Saturday, December 22, 2012

'The Drifter' Is On The Way To New Mexico

'The Drifter', a three-string electro/acoustic cigar box guitar is on its way to a new home in Carlsbad , New Mexico.

I got a call a couple weeks ago from a fella to ask if I would build a guitar like the 'Revelator', which is resting in the hands of Carlton Gill-Blyth in Ireland.

The basis of the guitar is an Arturo Fuente Queen B cigar box for a body.  The neck is walnut with a seven degree scarf joint to slant the stylized  headstock just enough for  proper string alignment tension at the Corian nut.  A maple fingerboard with 21 hand set frets finishes off the neck.

Accenting the area above the open-back geared tuners on the headstock is a new issue US New Mexico quarter coin, which I thought would be proper given the intended destination, and the guitar will always be worth at least two-bits.

To push sound around, I chose to recess a paint can lid into the top for the resonator, topped with a floating bisquet bridge made of laminated Spanish cedar, maple and coconut palm, on which a Corian saddle rests.  Two screen-backed nickle sound hole covers let acoustics out of the box, and if that isn't enough to scare the dogs off, a coconut palm-topped TotalRojo hand wound magnetic pickup complete with box-mounted volume control can take over through an amp, which will definitely get rid of any stray critters.  The tailpiece used to anchor the strings is a simple stainless door strike, which lends itself to the clean and sanitary style of the top.  Added nickle corner covers on box top and bottom completes the design and protects the body.

But what about the back, you might ask?

Well, a little web surfing and the attached art became the choice to set this guitar apart from others, since I build no two alike.

There are a couple other little nuances that make this build complete -- a custom Spanish cedar output jack surround,  a custom knob for the volume pot, and a custom cedar neck pocket cover.

Friday, November 23, 2012


I like Cohiba cigar boxes, because they are simple in design and work so well for cigar box guitars.  The box is constructed from Spanish cedar, which produces a rich, warm sound, and because of the simplicity of design, they look so good after being completed.

Take a look at the simplicity of 'Sweetness', which came off my bench today, and let me know what you think.

It's a three-string electro/acoustic cigar box guitar.  The full-fretted neck is walnut with scarf joint and cherry fingerboard.  I decided on a simple headstock to add to the overall simplicity of the design, and to accommodate the open-gear tuners.  The nut and saddle are each created from Corian, while the bridge is Spanish cedar, and the string retainer tailpiece is walnut with recessed cavities for the string ends to hide.  The output jack surround is a simple design made from Spanish cedar and the strap buttons are maple doohickeys picked up at a hobby store.  Three graduated sound holes with screen backing transmit acoustic sound, while the magnetic pickup is the first attempt at a TotalRojo 'Mojo' pickup (see previous post).  Volume is controlled by an out-of-the-way switch at the top of the box near the neck.  Several coats of Poly finish off the surfaces, and a little guitar polish makes it easy to move around the neck.

The First Custom TotalRojo Guitar Pickup

Finally, I cleared my bench and was ready to attack the project of creating my first guitar pickup.  Several weeks ago, I had transformed my antique treadle sewing machine into a pickup coil winder (prior post), but there were still some critical things to accomplish.

First, I had to acquire magnetic coil wire, and that problem was solved with a little searching around town.  A local electronics shop didn't have the recommended 42/43 ga. wire, readily available through supplier Stewart McDonald at nearly $35 a pound (and gas is expensive you say!), but they had a five-pound spool of 39 ga.  Well, I thought, if 42 ga. will work, why not 39 gauge?  So, I called StewMac for help, and the guy I talked to said, "Sure it will work, you just will need less wraps of wire on the bobbin to reach the required resistance.  Wow, $45 later, I was in the wire business (5 pounds no less!).

I had already located steel pegs for the pickup posts through a supplier that didn't charge an arm and a leg just because it was for a guitar.  And, I found another source for inexpensive two-conductor shielded wire to attach the pickup to volume/tone controls and output jack.   Why, I wonder, is the same stuff so expensive when it is supplied by a guitar shop?

