it, and ran it again leaving about a 1" piece in the middle to saw by hand. This was the potential dog-bite moment. The table saw I have really isn't powerful enough for what I was asking of it (I tripped its internal breaker twice and had to shut the saw down mid-cut on each pass as the blade started binding), so there was an element of unpredictability as the wood was being fed into the blade.  It definitely didn't go perfectly, but it did what it needed to do!
The finished product was definitely rough and I wasted a good 1/4" of material with my method vs. the preferred "take it the luthiers' shop and run it through the band saw" approach. The table saw work took a while, but it worked. The hand sawing of the remaining wood strip in the middle took a while as well, but probably no more than 10-15 minutes per piece.

The next step for the body was a trip to the Ennis & Lubold workshop in Randolph to make the rough-cut, crowned pieces into perfect rectangles in profile so that they could be glued into a solid guitar-sized block.  The first step was to run the boards through a wide surface planer.  This removed all of the junk left over from the division of the board and stripped away the crowning of the wood. A similar process was done on the edges to ensure that the edges were perfectly straight for a flush glue joint.  After some hemming and hawing about how to put the pieces together, the sides were matched glued. Once they had set, they were then glued together to each other resulting in a pretty striking (for a $13 chunk of Poplar) bookmatched pattern.

Planing the rough boards.
Applying the glue.

Clamping the sides.

Gluing & clamping the sides together to
make the raw materials for the guitar body.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

New direction for 2014

I've started, but not finished, a few blog entries since my last post at the end of 2012. For the past several years, each January started with me laying out some personal fitness goals, whether it be a Marathon (2011), the Spartan Beast (2012), or trying a ketogenic diet for the 2013 Spartan Beast and Leaf Peepers Half Marathon.

For 2014, I really didn't feel compelled to tackle any new major fitness challenges. I'm getting a little burned out from having my foot on the gas for the past 4 years. Health and fitness won't go away, but I'm not planning to TRAIN for anything major in 2014.

So, much like I used this space to record my path to my first (and so far, only) marathon, I'm going to shift gears in the TOPIC of this blog, but still attempt to maintain the "Push the Envelope. Watch it Bend." philosophy.  I have decided to build, from the ground up, a Telecaster (electric guitar). Some portions, such as building and fretting the neck, will require assistance of friends & family (namely Ennis & Lubold Luthiers), but as much as possible I'm going to use tools I have on-hand to turn some raw hunks of wood into a playable instrument at least equal to the tonal quality and playablity level of a mid-level, factory-made Fender. I will do all the wiring myself to the extent that I intend to build and wind my own pick-ups (including building my own pick-up winder).

There will certainly be mistakes made along the way. I have limited experience working with wood, so there will be a lot of learning happening in a short period of time. I have built from off-the-shelf parts, wired, and lacquered two electric guitars, and learned a LOT in the process of doing that. There will be another partnership-project with Ennis & Lubold that I'll announce soon that will allow my to cut my teeth on an acoustic-instrument project in parallel with the Telecaster.

The Tele project started this afternoon with the $13.80 purchase of a 2" x 8" x 36" block of Poplar that will be cut into two 18" pieces, then cut along the long edge to have a bookmatched top & back. The Poplar isn't beautifully figured and the easy way out would be to just join the 18" blocks, but where's the fun in that? Even though I fully expect to finish the guitar in paint (vs. stained/natural), a large part of this project is LEARNING, so right outta the gate I'm going to learn how to (or how NOT to) bookmatch a solid-body guitar.