Friday, September 2, 2016

So, You Want to Build a Guitar!

From my point of view, there are probably more enjoyable and satisfying things to do than building a guitar, but I cannot think of anything.

There is no magic age at which to commence the process, and no one is too old. I built my first guitar after I retired.  I had read a short blurb in a magazine about guys who build playable guitars from cigar boxes. I thought, "Hell, I can do that!"  And, I did . . . dozens. 

The 'Hemingway', my first guitar creation.

And, along the way, as my confidence grew, I built several solid-body six-string guitars and repaired many others for different people.  

'Curly' was my first solid-body electric build.

Then, a minor incident, open-heart surgery, set me back for a couple months, but I was back in the shop very soon.  I was hooked!  

Two very important aspects of the surgery occurred . . . the surgeon saved my life, and he also insisted that I build full-size acoustic guitars.  He collects guitars and was really inspired by my funky little creations, so much so that he now owns a few.  I put off his encouragement as long as possible, but I finally caved to his persistence.  Thanks, Doc, it's a helluva ride!

The 'Geisha' is my most recent dreadnought acoustic creation.

Building a guitar is one of the most exciting things you can do, but it can be a complex process, especially when it will be your first attempt.  It's not difficult, but it is complex, because of the many steps involved in construction, and the multiple skills required.  

However, there are some considerations to be addressed, before you order that super-duper kit you saw advertised in a magazine or on the web, and you run off to the garage for your bag of hand tools.

Consider This . . .

1.   Plank or Acoustic?

Yes, there is a difference, and from a construction standpoint, it's enormous.  But, neither style is without complexity.

If you want to blow the windows out of your bungalow and to keep your neighbors down the road entertained, choose a plank . . . a basic solid-body electric guitar played through an amplifier.  

You don't have access to an amp, so being plugged in isn't an option.  Well, don't fret, no pun intended, but an acoustic guitar will be the ticket.  However, it won't hurt if in another life you were a cabinetmaker and your skill set falls on the side of Michelangelo. 

Either way, you can do it.  The process is just different.

2.   Do Your Homework.

Research your project, BEFORE you decide anything.

There are numerous books and websites, which will help you to understand the complexities associated with building a guitar.

Talk with experienced builders (luthiers) and visit a factory (Martin, Gibson, Taylor, etc.) if possible.

Visit your local music store to look at how various modes guitars are basically constructed. If they have a technician on board, pick the person's brain.

3.   Jepetto Needs a Workshop.

You'll need a place to work, and it's not very likely the dining room table will be available. Your space need not be large, but it should be organized.  Try to picture in your mind the layout of tools and equipment.

The most useful things will be a workbench and storage area.

Make a list of the things you'll want . . . you can do most everything with hand tools, but there are a certain precision and convenience surrounding power tools . . . band saw, drill press, table saw, rotary/belt combo sander, small air compressor, and a few more choices to make.

Yes, there are costs associated with your new hobby, but you don't need top-of-the-line equipment, so save your money to purchase exotic wood for the masterpiece build, down the road.

4.   Tools, Jigs and Templates.

I won't get into listing the hand tools you'll need, but I can tell you there will be many. Carefully consider what you will need for the first build.  It's easy and enjoyable to hit the local hardware store to buy everything in sight, but don't do it.  

Compile a list of basic items you'll need, and commence your build with them.

Jigs!  If your first build must be an acoustic guitar (I don't recommend this) you will need to purchase, or build your own jigs, and I will tell you that when I launched into acoustic space the first month of work was devoted to designing and creating the jigs necessary to build my first acoustic.guitar.

You can determine what you need by exploring what other guitar builders use, or you can review the list I recommend, in a post on this blog, or take a look at posts of the various jigs, molds, and tools I've built.

You'll find that design templates are a requirement, which eliminates guesswork and makes completion of your project easier.

I'm glad I cut my teeth on cigar box builds first, and then moved on to electric solid-body creations, before setting out on the acoustic trail.

5.   Keep the Design Simple!

Make the design for your first guitar simple.  The goal is to create a playable instrument.  It can look fantastic without being complicated.  The funky decorative stuff can come later after you have developed expanded skills.

There is a lot to learn, so don't complicate the process by adding a level of unnecessary difficulty, which may create anxiety and take the fun out of the process.

Some crusty old cowboy once said, "A man has to know his limitations!"  Know your limits and plan your first guitar build accordingly.

Guitar building is an addictive hobby, and it very likely that you will build more than one guitar, so make your initial project as simple and enjoyable as possible.  And, accept the fact that it is a long and winding road to proficiency.

6.   Govern Your Expectations.

I can tell you from experience, many first-time guitar builders want to build the perfect guitar right out of the gate.

You must maintain perspective.  Most experienced guitar builders have developed their skills and molded their craft over years of experimentation, practice, and mistakes.

Expect to make many mistakes and to be OK with it.  Don't expect your first building attempt to be flawless, that's not realistic. But, you can expect that your second guitar will be better than the first, and the next will be better than the last, until that day when you create a really great guitar.

Look at the building process as a journey, not a destination.  Your objective is to finish the process, learn from it, and move on to the next.  Expect to mess something up, but strive for perfection.

Your first guitar will be special to you because you will have accomplished a complex project by producing a musical instrument you will be proud to share with others. 

7.   Stay Out of Your Own Head.

First-time builders tend to recycle thoughts in their minds, by thinking, re-thinking, and over-thinking the project.

You will get trapped in the 'thinking' process and mental paralysis will set in.  You will be terrified of making a decision for fear that you've not figured out every single piece of this exciting new puzzle.

"A turtle never takes a step, until it sticks its head out!"  Stop thinking, and start building!

Keep your design simple, and keep your expectations realistic.

Work from a plan.  It can be something you've created, or it can be one you have acquired from an outside source.  But, make sure it is full-scale of the guitar you're building, which will allow you to take precise measurements directly from the plan.

Building a guitar, any guitar, is not a sacred event to be shared only by the most talented members of the special community of highly trained luthiers.  You don't need club membership or permission from the Grand Puba, all you need is your own commitment.

8.   Mistakes Are Acceptable.

Mistakes are not something to fear.  They can be corrected and built on.  The more mistakes you allow yourself to make, the fewer mistakes you will make.  It's called practice, and practice makes perfect.

Accept the reality.  You will screw something up.  So, what!  Correct your mistake and move on.

9.   Stay Awake, There's Danger Lurking in Your Shop.

Guitar building is woodworking and that involves the use of loud power tools with sharp blades, sawdust (man glitter), and solvent fumes.

It should be obvious that power tools are made to bore and cut, and it doesn't matter to the tool if it's wood, metal, or human flesh, so STAY AWAKE when using tools.

The less obvious dangers in your shop will be silent . . . sawdust and toxic fumes.

So, wear eye and ear protection when using power tools, and keep your hands away from turning blades.  And, invest in a good mask to filter air particles that will have long-term negative impact on your health.

10.  Remember, Guitar Building is a Hobby.

Unless you're struggling to make a living building guitars, this should be an enjoyable hobby for you, and by definition, it should be fun, satisfying and rewarding.

If you're not having fun, it's probably because you're overlooking some of the considerations mentioned here.

Keep it simple, manage your expectations, stay out of your own head, accept mistakes, respect the dangers, and have fun.

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