After a few weeks spent scratching around the dark web for second hand parts, I finally reached critical mass for a project to build my own electric guitar.
This was a not a project in the style of Brian May, who carved his own guitar body and made all the parts, including the electronics, himself. The result of that garden shed activity became a distinctive part of Queen’s sound, as the tone from that instrument was unique.
In my case I’ve kept to the marked footpath, gathering the correct parts to put together an early 2000s Fender Telecaster. The only deviation from the plan is the pickups. Here I’ve gone high-tech by guitar standards, opting for an active pair made by EMG. They were available in red too, which I thought would be a nice touch.
As I bumbled along I took some photos to record the progression from jumble of parts to the finished article.
I was more than a little daunted at the outset, but shouldn’t have been. The process itself is pretty straightforward. The bit that bothered me more than any other was the need to drill holes in a pristine, metallic red guitar body in order to secure the pick guard. This task lay in the distance. There were several steps to follow first.
On the way I had to prepare my existing Telecaster for sale, with very mixed feelings. The Baja Telecaster is a classic, with (in my view) sublimely melodic pickups and first-rate production quality. It’s a beauty, and wonderful to play. But my first in, first out policy had forced my hand and I couldn’t justify keeping two guitars of the same type. It’s gone now, to a significantly better guitarist than I am, which is some consolation.
The first step was rather enjoyable. If you’re a gardener you might recognise the roll of copper tape as a pesticide-free slug and snail repellent. The usefulness of the metal in combating squidgy animals is actually debatable but this is a post about guitars, not slugs.
The copper tape in this case is effective, but as a electrical shield against radio frequency (RF) interference rather than slugs. The idea here is that the metal-shielded control cavities in the guitar prevent the ingress of RF, which ends up amplified as clearly audible unwanted noise. Yuk.
My injured younger daughter thoughtfully decided to keep me company, albeit in a passive iPad-hypnotised capacity. She was entertained by my contortions as I twisted and shaped the sticky (and sharp) copper tape to fit the spaces neatly.
Once I was up and running the instrument began to take shape. The red pickups were chosen for the same reason that prompted me to line the guitar body with copper shielding: RF interference.
Our home is phenomenally noisy, from an electrical perspective. There are several wifi routers, a couple of dozen Philips Hue lights, two smart home hubs, a clutch of mobile phones and another 30+ wired and wireless network devices.
The icing on the cake is the powerline networking. If you’ve not come across this before, this is technology that injects a network signal into the mains wiring in a household. Powerline adapters plugged in around the house pick up the signal and pass it to wifi routers to get internet access to every corner of the household.
This should be unobtrusive but isn’t. I can hear it through the hifi, and through the amps. It’s irritating but since internet access is required to make a house function these days, it’s not going away.
So, my answer to the RF problem was these fetching red pickups, made in California by EMG. They’re ‘active’ pickups, which means a battery concealed inside the guitar powers a small amplifier that boosts the signal before it leaves the guitar. This powerful signal is far less susceptible to RF interference than the puny current generated by the usual passive pickups and thus gives a clear, strong tone.
These pickups incorporated the latest version of EMG’s amplifier circuit and I was looking forward to hearing them.
Alongside the high-tech pickups was more mundane wiring, and components like the jack socket that required nimble, flexible fingers. I got there in the end.
The neck is a fine piece of work. After a lot of searching I found what I was looking for – a used maple and dark rosewood neck with only minor wear to the stainless steel frets.
The neck was sent from Italy – to the wrong address. The delivery agent in Italy had run a search on the first line of our address and picked the first postcode that appeared. As the first line of my address is not unique the postcode was for a flat in Westminster, a few minutes’ walk from Baker Street station.
I’d quite like a W1 address again – I lived a couple of minutes from Baker Street station when I moved to London for my first proper job at the professional services behemoth KPMG. Spookily, the upscale recipient of the guitar part lived around the corner from my old flat.
After a lot of to-ing and fro-ing (the seller’s nerves were strained by the experience: as he told me, ‘I’m a musician, not a tradesman!’) the neck finally arrived.
The finished product looked very good, apart from the battery issue. Try as I might, I just couldn’t fit it inside the body. I decided to stop where I was, congratulate myself on getting that far, and pay a visit to my local – 22 minutes away! – branch of guitarguitar, a wonderful cave of beautiful musical artistry.
Naturally, I was very reluctant to make the journey. Ha, as if!
My limping injured daughter went with me as the new red guitar was expertly set up. It was lots of fun. She told me that she would like a Gibson SG (as played by – well, everyone) as her next guitar.
Next guitar? I’m not sure I’m setting a good example. 😳