More and more these days I am asked to build complex custom guitars, more than that I am being asked to build instruments with three or four separate pickup systems, with on-board effects units and tremolo systems that are increasingly complex; this is very likely my own fault, I do like to say that I will take on any feasible project as long as it is playable and pretty, but this leaves me violating a rule that I have stood by for years… simplicity is key!
A guitar is a complex inter-weaving of disciplines and crafts, from the chemistry of lacquers and oil finishes to the stress dynamics and breaking points of materials as diverse as carbon fibre, the humble tree and the brass or steel from which we craft our hardware. Then we go into even more esoteric areas, the study of magnetic fields and the interaction of the various metal compounds in your strings with your pickups of choice and then how the vibration of that string will be converted into yet another invisible thing, electricity and then, finally, noise.. hopefully a pretty one!
And that is the point, with all the almost mystical mix that goes into the most basic of electric guitars or basses (we’ll not even think about your ‘humble’ acoustic lest your mind be adversely affected), why then should we persist in trying to complicate things further. Let us take a look at a few specifics.
Tremolos | About half of us, myself included, are scared to death of using a trem in anger and stick with fixed bridges that transfer the tone, more or less, straight from the strings and into the body… and back around again a few times building up the one complex thing I love.. tone! Now, if you have a trem you have to think of two things, the holy grails of perfect tuning stability and perfect tone transfer, unfortunately there we will always have a compromise. Your guitar may have ultra-hardened space age steel knife edge points to pivot on (though you’d be appalled at how many companies supply soft metal posts for these knife edges to pivot on!!!).. I digress, these wonderful pivot points allow for awesome tuning stability but other than the springs in the body of the guitar they are the way the strings inter-react with the body.. I find myself thinking back to the age old argument which affects tone more.. pickups or wood.. well on a guitar with a tremolo system like this it will be more weighted in favour of the pickups! .. I digress again.. bugger! Tremolo.. if you have something akin to the PRS or Fender trem with six screws as your pivot points your perfect return to
Direct mounted pickups, are another mystery, literally; no one has been able to adequately explain to me why direct mounted pickups actually sound better than ones hanging from a flimsy plastic surround by a thin bolt and a spring, other than to say that simpler is better. I think that having the pickups homogeneous with the body adds a few hundred grams of dense metal to that of the body and thus imparts that little bit more brightness and sustain (see last months article/video on nut material properties) but this really is just the most likely explanation that my mind can formulate..pitch may be compromised but you’ll always have great tone transfer.
Leo Fender made his fortune and created an industry of guitar building based on the exact principle we’re talking about here, simplicity.. although he was looking at it from the other side of the fence, I don’t think he gave much consideration to the tone of what he was creating, or if he did it was strictly as a by-product of his driving force i.e. simplifying the design of his instruments to a point where they could be effectively mass produced for very little money and with maximum profit. The bolt on neck has everything to do with ease of production, as do the scratch-plate (which effectively isolates the pickups from the bodies vibration), the almost complete lack of a break angle on the headstock (to get more necks of of each billet) and, my favourite, the truss rod installed from the back of the neck meaning there is no separate fretboard.. each of these things adds complexity to the instrument but, when the machines are set up, makes production that much easier.
Sea Sick Steve et al have got it right, I think, the best guitar in the world could very well be an old baseball bat with a fixed bridge, a direct mounted pickup and a talented musician behind it.. then again it could be the Robert Fripp signature guitar I just finished with… wait for it.. locking tuners, hollow body, custom ball-bearing tremolo system, pickup surround-mounted magnetic pickups, and the Fernandes sustainer system, the ghost piezo system, the ghost MIDI system and a battery strength indicator led. Well, I’ve talked myself in a circle.. buy what you want, I’m only the guy building them after all.
All my best, Ben