This project, a carved solid body electric guitar, started as drawings in a notebook in September of 2006. Going to school full time concurrently with working on other projects prevented construction from beginning until May of 2007. Throughout that time, I spent hundreds of hours researching and creating designs using a full suite of CAD/CAM programs. In all, I spent about 300 hours designing and building this guitar. In October of 2007, the guitar was completed with a final trip to the MIT hobby shop for some finishing touches.
While only my second significant woodworking project, the complexity of this project over my last, the wood gear clock, is significant. The clock had only 4 major wooden parts (not including gears) and little joinery was involved. In contrast, this guitar required precision joints capable of providing the necessary tension on the strings and holding all of the key pieces, neck, head, and body in alignment. Each of these pieces plays an important role in the playability and musicality of the guitar. A curved neck, out of alignment head or improperly angled fret board are disastrous for a guitar.
The overall design of the guitar includes carved ball and claw features on both the top and bottom of the body cutouts. I had never done any wood carving before this project but it wasn’t too bad after reading up on the technique and watching videos on the interwebs. On the rear of the body, a floral scroll made of brass is inlayed into the surface of the wood. On the front, bloodwood and wenge are inlayed. Surrounding the head is a brass binding added to bring balance between the body and end of the guitar. The neck is a sandwich of wenge, bubinga, and bloodwood with a fat contour. I built a custom truss rod cover that doubled as a pick holder. I also made custom brass plates and perlaged their surfaces to surround the two DiMarzio pickups.
To install the various electrionics in the cleanest way possible, I abandoned traditional methods. Typically, electric guitars use one of two different wiring strategies: top routed electronics cavities that are covered with a pick guard or bottom routed cavities that are covered with plates. This guitar uses neither of these methods and instead used well planned internal holes allowing the overall look of the guitar to be free of any superfluous plates but forced all of the routed cavities to be considered thoroughly in advance.
The tone/volume control section was the most complicated area of the guitar with many hours devoted specifically to designing this mechanism. The main electronics pocket where the controls reside consists of 23 precision machined parts, 4 potentiometers, 2 o-rings, 1 switch, and 12 screws. One brass and four copper interlocking pieces each form two plates that are the supporting structure for the switches and pots. The top plate is skeletonized so that the bottom plate’s perlaged surface can be seen through it. Each of the pickups has its own set of volume and tone controls. The two controls are concentric: the top cone controlling tone and the bottom handle adjusting volume. In order to use the concentric controls, a system of pulleys was designed to transfer the turning motion of the volume controls to the central potentiometer. Finally, a five position switch with custom copper knob gives the ability to chose which pickups’ signal is routed to the output. Fitting all of the controls and potentiometers into a top mounted cavity required accurately modeling each of the parts in CAD prior to machining.
The final design of the guitar was inspired by a combination of sources that I ran into when doing research and during my everyday life. The steampunk movement has certainly influenced me but my own style has been developed more in parallel with the rebirth of the genre than in unison. Indeed, I have always liked the look that is now considered steampunk but I try to maintain some sense of simplicity (although you may disagree) and do not add elements that add no overall functionality to the piece.
My projects tend to be a combination of design and the pursuit to explore new techniques or materials that I have not used before. This guitar follows that line on a number of different levels. An exploration in woodworking and metalworking, this guitar formed a platform for me to try woodcarving, inlaying, perlaging, and just making a musical instrument.
MITnews published an article about me and some other instrument makers that can be seen here