september 2008

Five licks from M.A.B. to get you shredding

Michael Angelo Batio has been frequently described as the best shredder of all time.

He produced the first, and still best-selling, shred instructional video, and invented both his signature double guitar and MAB string dampeners. He’s performed in 45 countries around the world and even has his own record label – M.A.C.E. Music.

Michael has been playing guitar since age ten. Naturally left-handed, he plays the guitar righthanded, which at least partially explains his incredible ability to play two guitars at the same time. He’s played as many as four guitars at once; his performance playing his four-necked “quad” guitar with the band Nitro in their “Freight Train” video is one of the most over-the-top performances of all time.

His style developed out of the early weakness of his picking hand. He worked for years as a teen to master alternate picking and two-hand tapping techniques. Michael explains, “I’m a firm believer in working on your deficiencies. Once you master a technique that gives you trouble, other areas of your playing improve dramatically.”

Now one of the fastest shredders on the planet, Michael is known for his MAB Over-Under Technique, where he flips his hand over and under the guitar neck, approaching the strings from above and below at incredible speed – all without missing a note.

I first saw Michael Angelo Batio in 1987 at a Gibson Guitar clinic. We were all anxious to meet him and see him perform with his double guitar. He explained how it was constructed and then he played the living hell out of it. I couldn’t believe it was humanly possible to pull it off, but he did and still does. I’ve been fortunate enough to see him perform a number of times since, and even traded licks with him in 2007 onstage at a Dean Guitar clinic. Since then, Michael and I have become friends and I’ve found he’s a very humble, yet extremely driven guy.

Michael’s distinct tone comes primarily from his fingers, but he does use specific guitars, amps and effects to achieve his signature sound. He’s known for using Gibson, Charvel, Ritz and Dean Guitars and BOSS overdrive pedals, all run into Marshall amplifiers. It’s smooth, fiercely overdriven and punchy synth-esque sound, as heard during Michael’s earlier years, is actually a combination of the BOSS SD-1 pedal into modded Marshall JCM800 amps set at medium gain and a slightly high volume. In the mid-nineties, Michael acquired an original Ibanez TS- 9, which he used on the album, Hands Without Shadows.

He uses custom designed DiMarzio pickups – a PAF Pro and/or PAF in the neck position and a Super Distortion and/or Double Whammy in the bridge position – along with EMGs (in his Dean signature series guitars) and Seymour Duncan JBs (in some of his double guitars). For amps, Michael now prefers to use the new line of Marshall Valve amplifiers, specifically the JCM2000 DSL, along with Mesa Boogie Dual Rectifiers for his rhythm parts.

In 2007, Michael, in conjunction with T. Rex Engineering, launched an overdrive pedal designed especially for him. The pedal is simply called the Michael Angelo Batio Overdrive, and features more gain to satisfy Michael’s taste for heavily overdriven sounds.

This month Michael has been cool enough to show off five of his favorite exercises – double guitar not required.

Exercise 1
This example features 16th note triplets diatonically ascending and “back tracking” up the fretboard. For me, the key is to take the riffs and go in unexpected directions rather than just ascending or descending in a predictable way.

Exercise 2
Exercise 2 is an example of one of my riffs in the key of Bb. Again, I like to use chromatic passing tones, but in a rock and metal guitar context. These exercises are good examples of how I take what could be standard melodic choices and twist and turn the notes around to create my own style.

Exercise 3
Here we look at using asymmetrical note groupings – it’s one thing to use triplets and another to use groups of odd numbers of notes in a count or beat. This is a good example of how I use rhythm and melody to create interesting lead guitar lines that are not stock or standard.

Exercise 4
This exercise makes up a complete section from my song, “The Finish Line.” It is in the key of C major, and again utilizes a lot of passing tones. I made this in the style of Charlie Christian, who is one of my inspirations as a guitar player. When I perform it, I add a dotted rhythm to give the
notes a “swing” feel.

Exercise 5
This riff is in the key of G major and is from the studio version of my song, “No Boundaries.” I use this kind of pattern because I like the flow of the notes; instead of just straight ascending or descending, I use a technique that I call “back tracking,” where I actually use descending passages of notes while ascending up the fretboard and vice versa.

