Black Mesa Guitars
May 18, 2010
Nearly since they first left the Fender factory in Fullerton, California, the Stratocaster and Telecaster have inspired luthiers and machinists to attempt to recreate and improve on what made them two of the most revered instruments in existence. The philosophies of these luthiers range from a purist, nothing-but-the-original-spec approach to swearing by mysterious components and tonewoods whose characteristics are so unquantifiably hallowed that you’d think they came from Tolkien’s Forest of Fangorn. Black Mesa Guitars luthier Clint Dougherty falls somewhere in the middle. However, he says he bases all his tweaks and innovations on logic rather than any mystical tone juju.
The son of a physicist who also played classical guitar, Dougherty always enjoyed both music and science. As a musician, his first love was drums, but he later fooled around with bass and then ended up bonding with the guitar last. He’s been building Black Mesa Signature models—which feature a range of customizable options and wood choices on unique body styles—for more than 10 years. But perhaps his most distinguishing work is the player-friendly, science-based adjustments he came up with to try to bring Leo Fender’s ideas into the 21st century.
“I wanted to find new and better ways to build things within the parameters and restraints imposed by the physics of lightweight, hand-held tension structures, rather than simply replicating familiar instruments,” Dougherty says. And then his wife ignited an “Aha!” moment for him that inspired implementation of his TorsionLogic neck—a proprietary, rear-mounted bolt-on design that provides extreme access to upper frets—on familiar body styles such as Stratocasters and Telecasters.
“After listening to me rant about how so many guitarists never look beyond the Strat, she said, ‘Well, why not build a Strat with your neck system?’” Dougherty recalls. “So I realized it might be attractive to players who love their classic styles to have a familiar look and feeling with two full octaves and improved upper-fret access. It always seemed redundant to me to expend a huge amount of my time and energy just going over ground that has been so thoroughly plowed over the years.”
Since then, Dougherty has been building batches of Logicaster TL-T and TL-S models with the TorsionLogic neck-mounting system, all while maintaining production on Black Mesa Signatures that also use the TorsionLogic system.
Dougherty developed the TorsionLogic in 2005 because he’s always been attracted to the idea of providing as much range and upper-fret access as possible. He initially dabbled with neck-through designs but “didn’t like the bright, sometimes brittle tone and the inability to dismount the neck for repairs.” So he moved on to set necks, but found that “those styles have some of those same issues plus some others, like the loss of strength when routing pickup cavities.”
After reading a 2007 American Lutherie magazine article with substantial scientific evidence that bolt-on designs “offer superior resonance and sustain around the fundamental and successive harmonics,” Dougherty’s idea was solidified by scientific evidence. He explains the logic behind the system as, “If you move the neck pocket to the back of the body, the neck heel can be made a lot longer, greatly increasing the contact patch between the neck and body without losing any of the neck meat to pickup cavities. Additionally, the torsional load produced by string tension pulls the neck into the body, which further improves the strength of the structure. There is no honking slab of wood sticking out of the body to screw the neck to, so there is plenty of room to sculpt the joint and make the cutaways a lot deeper, as well. It’s really a way to incorporate the best features of all three neck-mount styles—without the disadvantages.”
The Logicaster Body
Standard TL-T models come with a quilted maple top and sapele body, but the TL-T shown here has a custom chambered body that reduced the guitar’s weight to 6 lbs. 14 oz., a more manageable weight that still maintains good resonance and a solidbody tone.
Logicaster Fretboard, Neck, and Headstock
TL-T models generally come with jatobá fretboards, because Dougherty believes jatobá has many of the same tonal characteristics of rosewood and maple, but is easier to get and “sturdy as hell.” This particular model has a bubinga fretboard. Most TL-T models come with hard rock maple necks. He devised an angled, under-side mount headstock that has a beefy volute to provide greater strength to this vulnerable area.
On standard TL-T models, Dougherty uses various handwound Sheptone pickups. Because of the extended 24-fret neck and deep cutaways, he had to adjust the usual pickup placement on both models. In a short essay on Black Mesa’s website, Dougherty describes his theory behind pickup location as “If you envision a vibrating string as a sine wave, it is easy to see that while a node, that is, a place where there is little or no string excursion, is indeed a precise point, an anti-node can be seen as more of a zone. A pickup located almost anywhere in that anti-nodal zone will be sufficiently excited to produce a usable signal. Naturally, the output will diminish proportionally to the pickup’s distance from the node, but you really have quite a large area in which to locate a pickup, especially at the neck position.”
Of course it all boils down to a very simple question— does it sound good? And Dougherty stands firmly behind the tone of the Logicasters and their alternative pickup positions.
Black Mesa’s Logicaster base models start at around $1400, which includes a setup of the sapele body, jatobá fretboard, and pickups. You can customize some options on the Logicasters, but Dougherty prefers keeping the models somewhat standard to keep them affordable. For more hands-on buyers, Black Mesa Signature models are completely custom—down to placement of controls. Dougherty currently has a very limited amount of semi-finished and ready-to-play models, but mostly works on a build-to-order format.