Building a Custom Electric Guitar
There are literally hundreds of thousands if not millions of combinations in the variables when putting a custom guitar together. A few tried and true DIY guitar models tend to be the workhorses for building personalized guitars and reproductions of famous instruments. The Telecaster, or as in this case, the Esquire, is no exception. Let’s see what happens when we assemble an inspired guitar using high quality parts, common sense, and a bit of time.
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Inspired by Jeff Beck's '54 Fender Esquire
Jeff Beck's battered, bruised and historically significant '54 Fender Esquire was the driving inspiration for this very cool opportunity. This was a custom guitar build for a good client of mine who not only has great taste in guitar projects, but also likes to use great quality guitar parts. That alone makes a huge difference in the end product. The instrument will typically be easier to put together, setup and play. The guitar will as a whole will have fewer issues, and generally be more stable over the long term.
Not to mention have killer tone.
- Seymour Duncan STK-T3 Vintage Lead Stack Pickup
- Callaham Vintage Telecaster Bridge
- Rhoadhouse Electronics / FSG Guitars
- Musikraft Tele neck
- Heavy relic Telecaster ash body from ebay
- Custom made vinyl record pickguard
The first order of business was to take an inventory of the custom guitar parts and discuss any concerns with the client. I already had a fair idea of what to expect, but like any custom electric guitar project, there can be hiccups unless you get a good idea of the guitar parts you’re working with.
One of the first potential issues was with the heavy relic ash body which was purchased on ebay. The Telecaster style body itself looked well done but there were no pre-drilled holes for mounting the bridge plate. Not that this was a huge issue, it just meant the approach to building the guitar would also include setting the intonation and lateral alignment points - critical elements that required a good amount of pre-planning and a bit of extra time.
Next were the electronics. The Seymour Duncan pickup was a no-brainer, but I had some concerns about the unusual electronics configuration: a 5 way switch and a one-pickup guitar - all prewired and a supposedly solderless installation.
Manufacturers understand that not everyone is comfortable with a soldering iron, plus the added expense of the equipment. Therefor, solderless kits and prewired harnesses are becoming more common. This also makes it easier than ever to customize your own guitar. While I agree with the solderless option from a convenience point of view, I have admit I'm more a fan of traditional soldering installations.
We’d have to see how it went together when the time came to install the electronics.
Other than my concerns over the pre-wired harness and a missing string tree, there seemed to be a complete electric guitar kit on my workbench.
Setting the Neck
First task: connect the neck to the body to stabilize the work. Having a working blank gives the project a sense of intention and keeps the largest components from being knocked about.
A dry fit looked pretty good, the neck and body mated up well, the centre line looked good, and sighting down the neck towards the bridge area revealed no surprises - not too high or too low. Keep in mind, I’m anticipating the height of the bridge when adjusted plus the compression from the strings that would pull the neck up a bit. All in all, the dry fit gave me a good impression.
Because this was a bolt-on type of construction, as is common with many custom built guitars, we have the luxury of getting the neck-to-body alignment just right with minimal effort. The trick here was to start with only two bolts to allow for adjustment as we go.
Committing to all four bolts right off the bat would drastically limit the ability to compensate for things later on. The neck seat could potentially be compromised by wanting to stay in a position that’s off center. Once the strings are on we’ll have a far better idea of the neck-to-body geometry and will be able to align the neck permanently with confidence.
This temporary technique is especially critical when you have parts from different manufacturers. You never know if they’re on spec or not, or where they’re getting their working dimensions from.
With this particular body, I had to drill out the bolt holes as they were a bit undersized. If the neck bolt bites into the body wood as it passes to the neck, it will bind creating a poor fit. It also puts too much strain on the screw head as you try to torque it down. Believe me, the LAST thing you want to see is a screw head come off during this process.
Using one of the stainless steel neck bolts supplied, I first measured it against the dry fit neck and body joint, just to make sure it was the correct length. I then used it to set the depth of the 1/8” drill bit I used for the first two neck holes to prevent drilling too deep.
Holding the neck firmly to the body, I committed to drilling the first two neck bolt holes. Thankfully, I didn’t have to worry about the lateral position too much as the dry run showed the fit to be true, reliable and solid. If it had been an issue, I would have used a clamp to make sure the neck was aligned to center. Next, I put a bit of wax on the screws to help them set into the fresh holes smoothly. The wax (or even soap) also helps to seal up exposed wood and prevent moisture from penetrating.
