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Guitar Updates – Tuners and headstocks

Since I’m seemingly never satisfied with my guitars and that I feel a deep desire to modify them, I’ve been making some small but substantial updates over the past few days.

On my custom walnut guitar, I was getting annoyed at the height of the saddles on my bridge. When playing in certain positions, the corner of the low-E saddle was digging into my hand. The only solution was to route the neck pocket deeper so I could lower the saddles and keep the action at the same height. It was a nerve wracking minor surgery. It always feels a bit off to take a router to a finished project, but it had to be done.

While the neck was off, I took the opportunity to sand the back to 1000 grit to make it feel super smooth. I also worked on the inlay I made with shapeways.com a year ago. I took my personal logo and had it printed in nickel. I made it just oversized from my forstner bit so with a bit of sanding, I could get a super tight fit without any gaps around the edge. I think it really made the headstock look classy:

And for another quick upgrade, I wanted to swap out the tuners on my Gibson Les Paul Special. Mine had come with the robo-tuners installed from the factory. I never had a particular issue with the robo-tuners except I would have to lookup how to restring the guitar because I would forget the button sequence. And really, I’m not swapping out tunings that often so really, they weren’t doing much for me and they’re pretty ugly.

I swapped out the tuners for some super sleek HipShot open back tuners. The headstock looks loads better and I think I saved a bit of weight as well.

Another Shaper Origin project: Valet tray

Here’s my first project working with the Shaper export tool inside of Fusion 360. This is a valet tray about 6 inches long by 4 inches tall. The wood I used is pau ferro (also known as morado, http://www.wood-database.com/pau-ferro/) which is close to a rosewood. The finish I used is a Minwax satin wipe-on poly.


Weekend Project: Tie and belt rack

This was a quick weekend project to organize my ties and belts. A few months back I installed new closet systems and I haven’t had a good way to hang my ties or belts since.

I started with 6 pieces of reclaimed pallet wood. Using the table saw to joint the sides, I got everything square. Then a quick glue-up, rough sanding, and dark stain.

After the stain dried, I started on the Shaper Origin part of the project. I screwed the workpiece down to the waste board and put on a bunch of location tape. The trick here is to the point the Origin at the center of the workpiece as you move around the edges. They always seem to demonstrate the Origin with the tape running horizontal, but it works in any orientation. This kept my waste to a minimum.

After cutting my design, I added a decorative strip of maple using both CA glue and wood glue. The CA will hold it quickly and the wood glue will give it strength. Of course, the nails going through will also hold everything together.

Here it is mounted in my closet. I wanted to dress it up a little bit which is why there’s a hexagon design. I used a piece of 1/2″ plywood to make a quick french cleat on the back and to make the rack stand proud of the wall.

I think it’s going to work great and I can’t wait for the final coat of finish to dry so I can start using it!

 

Christmas gifts made with the Shaper Origin

Here are three different gifts I made this holiday season with my new Shaper Origin.

The picture frame is made out of pau ferro and curly maple. I carved the words in with the engraving bit to give it angled sides to all the cuts.

The Team StraitJacket is a solid piece of walnut with my team’s logo carved in using the 1/16″ bit. I needed to use the small bit to deal with the tight corners and details. It seems like 1/16″ is the smallest bit you can find with a 1/4″ shank. Any smaller and you would need a collet reducer.

The last item is the Christmas ornament I designed for our family this year. I carved it using the 1/8″ bit at two different depths. After some finish was applied I drilled tiny 1/32″ holes and added fiber optics with an LED to put “lights” on the ornament. With a regular button cell battery, it seems like these things go for at least 4 days.

New Tool Day! Shaper Origin

Last night I received my Shaper Origin. For those unfamiliar, it’s a handheld CNC router. It basically works like a router where the templates are stored in the onboard computer and servos in the tool auto-correct the position of the cutting bit while you’re moving around the design. It uses this stuff called “shaper tape” which allows the device via computer vision to understand where it is on the workpiece.

Creating the design files is pretty easy. Using different colors you tell the Origin whether you want to cut inside the line, outside the line, or on the line. Also you can add blue lines to your design to help guide and position the design on the workpiece. Here’s my design for my test piece. The blue lines allow me to center the design on the wood and position it correctly.

And here’s the finished test piece. There’s a bit of squiggle because I didn’t set up the design perfectly for the cutting bit I was using, but that’s what it’s a test!

 

My Ibanez has reached its final form (almost)

I purchased my Ibanez AG75 about 2 years ago. It’s not an expensive instrument by any means, but it’s pretty well put together. I use it strictly for when I want that jazzy, hollow-body sound that you can’t get out of anything besides a real hollow-body guitar.

The components are fairly cheap, so I’ve been slowly upgrading pieces to bring it up to the level that I’m looking for. The first thing on the list was replacing the pots. The factory pots were terrible and within the first year, the tone knob on the neck pickup was scratchy. I replaced those with some CTS pots. The holes in the guitar needed to be enlarged for the larger pot shaft. While I was doing the dirty work of replacing electronics in a hollow-body, I swapped out the caps as well for Orange Drops.

The next piece I decided to replace was the nut. The factory nut was just a cheap plastic piece. I replaced the nut with a TUSQ nut which I’m using on all my other guitars. I picked up the pre-slotted PQ-6114-00 directly from Graphtech. It only took a little bit of sanding and get it in the existing nut slot. I feel like the sustain is a little better and the tuning seems a lot more stable.