An inside look at the monthly Bass Brunch in NYC

It’s the age-old quest for better and better tone, one that goes from the scientific approach to the mystical. Can the idea of “tone” be held up to strict laboratory analysis – waveforms and the atomic components of wood and metal? Is it in the equipment, the hands of the player or in the connections between – cables, strings, DI boxes, amplifiers and speakers? Is it a purely philosophical concept? My experience tells me that the answer lies in a combination, to greater and lesser extent, of all of these and I hope to point to some solid advice from manufacturers and from the New York bass community to help shine a light on this somewhat controversial inquiry.

About once a month, I host a lunch gathering of some of New York’s most experienced working bass players at the Rodeo Bar in Manhattan. We usually number between 20 and 30 and it has become somewhat of an established means of networking and exchanging ideas in the bass community. Discussions are usually informal, but talk invariably turns to the latest gigs, tours, recording sessions and equipment. It is a way to take part in a valuable community experience while gleaning important information about the current state of affairs in the bass world. When Premier Guitar asked me to write a bass-related article for them with the theme of “getting a great bass tone,” I thought that a more moderated discussion at the “Bass Brunch” would be an ideal forum. We met on May 26 and I’d like to refer to some of the comments, which I think will clarify our path to a getting better bass tone.

1 - Hashim Sharrieff
2 - Jeff Kerestes
3 - Brian Murphee
4 - Nick Sullivan
5 - Jeff Ganz
6 - “Cricket” Cohen
7 - Tony Conniff
8 - S.A. Sebastian Gnolfo
9 - Bradley Wegner
10 - Frank Canino
11 - Ivan “Funkboy” Bodley
12 - Mike Visceglia
13 - Bruce Gordon
14 - Mas Hino
15 - Jimmy Coppollo
16 - Paul Nowinsky
17 - Chris Anderson

Let’s start with the instrument itself. My personal feeling is that you can tell a lot about the amplified tone of a bass guitar by listening to it acoustically. Since most basses are made primarily of wood (some are carbon fiber and composite parts), we’re dealing with organic substances, whereby each combination of neck and body, along with the variable of age, can result in dramatically different acoustical properties. When talking to Jimmy Coppolo, luthier and CEO of Alleva Coppolo Basses and Guitars, Jimmy – a frequent bass brunch attendee – spoke of the differences in quality of shipments of wood, moisture content and finishes. We’re talking primarily about alder and ash, as these woods make up the most common types of consumer-oriented bass bodies (there are boutique builders like Fodera, Alembic, Ken Smith, and a host of others, who use more exotic woods, but for the purposes of this article I’d like to talk about the more commonly used varieties).

According to Jimmy, wood with less moisture content tends to sound better and is more stable, be it alder or ash. Wood that holds moisture tends to cover or inhibit the tonal qualities of the instrument. This is one reason why older, vintage instruments are coveted. Jimmy also prefers nitrocellulose finishes, like those found on basses from the fifties and sixties. According to him, they allow the bass’s wood to “breathe” more quickly, which is an asset to good tone. The poly finishes are harder, and, if not applied correctly, can tend to smother tone. The preferences for maple or rosewood necks are personal. Maple necks, like Marcus Miller’s Fender Jazz bass, tend to be brighter while rosewood necks, such as James Jamerson’s Fender Precision bass or my Lakland Joe Osborne Jazz bass, tend to be a bit darker or “warmer” sounding.

If you listen to the bass acoustically, you should be able to determine the relative balance and consistency of the tone. Play all the notes up and down the neck. The bass should be loud enough acoustically and resonant enough for you to be able to hear the definition and duration of each note. There are customary “dead spots” on bass guitars – usually on the G string between the 5th and 7th frets – but this is normal. Any other pronounced dead spots are not normal and should be detectable by scrutinizing the instrument acoustically. Logic then follows that amplifying these unwanted and aberrant properties will result in a decrease in tone.

When the topic of pickups came up during the brunch, veteran bassist and former Johnny Winter sideman, Jeff Ganz, made a cogent argument, saying that an important factor in choosing pickups is the ability to adjust the polepieces individually. Several major manufacturers make pickups with this feature; the advantage of this design is the ability to even-out the response of the pickup to the individual string as desired. Pickups that do not have this feature might have a bias toward one string or another, creating inconsistencies in tonal quality.

