Sunday, October 04, 2009

My dream guitar

As you may know, I am an avid electric guitar player.  My current axe is an older model from the Ibanez GIO series.  Though it gets the job done, it is by no means perfect.  The perfect guitar, however, is exactly what this post is all about.

I set about designing my dream guitar with one simple, guiding philosophy in mind: as much control over the produced sound as possible without sacrificing quality of tone.  A working title for the design is the Transmitter (a really bad pun on Broadcaster).  Unlike many mutton-as-lamb "signature" models, The Transmitter has quite a few customizations.

Body

There have been a couple of times in my life where I had the privilege of playing a Fender Telecaster.  Though I'm not as big a fan as some of the twangy tone produced by the Tele's slanted bridge pickup, I do believe that it is the most comfortable instrument I have ever played.  Its comfortable and attractive body, enduring design and rich history have made the Fender Telecaster my favourite guitar.

It is a touch on the heavy side, though, so I'd go with a lighter wood such as Ash, or maybe even an f-hole as found in the Telecaster Thinline as seen below:


Neck

In keeping with the philosophy of maximum control over sound, I should prefer a 24-fret neck.  Modern Telecasters have 22 frets, an increment to the 21-fret neck of classic Teles, but 24-fret variants do exist, such as the Bajo Sexto Baritone Tele.  However, taking into account the preference for a lighter body, this could result in an instrument which is unbalanced and neck-heavy, especially considering the longer 25.5" scale length Fender tends to use - and which I prefer for its tonal qualities and comfort for my larger hands.  With this in mind, I'm happy to compromise with 22 frets, seeing as that's what I'm playing right now anyway.  Fret size should be jumbo.

The neck radius should be 12" (stock Les Paul).  For additional control, all frets from the 17th upwards should be scalloped, similar to the Ibanez shown below (I believe it's a JEM series [As kindly pointed out by Matt08642 on Reddit, this is probably an RG1570]), which features scalloping from the 21st to the 24th fret:



As far as fretboard wood is concerned, you generally get two types of people: those who believe the choice of wood affects tone, and those who believe this to be an urban legend.  I fall in the former category, and would prefer a neck and fingerboard of maple for its (perceived) clarity, definition and control.

Electronics

And thus we get to the real meat-and-potatoes of the design.  It should come as no surprise that the Transmitter will be electronics heavy, seeing as I am a techie, and recalling my mission with the guitar: total sonic control.

A major part of the setup will be the transplanted electronics from a Line 6 Variax guitar: a saddle-mounted piezoelectric pickup feeding a per-string signal to active electronics.  These electronics model the tone of 25 classic guitars, from a 1928 "Tricone" resonator, to a selection of classic and modern Stratocasters, Les Pauls, Dreadnoughts, and more.  Yes, that's right, it also models acoustic guitars.

Before you ask; yes, I do know of the Fender VG Stratocaster, but I'm a fan of Line 6 products and trust their impressive modelling capabilities.

The tone and volume pots from a Variax respond - I believe - appropriately to the guitar model being used, and so their presence in the Transmitter is crucial.  This means that the Transmitter will have two sets of pots: tone and volume for the Variax electronics, and tone and volume for the "proper" pickups.


The Transmitter will have a variation on the Fat Tele (or Tele HS) pickup configuration featuring a bridge humbucker and neck single-coil.  These will be used by the humbucker and "driver" pickups of a Fernandes Sustainer FSK401 kit.  The pickup configuration I have in mind is shown on the right (this Tele also features a Bigsby tremolo unit - classy!).


Originally I considered a Floyd Rose tremolo system - which wouldn't be impossible to use with the Variax electronics, as Ibanez have at least two models using a Floyd Rose with a piezo - but the amount of wood that will have to be removed from the body to fit the unit is just blasphemous.  Keep in mind that some space will already have to be made to fit all of the active electronics, and removing so much wood from the body will have a disastrous effect on tone.  In any event, even though a locking tremolo unit will give me more control over the sound, I'm not a whammy bar user in the least and will be more comfortable getting similar effects from a Digitech Whammy pedal.  A better option in almost every regard.

In total, the Transmitter will have six pots: the Variax tone and volume, the "normal" tone and volume (from the Fernandes kit), the Variax guitar model selector, and the Fernandes sustainer intensity pot.  In addition, two toggle switches:  one for the Fernandes pickups and a "modelling" one for the Variax piezo.  Throw in a killswitch, and I'm in woodshed heaven!  Sure, this is a very complicated interface, and it sure as hell ain't gonna be pretty, but I'm willing to live with that for the level of control it'll give me.

Aesthetics

Finally, what some may consider to be the most important element of a guitar: its appearance.

I'm not a huge fan of the more outlandish guitar designs; the shape of your average BC Rich axe or the chrome finish on Satch's signature Ibanez are just too much for me.  Forgive the elitism, but I want my instrument to look like an actual musical instrument.  My first instinct was to go with a classy tobacco sunburst finish, but such a finish - evocative of a Stradivarius - suffers a jarring incongruity with the cutting edge technology on board the Transmitter.

Instead, being an admirer of Dave Gilmour's famous "Black Strat", I've opted for a modern but not obnoxious black finish featuring a black pickguard with white detail.  Identical to the Telecaster Custom below:


Well, that pretty much covers it, my dream guitar.  If any luthiers are reading this and want to build me a prototype, you'll get no complaints from me!


2 comments:

Carl Trachte said...

Cal,

disclaimer: I'm woefully ignorant and behind the times.

I wasn't even aware you could install hardware and program a guitar to sound like another one, although I shouldn't be surprised given everything that's gone down in tech the past 30 years.

My brother has an old Gibson SG circa late 60's with a fender amp from the same era. I always found it beautiful, even though I couldn't play to save my life.

IIRC, Bruce Springsteen is the famous rocker who uses the Telecaster (hence the twangy sound in a lot of his recordings).

Agree on preference for an understated, but attractive design. Those guitars that look like a big W or V don't do it for me.

Good luck building the perfect axe.

Carl T.

calharding said...

Carl,

Guitar technology has actually improved dramatically over the last decade and-a-half or so.

My first experience with digital modelling was in the form of my Line 6 POD (a small, red, kidney bean-shaped multi effects unit) which I still use. It's capable of modelling about 30 classic amplifier models - from expensive, modern amps all the way back to 1950s models used by country and bluesmen - as well as about 15 different effects pedals. After I came to the realisation that I had just spent R4000 (about US$500) on a unit that gives me the sound capability of an amp collection worth tens of thousands of dollars, I just fell in love with the idea of digital sound modelling.

Most guitarists are purists, though, who oppose this idea, but I'm from a different school of guitar playing that embraces any technology, blasphemous though it may be, which gives you more control over the sounds you create.

I remember playing on a Gibson SG in a music store a while back and thinking that it feels a lot like a Les Paul, but much lighter. I think Angus Young from AC/DC prefers them, and, to be honest, if I had the money I would probably buy an SG /before/ I bought a Les Paul.

You're right about Springsteen as well! Bruce was the first "grownup" music that I enjoyed when I was just a toddler, so there's a good chance that the Telecaster was the first electric guitar I ever heard! Imagine that.