To paraphrase one of my favorite bits from Bill Hicks: your custom shop guitar is not special. I constantly see guitars from so-called custom shops that are only sometimes wonderful instruments, but they mostimes come with a hefty price tag, upwards of thousands of dollars. For what? A generic neck screwed onto a generic body, with nothing more than some fancy finish job or electronics to make it unique from the thousands of other guitars that otherwise look just like it. Usually these necks and bodies are just punched out with a CNC machine, using a standard template. While it might be a really cool guitar, I’ve never understood why they are so expensive, especially since so many people bring their custom shop instruments to me to have the frets fixed and the setup tweaked anyway. If you’re not paying for quality, where is all that money going? The truth is, you don’t need to spend thousands on a custom guitar – you can assemble one for a fraction of the cost, and it will play and sound just as good if not better than the expensive name-brand custom instruments.
Don’t get me wrong – sometimes a custom shop piece comes into my shop that is truly exceptional. However, I also see cheap import guitars that are just as exceptional. What gives? The secret is that the key to a great guitar is not the price, nor is it the name on the headstock: the devil is in the details. This week I put together a custom Stratocaster for my buddy Carlos, and it came out sounding and playing fantastic, and he only spent around $1000. By focusing on what’s truly important (assembly, setup and fretwork) Carlos ended up with an amazing guitar that blows away instruments that cost ten times as much. Here’s how it went down:
Carlos brought me a bunch of parts: a neck and body from Allparts (which are licensed by Fender), a set of Seymour Duncan Antiquities pickups, and some fancy hardware.
He had the body finished by my pal Scott Jackson, which had in just a few months begun to start naturally checking, giving it an instant “relic” look. My job was to put the whole thing together and turn it into a badass custom guitar.
First I assembled the electronics. Carlos supplied a Seymour Duncan Antiquities I for the bridge, and a Antiquities II for the neck and middle. I shielded the entire pickguard with aluminum tape (which is just as effective as copper – don’t be fooled), and wired everything up. I keep all the leads short and well organized, use heat shrink on all the soldered ends, and use high quality components. Carlos asked for a way to engage the bridge pickup in any position, so I added a spring loaded push-button switch on the lowermost tone control, so he could get those Tele and three pickup tones instantly. I also added a treble bleed circuit on the volume control, so he wouldn’t loose high end as he turned down the volume.
[A note on pickups: many players are stuck on the idea of “higher quality pickups”. I say there’s no such thing as one pickup that is inherently superior to another. Electromagnetism is something we’ve understood for over 100 years, and a pickup is essentially based on technology that has existed for long before the electric guitar was even invented. At it’s most basic level, that’s all it is is copper wire wrapped around a magnet. That’s it. The only differential between one pickup and the next is how it sounds, which is purely subjective. What you’re paying for when buying so-called “boutique” pickups is not a greater degree of quality – you’re essentially paying for the pickup maker’s ears. You’re buying into their particular tonal tastes, which is certainly a valid reason to buy a pickup. Just don’t be fooled: you’re not paying for higher quality – a pickup either works or it doesn’t. You’re paying for a particular tone, not necessarily a better one.]
The next step was the most crucial: installing the bridge. This is vitally important – if it’s not in the correct place, the guitar won’t intonate properly, the strings won’t align with the edges of the fingerboard, and the tremolo won’t function properly. I took great care with this step, and double and triple checked my work before I drilled a single hole.
First, I installed the neck onto the body, and set a straight edge along the edges of the neck to mark out the center line of the guitar:
Then I took all the various pieces of the bridge (stainless steel saddles and a huge brass tone block – wow!), put them all together, and laid it out in the body of the guitar. I set the saddles in the general geometry of an intonated bridge, and carefully measured the scale length along the length of where the D string would be. The D string is the closest string to match double the distance from the 12th fret to the bridge, so that’s the best reference when measuring out bridge position. I then marked everything out onto the tape:
I was pretty confident in my measurements, but I decided to double check it further. In these sort of critical tasks, a little bit of healthy paranoia is a good thing, no? I strung up the bridge with the outer two strings, set it in place, and made sure that the strings weren’t too close to the edge of the neck. It would totally suck to have the strings pull off the edge of the neck during an important solo at the enormodome, so it’s always a good idea to be too careful. I don’t want to be the guy that’s blamed for ruining your gig!
Ok – I had double and triple checked my measurements, so now came the moment of truth: drilling the holes for the trem screws. I used a punch to center the drill bits in the exact place they were supposed to go, and got to work with my brand new Shop Fox drill press:
I’m always a little terrified when drilling or routing on a guitar, and that’s not a fear I ever want to loose. If your guitar tech blows off such an important and permanent procedure, it’s time to find yourself a new guitar tech!
There was no way to know that my bridge was placed perfectly until I completed the entire job, set the guitar up, and intonated the strings at the bridge, so I took a deep breath, let my nervousness dissipate, and carried on. Next, I installed the neck, laid out the pickguard, marked out where the screws would go, and then went back to the drill press to drill pilot holes for all 11 pickguard screws. Then I shielded the entire electronics cavity, using conductive shielding paint (just as effective as copper or aluminum tape, without the headache) and aluminum tape strips over a few of the pickguard screw holes, so that the electronics cavity would be connected electrically to the pickguard when it was all screwed down.
Finally, I drilled and installed the heavy brass(!) trem spring claw and the trem springs:
Now that’s all that was left to do was a full fret level and setup, which is arguably the most important step, and the main reason why people bring their expensive custom shop instruments to me in the first place! After getting this all together, I can say that it’s an amazing guitar, that sounds and plays just as good as an expensive custom shop Strat, but at a tiny fraction of the price (and without the 6-12 month wait!).
Let’s face it: you really don’t need to spend thousands of dollars unless you really, really want to. A Parts-O-Caster is just as good as an expensive custom shop version if the details are adhered to. If you’ve ever wanted a custom shop guitar, but haven’t been thrilled with the idea of spending thousands of dollars on one, give me a call. I’d be happy to advise you about your options and put one together for you. Hell, for the cost of just one custom shop guitar I could build you two or three!