Another aspect of pickup choice would be humbucking or non-humbucking configurations. The humbucking setup exists in the Fender Precision -style split pickup configuration, or in active pickups. This does not occur in a passive, two single-coil pickups unless both pickups are turned up all the way, as rolling off the volume of one pickup results in hum that would obviously interfere with your tone.

I prefer a passive setup, as do many other professional bassists. On my 1962 Fender Jazz and my Lakland Joe Osborne Jazz basses, I leave both pickups turned up full (in humbucking mode) and rely on preamps to fine tune the high, middle and low frequencies.

There are three types of strings to consider when thinking about tone. If you’re a fan of old funk and roots music – think James Jamerson or Duck Dunn – then you probably want to play with flatwound strings. These have less sustain and a stronger fundamental – the primary note before any overtones meld with the sound. If you’re into more modern bass sounds, like Marcus Miller or Anthony Jackson, then you might consider roundwound strings. These are brighter, have more sustain and provide overtones as part of their sound, making them more suitable for slap-style playing. A less commonly used string is the half-wound, which as you might guess, gives a sound somewhere between flats and rounds. The brunch crowd was mixed in terms of personal preferences; my personal choice is D’Addario roundwounds, which I find dependable, long lasting and rich in tone.

What the Bass Brunch Gang Says

Mike Visceglia
When canvassing the bass brunch gang about tone, the general philosophy was that the player needs to control his or her sound as best they can before handing it off to a soundman or engineer. So now that we’ve spoken about instruments and strings, let’s go beyond the bass and talk about cables and DI boxes.

There has been significant progress made in cable technology and an important contribution has been made by Planet Waves. Rob Cunningham, Planet Waves product specialist, explained these advances. By attaching shielding to the ground on the amplifier side of the cable and having dual layers of shielding, Planet Waves has virtually eliminated ground loops and noise interference, creating a transparent signal that is “direction oriented.” I use these cables both live and in the studio and have found them to be first rate. Using what they call “In = Out” technology – essentially using low capacitance – they’ve made cables that transmit the full sonic spectrum. This kind of transparent transmission is obviously critical in the ability to control one’s tone.

Bass brunch-ers, Chris Anderson and Paul Nowinsky (Ricki Lee Jones, Les Paul, Keith Richards), were quite vociferous about the use of the Radial JDV direct box. It is what they call an “honest” DI that will send out to the front of house soundman or recording engineer exactly what you’ve given them. My conversation with Peter Janis, president of Radial Engineering, shed some light on the unique qualities of their JDV direct box. It was explained to me that all DI boxes have one thing in common – they are constructed with negative feedback loops that have been considered an intrinsic part of the design, but negative feedback loops impede signal flow.

While high-end audio companies like Neve boast that they’ve created circuitry that’s “almost free of feedback loops,” Radial’s JDV box has no feedback loops. It also has 30V internal rail voltage, whereas a typical DI box has 3V. An average passive bass puts out about 1V, but an active bass can put out as much as 10-15V. You can easily see how the common DI box can be overloaded, thus diminishing signal flow and consequently, tone. Having an internal rail voltage of 30V eliminates all possibilities of overload. The Radial JDV also has a feature called “drag control” that matches to the impedance of your instrument. So what you have with the Radial JDV is a box that passes your signal and sound with the greatest degree of fidelity and virtually no coloration. It was unanimously agreed that a low-quality DI box could subvert all of the gains made in the preceding tonal chain.

Obviously, there have been great gains in the field of bass amplification. I had a lively discussion with Dave Boonshoft, CEO of Aguilar Amplification and frequent bass brunch attendee about this. I like his idea of thinking of bass amplification as “completing an incomplete instrument.” In other words, the bass guitar doesn’t stand on its own like a saxophone or violin. It needs an amplifier to “complete” it. With that in mind, Aguilar thinks very thoroughly about the subtleties of the instrument, the attack, how well the note opens up and the replication of natural overtones when designing amplifiers and tuning speaker enclosures. It helps that the CEO of the company is a bass player himself.

