3 String Guitar Build Part 1: The Neck

In messaging with a customer, I realized that I have not posted a full 3-string build, so now is the time. I’m starting with the RG-10, solid body design and then I’ll walk through the RG-9 acoustic/electric body style, but they both start with the same neck/head:

To build the neck, with a 15 degree scarf joint, I use a compound miter saw and a simple angled jig:

Using this jig, I cut two two smaller (~8″) pieces 1″x2″ maple that have been thinned down to 0.60″ thick. These will be glued together to make the head. I also use this jig to cut a 15 degree angle on the end of the neck. I tend to work on multiple guitars at once, hence the 4 pieces:

This process can be sped up a little, but starting with a single piece of 1″x4″ but I tend to have more 1″x2″ laying around.

Once the head pieces are glued up, I then sand and place them until they are perfectly smooth. Then I glue them to the neck

The neck and head joint usually requires just a little more sanding/planing before the piece is ready fot the head shape to be cut.

I usually draw the head shape on, using my template, then start with the band saw to get the rough shape:

An oscillating drum sander helps dial in the final shape, before I drill the tuner holes:

Once the holes are drilled, I start to shape the neck. A 45 degree router bit gets me a good shape to start with:

From there, I use rasps, files, a belt sanded and a mouse sander to get the shape I want:

I don’t spend too much time on getting it perfect just yet, because there will still be a lot more work to do once we add the body.
This is the basic neck I use for both the RG9 and RG10 guitars. From here the processes take drastically different paths.

June Update – Writing and Guitars

Wow, it’s been a while since I’ve provided an update, so this one is long overdue. The main reason for my lack of updates is because I’ve been exhausted. Like a lot of people, my life was drastically changed when Covid hit. Not because of the actual virus, thankfully no one I know has been hit by it, but because of the reaction to it. Turns out, no one needs a designer during a pandemic, so I lost 90% of my freelance income. Thankfully my wife still had her job, and we had a little money saved back, but without knowing what to expect of the future, I immediately started applying for any and every job I could find. After 3 weeks of almost no income, I got a call about a job at a local factory. I had no idea what the job was, what shift I’d be working or even how much I would be paid; all I knew was that orientation was the next day. I immediately accepted.

Some how I lucked out and got a first shift position. And even though the pay is at the low end of the spectrum, there’s a whole lot of mandatory over time, it’s hot, dirty and physically exhausting, it’s a job. One positive aspect of it is that I lost over 20 lbs in the first month, and over 30 lbs so far. I’m almost down to the weight I was at 28, before I quit smoking and got a desk job.

Another positive about the job is that it really doesn’t require much brain power, so I’ve had a lot of time to think about my books. Unfortunately, I was too exhausted during the first month and a half to do anything with those thoughts once I got home. But my body has gotten a little more accustomed to averaging 25,000 steps a day while lifting 100’s of parts, so I’ve finally been writing again. My Life As Death is really coming along. I am even more positive now than ever, that this will be my best shot at a traditional publishing deal.

I’ve also given a lot of thought to my other books, though I haven’t been working on actually writing them right now. MLAD is my primary focus, and the writing is going so smoothly that I don’t want to disrupt it by trying to work on anything else. Once it’s done ( or God-forbid, I get writer’s block with it) I think I’ll be able to easily switch gears and finish up Zero Sum, and possibly even After the End.

In addition to writing, I’m also continuing to build guitars. Thankfully I’ve sold a few and I have a few orders to finish so I’m keeping busy with them. I also have a few builds started to add some much needed inventory to my online store (https://www.etsy.com/shop/RileyCustomGuitars). Right now I’ve only got one guitar left for sale, so I’ve got to get these done soon.

So my writing and guitar building are slowing coming back to normal, and hopefully my design career will be close behind them.

Fun with Fire

I started this next guitar with the idea of doing a budget build. I wanted to design a guitar that could be built with limited tools and for very little money. While the design changed a little over time, the basic concept remained the same.

To keep the cost down, I decided to use edge glued pine for the body, instead of my usual poplar.

I cut the two pieces, flipping the template over to cut and route the top piece. This helps hide the screw holes inside the finished body.

I also cut out the control cavity and neck cavity and routed a wiring channel in the top piece before gluing the two halves together. I used a dremel tool to route the wiring cavity so it wasn’t very pretty, but it worked. And once the guitar was assembled, no one would see it.

A lot of glue and clamps, and the body was ready for shaping and finishing.

At this point the body could be completed with just a little sanding and maybe a little rounding of the edges, but I decided to break out my files and give it some contours.

If you have a router, it makes this step a lot easier, but filing edge glued pine by hand isn’t that difficult, and getting the shape I wanted was actually pretty intuitive and enjoyable.