Now, it was time to design a bobbin (that's the basis for a pickup).

How do I know this stuff?  I research everything, and ask a lot of questions of the guys who have already made the mistakes.  Thanks Roger, Ted, StewMac, and the web location 'Instructables'.

I decided on a simple design for my TotalRojo guitar pickups, and created a template for three- and four-string versions.  I like simple, because it fits my design ideas better.  But, I also like the designs that others do as well.

After selecting the wood for the top and bottom of the bobbin, I drilled holes for the posts (this has to be precise, because post alignment is critical) and metal grommets, where the coil wire and lead wires are soldered after completion of the winding.  The posts were super glued to the openings in the top and bottom pieces.  The very fine magnetic wire was threaded through the 'start' grommet, and the bobbin attached with double sided tape to the wheel on the winder.  I wrapped the first few revolutions by hand, and then it was time to let the motor turn the wheel, thus winding the coil.  I turned the speed-controlled motor on and started winding the coil, while carefully feeding the hair-fine wire onto the bobbin.  I wanted a warm sound from the pickup, so I chose to experiment with 7,000 wraps on the bobbin (a suggestion from the guy at Stewey).  The tail of the wire was inserted into the 'finish' grommet and wound several times to hold it in place.  I then lacquered over the wires to hold them firmly to the bobbin bottom.

Everything went well, and after a short time, I had a wound pickup.  The rest was easy.  Solder lead wires into correct grommets, coat the coil with lacquer, wrap the coil with protective tape, attach volume pot and output jack, and test it.

Voila!  It works!  And, it sounds good.

I will now tweek the design and construction to make for a really sanitary finished product, but I am very happy with the first effort.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The 'Delta King'

The "Delta King' is the latest creation coming out of my shed yesterday.  As you can see, it's a six-string electric with Tele controls.  The name comes from my visit a month ago to the Mississippi delta and to deliver a guitar case and guitar to my friend Roger Berry. The cigar box is an Arturo Fuente 'King'.   Thus the name 'Delta King'.

So, with the formalities out of the way, let me explain the concept of this axe.  Roger sent me off on my way home to enjoy everything the delta had to offer (read about that in a previous post here) with my car loaded down with a huge treasure chest of goodies he had boxed up for me.

From the massive bounty, I chose the parts necessary to complete this build.  The neck is a new Warmuth made for Fender to their specs, but it looks a little different, because I removed the dark brown finish from it to reveal the grain.  The neck and bridge pickups, along with the switch and volume/tone controls, are from a Telecaster.  Add a couple strap buttons and an output jack I had in my own supplies, and brass corner covers and things are taking shape.

After deciding where I wanted the bridge and pickups located, it was only a matter of measuring to determine the neck position.  The box was reinforced internally for structure and balance, and control locations were decided to allow for comfortable use.  Now, it was time to start putting all this stuff together.

I like the AF box, because it is covered with really cool gold colored paper accents and colorful pieces to enhance each end.  But, the box is wood, not the cardboard that many of the paper covered boxes are made from.  I decided on a custom design for the neck pickup surround, rather than to just cut a naked hole in the box top, and the black paint blends nicely with the color of the box.  But, there is still some work to do, and some fun to be had.

I decided the guitar would not be complete without delta images, so I chose some of Roger's favorites that he had me include in the case I built for him.  These are all the 'real deal' of the delta.

