How To Make A Guitar

Sometimes, the nicest thing to do with a guitar is just look at it. – Thom Yorke

So you want to make a guitar? It’s no mean feat, but it can be immensely satisfying to craft something yourself.

I play guitar. I’m not a woodworker or an engineer. But I wanted to take on the challenge of making one myself. In fact I enjoyed it so much, I ended up doing it twice. But I’m still not a luthier.

So here are a few words of advice from someone who tried and succeeded … sort of. You’ll see the guitars I made further on down the page.

When I’m having a bad day, I just pick up my guitar – Michelle Branch

What type of guitar?

That’s your first decision to make. It may sound obvious, but the skills you need to make electric or acoustic are very different. Obviously there are some overlaps – both types have fretboards, both have machine heads but that’s about it.  You’ll need to apply lacquer to any wood you use whichever style you make.

The tools you’ll need to make the 2 types of instrument are very different as well.

Acoustic

If you play acoustic guitar, you’re the depressed, sensitive guy – Elliott Smith

This sounds like me. So that’s where I started.

As my first instrument build (apart from making a xylophone when I was 12), I wanted something simple and straightforward to test the waters. I like my instruments to have a matte finish where possible – totally non-bling. I wanted to fit a pick-up – all my guitars have them for recording and performance. I wanted metal strings. I wasn’t too worried about a cutaway. I wanted a traditional shape – not an f-hole or a round back. I wanted it to look (and play) like an acoustic guitar.

Electric

I’ve always loved the electric guitar: to hold it and work it and hear what it does is unreal – David Lynch

It was so rewarding to come out of the process with a working guitar that it didn’t take me much deliberation to decide I wanted to try for an electric guitar.  With the music and places I play, I don’t really have opportunity to use one.  Maybe on the occasional home recordings, the option to strip out the acoustic overtones and focus on the clean tone of an electric, but that’s all.

What I was looking for was a “compare and contrast” on the process. More of an understanding on what goes in to making musical instruments. What level of engineering skills were needed?

Again, I wasn’t interested in startling paint jobs or clever shapes. I went for a basic style. Didn’t want the complexity of a tremolo arm. Didn’t need to think about putting strings through the body. I was looking for something which had a really natural look and feel. Ash and maple, maybe. And the shape apes a Fender Telecaster. I’m sure I remember Clapton playing something like that way back when.

Build it from scratch?

Although I wasn’t in any hurry with either build, with my sparse woodwork skills, my lack of a permanent workshop and a dearth of specialist tools, I had no choice but to cheat. Both the instruments you can see here came from prepared kits.

The single element that concerned me most were the fretboards – I knew I needed one that was pre-shaped and formed. By opting for a kit, I was also confident that I would get all the pieces I needed in one go.  I wouldn’t be scouring the internet to find an odd little component to finish the build.  So I was happy to let someone else take the strain of preparing the specialist pieces. I knew I would have enough to do in just putting the pieces together.

Timings

I had evenings and weekends available to pretend to be a luthier. Fitting around a working week. I was able to adopt a spare bedroom as a temporary workshop with access to a garage for the heavy duty wood preparation steps. It took about a month of work to finish off the acoustic and about half that to complete the electric.

Results

Both of these guitars play. They have a decent enough tone and have the look I was aiming for.

They both have flaws. The acoustic has an action which is a little too high for comfort. That’s caused by the fact that I didn’t get the neck to body joined quite right. But I can live with that. But I’ve used it in public performance and we did OK.

The electric has a more serious issue. The tuning at fret 0 is out of whack with the tuning up the rest of the fretboard. It could be a problem with the fretboard or the neck. It could be a problem with the bridge – there are intonation and alignment issues. It’s not really good enough to play out. I should probably ask an expert to rescue this guitar. But that would probably cost more than the original kit.

In the meantime, the both look good among my collection!

Conclusions

Would I start a guitar from scratch after this experience? No. I don’t have the skills.
Would I make another kit guitar? Probably not. I don’t need another instrument!

If you want a great playable guitar, don’t expect it to come right first time. These skills take years to perfect.

If you’re looking for a cheap guitar, don’t build it yourself.

If you want a woodworking and engineering challenge that covers a broad range of skills, then give it a go. It is very satisfying to hold your own hand-built axe in your hands. And if it sounds like a guitar, then personally, I consider that a bonus!

Someone told me the smile on my face gets bigger when I play the guitar – Niall Horan

Just imagine how much bigger the smile is when you’ve made that axe yourself – I said that.