So with the body shape done, I needed some way to finish it. I’d learned about shou sugi ban years ago, and had always wanted to try it, so this seemed like to perfect opportunity. It fits well with the “budget” theme, and nothing screams rock-n-roll more than setting a guitar on fire.

Supposedly the flame treatment is enough to seal and protect the wood, but I ended up throwing on a clear topcoat, just for good measure.

As a “budget” build, especially for someone without a lot of tools, I had planned on using a bolt on neck from Guitar Fetish. I love these GF Basic necks, and for $33 you can’t beat the price, unless you happen to find one of the clearance necks. I’ve managed to pick up a couple of the “blemished” necks for $15-25 dollars, but that’s not typical.

I just happened to have a neck I’d already built, so I decided to use it instead of buying another one from Guitar Fetish, so I bolted it on.

Unfortunately, I forgot about taking pictures as I finished assembling the guitar. I used a standard hardtail bridge, a single volume pot, tuners and a magnetic pickup, all from mgbguitars.com.

This is where I deviated from my initial concept a little. I had planned on making the pickup and control cavity covers from wood, but then I changed my mind and 3D printed them. It still cost me next to nothing (~$0.50 for both), but I know most people don’t have 3D printers. And for anyone without a printer, the parts could still be made from wood.

So here’s the final product:

This was a really fun build, and a great way to use some of the parts I had laying around. Calculating the cost of everything I used, even though I already had most of it, this guitar cost me about $75. Having to buy the Guitar Fetish neck would probably take the cost closer to $100, but I still think that’s a great price for a custom, one-of-a-kind, guitar.

3 Strings – Something a little different

I’ve played guitar (not necessarily well) most of my life. It’s something I enjoy for myself but I don’t take it very seriously. I’ve also been a builder/creative type to some degree, so it makes perfect sense to me that I would eventually start building guitars. The one thing I could not have expected was that I would end up building a 3 string guitar.

The general term used for 3 and 4 string guitars is “cigar box guitars”, because most of them are actually made from cigar boxes. I came across a lot of these while researching guitar building, and there are a ton of really cool ones but I was only interested in “real” (in my mind) guitars, so I never really looked into them. But then something funny happened.

One of the companies I bought my supplies from (https://mgbguitars.com/) caters to the cigar box market. Several of the pieces on the “Lady in Red” build came from them, so I shared a couple pictures of the final build with them. The owner liked it and invited me to join a facebook group for cigar box builders. I was intrigued, so I accepted the invitation, and let me tell you; these guys are amazing.

The guys in the facebook group are some of the most genuine, and genuinely nice, people I’ve never met in person. And they share a passion for building amazing and creative guitars out of anything and everything they can find. Their passion is contagious, so I decided to build a CBG, even though I didn’t have a cigar box. But that’s okay, because these guys had shown me that a “cigar box” guitar can be built from anything.

I really like building guitar bodies, so I took the opportunity to design a new body style. This is what I came up with:

Building this 3 string was similar to building other guitars, but somehow felt easier. I made a few mistakes during the build, but all-in-all, I’m really happy with how it turned out. But even more importantly, I’m really happy with how it plays.

I’ve always played a traditional 6-string guitar in standard tuning, so I figured it would be weird to play a 3-string in open G tuning. It was a little weird at first, but also amazing. Playing this thing is just so easy and freeing. after a couple days I found myself able to jump in and play along with many songs as they streamed on spotify. I immediately fell in love; so much so, that I’ve already started building several more of them. I also ordered way too many cigar boxes to try my hand at a few traditional CBG builds use as well.

I had been told a couple weeks ago that due to the Covid-19 issues disrupting the aerospace industry I was going to be furloughed for two weeks starting next week. I planned on using this time to finishing building several of these guitars and putting them for sale. Then yesterday, I was informed that my contract had been cancelled. So while I will still be building several guitars, I’ll also have to use this time to try to find a new contract or permanent position. I don’t know if this will result in me having more or less time to build, but I will definitely post an update as soon as I have some guitars ready for purchase. In the mean-time you can check out my other goodies at https://www.etsy.com/shop/keyboardmonkeydesign

Lady in Red Update

One of the great things about building guitars is experimenting and changing things as the mood strikes me. The Lady in Red build looked great, but a solid body guitar with piezo pickups just didn’t provide the sound I was looking for, so I decided to make some changes. I’ve got several guitars with humbuckers, but I don’t have any with single coil pickups so I swapped out the double piezos with a single coil pickup from MGB (https://mgbguitars.com/collections/pickups/products/guitar-parts-pickups-seven-fitty). I didn’t take any pictures of the process, but it was pretty straight forward. I routed a cavity in the body and drilled a hole connecting it to control cavity, then ran the wiring.

MGB sells a pickup cover for the seven-fitty but due to my setup it didn’t get the pickup as close to the strings as I wanted, so I 3D printed a new cover. I also 3D printed a logo for the head while I was at it. I can’t say I’m completely done with this one, but I love the way she sounds…for now.