One of the bigger advancements in amplification, specifically among Aguilar designed amps, has been the development of non-distorting preamps that can faithfully reproduce bass tones below 200Hz. Most consumer oriented preamps produce lowlevel distortion that will color the tone of the bass. Another advance in amplification has been in the area of onboard EQ. With more precise graphic and parametric EQs, one can target frequencies that need to be addressed.

An interesting point was made regarding equalization at the bass brunch by Ivan Bodley, bassist for soul legend Sam Moore. He said that if you invert the normal smiley-face EQ curve to a frown-face curve with 500Hz as the high point, you generally will have a tone that cuts through most live band performances. He and others at the brunch felt that 500Hz seems to be the most important definition point in order for the bass to sit in the right place on the spectrum.

Veteran NYC bassist and bass brunch participant, Frank Canino, made a great point regarding live bass tone. He said that you should shape your tone according to the character of the bass drum. In other words, if the bass drum has a high pitch point, you can warm it up by boosting lower frequencies on your EQ curve. Conversely, if the bass drum is muddy, you can make it more defined by boosting middle and higher frequencies. This is a good rule of thumb to improve the live sound of any rhythm section.

Jeff Kerestes (left) and Brian Murphee contemplate the Zen of tone
Speakers and cabinet designs have also come a long way. When speaking to Larry Ullman, CEO of Euphonic Audio, he talked of great progress in their enclosures with the development of “transmission-line” technology, where the tuned port design eliminates unwanted frequencies as determined by the speaker size, and allows for maximum speaker response time and “air movement.” Euphonic Audio’s goal is to make highly efficient, yet highly portable enclosures. They don’t make cabinets for speakers larger than 12 inches. EA’s idea is to create a lighter speaker cone without sacrificing rigidity, allowing for quick response with durability.

Larry also said that EA uses almost 100 percent neodymium magnets, which create a stronger magnetic field. Aguilar cabinets are much more varied in size and are tuned to take into consideration the specific needs of the style of music that you’re playing. They make enclosures of many sizes, up to their DB810 cabinet for louder players that demand a “stiffer midrange,” according to Dave Boonshoft. Their goal is “coherency” of tone across all styles of playing through the detailed design of the enclosures for their various speaker configurations.

The Zen
As we complete our journey in search of bass tone, let me try to elaborate on what I consider the most important aspect of tone, and yet its most intangible corollary. You can take the most well made bass, most transparent cables, preamp, amp and cabinet combination and have the greatest players all play on the same equipment – yet each will have a completely different tone! Why is this? Why do Jaco, Jamerson, Marcus, Will Lee or Anthony Jackson sound so unique? Nothing can create tone more than the player’s personal relationship to music and his or her instrument. The mind, hands and interpretive skills of the player can literally “draw” tone out of the instrument. A player’s touch can never be adequately analyzed or defined. The years that it takes to perfect the expression of music on the bass in a masterful way is the most complete way to attain great tone. There are no great shortcuts. The technological advancements made in the various aspects that have been discussed are primarily tools that aid in the attainment of tone. Take it to heart and buy all the gear you desire, but don’t try to circumvent the intensive amount of time it takes to learn the art of bass playing. The quick route simply won’t work. Great tone is the possession of the master – go and become one!

I’d like to thank everyone at Premier Guitar and all my bass brunch buddies for allowing me the benefit of their experience and knowledge and for contributing to the community and craft of the bass. I’d also like to thank Dave Boonshoft of Aguilar, Larry Ullman of EA, Rob Cunningham of Planet Waves and Peter Janis of Radial Engineering for taking the time to inform me about their great products. Please check out for more on what I’m up to and for info about the NY bass brunches. Thanks and keep your ears open!

Can James finish his guitar without blowing his budget?

Skyrocketing gas prices and V-8 powered behemoths everywhere; an unpopular president trying to bolster flagging support for a war in villages with names no one can pronounce; volatile housing prices in an ever-correcting market; high food and energy prices coupled with the looming threat of runaway inflation hamstringing consumer confidence – it’s the seventies all over again.

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.

Indecision Time

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, 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.

