WARNING:If done incorrectly, some of the procedures described in this article may result in bodily injury and/or serious damage to your project instrument. If you’re uncomfortable with any of the steps in this article, consult a professional technician for assistance.
Every day I get to make guitars from scratch—from the earliest stages full of sawdust to the final steps involving paint fumes, wet sanding, and buffing. So I must admit it was a welcome departure to be asked by Premier Guitar to show you some tips and tricks on assembling a parts guitar—because although it’s not extremely difficult, it’s also not as simple as it seems to end up with an instrument that feels, sounds, and plays like the custom guitar you hoped it would be.
To the beginners out there, forgive me if any of the ensuing text is over your heads. And to you veterans, forgive me if any of this seems condescending. I’ve tried to drive this project right down the center so there’s something in it for everyone. That said, those of you who’ve read a lot of DIY articles will quickly notice this one’s different in that we’re not following a particular order. With a parts-guitar build there’s not much need for that beyond obvious stuff like painting the body before adding hardware, mounting pots before soldering, and attaching hardware before stringing up for a test. Here we’re focusing on nuanced tricks of the trade that will help you avoid infuriating slip-ups that leave unsightly marks or result in subpar performance.
Why Build a Parts Guitar?
As a kid I played with Legos a lot. Of course, instead of following the directions, I dumped them all in a big bin and made my own monstrosities. Making a parts guitar is a lot like that. Some of the most fun-to-play guitars I own are parts guitars, or guitars where I’ve made a new neck or body for a stock guitar. You name it, and I’ve probably done it. I’ve also Frankensteined plenty of guitars out of parts that didn’t “belong” together.
One thing that will greatly increase your odds of success is to stick with the same manufacturer for the body and neck. I also advise sticking to parts made during roughly the same era—just in case the manufacturer changes some important specs that might alter how the pieces fit together. That’s exactly what we did for this build. Warmoth kindly donated all the parts for this project—and what’s even cooler is that you can enter for a chance to win the guitar at premierguitar.com/Warmoth-Parts-Guitar-Giveaway.
But there are more reasons to build a parts guitar than simply creating a custom instrument that combines disparate elements of production-line guitars with hardware and color options not available from mainstream manufacturers. Many production-line factories simply do not have time for the detail work you can perform as the master of your own bench. Skilled craftsmanship and labor usually makes up a significant portion of the cost in higher-quality instruments, and rightfully so. With a parts guitar, you can become part of this labor process. You can choose to painstakingly dress each fret individually, with many stages of buffing and polishing. You can custom slot each bridge saddle to match your preferred string size rather than the uniform, middle-of-the-road grooves from the typical mold. You can take the time to cut nut slots to suit your string gauges, and shape and round the nut for comfort and a clean look. You can choose your pickups and devise custom wiring schemes, choose your strap buttons and placement. The list of customizing options is endless. Of course, most of these things can be done on any instrument, but with a parts-guitar build one of the added bonuses is that you don’t have to undo work that’s already been done from the factory.
Choosing Your Parts
Although I’ve been building guitars practically my whole life, to this day I still get a little charge of excitement when a box of instrument parts arrives. This time I was particularly excited to see what the folks at PG had chosen for our project. Upon opening the box, the first thing that struck me was that the neck and body were both painted—quite well I might add. This is an excellent option if you’ve never painted a guitar before, or if the ones you have look more like an elementary school project than a $4,000 custom guitar. We won’t cover painting here, but if you’re interested in painting your own parts guitar there are several convenient guitar-oriented paint supplies available from brands such as Behlen, the Guitar ReRanch, and more.
Warmoth has an extensive selection of parts. The necks and bodies it manufactures are available in an impressive range of colors and pickup-rout combinations, with body and neck binding options, to say nothing of the wood selections—everything from the typical rosewood, maple, and alder to bubinga, zircote, and pau ferro. But the company also stocks virtually every other piece of hardware and electronics your project requires, including a diverse collection of pickup brands and models. Factor all these choices together and the possibilities for a customized axe are nearly infinite.
Most players will first decide on their preferred body style, then what sort of headstock they prefer. And while aesthetics is certainly a consideration for both, it’s at least as important to make sure the neck you choose is constructed to the same scale length and joint type as the body. For instance, Strat- and Tele-style necks both have a 25.5" scale, but the heel on the former is arched, while a T-style’s is squared off. They’re generally not considered compatible unless you want to make wood chips and employ the aforementioned Frankenstein techniques. When choosing a headstock it’s important to realize that a three-on-a-side (Les Paul-style) or a six-in-line (Strat-style) tuner arrangement can change the guitar’s feel (e.g., in the tautness of the strings), and even tone. The longer the string is behind the headstock, the more it will sympathetically stretch during string bends (unless you have a locking nut). The actual amount of tension required for the string to reach pitch doesn’t change (unless you alter the scale length), but with more string behind the nut and less of a headstock angle, it can seem “slinkier” to fret and bend since the string will give a little sympathetically.
PG chose Warmoth’s Mooncaster body, which is a semi-hollow design similar to the Fender Starcaster. It has an angled neck joint and Warmoth’s comfort contour in the rear belly area. We paired the body with Warmoth’s Modern Tiltback Construction neck. The company was kind enough to include two shorter screws for the front of the neck pocket and two standard length screws for the back. Absent that, I would have had to cut the screws down to avoid having them push up on the fretboard or pop up a fret.
Besides being mindful about body and neck choices, you’ll also want to keep a careful eye on seemingly minor details, like making sure you have screws of the proper length for pickup-mounting rings. (Our Mooncaster uses a tall ring for the bridge, and a short ring for the neck pickup.) Likewise, make sure your volume and tone pot shafts are of appropriate length: You’ll need longer shafts for carved-top guitars, shorter ones for instruments with a pickguard. As for knobs, whether they’re press-fit or have a set screw, make sure they’ll fit your pots’ posts. For example, if you have the more common 1/4" knurled-shaft pots, you can use most press-fit knobs as well as knobs with set screws. But some set-screw knobs have a larger hole for 6 mm-diameter solid shaft pots. If you have solid-shaft pots, make sure you get knobs that fit. If, as with our Mooncaster build, you’ve chosen to go with unusual wiring options, make sure you order switches and/or pots that accommodate what you hope to do. For instance, the folks at PG chose PAF-style Seymour Duncan Seth Lover humbuckers, but they also wanted to give the guitar single-coil voicing options so they ordered 4-wire Seths that allow the player to split each humbucker’s coils. To control this function we chose push-push pots, though you may choose push-pulls, mini toggles, mounting rings with built-in switches, or multiple other options.
Many parts companies, including Warmoth, offer you the choice of ordering bodies and necks with or without pre-drilled holes for hardware and assembly. However, even if you order parts with pre-drilled holes, chances are you’ll still have to drill at least a few holes for things such as strap buttons. Either way, make sure any holes you drill are perpendicular to the surface of the guitar—as close as possible to a perfect 90-degree angle. If the surface of the guitar has curves and contours in the area where you’re drilling, be even more careful about this. For example, the area where the rear strap button goes on our Mooncaster is not symmetrical, and the surface is not flat. Because of this, I don’t want to aim the drill bit straight toward the headstock, parallel with the strings (like you would on Strats, Teles, and Les Pauls), because if I did, the strap button wouldn’t sit flush. In order for the button to sit flush, I need to come at the target point at a 90-degree angle, which means I’m aiming a bit toward the treble side of the guitar.