Building a Guitar Part 5: Finishing the Lady in Red

I’ve been slacking with with my updates on this build because it’s been done for a few weeks now, but here are the final steps in completing this build.

Final assembly on each of my guitars starts with bolting on the neck and re-attaching the bridge which was pre-positioned. Before I can secure the bridge, though, I have to attach the piezo pickups and run the wires through the body to the control cavity. Unfortunately, I didn’t take any pictures of this process, but it is fairly straight forward. I use double sided tape to adhere the pickups to a 3-d printed housing I designed, and then use more tape to hold the housing to the bridge. The housing helps align the pickups and protects them from being crushed when sandwiched between the bridge and body, but because it’s only 0.050″ thick, it’s almost invisible.

With this guitar I used two pickups, each with their own volume pot. Because one pickup is on the base side and one is on the treble, I can use the pots to blend the highs and lows to customize the sound I want. I don’t have the schematic for how I wired these, or even a great picture, but basically I wired the piezos in parallel, adding the volume pots between them and the jack based on this diagram from https://www.cigarboxguitar.com/knowledge-base/cigar-box-guitar-piezo-wiring-diagrams/ :

Piezo Diagram with Volume Pot and Jack

I’m not the best with wiring or soldering, so it wasn’t the prettiest job (and I accidentally touched the soldering iron the the body, leaving a coupe small burn marks), but it worked.

All in all, I’m very happy with this guitar. It’s a solid body with electric strings so it has a completely different sound then my semi-hollow build which is strung with acoustic strings. The semi-hollow has a fuller sound, more in line with the stuff I usually play but this one has a more driven, piercing sound that will go really well with the new rock/metal songs I’m working on learning.

Every project I take on turns out to be a great learning experience, and this one was no exception. I love the control the two pickup-two pot setup gives me, but I have a slight modification I’m going to try in the build. I’ve also already modified the neck design slightly. This one plays fine, but I want to get it a little thinner and a little more aggressive on the side angles to help facilitate some faster playing. And with these changes in mind, I’ve already started on my next one; a budget build. Because it’s a budget build, it won’t require a lot of the extra tools and steps of my previous builds so I’ll do the write-up in one post as soon as it is complete. In the meantime, here’s a preview:

Building a Guitar Part 4: Finishing the Body and Neck

With the neck built, it was time to finish the body. This included routing all the body edges, routing the control cavity cover recess, and drilling the neck bolt holes.

Then, with the neck fitted into the neckpocket of the body, I measured out the 25.5″scale and positioned the bridge, drilling the holes for the mounting screws and for routing the pickup wiring.

With all the routing and drilling done, it was on to the most nerve-racking part of the build for me, finishing. Sanding all the parts took a lot of time, especially the inner parts of the cutouts, and I still didn’t do a great job but the results are good enough for me.

After sanding, it was time to add some color and protection to the wood. I found an awesome red paint (duplicolor metalcast) that I used for my brother’s guitar and decided to use it. It’s a translucent automotive paint that is meant to go over bare/bright metal, so it is extremely durable while still allowing the natural woodgrain to show through. I did 6 coats of the red, wet sanding after every-other coat.

When the paint had time to cure, it was time to apply top coat. My go-to for guitar building has been Rust-oleum’s Triple Thick Glaze. It’s a non-yellowing coating that goes on well and provides an awesome high gloss finish. I applied 4 coats of the topcoat, wet-sanding after every-other coat. I then allow the topcoat to sit for a while (about a week in this case) before polishing. During this time, I also applied boiled linseed oil to the entire neck. I had thought about using the same Triple Thick Glaze, but ultimately decided that the linseed oil would give it a more natural feel

So, with all the painting and polishing done, all that is left is the final assembly and wiring.

Building a Guitar Part 3 – The Fretboard

The most critical part of a guitar is the fretboard. To make sure every fret is exactly where it belongs, I created yet another jig. I don’t remember exactly where I first saw this jig online, but there are many sites, books and videos showing how to make this. The jig is basically a very precise miter box.

A lot of people prefer to use expensive fret saws but I don’t have that kind of money to through around on something I’ll only use a couple times a year, so I went with a cheap plastic saw that cost me $8. It seems to cut perfectly straight and the replacement blades are extremely cheap.

With the fretboard slotted, I used the same neck template to cut and rout the fretboard to match the neck, then glued the two pieces together, once again using way too many clamps.

With the fretboard attached, I did a little more sanding and one more test fit.

To finish assembling the neck, I just needed to radius the fretboard and install the frets. To radius the fretboard, I 3D printed a sanding block with a 9.5″ radius and attached the sandpaper with doublesided tape. Eventually I’ll probably add some Velcro instead of the tape, but for now the tape worked.

