Just finished building my first electric guitar. I can’t believe how quick that was – just 3 weeks from getting the wood to first play compared with months to build an acoustic!
I only got into this because a friend asked me to design him a travel guitar so he could take it with him while away on business. I did a bit of research and came up with a headless design that was very compact, but when I showed him the design he said he would be too scared of damaging it to take away on business! But by this time I was already hooked and had also discovered the multi-scale concept which gives the benefits of good tone on the lower longer strings, easier to bend higher shorter strings as well as better support for drop tuning due to the longer string length (and higher tension).
After a thorough investigation into available headless tuners I settled on the design offered by Nova from Brazil made from anodised aluminium and brass They offer a multi-scale 6-string bridge design which uses thrust bearings on the tuners for effortless tuning, a captive ball end design for ease of stringing up, simple to use adjustment of intonation and saddle heights and a one piece string clamp for the nut end. They are also very competitively priced (sold via e-bay). I used these tuners as the basis of a travel guitar design which I then built for myself.
The basic parameters driving the design were:
- Bottom E string length of 650mm
- 22 frets
- Top E string length based on equal fret slopes at top and bottom of fingerboard (I ended up with 623mm)
- Minimal body width allowing just enough space for controls and ensuring sufficient body stiffness
- 1 trembucker TB4 bridge pickup, 1 SH-2n Jazz humbucker neck pickup
- Minimal controls – 1 push/pull volume, 1 push/pull tone, 1 3-way toggle
- integrated neck design for simplicity
The guitar was drawn up using the Solvespace parametric drawing package and the design pdfs are here:
I started by getting some mahogany neck blanks and maple strips from the fabulous David Dyke down in Horam (while I was selecting some wood for my next cello).
First I tapered the 75mm wide neck blank on the drum sander to give me the correct neck thicknesses plus 1mm for finishing. Then I sliced this in half and glued up the sandwich with the maple neck splice and some thin black veneer with another layer of mahogany to give the body depth.
Then after building a simple jig to guide the small router I cut the 6mm slots for the truss rod and carbon fibre re-enforcement rods and glued in the carbon fiber rods with fish glue and seated the truss rod in some silicone grease. At the nut end I drilled a 4mm hole to give allen key access to the end of the truss rod.
Next I glued on the guitar wings with some more maple to give some nice stripes before planing everything true and flat.
The ebony blank was planed parallel to make marking the fret slots easier and I used the drum sander to get the ebony blank down close to finished thickness of 6mm and then finished with scrapers to get rid of coarse sanding marks. I built a spreadsheet to calculate the fret positions marked at the edge of the fingerboard and then joined the dots with a very fine pencil before using a jig I had made to cut the fret slots in the (flat) fingerboard.(These slots would have to be deepened later after profiling the fingerboard to it’s 16″ radius).
The Rough fingerboard outline was cut on the bandsaw before planing to final dimensions. Then I market and drilled 6mm holes to take the MOP fingerboard dots which I glued in with super-glue and then levelled off on the drum sander.
Lastly the fingerboard was glued to the neck. I used cut off small nails hammered into the neck to mark and hold the fingerboard position and a narrow piece of masking tape to keep glue away from the truss rod.
Once the glue was dry I used a follower router bit to cut the neck flush with the fingerboard.
The fingerboard was then sanded to a 16″ radius using a sanding block of that radius. Then I used the tenon saw with a stop to carefully cut the full width of the fret slots to the correct depth.
I chose EVO fret wire as I have used on a few other other guitars and rather like it’s look and feel. I chose 37080 which is 2mm wide and 0.9mm high. Fret wires were all tapped into place with a dab of yellow glue, bevelled with a file in a jig and the ends sealed with melted shellac. Then a quick level with a long flat diamond file and final rounding a and polishing.
I built some MDF routing templates on the CNC designed to fit round the fingerboard to give me the rough body outline which I cut on the bandsaw before routing using the templates and a follower bit.
I used the routing templates to mark the body cavities which I first rough drilled to depth on the pillar drill and then routed using the templates and a follower bit.
The maple ring around the bridge was cut directly on the CNC router and then glued in place inside the bridge recess.
The control cavity lid was made out of matching mahogany cut down to 4mm thick and then used an MDF template and bandsaw and sander to get a snug fit.
I drilled a hole for the jack plug and then used a long 6mm bit through that hole to drill a small hole from the control cavity through to the bridge pickup and then to the neck pickup. Another smaller hole was drilled from under the bridge to the control cavity and a piece of copper tape stuck to the bottom of the bridge recess with an earth wire soldered to it going to the control cavity. The anodising on the base of the bridge plate was sanded off to ensure a decent connection to the copper tape.
I used a thin coat of shellac to seal everything and then French polished it all before adding the fittings.
While the French polish was hardening I did most of the pot wiring off the guitar using the template with holes for the control pots to keep everything in the correct relative positions. Then the controls were fitted into the control cavity, the pickup wires threaded and the pickup rings screwed in before final soldering of the pickup connections.
Lastly I added some locking strap buttons from Schaller to make sure I wouldn’t drop it!
The nut was cut from a 6mm bone blank and cut to give 1mm clearance from the fingerboard.
Stringing up was very easy with the Nova headless tuners. You just feed the ball end through the tuner barrel and drop into the captive recess in the brass tuner cartridge then give it a few turns before feeding the other end through the clamp and tightening the locking grub screw with an allen key. The thrust bearing means that bringing the string up to tension is effortless. The bridge height was pretty much as designed to give 1.6mm action on the top E at the 12th fret. I used a 16″ template to set the other string bridge heights. Intonation was easily achieved in a few iterations by slackening the string and adjusting the cartridge clamping allen screw.
The truss rod was adjusted to give 0.25mm relief at the 6th fret. The humbuckers were adjusted to give a 2.4mm clearance to the string when stopped at the 22nd fret.
The finished instrument plays really well with fantastic access to the whole neck right up to the 22nd fret which has a really good action and good sustain even at the highest positions. The variable scale is hardly noticeable except near the nut where it does become a little awkward. The humbuckers give a great fat sound and the push pull controls (configured to single coil) coupled with the 3-way toggle give a surprising degree of control over the character of the instrument.
It is definitely travel size too – fits in a baritone Uke bag.
It is certainly easier to play standing up with a strap and if I were to build another I would certainly make some slight adjustments to the shape to make it sit better on your leg and also increase the head length so the string clamps were a little further from the nut.
|Mahogany with maple neck splice with thin black edges
|Same as neck
|Bridge: Seymour Duncan TB4 trembucker
Neck: Seymour Duncan humbucker SH-2n Jazz humbucker
|Pure Tone multi-contact
|1 volume potentiometer with push/pull neck coil split
1 tone potentiometer with push/pull bridge coil split
1 3-way toggle pickup selector
|Bottom E: 650mm
Top E: 623mm
|Neck width at nut
|43mm 7mm string spacing
|String spread at bridge
|53mm 10.6mm string spacing
|20mm at nut
23mm at body
|Action at 12th fret
|1.6mm (top E)