Making a Stratocaster
A walk through of the decision making process of organising a parts list for my first ‘DIY’ guitar. Essentially I talk about the ‘whys and the wherefores’ behind how I choose the parts for my dream strat.
If you’ve read the ‘About’ page, you’ll know that I am a classical guitarist, with barely any experience playing other styles. This entire website is a diary of sorts, documenting and discussing all the new techniques/experiences that I encounter as I ‘branch out’ into new styles.
So if I’m going to play new styles I’ll need a new guitar, right? After all, I can’t rock on a nylon string After playing a lot of guitars, and reading reviews and articles online, I soon discovered that the really fine guitars are either custom built, or are megabucks top-of-the-line flagship models from regular manufacturers. Also, I was afraid that if I did splash out on such a guitar, I’d have ‘kid-gloves’ syndrome and would be too afraid of ruining the instrument to play it regularly.
What I wanted was an affordable, but professional, player’s instrument.
Over here in Australia, because of import taxes, freight and the lousy value of the dollar, guitar prices are ridiculously steep ($3,000 for a basic Fender Deluxe Stratocaster). For that money I felt I could create something a little more personal, and hopefully, as good or better than the off-the-shelf products.
Choosing the Custom Manufacturer
Ordering a truly custom guitar is an expensive investment, but if you want a quasi-custom guitar that is based on standard body shapes and neck types, the prices drop dramatically. This is because most makers of customised standard parts are using CNC machines to handle much of the workload.
I narrowed my choices down to three major CNC based custom guitar makers. These were USACustomGuitars, Musikraft and Warmoth.
These three manufacturers all have their pros and cons, and any of them would have produced a fine guitar that played well, but in the end I settled on Warmoth. My reasons were that I wanted the 10″-16″ Compound radius (note: USACG also have a compound radius), and I preferred to choose my parts from the ‘showcase’. Using the showcase meant that I was able to see the parts that I was ordering rather than having a part made-to-order and hoping that it turned out how I imagined. Both USACG and Musikraft have quasi-showcase equivalents however the choices are limited, since they are both smaller companies. A big plus for Musikraft and USACG is that since they are smaller companies, they are able to accommodate special requests and custom routing etc, which Warmoth refuse to do. This particular guitar was intended to be a straight-ahead stratocaster, so I had no special requests, but for a future build that I have in mind, I will probably end up using USACG or Musikraft.
The Neck Wood
I have heard mixed opinions on the quality of Warmoth’s work/quality of wood – some people rave about them, whilst others have had bad experiences with them. So to be on the safe side, I chose a quarter-sawn maple neck. Although a bird’s-eye or flamed neck would have looked nicer, I went for the superior structural integrity of a quarter-sawn neck. Maple is a typical stratocaster neck wood, and suited the straight-ahead strat tone that I was after.
I ordered this neck with a pau-ferro fingerboard. Pau-ferro is generally considered to be tonally somewhere between maple and ebony. I loved the dark colour and grain patterns of rosewood, but I did not like the more open grain that some (cheaper) rosewood fretboards have. Also, I wanted this guitar to be bright and ‘spanky’ so a fretboard that was tonally closer to maple or ebony seemed a good choice. Rosewood would have tamed the brightness of the guitar somewhat, so pau-ferro seemed like a good choice.
Pau-ferro not only gave me the sound and the feel (tight-grain) that I was after, but this particular piece of pau-ferro also had a very attractive grain pattern to boot!
The Neck Construction
I decided to use the Warmoth ‘Pro’ Construction. The ‘pro’ construction uses Gotoh’s double expanding truss rod with the side adjust mechanism. The side adjust mechanism is convenient, and the heavier truss rod would increase the overall mass of the neck, which may increase the sustain. Also, the compound radius that I was after was only offered with ‘pro’ construction.
This was an easy one. For me the frets had to be stainless steel. Not only do the stainless steel frets remove the need for a future re-fret, they are also reputed to be tonally brighter than nickle, which suited me.
I also chose tall-narrow frets even though many people prefer short-wide frets. Since I have little experience playing and owning electric guitars, I kinda had to guess with this one – I really had no idea of what sort of fret size I wanted so I just looked around on the net and tried to form an educated guess. Fingers-crossed that I made the right decision.
I chose alder. It’s a standard strat wood, with standard strat tone. Often burst finished strats, such as mine, are made with ash since ash can be visually more interesting than alder, however this particular piece of alder looks just fine. Also, I chose a single piece body. Single piece bodies are generally considered to resonate better since there is no glue line to dampen the resonance. Also, different pieces of wood can have different grain and density, meaning that each piece of a two piece body will not share the exact same resonance characteristics.
I’m not too sure how much this two-piece versus one-piece debate actually effects tone, and how much is hearsay and ‘mumbojumbo’, but since this is my dream strat, I decided that I go with the one-piece… just to be safe.
Plus, I prefer the look of one-piece bodies Yes, I’m being vain, I know, but well… I want it to look purdy, don’t I?