Monica from Callaham won the “most expedient shipper” award, beating everyone by a wide margin, though to be fair, Scott from Musikraft made no bones about needing to manufacture my neck and body and I had no desire to rush him. Opening the box reaffirmed that Callaham was the right choice; all of the parts were carefully packaged and marked. Pulling the pre-wired control plate assembly from the box, I was particularly impressed; all of the soldering was spot-on and every bit of hardware exuded a very high level of quality – the Bakelite pickguard even had the circular spray mark underneath.

Musikraft kept the anticipation high with in-progress pictures of my body and neck

The next highly anticipated package to arrive was from Bare Knuckle pickups, with some added goodies thrown in, namely a set of Rotosounds. Once freed from the foam inserts, my jaw pretty much dropped from the level of craft and workmanship Tim places in his pickups. In fact, I grabbed the Callaham bridge and screwed in the Flat ‘50 pickup just for grins; the resulting combination had the same substantial feel as a really nice watch. A box from ReRanch showed up on one of many of this spring’s stormy days, but everything was well packed and survived the hour or so in the rain. Plus, there would be plenty of drying time while waiting for the neck and body to arrive.

Finally, after being taunted by Scott’s intermittent pictorial updates of my guitar’s progress, a package arrived from Musikraft. Of course, the first thing I did after opening the box was gently place the parts on the unfinished body to get a sense of how it would eventually look. I spent the rest of the evening poring over the tutorials on, reading through “ReRanch 101,” “Solid Colors, Metallic and Blonde” and “Fender Neck Refinishing” repeatedly, hoping some of it would stick.

I started off the following day by applying grain filler. Luckily, I had recently visited the Hamer workshop and had the good fortune of watching this exact process performed by someone who knows what they’re doing. The trick is knowing when the filler has flashed so the excess can be wiped off without being pulled from the grain. I started by mixing the filler with an errant chopstick, then applied the goo with my fingers. Once it flashed, I wiped across grain to remove the excess with some cheesecloth I picked up at the local hardware store. The next day the body was dry enough to hit with some #220 sandpaper. As with the entire process, good lighting is your friend, as is a jug of mineral spirits – a good wipe-down before sanding can make things easier. The light revealed that I hadn’t done the greatest job, so I slathered on another dollop of grain filler and repeated the process. Once I was happy with the results, it was time to spray some sanding sealer.

Spray and Pray

Applying sanding sealer involves shooting a coat, then after it dries to the touch – ten minutes or so – shooting another coat and letting it dry thoroughly overnight. I set up an impromptu spray area in my garage by hanging a repurposed coat hanger from a staircase. The idea is to build the sanding sealer up, then sand it the following day with some #220 to knock off all of the shiny spots, then repeating the process. According to ReRanch’s instructions, after the second coat, you again knock off all of the shinny spots with #220, then bring it up to #320, repeating the process if there are any sandthroughs. I sanded through on the sides a couple of times, adding a few extra days to this process, too.

The Difference Between a Coat and a Pass, According to ReRanch:

“Perhaps now would be a good time to explain “coat” and “pass.” A pass is just that – one spray pass. A coat is a number of passes, from 1 to ?. In the technique used to develop these pages, a coat is typically three passes. Sometimes two will sufficiently wet out a small area and sometimes four will be used. Five approaches foolhardiness. Six will almost always guarantee a run.

“If you are using a gun that is adjustable, a typical setting would be the fan set wide enough to cover about half the area to be sprayed and air pressure at 20 to 30 psi. Liquid feed is set to allow you to wet the area by slowing down the gun’s movement. The setting should lean more to light. A wetter spray setting may force you to move the gun faster to prevent runs. Control the tool – do not let it control you.”

In the meantime, I started on the neck. ReRanch suggests shooting the tint after the sanding sealer has been applied. Musikraft will ship bare necks, but they strongly suggest purchasing their necks with “sealed wood stabilizer.” I followed their advice when ordering, then called Scott to see what this finish would need. He let me know that it was safe to start as if it was sanding sealer and to just give the neck a quick wipe with naptha before spraying the tint.

Shooting the tint proved to be one of the bigger challenges of this project. Comprised of a dye in solvent, additional coats had a tendency to burn down and cause previous coats to run when sprayed too thickly. ReRanch recommends a light coat of lacquer when you think the color is close to “set” the tint and make sure the shade is to your liking. I did several things wrong with the neck during this process; the first was starting an operation as delicate as shooting tint before I had done much more than spray sanding sealer. Secondly, my work area didn’t have the greatest lighting, making the detection of subtle changes in shade – let alone the depth of the pass – more of a challenge. After a couple of spot repairs, the neck was ready for clear. I decided to set it aside and finish up once I was done with the body since they shared a workspace and I could use the added spraying and sanding experience.

