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For anyone old enough to recall the ‘Me’ Decade, snorting cocaine with a South American supermodel while passionately discussing Kandinsky with Tom Wolfe at the local disco was strictly for the rich and famous. For most Americans, the reality was seeing if you could choke down Hamburger Helper one more night a week to save enough to take the kids to Magic Mountain.
It was also a time of more FUD than one could have thought possible in the pre-internet era. Stories abounded of oil companies sponsoring the assassinations of shadowy cabbies who had figured out how to milk 100 mpg from modified Checker cabs. A similar rumor told of a water-powered engine bought and buried by one of the big three automakers. Suddenly, people everywhere were trying everything from mystery tablets in their gas tanks to chinchilla farms, all in vain attempts to save a buck.
It was with a similar mixture of fiscal fear and trepidation that I began my own potential boondoggle, intended to save a few bucks while ending up with a new guitar when all was said and done. The idea was simple: build a guitar that could make a burgeoning cork-sniffer happy while keeping the checkbook and significant other appeased – happy on all three counts would be too lofty a goal.
For me, the magic number was $1000; an amount I could begrudgingly eat if the guitar ended up being a dud, yet hopefully enough to procure some good bits. A few minutes of forethought and some honest assessment of my woodworking skills limited my choices to Fender-inspired, bolt-on designs; being a Tele fan helped narrow those choices further. To stack the deck, I chose to build an Esquire in order to save a few bucks on a neck pickup that might be used for nicer woods or better components.
A few minutes spent surfing sites such as Warmoth, USACG and Musikraft made it apparent that I would be foregoing any flame, birdseye or quarter-sawn options. A rattle can finish was also in my future – pre-finished necks and bodies would eat up the budget before getting started. This led to another concern: choosing which company to source the neck and body. In an effort to make things as fair and unbiased as possible, emails were sent out and the first to respond would be chosen – slow servers, overzealous spam filters and vacations be damned.
Scott from Musikraft was the first to respond, so that was sorted. Well, not really. I had to figure out if I was going to remain true to any particular era – blackguard, midfifties whiteguard or a Buck-approved, maple cap-era plank. The choices were limitless. I toyed with the idea of making an affordable, black pickguard on a whiteguard Jeff Beck clone, but homemade body contours surpassed my comfort level while Musikraft’s option exceeded my budget. I decided to look for inspiration elsewhere.
I tried searching for components and found myself quickly overwhelmed. Throughout this process, I had relied on forums such as TDPRI.com, thegearpage.net and the forums at ReRanch. Again, being honest about my skill level, comfort level and the amount of time that I could dedicate to this project, the rave reviews and kudos from various forum members led me to Callaham’s Vintage Guitars and Parts. Perusing their site offered turnkey solutions as well as ideas for just how strictly I would need to adhere to the idea of remaining “vintage.” For instance, their all-inclusive “Vintage T model Esquire Hardware Kit” had an option for slotted screws. As a nod to modern functionality, it also featured a screw-in jack cup (yeah!), compensated brass saddles and a Gatton-esque cutaway on the bottom lip of the bridge plate, all for $387.75 plus $12 shipping. Did I mention the Callaham kit includes everything, including a pre-wired control plate? If you have a nice electronics store around and can source good pots or caps, either locally, online or via eBay, this is an area where time spent scrounging can equal big savings while still allowing for top-notch hardware from makers like Callaham, Glendale or Joe Barden.
With my Callaham order helping me to pick a theme of “vintage blackguard with the occasional modern concession,” I quickly realized that I had spent nearly 40 percent of my budget and still didn’t have any wood – not at all dissimilar from my limited experiences at strip clubs. Heading back to Musikraft’s site to pore over options and a few frantic phone calls to Scott helped get my order together: a ‘51-‘67 Tele Style body with oversized neck pocket and router hump to lend it some vintage authenticity. The only other option I chose was a two-piece body, bringing the cost to $204. For the neck, I made a few modern concessions, notably a fingerboard radius 9 1/2” and 6105 frets. Otherwise, the specs were all vintage, right down to the business end of the trussrod being on the body side. I chose the “Fat C” profile to facilitate easy switching between this guitar and my beloved Nocaster as well as heavily rolled edges. Price for the neck: $210. Add in $14.99 for shipping and the tally is $428.99, bringing the grand total to $828.74, leaving $171.26 for a pickup and finishing supplies.
Money, It’s a Crime
I had already decided to use Guitar ReRanch for finishing duties, if for no other reason than to support their excellent tutorials and forums, which also cover using more commonly found finishing supplies, not just their own. I realize there are more economical solutions, but this was my first crack at spraying a finish. Plus, I live in a pretty sparsely populated area – it isn’t like I can just pop down to the shop to pick up Blonde nitrocellulose lacquer whenever I run out. After ordering a can of Butterscotch Blonde lacquer, a can of Fender Neck Amber, two cans of clear nitrocellulose, two cans of Sand and Sealer, a can of oil-based grain filler and a “Fine Grades Sand Paper Pack,” I anxiously awaited for the various shipments to arrive. The damage amounted to $101.10, putting the total at $929.84.
Now I was sweating – my budget was dwindling and I hadn’t decided on a specific pickup. When considering a Jeff Beck vibe, I had looked at Don Mare’s Yardboy- 1, a Harmonic Design ‘54 Special or a Fralin, ranging in price from $80-$125. Since I had changed directions slightly, a blackguard-era pickup design was more in order, so I sent a quick email to Tim Mills from Bare Knuckle pickups and scored a Flat ‘50 bridge pickup. Its £65 price seemed reasonable until I remembered current exchange rates. In greenbacks, the pickup ended up costing $126 plus shipping. I had yet to turn a screw or spackle on any grain filler and I was already over budget. Still, I could try to stay close. Grand total after pickups: $1075.84. I hoped the incidentals would stay to a minimum.