With the first two bolts in place, the guitar was officially “together”. At this point, you can get an excellent indication of what the end result promises. Hold it up by the headstock and knock around the body with your other hand. You’ll hear it’s acoustic voice right away. And with this one, it was obvious right off the bat - it was going to to be awesome. With just two bolts it felt extremely solid and cohesive. The body was light and a strong mid-voiced resonance rang loud and clear with just a few exploratory knocks.
Before I started to mount the bridge permanently, I wanted to make sure the bridge and pickguard would both be happy in their new home together. The custom pickguard made by the client was pretty cool and fairly accurate. A dry fit confirmed that they should both line up without any problem. The pickguard was then temporarily mounted to make sure everything would line up cosmetically as I moved along.
To get the very finely engineered Callaham Vintage Telecaster bridge positioning started, I first wanted to confirm the scale length was accurate and would agree with where the bridge was supposed to sit. I measured from the forward face of the nut slot to the center of the twelfth fret which was 12.75”. This confirmed and conformed to the standard 25.5” (648 mm) Fender scale length.
With compensation in mind, we need to understand the 1st string will be forward and the 6th string will be further back (longer) than this measurement. Therefore, I tend to use the 3rd string saddle as a reference point as it fairly represents the median point across all six strings.
I roughly measured where the intonation point would be on the body. Putting a wide strip of green low-tack masking tape across the general area, I then re-measured for scale length and temporarily set the bridge so that the scale length lined up with the third string saddle’s intonation point.
Now I could mark off where the bridge would sit with respect to the string-through holes. Since I couldn’t move them, I needed to make sure all measurements agreed with that one fixed point.
Using the same green low-tack masking tape in 1/4’ width, I marked out the lateral edges of where the bridge would sit with respect to the edges of the neck. I did this using a ruler to extend the plane of the fretboard edge.
With intonation length and lateral position marked out, I could now anticipate with accuracy where the bridge would sit. Using a couple of small allen keys through the body holes to keep the bridge stable, I set about pre-drilling for the bridge mounting screws. After double checking alignment and measurements, I installed two screws first, then committed to the rest after I was sure everything still lined up properly.
t’s also good practice to look at the bridge in terms of it optimal adjustments. You want the saddles to sit in such a way that you’ll have enough screw travel to move them forward or back to compensate for intonation. Making a few adjustments for radius, plus anticipating intonation length goes a long way when it comes to the fine adjustments later on.
First order of business was installing the non-standard jack cup. This one had a threaded center and used two mounting screws through the outer edges of the fixture. Quite a bit easier than dealing with the traditional binding clip and pressed cup combo used on most Telecasters.
Before permanently mounting it in place, I threaded the prewired output jack to the cup making sure it sat flush with the outer face for a clean look. A couple of lock washers did the trick nicely.
Assembling the rest of the electronics was pretty straight forward, and went a good bit quicker thanks to the solderless prewired harness. While using a prebuilt unit limits flexibility interns of component selection, the savings in frustration and time can be a very good thing if you’re not handy with a soldering iron. The choice is yours.
After mounting the Seymour Duncan pickup to the bridge plate, connecting the it was easy - though the colour codes had to be converted from the supplied DiMarzio references. I also took the extra step of adding a grounding wire from the bridge cavity to grounding point on the control plate to ensure noise reduction.
Once all the connections were made, it was a matter of plugging in and making sure something was coming out. If you’re hearing changes in ambient noise as you go through all the control changes without strings on, that’s a good thing. It means there’s a very high probability that you’ve done a good job.
Using a small metal screwdriver, I also double checked electronics operations by tapping on the pickup and going through the controls once everything was buttoned up.
Having the choice to do so, I elected to go with bone for the nut material. It’s long lasting, self lubricating, and imparts a certain tonal character that seemed to fit with the project in general.
Considering all the materials available, we have to consider one very important fact: the points at which the strings come in contact with the instrument become filters for the string’s energy. The nut and the bridge are two primary nodes for that energy, therefor, whatever materials they are made of will greatly influence the instrument’s sustain, tone and output.
The “right” choice for the instrument will often be a matter of intuition and experience, often at the expense of many hours of experimentation.
The neck slot for this project had typical standard measurements, 1/8” x 1-11/16”, so I was able to select a pre-radiused blank to start. But the slot itself had to be cleaned of excess finish trued up, which was easy enough as the finish was fairly thin and the milling was clean.