Returning my attention to the body, I began spraying color. ReRanch suggests allowing the grain to be obscured by 50 percent. Shooting a few light practice coats on a scrap piece of wood showed that at that level of opacity the body’s beautiful grain would be too obscured for my liking. I shot a couple of light coats on the body until I achieved the color I wanted – just a touch darker than my Custom Shop Nocaster – while allowing the handsome grain to show through. The Butterscotch Blonde lacquer was deceptively easy to apply; once dry, there were just a few spots of uneven color which were touched up easily enough.

The next step was spraying clear, which happened to coincide with a nasty spill on my motorcycle. The requisite crutches had the potential to jeopardize the project – how would they affect this important step? The answer, in a word, was “positively.” The crutches – along with the pain medication – dictated that I take my time. The result was a less rushed and more thorough finish than if I had normal mobility.

I began spraying the clear per ReRanch’s instructions: spray in a clean, well ventilated area; learn the difference between a coat and a pass (see page 133); keep a tack rag handy; find the right distance away from the wood to get the right coverage; and follow the “rule of threes”: a coat is typically three passes, wait at least three hours between coats and shoot three coats a day, using a tack cloth before each coat. The final three pertains to the minimum amount of days typically needed to shoot a good finish. After drying overnight, the body is then ready for sanding, starting with #400, #600 then finally #800 before starting a new day of spraying. I wish I could say everything went smoothly, but that would be lying. Sand-throughs were all too common; in fact I don’t recall a day of not needing to touch up spots where I sanded through the color coat. While this typically added an extra day to the process, fortunately, I had nothing but time. There are a couple of touched-up sand-throughs where the Blonde is more opaque than I would have preferred, but ultimately, they aren’t that noticeable. To avoid running into the same problem, make sure the lacquer is going on evenly, block sand everything – Styrofoam makes great sanding blocks for wet-sanding – and make sure your sanding area is well-lit. It makes the entire process much easier.

The next hiccup occurred when I ran out of clear. Rather than be prudent and wait for a second order to arrive, I sent my wife down to the local hardware store to pick up some Deft clear lacquer. While I was initially concerned about switching products midway through the project, it seems to have worked out fine. Although ReRanch offers up suggestions on how many cans of “Sand and Sealer” and “Nitrocellulose Clear Coat Aerosol” are typically needed for both body and neck finishing, my experience would indicate halving their estimates for the sanding sealer and doubling them for the clear, although I might be better at sanding through than most. The color estimates seem spot on.

After the third day of spraying, the last of the rule of threes comes into play; allowing at least three days of drying after the third and final coat before finish sanding. Since we were continuing to experience an extremely wet spring, I decided to let the body dry for an entire week before beginning final sanding, turning my attention back to the neck.

The clear coats went on easily if not a bit thick. ReRanch suggests not worrying about the frets, instead scraping the lacquer off when the finish is dry. I continued following the rule of threes, and the only tip I have to offer is that a 9V battery worked wonders as a sanding block between the frets (just make sure the battery is drained) and an old Chap Stick container handled the headstock curves well. Did spraying and sanding the neck go more smoothly than the body? Hell no! Sand-throughs were again common and going through the tint was de rigueur. Touching up the tint wasn’t nearly as forgiving as the Butterscotch Blonde had been and it seemed eager to burn through the surrounding lacquer and run at every opportunity. Oddly, even though I sanded out the majority of the neck without a block – a huge no-no – the only spots I sanded through were where a block was used.

In addition to extra days, the sand-throughs resulted in an uneven tint in some spots, but even that has a positive spin – it looks more like a real-deal, vintage neck than the fake-looking, toodark tint on many of Fender’s Vintage series guitars. Although darker than my Nocaster, the project guitar’s neck looks “right,” if maybe a skosh too yellow, but that’s getting nit-picky. Finally, with both enough tint and coats of clear, the neck was hung up next to the body to dry.

