Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Playable stratocaster guitar

We've had a dozen guitar kits cluttering up the place at Nerd Towers for a few days now. Unfortunately real life and work and having to pay the rent keeps getting in the way of messing about making cool stuff. But tonight, determined to make a playable instrument, we took a couple of hours to put one together.

As Steve always says - measure twice, cut once.
Although we had nothing to cut, there was plenty of drilling to do - so we made sure to measure each hole three times. I'm sure he'd go berserk at the idea of us using a long screw as a centre punch - but at least it shows progress: at least we knew to use a centre-punch this time (albeit a rather crude alternative)!

We started with the bridge, for no other reason that it needed six holes and looked quite interesting to do. We later learned that this wasn't the best place to start, but at the time, we were quite pleased with our bridge mounting.

A common mistake that people make with their stratocasters is making the bridge fixed to the body -what's often called a "hardtail" bridge. This basically means bolting the bridge down tightly so that it cannot move. But the bridge on a stratocaster is designed to float a bit.

So we used a 3mm bit for the guide holes, and tighted up the screws all the way down, before backing them off about half a turn. After doing this on all six screws, the bridge was in place...

....but still had room to lift slightly if necessary.
On the back of the body, we fitted the springs. It's the floating bridge and the tension in the springs that gives the stratocaster it's distinctive "jangle-y" sound.

We lined up the two screws for the plate holding the springs, drilled 3mm pilot holes, then fitted them to the back of the bridge

Some people prefer the springs to be straight, rather than this more common "fan" arrangement. Purists will argue about how it affects the tone. We just thought it looked nice like this. By tightening the two screws, you can increase the tension in the springs on the back.....

....which forces the bridge to sit tighter onto the body at the front. Note that the bridge still isn't "fixed" - it can be moved about - slackening off the springs at the back would allow the strings (when fitted) to completely lift the bridge off the body - this is a great technique for using the whammy bar and doing dive tricks and the like. But it does make tuning the guitar (especially with new, un-stretched guitar strings) an absolute nightmare!

Next it was time to drill and screw on the "bolt-on" neck. This was the bit that gave us most trepidation. One mis-placed screw and the entire neck could end up on the wonk!

There's not much to go on when fitting the neck. Maybe we could have put a couple of strings in place, temporarily and used them as a guide. But at this stage we were just thrilled not to have bolted it on upside-down or back-to-front.

We laid the fingerboard out on the neck where we thought it should go, and checked the distance from the inside of the nut to the string contact point on the bridge.

A perfect 25.5 inches. Things were looking promising!

Some double-sided tape on the neck (it's not a permanent fix - we'll be taking it up shortly and drilling it for the LEDs - plus the fingerboard isn't actually structural; it's the truss-rod inside the guitar neck, not the fingerboard that resists the tension in the string) and the fingerboard is ready to fix into place

Not looking bad at all! With the tuning pegs fitted to the head, we're ready to string her up!

So how does it sound?
Well, in my hands, pretty bloody awful.
Actually, that's not really true. It sounds exactly like what it is - a stratocaster guitar; the strings and the tone are bright and have a slight 60s sound to it. The neck needed hardly any adjustment - perhaps a quarter turn on the truss-rod to clear up the tiniest bit of fret buzz.

None of the electrics have been soldered up, so we've no idea how it sounds through an amp. But it actually plays quite nicely. We're going to have to leave it overnight, for the joints and the strings and everything to settle, and then tune it up again (the intonation is a bit off, with the harmonics at the 12th fret a little sharp, compared to the fretted notes) but even fresh off the bench, with no set-up at all, it sounds plays like quite a nice little guitar.

All we need to do now is to make sure the playability isn't affected when there's a 0.6mm PCB mounted under the fingerboard. It'll probably be another couple of days before we can get the CNC working, to rout one out, but it's exciting to know that - before we've butchered them at least - the guitar kits actually make half-decent, playable guitars!