Top left is a tribute to Robert Johnson (the king of the delta blues movement more than a hundred years ago, and he just happens to have born at Hazlehurst, where Roger lives).  Top right is T Model Ford, a well known delta blues man; then moving on down the collage is the 49/61 Crossroads sign in Clarksdale, the home of Ike Turner and Sam cooke, to name just a couple; the Po Monkey's Juke Joint outside Merigold is one of a few jukes to last into the 21st century, and it rocks every Thursday night; Club Ebony, B.B. King's juke at Indianola; Blue Front Cafe at Bentonia; The bluesman James 'Super Chicken' Johnson playing one of his signature custom made gas can guitars - he lives in Clarksdale and is a regular on the schedule at Ground Zero;  a plantation cotton field somewhere in the old delta when cotton was picked by hand; and to anchor the photo collage is the Ground Zero Blues Club at Clarksdale, which is owned by Morgan Freeman and a guy from Las Vegas.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

No Assembly Line For Me!

I appreciate the need for assembly line work, and for those who have the patience for it.  But I learned this past week that it is not for me.

The annual Art Center Holiday Fair is around the corner and they asked that I once again participate, to the tune of displaying for sale, fifteen guitars.

Cruising around my shop and basement rec room, I discovered that I didn't have that many guitars that I wanted to part with.  I've given a bunch away and sold others, so I had to get my butt moving.

I needed to build five guitars in one week, which under normal circumstances would take me about four weeks . . . design necks, headstocks, bodies . . . round up parts . . . measure, cut, slot fingerboards for frets, drill, sand, glue, sand more, apply finish, and install hardware . . . tune, and finally make sure they play well.

"How in hell am I going to do this", I asked myself?  Myself said, "Well, I guess it's time to try the assembly line venture that so many of the guys I know are able to accomplish."

I scratched my head until it bled.  This isn't how I do things.  But, I don't have a choice, I spent too much time recently doing fun stuff, like building a case for Roger, carving six-string guitars, and playing with my new pickup winder.

Got my crap together, literally and figuratively, and away I went --- same neck designs; fret slots cut directly into the necks; same style frets and tuners; same design for nuts, saddles and bridges; similar style cigar boxes.

When the dust settled, I had created five really cool three-string guitars.

I'm happy with the results of the effort, and I will price them to sell at the art fair, because they really are cool.

But, the assembly line routine is not for me.  I don't have the desire nor patience for stuffing round pegs in square holes.  And, I cannot, for the life of me, come to understand how the other guys do it.  But, I've seen some of the 'fast track' creations and they're not what I will ever turn out of my shed.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Exotic Wood

This place is, without exaggeration, the coolest lumber/hardware store I've ever been to, and I've been to a lot of lumber yards in my 70+ years.  The interior is beyond imagination.  Every part of this store is finished in the finest of wood, and fixture.

Finding a source for exotic wood in small quantities, at affordable prices, is not an easily accomplished task.  But, the other day a friend was telling me about a lumber yard nearby that 'has everything' a guy would want, including exotic wood.

The place turned out to be Keim Lumber Company located in the heart of Ohio Amish country at Charm, Ohio.  It's only 50 miles from me, which is a short distance considering the wide-open spaces of central Ohio.

Keim Lumber is promoted to be more than 100 years old, and it probably is, but you wouldn't know it from the magnificent building and surrounding property, which includes a kiln, lumber storage, and other parts of the facility, not to mention there is a restaurant on the upper level inside the main building.  The displays are massive and go on forever . . . including the area of most interest to me.

After gawking around for the first few minutes to get my bearings, I headed for the information desk to ask directions to the purported 'exotic wood' section.  This young Amish guy (everyone working there is Amish) behind the desk said, "Let me show you. Is there anything in particular you're interested in?"  I said, "Ya, wood for guitar fingerboards."  He said, "You've come to the right place.  We have ready-cut fingerboard stock, acoustic body stock, and electric guitar blanks, and in standard wood choices and many different exotic woods as well.  And, we also have small pieces of every wood type for those craft projects."