Finish Line

The body’s week was up, so I began final sanding. This part of the project involved wet-sanding at each grade from #400 to #2000, then buffing the #2000 grit scratches out with polishing compound. This step went well until I was nearly finished sanding. As finer grades are used – #1000 and up – a shine begins to develop and areas that weren’t sanded well enough earlier become easier to see. To take care of them, you typically back down on the grit number until the sanding scratches disappear, then work your way back up. I was working my way back up from #1200 on a spot on the back when I inadvertently grabbed #600 and used it instead of the desired #1500. Once I realized my mistake, I went back over the area with #800, and by the time I had gotten back to #2000, I had a couple of small sand-throughs. I decided to move ahead and treat them as spot repairs later on.

Once the entire body was sanded out to #2000, I took the body back out to the garage and shot color on the repair areas, letting it dry overnight. The next day, it was treated to three coats of clear. My attempt to keep the repair areas small was reasonably successful. There was a little overspray on the back which was dealt with easily enough with some #1500 and #2000 after sanding out the spot repairs. The repaired areas burnt down a bit and are uneven on close inspection but still look a thousand times better than the sand-throughs they replaced.

Using an old t-shirt and white compound, I was able to bring up a really nice shine on the body. I was also able to see more spots I missed sanding. I tried using some red compound, but it seemed to add more scratches than it removed. A little apprehensive about returning to sandpaper, I went back over it with white compound and called it a day. All in all, the body turned out much better than I expected, although I question the logic behind choosing a transparent finish as a first attempt – next time it will be Fiesta Red!

The neck hadn’t been drying for quite a week, but it had been longer than three days and the light at the end of the tunnel was making me a little impatient. Fortunately, sanding the neck out was relatively uneventful. The only stupid thing I did was use the nail file from my Leatherman to scrape the lacquer off of the frets and slipping, not once, but twice, leaving nice gouges on the fingerboard at the 13th and 20th frets, although I doubt anyone would notice unless they were pointed out. At this point the neck still felt a little too tacky to begin assembly, so I placed the neck and body back up on hangers in the spare bathroom to wait another week or so.

In the meantime, I had another dilemma; should I just totally shine the budget and use this as an excuse to pick up some nut files and a bone blank or take it to my local tech once assembled and kick down the $75 for him to cut a nut? A quick look through the latest Stewart-MacDonald catalog indicated that it would be less expensive – as well as less risky – to let my tech tackle the job. So, not including the additional lacquer from the local hardware store, we’re now looking at $1150.84 before we’ve played a single note.

After allowing some extra drying time for the neck and body, I started putting the guitar together in earnest. Things went together very easily – the string ferrules went in with a satisfying resistance that let me know they were exactly the right size. I used a Fiskers hand drill for all of the screw holes and took my sweet time, keeping the freshly sprayed lacquer happy. Still without a nut, I installed the tuning machines on the neck and placed the bridge using the pre-existing string holes as my guide by sticking toothpicks where the A and B strings would normally pass through. I then bolted up the neck, stuck a folded up piece of paper in the nut slot and loosely strung up both E strings, bringing them up to just enough tension to be used to sight the alignment of the neck and bridge. Laying the pickguard in place indicated that I was in the ballpark, so I drilled the mounting holes for the bridge. It should be noted that the Callaham bridge has two additional screws at the neck side of the bridge, intended to keep microphonic feedback to a minimum as well as transfer additional vibration to the body.

Once the bridge was secured, I placed the pickguard and control panel, moving them around until things looked good before drilling and screwing them down. Honestly, I tried not to be too anal during this process. I’ve seen plenty of old Teles that weren’t too hung up about being symmetrical, which is the same rough-hewn vibe I wanted this one to exude. Because the control plate came pre-soldered, wiring the butterscotch beastie up consisted of soldering a couple of leads from the pickup and the jack to the control plate assembly. I would love to say at this point that I strung it up and rocked harder than anyone has rocked before, but the truth was I still needed a nut. Luckily, my typically overbooked tech had a few immediate openings and I had my guitar back, strung up and ready to go three days and $75 later.

