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.