Instruments have personalities. The guitar that I thought I built for church wants to play fusion; the guitar that I built for fusion wants to play in church. My own emerging musical personality has similarly surprised me: as a longstanding Holdsworth fan it feels odd to find myself thinking of Joe Bonamassa as a kindred spirit. But here we are.
My guitars were all built from Warmoth components finished in Tru-Oil, the hardware was mostly from Gotoh, and I wound the pickups myself.
A Telecaster - sort of
What I call my "Tele" is a hybrid instrument that started with a good deal on a fat, used, all-maple Strat neck.
Using 1952 Telecaster specs for a reference I paired the neck with a custom swamp ash body and tweaked to taste. The only real departure from my reference was the neck pickup: cosmetically it's a nod to the Broadcaster, but it's wound 8% hotter than a '52 Tele and uses A2 polepieces for additional warmth and sustain.
More than just a pretty face
It took five prototypes, endless tinkering, and a few recording projects, but eventually I achieved what I originally set out to create in 2011: a guitar that is pleasing to my ears while being versatile enough for gospel, traditional jazz, classic rock, and fusion.
The swamp ash body and fat all-maple neck create the round, clear tone that made me fall in love with my Tele, and the pickups are wound to the same specs. A metal plate under the bridge pickup, a Tremolo-No, and a neck/bridge pickup combination in the middle position allow the guitar to function like a Tele if I want it to. A hum cancelling backplate makes it suitable for extreme gain, while no-load tone pots compensate for the associated treble loss. The tone circuits are bypassed entirely in the middle/bridge pickup combination.
Pedals and Amplification
Since 2016 my recordings have all been of my Tele directly plugged into a 50W Red Plate Dave Fields Custom. My backup recording amp is a 15W Fender Pro Jr Ltd.
At church I use the pedal rig shown here, which feeds into a 30W Fender Deluxe Reverb Reissue.
This section is for me: a memorial to the custom-built guitars that I loved and laboured over, but were nothing more than steps on the journey.
Advice for Novices
Like every other serious electric guitarist, my sound is the product of an ongoing journey into gear and into my own taste as an artist. A custom DIY approach was the right path for me but it was a long, strange trip that took me essentially to hot-rodded gear from about 1967. I wouldn't recommend my path to anyone but the most obsessive.
That said, and setting aside the very different worlds of hollow bodied or metal-oriented guitars, my own journey has left me with a number of firm views:
- Good tone requires good technique and learning how to listen. Practice, and paying attention, are 100% more valuable than gear.
- The fewer features, the better. Push-pull knobs, toggle switches, digital effects, and an overstuffed pedal board will just give you endless varieties of mediocre tone and, in my case, create more ways to screw up when performing live. Understanding how to use volume and tone properly will eliminate the need for most toys.
- Your volume knob is your main tone control.
- Your tone knob should almost never be fully open unless your volume knob is rolled back.
- The instrument is not just the guitar but everything between the strings and the speaker. Your sound will only be as good as the weakest link in that chain.
- The choice of amp is arguably more important than the choice of guitar. Amps with digital effects are mostly bad. Marshall-style amps (including Orange) are ideal for rock, while Fender-style amps are ideal for jazz and blues. Vox is an acquired taste. No one needs a tube amp bigger than 30W.
- There are only three classic electric guitars that matter. A Telecaster will do anything. A Les Paul is for jazz, rock, and blues. A Stratocaster is for lead guitar. Hot take: with the right tonewoods and pickups, a Tele is probably the best choice for most players.
- Classic designs are classic for a reason. A classic Les Paul is short scale, made of mahogany and rosewood, and loaded with humbuckers; a classic Strat is a combination of alder, maple, and rosewood, loaded with single coils; a classic Tele is swamp ash and maple, loaded with single coils and sporting a bridge plate. Yes, I'm grossly oversimplifying. I know. The point is that you will be at least 90% of the way to “your” guitar if you figure out which of those three guitars make the sound that you like the best, when combined with either a Fender or a Marshall style amp.
- The basic sound of a guitar comes from the wood and the amp: the pickups shape the EQ. Humbuckers are basically necessary for high gain, but they are mellower and less distinctive sounding than single coils, especially when played clean. P90s are great blues pickups but don't function well under high gain. A middle pickup needs a Fender amp.
- The longer the scale, the more "piano-like" the tone. This is normally a good thing.
- Hot pickups sound dull, not big. Fat necks and heavy strings sound big.
- A whammy bar adds a little natural reverb but thins the tone and reduces sustain. Floating the bridge makes the guitar much harder to tune in general and makes alternative tunings basically impossible. Get a guitar with a whammy only if you need vibrato and/or divebombs.