To Build or Not to Build?

Back when spandex wasn’t just for cycling,  I  wanted a Kramer Baretta more than anything.  After begging for several months for a ride to the closest Kramer dealer, which was 50 miles away, I finally got to see one in person.  My eyes practically popped out of my head, it was the most impressive piece of rock guitar weaponry I had ever seen.  As I got closer,  my eye popping suddenly changed to pant pooping.   EIGHT FREAKIN’ HUNDRED DOLLARS!  NOT RAD AT ALL!  I would have had to mow my entire neighborhood for the next five years to afford a $800 guitar (today it would be a $1700.00 guitar according to The Inflation Calculator ).

For the next several weeks I diligently worked on a plan that could raise the necessary $800 before I was old and my hands were stricken with arthritis, but nothing panned out.  I was too young to donate several gallons of plasma or any other bodily fluid that had a market value, and the neighbors already had the home baked goods scene covered (I found out much later why their brownies were so popular).  Just when I was about to give up, I saw this ad out of the corner of my eye as I was flipping through a Guitar World Magazine:

vintage warmoth adI was like, why the hell is a turtle playing a guitar?  Then I read the ad in search of clues as to the significance of this turtle and realized that this rockin’ reptile might hold the solution to my dilemma.  So I sent them my $2.oo and a month later received a catalog loaded with black and white images of bodies and necks available in a variety of styles and with many options.  After comparing the Kramer’s specifications to what the catalog offered, I concluded that I could in fact build a guitar to it’s exact specifications for about half the price.  To end this rather long recollection of my past, I did end up building it and was mostly satisfied with the end result.  Since then I have built a number of other guitars and have learned a lot along the way.

There are many reasons one might choose to build a guitar.  My Kramer knockoff was for financial reasons, although it is not always a guarantee that you will save a bundle of cash when building a guitar.  For example, if you really like the Fender American Standard Stratocaster, but think the $950 price tag is too steep, you won’t get much monetary relief if you were to build a guitar with similar components.  It could even exceed the Fender’s price tag if for some reason you need the help of a qualified guitar technician.  On the other hand, if you happen to try out a Custom Shop Stratocaster and thought it was the best guitar you ever played except for the $3000 dent it would put into your funds, building a comparable guitar could save you a good chunk of change.

USA Custom Guitars Body and Neck, Callaham Tremolo, Lindy Fralin Pickups

USA Custom Guitars Body and Neck, Callaham Tremolo, Lindy Fralin Pickups

One of the pitfalls with building a guitar is that no matter how nice it comes out and how great the components are, you will never recoup anywhere near what you have invested in it if you decide to sell it.  If resale value is important to you, stick with the name brand guitars.  This reality has made me shy away from building anything too radical or unfamiliar.  In my mind, a  mahogany Jazzmaster body with a bubinga top, sporting a stop tail piece, mahogany neck with ebony fingerboard  and three mini-humbuckers seems pretty cool,  but I have no idea how it would sound or feel.  If I actually built it and didn’t like it, I would end up losing a good portion of the money I invested in it.  But, it could also end up being the greatest guitar ever.  Like they say–nothing ventured, nothing gained.

The fact that the resale value of a project guitar is so low, it’s important to figure out what you like down to the tiniest detail.  Play as many guitars as you can and take lots of notes.  If you go to a store and try  XYZ  guitar and think the neck is the best you’ve ever played,  go to the guitar’s manufacturer website and check the specifications.  Note its nut width, fret size, fingerboard radius, woods used,  guitar’s scale length, etc.  Don’t worry about being too anal, you are trying to make the perfect guitar for you and the options are vast.  Starting the parts ordering process without a detailed plan can lead to confusion, guessing, and ultimately a guitar that’s not as perfect for you as it could have been.

Getting exactly what you want doesn’t always mean you have build a guitar from all new parts.  For example, I might have a Telecaster that I like a lot, but really wish it had a forearm contour.  Instead of taking a belt sander to it and diminishing its value, I could order a Tele body with the contour and transfer the parts over to it.  Then I could either put the Fender Tele body on ebay and recoup some, if not all, of the cost of the new body, or just hang onto it in case I wanted to resell the Tele as a complete guitar later on.  This is an especially good cost savings plan if you have already dumped a lot of money into the guitar on things like pickup upgrades and custom fretwork.  Just note that you will need to do some research to make sure the parts are compatible as not all replacement parts share the same dimensions and screw hole alignment.

Warmoth Neck, Fender '62 Reissue Body, True Tone Technologies Pickups, Wilkinson Tremolo with Callaham Block

Warmoth Neck, Fender ’62 Reissue Body, True Tone Technologies Pickups

There are other ways to save some money on a custom guitar that are worth mentioning.  If you are good with a can of paint, you could easily save $200 or more depending on the finish you desire.  I have painted two guitars using the products available from Guitar Reranch with pro results, and I am no Picasso.  They lay out the process in detail and have a forum with very knowledgeable members that will guide you through the process.  They even have great tips on pulling off a  two or three color sunburst and candy colors.

Ebay is also a good source of cost saving.  If your main concern is playability and tone instead of aesthetics, you can get used pickups, tuners, bridges, pick guards, and just about everything else at a significant price reduction.  I have purchased used Lindy Fralin pickups, Callaham Tremolos, and other high end componants that have worked perfectly, but it does take some patients to find exactly what you want for the price you are willing to pay.  The only real downfall to buying parts on ebay is that if they end up not being what you want, you’ll usually have to resell it instead of being able to return it.

So, there it is, the things that come to mind when I contemplate whether or not its worth building a  guitar.  I’m sure there are other reasons to either be for or against it.  If you are riding the fence, I have included a list of links to various resources and retailers that provide more information on the subject.

Resources

  • USA Custom Guitars – Great source of quality bodies and necks.  Top notch service and parts all the way.
  • Musikraft – These guys have a good reputation and offer a set neck option.
  • Warmoth  – A big selection of guitar necks and bodies with an overwhelming number of options.  Guitar parts and finishing too.
  • Mojotone – They have parts with mojo.
  • Guitar Reranch – Paint and painting information that will give you a pro looking DIY finish.
  • Callaham Guitars – Maker of all things metal such as bridges, tuners, and neck plates.  Cryogenically treated pickups too.
  • RS Guitar Works – Guitar finishing, pots, switches, and complete wiring kits.
  • Musical Instrument Makers Forum – There is a section dedicated to electric guitars.
  • Project Guitar. comThey have a great forum.
  • Guitar Electronics – Good source for pots and switches as well as wiring diagrams.
  • Guitar Fetish – Budget friendly guitar parts.
  • Stewart-MacDonald Great selection of parts and a  ton of guitar specific tools.
  • Allparts – Yup, all guitar parts here.
  • WD Music Products – Parts, parts, and more parts.

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