Feels Like the First Time

When I played it for the first time, the first thing that struck me was how big the neck felt. I had busted out the calipers on my Nocaster when I ordered this thing, but it seriously dwarfs my Nocaster neck and feels nearly as big as a Mechanic neck I had a decade or so ago. Fortunately, I love the neck profile and this alone has helped it become my current go-to guitar.

The sound of this particular combination of swamp ash, maple, Callaham hardware and the Bareknuckle Flat ’50 pickup has amazing authenticity and depth, particularly for such a “green” instrument. That’s not to say that the wood wasn’t properly seasoned or anything, just that everything is still settling in – the truss rod required more than the occasional tweak for the first couple of weeks under tension, as expected. The guitar feels nice and light; not stupid light, but more toward the medium side of things. The sound is immediate and typical of a Teletype guitar, but the noticeable tonal difference when switching the tone control in and out of the circuit is quite unexpected. The traditional Esquire wiring provides the pickup with preset capacitor in position 1 for a bass-heavy, “jazz” sound; the pickup with normal volume and tone controls in position 2; and the pickup with the tone circuit bypassed in position 3.

As far as feel and quality, the only thing in my estimation that doesn’t stand up to high-end production instruments is the finish. I can live with the missed sanding scratches and other little gaffes that remind me that I put it together, but they will keep anyone from mistaking this instrument as a Glendale or a DeTemple creation, despite all of the gorgeous wood and high-end Callaham hardware. The finish is also a bit too shiny for my tastes – particularly on the neck, which I’m relatively certain is the direct result of using the Deft. To give you an idea, the guitar looks almost too high-end, not dull enough, like a new Fender Vintage series instrument. While many people would count this as a plus, it makes the guitar look more precious than I had intended. On the plus side, that many sandthroughs means I have a nice thin finish and if the play wear of the past couple of weeks is any indication, it should look nice and worn-in in no time.

However, the biggest surprise has to be how much I enjoy playing it and how well it stacks up to my main-squeeze Nocaster. With the caveat of still being in the honeymoon phase, I’m continually impressed with how nice this thing is every time I pick it up. I wasn’t expecting to like it so much, but then again, why wouldn’t I? It has all of the features I chose. Still, I really didn’t expect it to hold its own as well as it has with the other fine guitars in the house.

The question remains – was it worth it? Let’s be honest and say the guitar cost $1200 when all was said and done, giving us an extra $50 for forgotten trips for sandpaper, sealer glaze and scotch. For that amount of money, you could pick up a new American Deluxe or a used Vintage Series ‘52 Tele, but neither of these choices allows you to spec the instrument exactly as you wish, which is really the whole point of doing something like this.

A potential downside is in the event that you ever need to turn it; its limited resale value is in the parts alone. Unless you are the luckiest person in the world, you will never recoup your investment – if you constantly turn and burn gear on eBay, I hear stamps are a good investment. There is also the chance that you simply won’t like the guitar once it’s finished, again presenting you with a very expensive mistake, no matter the budget.

But, if you’ve been into a specific type of guitar for a while, long enough to know which features you do and don’t like about them, and you have a good idea of what you would ask a custom maker to build for you, building your own guitar makes perfect sense. For instance, I love Teles, but some days even I hate the vintage fretwire on my Nocaster. Also, a homebrew like this is also limited to Jazzmaster, Tele and Strat fans – set-neck and neck-through designs require a skill set light years beyond spraying some lacquer and turning a few screws, with the cost, as well as the opportunity to brick the whole thing, increasing correspondingly.

If I had been able to put this together for under a grand as originally planned, I really don’t think I would like it any more or less than I do now. For me, the magic number to truly affect how I feel about the finished product is $500. If it cost me $1500, I probably wouldn’t love it quite so much – after all, that’s close to the price of a Nash. If it were $500 total, I’d be geeking out on all of the forums, telling anyone who would listen what a killer deal this was. As it stands, I don’t think I could walk into any store and pick up a guitar this nice for $1200 – that alone makes the project worth it. The opportunity it offered to acquire some new, practical knowledge about something I love puts the value over the top.

Now It’s Your Turn
Building your own axe can be daunting; knowing where to start can be downright paralyzing. To help you get started, we’ve assembled a few sources that can narrow down the choices and make sure your first time results a guitar you’ll enjoy for a long, long time.
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