Without getting into too much detail on the processes, I’ll summarize the steps of fitting a new nut. A complete guide to installing a new Fender style nut from beginning to end will be posted shortly.
The blank was first trimmed to it’s basic geometry once it had been fitted to the cleaned slot. The outer edges were detailed to fit perfectly with the neck width. The top was brought down to the point where it could be worked with a reasonable amount of extra material to compensate for small adjustments during the slot cutting steps.
Once the blank was roughed in, I marked out the string positions by eye in pencil. I left a bit of space on the outer edges and evened out the spaces as I went from sixth string to first string positions. The eye is a remarkable tool for measuring straightness and proportion - either it looks right or it doesn’t. I simply laid out the marks until they looked “right”.
It’s easy enough to get an idea of how much “air” to leave on the outside edges simply by comparing another instrument. The other condition being on how the strings line up with the tuners. If the headstock is engineered or reproduced properly, the strings should travel in a dead straight line as the pass over the nut on their way to their individual tuners.
Next, I cut a small starter notch at the back edge of the nut for each pencil mark in turn. That little notch will be enough to hold the strings true as we cut the slots to the correct depth. Now that the nut was roughed in to satisfaction, I glued it in place using a couple of small drops of Crazy Glue. You can choose to glue the nut at this point or do it later on, it doesn’t matter much other than you run the risk of the nut shifting around if you leave it too late.
The final cut and finishing will be done once the guitar is a bit further on.
The strings used were Ernie Ball Cobalt Skinny Top Heavy Bottom Set, 10 - 52 supplied by the client. They were similar to gauges Jeff beck had used and therefor fit the vibe of the guitar, plus they had a descent pull on the neck. Keeping pressure on a “green’ neck that has never known compression is important. Using an overly thin set of strings, something like .008 - .038, can cause a new neck to over straighten prematurely due to a lack of pressure.
When installed, I also left a bit of extra string length on the D and G strings at the vintage Kluson tuners. The extra wraps help improve the angle of the strings as they pass over the nut which then increases pressure and improves tone.
The strings were only brought up to mild tension, one half step down from standard A440 and NOT stretched. Stretching the strings and bringing them up to pitch at this point would kill their viability and make them stiff. Because the traditional style truss rod adjuster was a the butt end of the neck, I knew the neck was going to come off at least once or twice. The main idea was to use the strings as guides for the setup process - they just needed to be on and induce a bit of pressure.
Turning my attention to the bridge, I made some adjustments to approximate saddle intonation using the 12th fret as a guide. If the bridge was indeed set correctly, the G string saddle should be double the length of that measurement or 25.5” - and it was. With the intonation verified, I made further adjustments anticipating the radius and general string height using experience and visual cues.
So far so good.
Time to lock the neck body joint down. The lateral position of the neck looked excellent, a nice even space on each side of the outer strings along the full length of the neck. If it was off one way or the other, it would be easy enough to pull the neck to one side before the last bolts. Speaking of which, the last two bolts were installed using a modest torque (I knew they were coming out again) and the the overall position checked again.
The string height was good - not too high, not too low, and the lateral position was spot on.
Now that the neck had had a bit of pressure on it, I knew the truss rod was ready for a check. The neck was removed and the truss rod was tightened up using modest pressure - about three quarters of a turn from loose until it engaged with a reasonable amount of friction.
Now the neck was checked for straightness by sighting from the headstock down along each fretboard shoulder. The neck looked nice and straight and was again reinstalled using only two bolts to accommodate adjustments later. The frets themselves were good and level requiring only a cursory quick polish and cleaning.
Bringing the strings up again to half-step down tension, it was time to check the electronics and begin finessing the nut.
The electronics had no issues whatsoever. Everything functioned brilliantly: no odd scratchy sounds in the pots or switch, no out of phase issues, and the jack was tight and solid when plugged in.
This was a custom configured and fully loaded Tele control plate the client ordered from an eBay store in the UK: Rhoadhouse / FSG Guitars
Considering this was a single pickup guitar with a five way switch, the output tones were actually pretty diverse. The electronics switching was configured to use a four conductor pickup such as a DiMarzio DP389 Tone Zone or the Seymour Duncan STK-3 installed.
Output Configuration from back to front:
- Normal Single Coil
- Both Coils in Parralel
- 'Arlo Cocked Wah'
- 'Eldred Mod' cap.