Without boring you with further details, I'll just say that I've been back to the store several times, to quench my thirst for rosewood, cocobola, leopardwood, coconut palm, zebrawood, and numerous other varieties.  And, the great thing about this is that it's available close to home at reasonable prices . . . except for ebony . . . and, that costs a fortune.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Stella At The Swap Meet

This morning was the required trek to the monthly swap meet . . .  rainy, cold, and generally not a good day for a  swap.  But, lo-and-behold, I ventured in to see a regular swapper who always shows up with musical instruments, and what did he have, a Stella guitar in incredibly good condition.  We haggled a while about price and I finally walked out with this little jewel.  It's in great condition with no fret ware, no backside scuffs, a little wear on the lower bout, original tuners needed to be oiled is all, original strings need to be replaced, and it needs a thorough cleaning and polishing.  Action is about 1/8th inch at the twelfth fret, neck is straight, body is solid, with none of the expected problems with a guitar fifty plus years old.  Take a look at this fare maiden that plays really well.


Thursday, October 25, 2012

What In Hell Is A Pickup Winder?

This morning I got a message from Jeri, the wife of my old friend Joe.  After reading my latest blog post, she didn't understand what a pickup winder is.

I explained, first of all, that it is not a Saturday night get-acquainted line at a Miles City watering hole for the purpose of satisfying one's thirst for companionship, thus pickup, as in the opposite sex . . . oh, goodness, did I say sex? . . . see, how confused a person can become, when discussing a pickup.

Perhaps I should have written a better explanation.  So, here goes.

Wikipedia -- A magnetic pickup consists of a permanent magnet with a core of material such as alnico or ceramic, wrapped with a coil of several thousand turns of fine enameled copper wire. The pickup is most often mounted on the body of the instrument, but can be attached to the bridge, neck and/or pickguard, as on many electro-acoustic archtop jazz guitars and string basses. The vibration of the nearby soft-magnetic strings modulates the magnetic flux linking the coil, thereby inducing an alternating current through the coil of wire. This signal is then carried to amplification or recording equipment via a cable. There may also be an internal preamplifier stage between the pickup and cable. More generally, the pickup operation can be described using the concept of a magnetic circuit, in which the motion of the string varies the magnetic reluctance in the circuit created by the permanent magnet.

A 'pickup winder' is the mechanism which wraps the magnet wire around the posts to create the 'pickup'.

OK, Jeri, still confused?  Stay away from the watering hole, until further notice!

Guitar Pickup Winder

The recent trip to Mississippi Delta Blues country has raised serious havoc with my guitar building.  My free time has been centered around creating a pickup coil winder from the almost antique portable Singer Model 99 sewing machine that Roger Berry gave me.

There is no way to describe Roger, you gotta meet him to fully understand the kind of man he is.  I don't really know Rog well, but I have developed very keen instincts over the years, and my instincts tell me he is one very kind, sincere, and generous fella.  Roger is the only person I know, outside of my wife, who actually lives the credo, "It is better to give, than to receive."  And, he is at the ready to provide people with abundance, thus the treasures he insisted I accept, without allowing me to pay him for anything.

So, with all this said, Roger, I hope you like what I have done with a few of the gifts and ideas you shared with me.

After studying the pickup coil winder that Roger uses for his creations, I had a fair idea where to begin, but I didn't want to copy what Rog had done.  So, I set out on a path that included finding an antique treadle sewing table on which my little creature could rest, and to design some of the options to complete the project.

The table was for sale from the back of a guy's pickup, and I didn't bother to inspect it carefully, I just loaded it up and hauled it home.  On looking it over, I discovered a really cool old Rousedale machine inside, but that will be used for another winder later, to be given to another builder . . . ala Roger Berry's generous example.

I tore the thing apart, and removed all the unnecessary stuff, so that all that was left was the table as you see it in this photo.

The lid serves perfectly for a rest for the Singer.  The adjoining fabricated mount for the revolution counter display and light dimmer switch, which controls the speed of the wheel, is tucked up tight for a very compact unit.  You'll notice a brass bar sticking out on the right near the display, which is there to control where the wire falls on the spinning pickup (PUP) bobbin, which will be attached to the wheel when ready to spin out a PUP.