Pickups and Electronics
This one took me a loooong time to finally come to a decision. I knew that I wanted a simple S-S-S layout, but what brand? And what type? Should I get ‘stacked’ humbuckers or ‘side-by-side’ humbuckers… or do the single-coil style humbuckers sound fake and unauthentic? Maybe I should get straight up REAL single coils, without the humbucking. Also, what about the Suhr BPSSC? That system would allow me to use any normal true single coil and then, using active electronics, I could ‘dial-out’ the hum.
In the end I decided that I didn’t want any hum – after all I’m not a vintage purist. Generally, most side-by-side humbuckers had a ‘mini-humbucker’ sound to them and sounded nothing like average single coils, except for the Joe Barden Strat pickup set. These pickups sounded nothing like humbuckers and sounded more single coil than most single coils! What I mean is that they seem very accurate, very bright, hi-fi and even.
The problem plaguing most stacked humbuckers is that many of them require non-traditional capacitor values on the tone pot. This indicates to me that they hadn’t really created a good single-coil sound, and were desperate to retain definition by using higher cap values. Also, stacked pickups often sound compressed, and ruin the attack of the note. The only set of stacked pickups which seemed to have addressed these issues were by Chris Kinman. Kinman stacked ‘single-coils’ retained an open attack, and suited normal strat cap values.
Finally the Suhr BPSSC system seemed interesting. With this system you are able to use any regular single coil, and use the BPSSC to remove the hum. Even though most reviews indicated that the system was very good, I decided not to use it since it was an active system and required batteries, and I wanted to avoid having to regularly change batteries if I could.
In the end it was a toss up between Barden and Kinman, and I eventually chose Kinman because they sounded like a straight-ahead stratocaster. That being said, I’m very anxious to start building another, less traditional sounding guitar and use the Barden pickups!
Also, I decided to get the pre-wired K-9 No-Solder Harness from Kinman. This gives me access to the standard five strat settings, and also some other pickup combinations which aren’t normally available on most strats, which include: all three pickups in parallel, bridge and neck in parallel, bridge and middle in series, and bridge and middle in series with the neck in parallel. I am competent with a soldering iron, but even so, I figured I couldn’t screw up if I bought it pre-wired.
I decided early on that I had to have locking tuners. Locking tuners make string changing quick and easy, and provide extra tuning stability – particularly when using tremolo without a locking nut. There are quite a few locking tuners on the market, and the really fancy ones even trim the excess string off while you wind it up to pitch! But in the end I chose a set of simple Gotoh locking tuners.
Unlike most locking tuners these are top-locking. Most tuners have a
(finger-chaffing) knurled nut on the back of the tuner, which you turn
to lock the string. But these Gotoh tuners lock the strings automatically as you tune up to pitch! (Hence they lock the string ‘from the top’ rather than having an extra nut on the back)
Since I am going to have a tremolo, with a fairly wide pitch range, I’ll need to have a low friction nut. The LSR roller nut was a clever idea, which I considered, but I ended up choosing the Graphtech Nut since it is simple and has no moving parts. The Graphtech nut creates a thin lubricant barrier between the string and the nut which minimizes friction.
I also considered using a compensated nut such as those offered by
Earvana or the (expensive) Buzz Feiten tuning system. These nuts improve the overall intonation of the guitar, and make the guitar more in-tune across all the frets. They are great ideas but unfortunately the
Earvana is not a low-friction and although a low-friction version of the Feiten system is possible it is just too expensive. Besides, later on if I decide that I would like a compensated nut I can always get one then. Also, I understand the concepts behind compensated nuts, so in the future, I might find a way to ‘DIY’ a compensated nut, but using a graphite blank. This would give me the best of both worlds – low friction and precise intonation.
I had a lot of fun hunting down a tremolo for my project. Rather than talk you through my entire decision making progress I’ll just give you the short list: Original Floyd Rose, Schaller Floyd Rose, Gotoh Floyd Rose, Stetsbar, TremKing, Super-Vee, Callaham, Hipshot, or Wilkinson by Gotoh. Eventually I decided that the double-locking systems are too much hassle for me at the moment, plus they didn’t fit the ‘traditional’ look of the guitar (yep, I’m being vain again ).
The Callaham is essentially the ideal incarnation of the standard Fender ‘Synchronized Tremolo’, and the Hipshot was a variant of the Fender ‘Two-Point’ American Deluxe design, however I preferred to have a fair amount of ‘pull-up’ available on this guitar, which ruled the Callaham out.
Between the TremKing and the Wilkinson I chose the TremKing since it will stay in-tune even if I break a string, and personally I think that the satin finish of the Wilkinsons is kinda ugly. Also, the TremKing has a lovely ‘vintage-modern’ vibe to it, which I like.
So my short list came down to two: the Stetsbar and the TremKing.
Honestly I liked them both and ended up ordering both! I’ve now decided that I’ll use the TremKing as it looks more traditional, but I’m looking forward to building another guitar and trying out the Stetsbar too.
The Final Guitar
Unfortunately the only still camera I have is a mobile-phone P.O.S. so apologies for the quality
UPDATE: Got a proper (but super cheap) Kodak, so these images should be reasonable quality.
Click for larger images