How to Build Your Own Electric Guitar
Can You Really Build an Electric Guitar Yourself?
If you're a guitar player who's been at it for any amount of time it's probably occurred to you that you might try to build your own electric guitar. Many famous musicians have built their own guitars, or have modified stock guitars to their liking.
Eddie Van Halen built his infamous Frankenstrat out of junk parts.
Eric Clapton assembled Blackie out of parts from three different Stratocasters.
Yngwie Malmsteen took a file to his Strat as a teenager and created the scalloped fretboard he still plays to this day.
With help from his father, Brian May of Queen built his own guitar, and Brian used it for years as a professional musician.
Some guitarists enjoy building guitars almost as much as they enjoy playing them. There are websites dedicated to showing off their work, and many of their creations surpass the high-end guitars made by some of the more famous companies.
But the question is, can you really build your own guitar? Definitely, and it's not as hard as you might think. It may seem daunting, but if you take some time to prepare and learn about the process there is no reason you couldn't put together an instrument you will be proud to show off to your friends.
You can literally spend the rest of your life learning the craft of guitar construction and maintenance, so this guide is by no means definitive. You'll likely need to collect various resources along your journey. But the information presented here will get you started off on the right path, and give you a strong overview of what it takes to build your own guitar.
This article presents the basics for beginners who are thinking about their first guitar build. Hope you find it helpful.
What Kind of Guitar Project Can You Handle?
The first thing you need to do is figure out how complicated of a project you think you can handle. Be honest with yourself, and assess your skills in woodworking, electronics and mechanics. You will need to call on all of these abilities to complete your guitar, and you don't want to start a project only to realize you're in over your head.
The good news is, no matter what your skill level, there is a project that meets your abilities. Here's a basic list of guitar projects you could undertake:
Building a Guitar from Scratch
This is the most complex of projects you could attempt, and few people are capable of building a guitar in this manner. Building an guitar from scratch would involve precise measurements, excellent mathematical skills, advanced woodworking abilities and equipment and a very strong knowledge of stringed instruments.
People capable of building a hand-made instrument in this manner are true artists known as luthiers, and they can command thousands of dollars for each instrument they create.
Build an Electric Guitar from a Kit
This is the simplest and most inexpensive method of building your own electric guitar, and the one to choose if you feel you need to start off slowly.
Some guitar companies make guitar kits that come with every piece you will need to build your guitar.
You have the ability to paint and finish the body, then assemble the guitar as per the instructions that come with the kit. This is a great way to get started building unique instruments.
The experience you gain from this step-by-step method also primes you for more difficult projects down the road.
Many players build their guitars from a kit. They are inexpensive, easy to assemble, and you still get to create your own custom finish.
Build a Guitar from Custom Parts
This is the most common path musicians take when they build guitars, after they have a little experience under their belts. There are many guitar parts companies such that can furnish every piece you would need to build your own guitar, from bodies to necks to hardware.
You can purchase bodies pre-routed and necks pre-fretted, so this takes away a great deal of the intricate work you'd otherwise have to perform yourself.
One great benefit of building a guitar using this method is that you can individually choose every part, and even request custom parts, creating a truly unique instrument exactly to your specs.
Many musicians choose to build guitars in this manner because the major guitar manufacturers do not make an exact model they desire. So, they build it themselves!
This is the method we're going to focus on in this article.
Gathering Parts for Your Guitar
Your first step is to purchase the parts you'll need for your build. However, one middle-of-the-road option is to purchase most of the parts, but cut the body yourself. You can purchase tonewood "body blanks" for this purpose if you think you can pull it off.
It should go without saying but here it is anyway: If you don't know how to use power tools or are trying them for the first time please do so under the direction of someone who knows what they are doing. Observe all safety protocols for the tool, and be careful.
Cutting and shaping a guitar body can be dangerous if you don't know what you are doing, and if you are uncertain it is probably better to choose a pre-made body.
When you're purchasing individual parts, it's important to get an idea of exactly what type of hardware you'll be installing on the guitar. If you're purchasing a pre-cut body and neck, you'll ideally want to custom order these to the specs of the hardware you'll use.
A body routed for a Floyd Rose tremolo is very different than a body routed for a vintage Fender tremolo. Think about your guitar in detail before you go out and purchase parts. Below you'll see examples of the items you will need.
As you can imagine based on the list below, there are literally thousands of combinations you may choose for your guitar and accessories. Not every guitar requires each of the parts, and some may require parts not on that list. Each instrument in specific. Be creative, but make sure the parts you choose are compatible.
Here's a breakdown of the typical parts you're going to need for most guitar builds:
You have options here, from purchasing a blank and cutting your own custom body, to purchasing an unfinished body, to buying a finished guitar body with a custom paint job.
Most builders prefer to purchase unfinished,prerouted bodies so they can paint them themselves. Depending on the style of guitar, you may wish to paint the body and back of the neck together.
Note: If you purchase a body be sure it is routed for the pickups and electronics you intend to use.
The wood you choose for your guitar with have a profound effect of the sound of the instrument. Choosing the correct tonewood may require a little thought as you figure out what combination of woods will get the sound you want.
You can read more about tonewoods HERE.
- Guitar body, finished or unfinished, or a blank.
You have many choices of tonewoods for the neck and fingerboard as well, and of course the decision is up to you.
The true experts prefer to cut their own fretwire and install the frets and nut themselves, but you can custom order whatever you like pre-assembled from a parts dealer.
Consider the way the neck and body fit together when choosing a neck design, and make sure they are compatible.
- Guitar neck, chosen by wood and fretboard material.
- Custom nut, if you are brave
- Fretwire, if you are really brave.
- String tree (depending on angle of headstock)
- Neck plate (depending on style of neck)
What Kind of Fretboard Should You Choose?