The little red knob is actually a small magnet stuck to a large washer.  It serves to temporarily hold the hair-fine magnet wire used in the creation of a PUP.  Yes, it's that fine.  For you techno geeks out there, it is 43 ga. wire, so damn fine that I have to call on the assistance of my 10-year-old granddaughter Maggie to thread it through the eyelets on the bobbin.  I'm old and cain't see well.   q;-)

So, what's a bobbin, you ask.  Well, it's the foundation for the PUP, and in the world of home- wound pickup coils, it is a couple pieces of material  ---->
(wood, fiberboard, plastic, etc.) with holes drilled for metal posts to match the guitar string separation.

After the PUP is wound to the proper resistance, and soldering of lead wires is complete, and the PUP sealed, the posts are magnetized with a homemade doo-dad (bottom left), by passing the PUP back and forth through the space between the magnets on the re-purposed 'c' clamp.

Everyone does this stuff differently, but the basic concept remains the same.  For ease of use and to keep things compact, I chose to mount my idea on the table surface.

It's necessary to figure out a way to handle the magnet wire that will be transferred from a spool to the bobbin. If you're using small spools it's a little more simple than what I had to think about.

Because, I'm a tight ass and I don't like to give my money away, I looked around locally for a wire source, and stumbled onto a five-pound spool for slightly more than I'd have to pay Stewart MacDonald for a half-pound.  It's 39 ga., but the boys at StewMac told me it would work fine . . . just would need to use less wire to reach the desired resistance.

So, that's it!  Thanks to Roger, I am now in the business of creating my very own guitar pickups with the TotalRojo Mojo.

One last look.  It ain't store bought, but it works great, and I think it's pretty damn cool.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Marvelous Mississippi Delta Blues

There are times in one's life when opportunity knocks, and the result is amazing.  Recently, I had the opportunity to meet Roger Berry, a cigar box guitar maker and blues man from Hazlehurst, Mississippi.  Roger ask me to create a guitar case for him that would accommodate my 'LaGloria' guitar, which Roger wanted as well.

Hazlehurst is a small town in south-central Mississippi in the heart of Delta Blues music heaven, the birthplace of America's music, and the town where Robert Johnson was born, rich in history and very long on hospitality.

Because of a long career in newspaper and television, I've met a lot of very interesting people, but Roger Berry is one of the most sincere, likable, and generous people I've ever had the pleasure of knowing.  I only wish we had met many years ago.  But, at least we've met.   And, I know we will be friends for a good long time.  Thanks Roger for the opportunity!

I built the case, enclosed the guitar, loaded my car, and off my wife and I went to hand deliver Roger's new toys.  I could have shipped the stuff and been done with it, but something told me that I would be missing an experience of a lifetime . . . making and great new friend, and experiencing a musical adventure that cannot be explained, only enjoyed first-hand.

I cannot write about our trip, there,just isn't enough space or time, but I will add some photos and brief info, which I hope peeks your interest enough for you to explore the Blues on your own.

The case personalized with the 'RB' and the 'Maverick' logo.
You gotta be a bit of a maverick to do what we do.

The inside, complete with a collage of Delta images and 'LaGloria'.
An on-board amp to blow sound around, and a compartment for 
the little stuff completes the case.

Roger with his new gear.

Roger's shop -- Yes!, It's that clean and comfortable, and yes, it's where he creates wonderful instruments.

Juke joints where locals play outrageous blues.

Murals such as this decorate many buildings in nearly every town along highways 49 and 61,
commemorating famous area blues musicians.

Notable blues greats from 'Pinetop' Perkins to Muddy Waters played juke joints like these,
and B.B. King continues to make great music here on a regular basis.

The Poor Monkey Lounge outside Merigold, MS only has music on Thursday nights, 
and we missed it by a day.  Darn!

Ground Zero Blues Club and The Delta Blues Museum, are just two
of the many cool and interesting places in Clarkdale, MS at the 
Crossroads of highways 49 and 61.