- Full Humbucker
All said, a pretty impressive array of sounds from a seemingly simple setup. It’s obvious that with such a wide range of diverse suppliers selling guitar parts online, it’s become very easy to customize your own guitar. You can build a guitar using any one of the complete electric guitar kits or build your own guitar kit from scratch - the possibilities are literally endless considering the variables in cosmetics and electronics.
Now back to the nut. Again, I can only summarize here as the complete process has far too many details and therefor warrants it’s own attention in another post.
The first cut for the string slots was carried out using my trusty nut slot files. As the slots were deepened, any slight variations in spacing were corrected by “walking” the cuts one way or the other. The near-final depth was dependant on the string gauge and how I saw the gap of light at the first fret for each string in turn. I say near-final because once the strings are up to full tension the neck relief will influence the string’s final depth.
There are many ways to judge string slot depth, but this is the process I’ve always used and it works for me. After more than a couple of decades of installing and cutting nuts, you kind of get the hang of it and what to look for. You may decide to approach it in a more technical fashion and that’s fine, as long as the end result looks professional and functions properly.
The string tree was the final touch for the headstock. I selected a round vintage style retainer that matched the vibe of the guitar and installed it according to visual references from photos of the original ’54 Esquire.
Note: it takes at least a day or two for the neck to react to compression induced by string pressure. You must keep that fact in mind as you near the end of making adjustments. Compression and relief determine the final nut slot depth and saddle height.
Whether you make a custom electric guitar from scratch, or build a guitar from a DIY kit, the steps to making it fully playable are always the same. The guitar building process is fun in itself, but if the instrument is hard to play it will need further tweaking through a proper setup, and that’s essentially the focus of this site.
After one day there was a bit too much relief in the neck. It was removed and the truss rod adjusted one quarter turn. Remember, there were only two bolts installed which made the process much easier, and took less toll on the instrument and the hardware.
The neck was reattached, again using only two bolts, and this time tuned up to full concert pitch A440. The strings were given a primary stretch to remove initial elasticity so intonation and string height could be checked accurately. Without this first stretch, the strings are way too rubbery - they’re all over the place. They have to be reigned in to start the settling process.
String height looked within tolerance and to my lucky surprise, intonation was spot on!
All the preliminary measurements, adjustments and many years of experience paid off in a massive time savings - although, it could have just as easily gone the other way. The lesson here is to measure, prepare and anticipate the job instead of rushing in and hoping for the best.
After setting the action and radius of the strings at the bridge, I took the guitar for a short test drive enjoying the interesting variations produced by the single pickup and five-way switch combo. What a great instrument: resonant and lively, just a joy to play even with a few adjustments left to do. Definitely a keeper.
Now we wait and let the guitar sit for another day to let nature, time and pressure take their course.
After 24 hours the neck was in great shape, just the right amount of relief and felt great. Keep in mind compression will continue to accumulate which will require another truss rod adjustment after a period of time. How much time will depend on the neck itself - primarily the stability of the wood and the amount of humidity in the environment it lives in.
Note: I checked with the client three months after the build. He reported the instrument was holding up perfectly. Considering the guitar had by then gone through a significant seasonal change, that was a very good sign that it would continue to be stable. I would anticipate an adjustment or two over the next year and a half, but other than that we had a winner.
Knowing the neck was stable and relief was in a good place, it was time to finish up the nut. The final nut slot depths were cut, and the top level filed down to finished height. The edges and corners were also dressed out to feel more comfortable. The last step was to apply a little Graphitall lube to the nut slots to make sure they wouldn’t bind and creak as they wore in.
Total build time, not including the days waiting for the neck to settle in, about 5 hours.
At last, I took the finished guitar for a final test drive to check playability and functionality. Everything was working perfectly, it played and sounded great.
Personally, I’ve always found the building process the best part of creating custom electric guitars. Whether it’s from a DIY guitar kit, or a collection of hand picked custom guitar parts, being able to assemble something that will ultimately create music is always, and always has been, an awesome and extremely rewarding experience.
If you’re so inclined, pick a project and get started today. Shop around for parts, remember to patronize your local guitar shop, and enjoy the journey of building your very own custom electric guitar.
I certainly hope you were able to glean a few nuggets of guitar building knowledge out of this article. Feel free to leave a comment or question, I answer them all.