Unfortunately I don’t have one of the fancy (and expensive) fretpresses, so I decided to make my own using a $5 clamp from menards and 3D printing the other pieces I need. I tried just using a hammer to install a couple of the frets, and it worked fine, but I definitely felt like I had more control with the clamp.

My process for inserting the frets was pretty simple; I would lay the fret wire on the slot and cut it, leaving a little overhang on both ends. I would then remove the wire, add some superglue to the slot, position the wire by hand, then use the clamp the press it into final position. I then had to repeat the process 20 more times. It was tedious, but it wasn’t awful. I then trimmed the ends of the wire and ran both sides of the neck across a belt sander to quickly remove any burrs. I still have to level and polish the frets and finish sand the rest of the neck, but for all practical purposes, the neck is ready to play, minus the nut. For this neck I’m using a bone nut and will install it last, when I’m ready to do the final guitar setup.

Building a Guitar: Part 2 – The Neck

I know that I said in my last post that I was going to use one of the pre-built necks for this guitar, but then I remembered that this guitar is going to use nylon strings. The necks I bought already have truss rods installed, which is really a good thing, but truss rods are most beneficial for steel stringed guitars and not necessary for guitars with nylon strings so I decided to make a neck for this build. But before I started on the neck, I needed to cut the neck pocket in the body.

Because of the way I designed this guitar, I was able to use a scroll saw to cut out the neck pocket close to the lines, then attach the template I 3D printed to get the final shape.

With the neck pocket routed, it was time to begin making the neck. I started the process by grabbing a piece of maple and marking a center line before aligning my template. Unfortunately I didn’t think to take a picture of the process this time, so here’s a few pictures of a neck I did out of poplar.

Like the body, I cut out the neck close to the template lines, then used the router with a pattern bit to get an exact match. I make several passes with the router, taking just a little off with each pass so I don’t risk tearing the wood. I then use a drill press to add the tuner holes based on the same template.

With the basic neck shape done, I proceeded to test fit the piece into the neck pocket on the body. The body was still in very rough shape, but the neck fit perfectly, so I was ready to continue shaping the neck.

There are many different guitar neck designs, and even more ways to shape them, so of course I chose to ignore all of the conventional ways and design my own neck shaping jig.

This jig allows me to use either a rounded or 45 degree angle router bit to shape the rear sides of the neck depending on how aggressive I want the angle to be. For this one, I went with the 45 degree bit. Then, by just flipping the entire jig over, I was able to use a router with the pattern bit set to the proper depth to remove some stock from the head.

So with the neck ready to move on to sanding and assembly, I decided to cut the control cavity into the back of the guitar, then glue the front and back pieces together using every clamp I have.

Then, when the body had adequate time to cure, I did one more test fit before beginning the neck assembly and sanding.

Building a Guitar: Part 1

A couple posts back I talked about how I got into guitar building, and in that same post I said that I would be building another guitar and documenting the process including the neck build. That was only halfway true. I had planned on the next guitar build to include a hand made neck, and I even have the neck started, but then I got an awesome deal on a couple of mostly finished necks so I decided to expedite this next build by using one of them.

This build is the first for the RG5-SC model. The RG5 indicated the overall body style and the SC stands for “Special Cut”. While the overall body shape is the same as the initial RG5 model, this one will be a solid body design instead of the standard semi-hollow design and it will have large weight-saving cutouts.

To begin building the guitar I needed a template. Our local UPS store can print full scale copies, so I saved the file to a flash drive and had them print it out. I could have tiled the file, printed it from my home printer and pieced it together as I’ve done in the past, but the $1.50 cost of having them print it was worth it to save me a little time and effort.

I glued the full size print to 1/2″ MDF board and cut it out with my scroll-saw. Since the outside edge is identical to the standard RG5 design, I cut that edge a little wider, then attached my existing RG5 template to it and used a router with a template bit to give me an exact match. Then, with the template done, I started gluing up my body blanks.

A lot of purists hate the idea of using lumber from the “big-box” stores for building guitars. I understand exactly why the are against it, but our local Menards has select grade Mastercraft lumber that has been surfaced on four sides. By using this, and inspecting it before I buy, I’ve not had any problems. I chose a nice piece of 1″x8″x6′ Poplar, cut it into four 18″ pieces and then glued two sets of two pieces, making sure to use more clamps than necessary:

I like to let the body blanks setup for at least 24 hours, then I use the template to mark the cut lines and use a combination of scroll saw and band saw to rough cut the body shape, making sure to cut just outside the lines. When the rough cuts are done, I then screw the template to the body blanks and use the router with template bit to finish getting the final shape. The template will be right-side-up for the bottom piece and up-side-down for the top to keep the screw holes from being visible after final assembly.

Now that the body is taking shape, the next step will be cutting the neck pocket.