Because blues music is so connected to the Mississippi Delta, it is easy to overlook the other venues that make the place famous -- Country, Rock 'N' Roll, Soul, Jazz, R & B, Classical, Gospel, and musical recording.

If you haven't been to the Delta, you are missing something very special.

Thanks Roger!

Friday, September 28, 2012

They Say It's Art

As I've said before, I don't consider myself an artist, but my friends Jerry and Judy Francil are slowly convincing me that I may be wrong.

I recently stopped by the art center to show Jerry my latest creation, 'Curley'.  After he explored every surface and declared it was 'beautiful', he suggested I enter it in the soon-to-be-held Fall Members Show, which is a juried exhibition with art hanging from September 30 until October 28. Each artist is allowed to enter three pieces for consideration.  Two of my three were selected by the judge for exhibition. How's that for being lucky?

My son Joe coined the phrase 'art with strings' to distinguish my creations, but until now, I wasn't quite sure he had it right.  Us old timers really can learn from our kids and friends.

'Bigfoot' and 'Curley' were the selections, and it will remain to be seen how they are received by attendees to the month-long event.



Monday, September 24, 2012

Montana Time Out

The workshop has been dark for a few weeks.  No guitars on the bench.  No music playing.  No sawdust clogging up the sinuses.  Just a little time out.

Living in the mid-western rust belt (normal rain fall, humidity and cloudy days with no sun) makes one rust, not tan.  Although, this summer has been pretty dry and sunny for a change, so I needed relief from it.

We decided it was time for a change of scenery. We headed west to see the relatives, and to take in the usual tourist attractions along the way.  A fella cannot see Rushmore, the Black Hills, the Badlands, Wall Drug, or Yellowstone Park too many times.

I forget how desolate it is when leaving the rolling hills of Indiana and drift into the flat land of Iowa and points west, which stretch all the way to the Montana border.  But, the one redeeming factor is that for all those hundreds of straight line miles, you drive in a huge blue bubble.  At least that's what it looks like . . . 360 degrees around and straight up forever, it's blue sky.  Geez, it's so cool.  Nothing like it, until you hit Big Sky Country, and then the cool turns to fantastic!

Three weeks of unbelievable weather . . . every day was sunny, temps in the high seventies to mid-eighties, no rain . . . just the big sky to enjoy.  The only downside was the heavy smoke conditions caused by forest fires all around us, but, even with that, it was beautiful.

It's true, "You can take the boy out of the country, but you cannot take the country out of the boy!"  Damn, I miss the mountains of Montana.

Oh, well, as a real Montana native (Blackfoot heritage), I got to live it, while others just get to visit.

I thought my readers may like to see what life in the Big Sky is all about, so I'll share a photo or three to temp you, and to make me homesick once again.

Antelope checking me out

My first wife, of 49 years, Roxie near the top of Bear Tooth Pass.

Atop the Bear Tooth Pass at nearly 11,000 feet.

It's smokey, but it's still beautiful.

This ol' fella was coming over to check out our car on the Bear Tooth highway.  He was just one of a heard of about 400 that stopped traffic, while they moved across.

This is a smoke filtered sunset that welcomed us on our first night 'home' near Yellowstone.

A cow elk taking it easy on the lawn outside the resort hotel at Mammoth Hot Springs.
Life is good in the Big Sky.

Sacajawea Inn at Three Forks, Montana.
Some of the best fly fishing in the world is here, where the Madison, Jefferson and Gallatin rivers join. This is our home on the road.  Quaint, quiet and comfortable, and the restaurant is top shelf.

These little friends greet us for coffee in the morning in our mom's back yard.  How's this for city living?  Tell me Montana isn't cool!

We had to run the deer off to get a shot of the nieces and nephews and their children.

This is a shot of what was my folks ranch at the western foothills of the Bitterroot-Selway range.  It's a little smokey that day, but you can see why I keep Montana in my heart.

If you haven't been out west, this is a good reason to go.