I thought I'd share a few of my tricks and techniques which I employ on my builds to make them sound and play better. Obviously to some of the more experienced builders out there these may seem obvious, but that aside these are all things I wish I knew when I began making these.
1. The nut
The nut is an extremely important part of any guitar's construction, and has a huge impact on the intonation and the clarity of the tone. All of my guitars are fretted so I set up my builds to play with fingers rather than slides. Some of these steps are unnecessary if you intend to only play with a slide.
My tips for nuts would be:
- Use a hard material. I always use bone these days but a hardwood/corian works fine too
- When you file the slots, do so at an angle down towards the headstock so that the string rests on only a tiny area right where the nut meets the fretboard. I use the same size small triangle file for all the slots and it works just fine.
- The 'break angle' at the nut is important - the strings need to slope downwards towards the tuners. This will help open strings ring true. Where possible wrap the strings around the bottom of the tuner shaft a few times before feeding them through the hole
- When setting up intonation, use your tuner to ensure that if the open string plays a G, the first fret plays a G#. If the note sharpens when fretted, you need to make the slot deeper. Be careful not to go too far of you may get buzzing on the frets, which would effectively mean a new nut
- When you are happy with the intonation at the nut, take the strings off and sand down the nut so that the strings are resting in a shallow, rather than deep, groove - I tend to find they ring out a bit better this way
2. The bridge
Much like the nut, the bridge is very important for both intonation and allowing the strings to ring out as they should.
I use a floating bridge for all of my builds, as they are super easy to set up and I like the way they look. There is good information on setting bridge intonation all over the internet so I won't go into that here. My tips for bridges:
- As with nuts, hard materials will transfer sound better than soft ones. I use bone and hardwood for mine. I made a blog post on how I make them here
- I make the slots for the strings to sit in using a small triangle file. They are very shallow, with the break angle towards the tailpiece holding them firmly in place
- I sand my bridges to a point at the top - this way the string is only resting on a very small area at the top. If the string is sitting on a flat surface this can cause buzzing
- I tend to find bridges with a smaller amount of surface area contact with the soundboard (or cigar box lid) sound better (but please don't ask for the science behind this!)
- You may have noticed my bridges are rather high (this one is 3/4" tall) - see number 3.
3. Back angle
I started using a back angle on the neck on roughly my 12th build. The difference in playability compared to a straight neck is huge. It is actually quite easy to achieve and well worth a try.
As you can see, using a back angle on the neck allows for a much higher bridge, and the action stays nice and low all the way up the neck.
- Imagine that the neck is resting on 2 blocks, which are at either end of the box. Make the block at the front of the box slightly lower than the one at the tail, and you have a back angle. Easy! The tail block on this guitar is 10mm taller than the front one.
- If you're a bit more of a perfectionist you can cut the blocks at an angle to the neck rests flat on them (recommended)
- Coupled with having the fretboard sitting higher than the box, you will achieve low action and a good amount of clearance between the strings and the soundboard, making the guitar easier to play with fingers or a pick.
4. String gauge
Although it is standard CBG building practice to use strings 3,4 & 5 from a 6 string set, I have found better result using strings at equal tension, which is probably more important on instruments without truss rods to prevent the neck warping over time. I also find equal string tension easier to play.
- I use the MPUSTC String Tension Calculator to work out which strings I need for a particular build. It's easy to use; just enter your scale length and tuning and it does the calculation for you
- For this build I used GDG tuning, and went for 44,28 and 20w, with each string having a tension of between 10.4 and 10.8kg over the 630mm scale length. I tend to find anything below 9kg to sloppy, and over 14kg too tight
- I also find that using equal tension makes setting the intonation at the bridge much easier. I usually manage to achieve close to spot on intonation at the 12th fret
- If you want to give equal tension a try, just go to your local guitar shop and ask for the individual strings you need. If anyone's going to understand your needs, it will be a fellow guitar geek!
Well, I hope this is of some help to those of us just starting out with this rewarding hobby. I suppose my best tip would be not to think too much about it, otherwise you'll end up like me :(