Over the past year, I’ve developed a rather expensive hobby. I’ve been building guitars. Not for sale or profit, just for personal use. I decided it would be really cool to be able to do, on my own, all the things that people usually pay a guitar tech to do. Simple things like swapping out pickups, doing a set-up, fret jobs, neck adjustments, etc.
Simultaneously, as my playing progressed and my ear began to improve I started to notice the deficiencies of my cheap, beginner guitars and wanted to move up to something better. I couldn’t justify the cost of a serious, professional level guitar with my current need and skills, but something intermediate that kept in tune and sounded great was definitely in order. Drooling over at the Fender site one night, I realized that they sell all the parts necessary to make your own Stratocaster. Then I discovered that there are hundreds of YouTube videos covering the how-to of assembly and setup.
My first getting-my-feet-wet attempt involved making a really cheap acoustic guitar sound better. And that was a wild success. New nut, new saddle, new pins, better strings, some fret work, and a Mitchel’s plate mate and I would pit my crappy Carlo Robelli against any mid-range Martin I’ve every played. About $30 was spent (I hunted for discounts and got pretty lucky), and a hobby was born. Here’s the video showing before and after. Please forgive the horrible playing on my part.
My next build was a Fender Stratocaster. I selected parts that were patterned after 1960s era strats (mostly) and over the course of six months or so, I ordered them one by one from various sources (like this one, and this one, this one, and this one) and put them together. It has new everything from start to finish. Counting shipping and parts, it cost me about $800. I learned a ton and it sounds beautiful. I did have to get a guitar tech involved because of one little grounding issue, but it was a quick and cheap fix. Here’s how that turned out.
My next build was a little more freeform. I had this perfectly decent Epiphone Les Paul Special II sitting around. My first electric guitar. I know the neck, I know the weight, I’m comfortable with the guitar and the mahogany body and rosewood neck are perfectly sound. It just had a couple of high frets, a few dings on the paint, and some crap hardware. I decided to upgrade it. I already had a beautifully clean, soulful, bluesy instrument with the Strat, so for this one, I wanted to go darker, meaner, and a lot angrier. I was thinking something along the lines of the sound Slash got in Appetite for Destruction.
New pickups, strap locks, bridge and locking tuners (all from Schaller), new TUSQ nut, vintage wiring, high-end pots and cap, new switch and jack, chrome truss rod cover, a vinyl covering and a fret job. This one cost me about $600 and took around 4 months to put together. It sounds unreal now, but I did have a neck angle problem that required a tech’s intervention because the action was crazy high and couldn’t be lowered without a lot of trial and error work that I just didn’t want to do. But here it is.
So how does all this fit into a blog about wandering? Because you can wander in your mind too. Over the past year or so, as I’ve relearned to play the guitar following a 20 year hiatus, my mind has grown in ways I would never have predicted. Learning guitar is so much easier now with the internet and youtube and various phone apps and tutorials on Amazon prime, et cetera. Back when I first tried to learn as a high school kid, you needed a book, a magazine, or lessons to learn anything. Otherwise, you were just trying to sound things out by ear. With the stuff that’s out there now, you can spend $30 and have access to instructions for playing hundreds of songs and apps that will let you improvise with a pre-recorded band in the key of your choice, learn scales, learn the notes on the fretboard, start to read music, learn tablature, and video tutorials on technique, theory, equipment and everything else you can imagine. They’ve managed to make it fun.
And because it’s been fun, I’ve discovered a love of the blues that I didn’t know I had, my musical horizons have expanded, and my playing has helped me to look at music in a whole new way, and it’s had an effect on the whole family. There is more music in our house than ever before. It’s really incredible.
I’ve also learned new skills aside from playing the guitar. I’ve learned a bit about basic guitar maintenance, sure. But I also now have a basic understanding of simple wiring and soldering that I didn’t have before. I learned a bit about woodworking and even a smidge about working with metals.
This has been an admittedly expensive, but entirely worthwhile hobby.
But I’m done building now. More on that tomorrow.