- Maple vs Rosewood vs Ebony Fretboards
Learn the difference between a maple or rosewood fretboard for guitar and decide which is better for your sound.
Pickups and Electronics
Of course you can choose whatever pickups you like, and the door is open to many great custom ideas that you'd never find in a guitar shop. Make sure you get the right pots and capacitors for your electronics plan. A wiring harness for a guitar can be be purchased as a kit as well, to make things a little easier on you.
Or, better still, you can choose a pre-wired pickguard.
Don't forget things like copper shielding and extra wiring.
- Volume pot(s)
- Output jack
- Tone pot(s)
- Tone Capacitor
- Copper Sheilding / wiring supplies
- Pickup selector switch(es)
This includes the bridge, tuners, knobs, strap buttons or locks, switch tips, and let's throw the pickguard in here as well. Some of these options will have tonal influence over the guitar, some functional, some are simply aesthetic, and some are all of the above. Choose wisely, and be creative.
- Pickguard (depending on configuration)
- Volume/tone knobs
- Custom switch tips
- Strap buttons or locks
Decide on a Bridge for Your Guitar
- Electric Guitar Bridge Types
Choosing an electric guitar with the right type of bridge for your needs is a key part of getting the sound you want from your instrument.
Finishing the Guitar Body
It's a good idea to loosely assemble your guitar before finishing, just to be sure no serious changes need to occur. If everything looks good, the next step is to paint the body.
If you're starting out with a plain-wood body, you're going to need to finish it in some way. This is one of the most fun and creative parts of building your own guitar. It's your guitar, and you can do anything you want, from intricate air-brushed designs to easy stains and natural oil finishes.
You can take a can of spray paint or a set of acrylic paints to it if you want to stick with simple options.
But if you want to create a professional-looking finish at home you can do that too. Check out this YouTube video from HybridAxe. Amazing!
Finishing Your Guitar Body
Assemble Your Guitar
Every style of guitar is different in some way or another, so a definitive guide to assembly for each guitar type is not within the scope of this article. However, to provide you with a primer for better understanding the process of assembling your guitar, here are the basic steps:
1. Install hardware in headstock. You'll need to install the tuners in the pre-drilled holes in the headstock. Most tuners fit in easily with a hex-type nut and/or washer in the front, and one or two screws in the rear. If your neck does not feature a tilt-back headstock you may need to install string trees under the 1st and 2nd, and possibly 3rd and 4th strings. Depending on the neck you selected, you may need to install the nut at the top of the fretboard.
2. Bolt or glue neck onto body. Put the neck and body together. Most bodies and necks that are intended to go together can be purchased with pre-drilled holes. If you're drilling your own holes you'll have to do some measuring to make sure everything lines up okay. Some builds require a "set" neck, or one that is glued onto the body. If you go this route make sure you allow enough time for the setup to dry before working on the guitar again.
3. Install bridge. Depending on the type of bridge you've selected, this can be a simple or extremely complex process. Some bridges install with only a couple of bolts. Others require precision measurements. Remember, this is why it's important to custom order your parts to the specs of your hardware. You don't want any surprises at this point.
4. Install pickups and electronics.This will require some basic soldering skills and a schematic for the specific pickups you're working with. It may be the most time-consuming of the steps, and can sometimes be the most frustrating. If you don't have a lot of experience working with electronics, you may want to build a single-pickup, single-volume-knob guitar for your first attempt, as these are the simplest to wire.. If you get lost check out the Guitar Wiring Archive at Guitar Electronics.
5. Install hardware such as volume/tone knobs and strap buttons.Your guitar is together, it's wired, and you're almost there. Now take a few minutes to properly install the additional hardware options. Of course you'll need volume and tone knobs; there are a lot of cool designs out there to choose from. You'll need strap buttons or locks. Most of these items install very easily, and will be the least of your concerns during your build. This step may also include screwing the pickguard onto the body, depending on your style of guitar.
6. String and setup the guitar. String your guitar up, and give it a proper setup. You can take your newly built guitar to a guitar shop where you can have it looked at by a guitar technician who will set the instrument up for you. Or, since you've gone through so much trouble to build the thing, you may as well learn to set it up. This is a skill that will pay off in the long run, as a good setup can cost between $30 and $50 at a guitar shop.
This list makes it seems easy, but getting everything to fit together correctly can be frustrating. For some more precise reference material, check out StewMac's Electric Guitar and Bass Assembly Guide.
Working on Your Guitar
Learning to work on your own guitar is important for any guitarist. You'll know how to address any serious issues such as fret buzz or high string action yourself, and you'll avoid the frustration and expense of taking your guitar to a professional guitar shop.
Of course, for beginners, there is a certain amount of frustration in learning the skills necessary to complete a good setup, and to diagnose and solve any playability issues. But if you've already learned how to build your own guitar, you've certainly proven you have the skills to deal with any tweaking.
It seems like a lot of work, but it won't take long until you're a pro. As you surely understand by now, each style of guitar has its own specific requirements for setup, but if you know the basics you can work on any instrument.
Basic Truss Rod Adjustment
String Action Adjustments
Ready to Give it a Try?
It's a challenge to build your own electric guitar, but one you'll be proud to conquer. When you're finished you'll have a custom instrument you created yourself, and the experience to take on more difficult tasks.
Starting with a guitar kit is the wisest choice for most musicians. The simplicity of the assembly, combined with the added freedom of designing and finishing the body yourself, will get you moving in the right direction.
If you have a little more confidence in yourself you may choose to buy your parts piece by piece. Whatever you decide, your guitar will be one of a kind.
Certainly it's difficult to cover all aspects of guitar constuction in one article, but hopefully you've found this helpful. Thanks for reading and good luck with your project!