So you’re thinking about building an electric guitar. Well, it’s a very rewarding experience when it’s done right, and you have the ultimate freedom to make it whatever you want. On top of that, it can be a money saving alternative to the hefty price of a good instrument, if you’re willing to invest your time. Or if you’re just planning on undertaking a fun project, it can certainly fit that bill too.
So here, in twenty steps, is a basic plan for building your first home-made axe. While you’re getting this ready, also think about heading over to an online course designed to build your guitar chops. You’ll be able to claim the ultimate DIY guitar hero cred when you’re ready to plug ‘er in.
1. Think this over
A disclaimer is in order. As rewarding as building a guitar can be, it can also be difficult. This guide will give you some options to make it as easy as possible. But even so, it’s important to start out by evaluating each part of the project and deciding whether you feel confident doing it.
You will want to make sure you’ve got a good handle on woodworking, so if you need to boost that skill, you might think about taking a course in woodworking fundamentals before you begin.
2. Plan for some time
Another piece of mental prepwork that must be stated up front: do not think you will finish this overnight. It’s going to require careful and precise work, so it’s best to take in steps over an relaxed timeframe.
3. Pick the body type
OK, so you’re ready to get started with planning your guitar. A natural place to start is deciding on the body type you want. You can look through catalogs and web-sites to get inspiration, and think about some of the most influential body types:
Known for its asymmetrical double cut away, its light, contoured body, and its classic configuration of three single coil pickups, the Fender Stratocaster is the model for the most popular body style in solid-body electrics. It offers a lot of versatility and easy access to the top frets.
A slightly heavier single cutaway without the contour of the Strat, the telecaster is a simpler body style to make. In its classic setup, it is a favorite of country musicians and is gaining popularity with alternative rock guitarists.
With its symmetrical, sharp double-cutaway, the SG is a thin, relatively light body style designed for easy playability and full neck access. Fitted for two humbucker pickups, it is a favorite for hard rock and metal players.
Gibson Les Paul
Easily among the heaviest of electrics (high-end ones are lighter), the Les Paul delivers a warm and full sound with a ringing sustain. With a carved top, raised pick-guard, and rounded profile, it is widely considered one of the most attractive guitars.
4. Pick your tonewoods
You can select from a range of woods that will significantly vary the sound profile of your guitar. Some of the classic woods used in electrics are becoming rare and expensive, so you might look for a substitute, but here are three of the classics and their sounds:
Ash: a hard wood that produces a bright and biting tone. Commonly used for Fender Telecasters to deliver that country twang.
Alder: A light wood with a balanced tone. Common in the Stratocaster.
Mahogany: Common for Gibson guitars and particularly the Les Paul, mahogany is a heavy wood that produces a warm sound with a lot of low end.
5. Plan the neck
Wood used for the neck will affect its weight, playability, and tone. Here are some of the most popular choices:
Maple: A hard wood that delivers a bite. Particularly common in Fender guitars. Fretboards finished in maple often provide a more rounded surface that’s good for chordplay,
Mahogany: If you really want to round out the thick, warm tone, you might consider a mahogany neck. Just remember that you might end up with a very heavy instrument.
Rosewood: A very hard wood that’s popular for fretboards. Rosewood fretboards are typically flat and smooth and better for moving quickly around the fretboard. A must for shredders. If you make the neck from scratch you would need to laminate this piece to the neck.
6. Plan the hardware
For your first guitar, you will have a much easier time if you stick with the hardware that is common for the different body styles, although you can mix and match.
Probably the most important consideration is the pickups. There are many to choose from, and you can find just the right ones for you in the catalogs of major manufactures like Dean Markely or EMG. As far as general categories to consider in your planning, there are two:
Single coil pickups: Typically these offer a more biting sound with a lot of treble and bass.
They can be very nice for clean tones. However, with added overdrive and distortion, they can get noisy.
Humbuckers: More balanced in the mid-range, humbuckers offer a full sound that’s better for heavy distortion. They are designed to cancel out the noise you would get with single coils (hence the name hum-bucker).
You’ll also need to consider the bridge, tuners, nut, pickguard, and all of the electronics/wiring.
7. Consider buying a template
When you have an idea of the body and neck you want, you might consider looking online for a template. Aside from simply cutting the body shape, you need to route out space for all of the components in the guitar. A template can greatly help you simplify this.
8. Consider buying the neck
You might also consider buying a neck pre-made for your first project. Carving out the frets and hollowing out space for the truss rod require a lot of precision work with a lot of room for error. It could take some practice to get it right.
9. Get your tools together
You need a jigsaw, router and sander to shape the body. The neck requires some specialized tools. Luthier sites will give you a full list of tools you will need to make your guitar.
10. Draw and Cut the body
If you are using a template, you have a design ready to cut. If you are drawing your own, trace the plan to scale on the tonewood you purchased for the body. Make sure with the latter option that you draw out the plans for where the hardware will go. Once it’s drawn out, you will use a jigsaw to cut the body.
11. Route the body
With the body of the guitar formed, you need to route out spaces for the hardware. Make sure you have planned out the right depth, and use a depth guage for accuracy.
12. Paint the body
You can paint the body at this point, or you can wait until you have finished the project and then disassemble it. It will need a long time (about two weeks) to properly dry. You need to apply a coat of wood primer before painting with good quality spray paints and then applying lacquer.
13. Cut the neck
If you’ve decided to make the neck from scratch, rather than purchasing it, you will want to cut that at this point. Make sure you are following specifications for how it will need to connect to the body. It’s best to cut the basic shape first and then refine. You also need to hollow out space for the truss rod. Finally, for a rosewood fretboard, you will need to laminate the board to the neck.
14. Prepare the neck
As mentioned previously, preparing the neck requires specialized tools and needs to follow precise specifications. If you are setting it up yourself, you will want to look up step-by-step instructions specifically for this process.
15. Fret the neck
Some premade necks will still require you to place frets in the fret slots. This will require fret wire, a fret hammer, and cutting pliers. You will cut the wire to make the basic length of each fret, hammer it in, and then trim it to be flush with the neck. Using a dremmel for the trimming could save you some hassle and lead to a better result.
16. Buy and place the truss rod
You can pick up a truss rod, ready to place in the neck at most music stores.
17. Buy and setup the hardware
You planned out your hardware but it is best to make the purchase after you know you have the body and neck built and made sure they will fit together. If you have made it to that point, you are ready to put in the hardware components. Realize that you may need to do some basic soldering. If you need some guidance in that area, you can get it in a free course on metalworking.
18. Bolt it together or laminate it
Depending on the type of guitar you made, you will take one of two methods to piece it together. You may bolt the neck on, which is a simple process that makes Fender guitars easier to mass produce. The alternative is laminating the neck on, which is common for Gibson guitars, and it is a bit more intensive (and permanent).
19. Set it up
Once it is all put together, you’ll need to make some adjustments to your guitar before it is ready to play. This will include adjusting the action, the truss rod, the bridge and the tuning.
20. Plug it in
When you have got your new guitar pieced together and set up, plug it in and make some noise! And if you are looking for a step-by-step system for mastering your new instrument, try a comprehensive online course on playing guitar.