Finally I wanted to change out the neck pickup. Because this is my jazz box, I really only live in neck pickup land. The factory pickups are pretty cheap ceramic pieces, so a definite sound upgrade would be a pickup with Alnico 2 magnets for that classic voice. To save some money and try them out, I picked up a GFS Professional Alnico II Neck from GuitarFetish.com (PRO_KMZIINI_NK). This is their take on classic PAF trying to match the components and construction of the Gibson PAFs. The difference isn’t huge, but it does sound more open with a little more high end. The original pickup had a muddy sound and this doesn’t. Of course I always roll the tone back…

And for the final jazz upgrade, swapping out strings to D’Addario flat wounds.

So to add up all the costs to upgrade this beginner guitar to something more appropriate for an intermediate jazz player:

  • $7 for two Orange Drop caps
  • $30 for CTS pots (with shipping)
  • $20 TUSQ nut (with shipping)
  • $40 for GFS Alnico II Pro pickup (with shipping)

So for just under $100, I’ve made some huge tone and sustain upgrades to my jazz box. That means I’m only $500 all in on this guitar and it sounds pretty damn good!

The only upgrade I still have on the list is to build a custom pau ferro (Brazilian rosewood) pickguard to replace the plastic one that came with the guitar.

Quick portable speaker from spare parts (guitar amp and phone speaker)

I had a set of old computer speakers laying around. I thought to myself, “What could I do with these?”.

Then it came to me. Mini amp!

At first I tried to use the amplifier IC that was on the board in the speakers themselves. But after finding I didn’t have all the right parts on hand, it was easier and faster to buy a LM386 chip already put on a PCB board with the proper components to make a small amp. You can pick these up from Amazon by searching “LM386 amp”. They’ll be anywhere from $5-$7.

I found the box at a garage sale for $1.50. I might have overpaid… The original sticker on the box said $19.99 which I thought was really steep.

I started cutting holes in the box for the speaker, 1/4 inch jack and switch. The box didn’t come with a latch, so I drilled a small hole for a small magnet and put a wood screen on the lid so hold the box closed. A little wiring, a little solder, and a little super glue later, all the components were installed.

I did a quick design of a 9v battery clip to hold the battery in place. Then I hot glued the amp and battery clip in place and I was good to go!

Quick pedal board you can build yourself

Here’s a quick pedal board you can build yourself in an hour or two. I built this out of wood I had on hand. Most of the stock was approximately 3/4″ thick. This thickness will keep things from flexing too much when I stomp on the pedals themselves. For this I used walnut, poplar and maple because it’s what I had. A few quick passes through the table saw and miter saw got everything down to the dimensions required. I’ve attached a photo with the final important dimensions scribbled on top if you want to make your own. The inside width is 15″ on mine. All the wood is glued and screwed. I used 2″ brass wood screws on the top pieces. The supporting rails have three 1 1/2″ screws. Just need to add velcro and I’m ready to go.

And here’s the final version with the velcro and pedals applied:

How to purchase an expensive (sounding) guitar/rig without your wife, girlfriend, or significant other noticing

I’m talking about on the down-low, under the radar, sneaking around…

For the last year, I’ve been on a quest to get the best sounding guitar and amp for the least amount of money. It’s easy to drop $1,500 to $3,000 on a quality Fender or Gibson and another $1,000+ on a reasonable sized amp for bedroom/studio playing, but let’s be honest… Your wife/girlfriend/husband/boyfriend/significant other may not be super pumped that you’re willing to drop $4,000 on a guitar and rig (before you start on pedals) when the car you’re driving might only be worth $6k. A big part of me agrees with them. You should be able to acquire a quality instrument and functional amp that plays well, sounds good, and doesn’t leave your credit card a smoking pile of plastic.

For me, this quest has been a bit frustrating mostly because of YouTube.

I enjoy watching channels like Andertons, Rob Chapman, Crimson Guitars, YourGuitarSage, Norman’s Rare Guitars, etc. The issue with watching these channels is these people tend to play with high quality gear through high quality amps using high quality microphones to record everything. This makes their setup sound really good. I’ll even argue, maybe too good in some cases. Yes, when you mic an amp, you’re getting the best sound that amp can make, but rarely is that the sound that amp is going to make in your house which can lead to frustration and an unsettling feeling that the guys on YouTube know some secret that you don’t. Or worse, you feel like you need to drop $2,000 on an 2 x 12 handwired combo amp to sound the same which you know will get you put in the dog house.

There has to be a better way to sound good, find your tone, and not kill your bank account in the process.

I’m still on this journey and I’m not an expert. I think I’ve arrived a pretty good place as far as the guitar goes. The amp situation is still in flux, but each iteration of my rig is getting better. What my goal for this series of blog posts is to share what I’ve learned and discovered, what is important vs. what can be ignored, and ultimately, how much can you expect to spend to sound good and find joy with your playing. If you’re willing to experiment and do a bit of the work yourself, you can save a bunch of cash while still finding great tone and playability (and hopefully keep your relationship intact).

The Guitar

  • The essential components to a great sound and tone
  • Upgrading your axe vs. build your own
  • What matters for playability (neck, strings, quality electronics)
  • Considerations for bedroom play vs. gigging and how this affects price

The Amp

  • Why practice amps suck
  • Why big amps aren’t the right answer either
  • Stay flexible and don’t get locked in

The Rest of the Story

  • Overdrive in a bedroom settings, pedals are your friend
  • Flexible pedals vs. one-hit wonders
  • Instrument and speaker cables
  • Accessories you might find useful

 

Check out my Etsy store

After the Christmas rush of making gifts for family and friends, I ended up with one or two items that were extra. I decided I wanted to set up an Etsy shop to sell these items. To help me build out inventory, my father will be designing and creating items as well. We will be focusing on wood gifts and accessories.

Please check out: https://www.etsy.com/shop/SplicedBits