Custom Made Guitars

What to Watch Out For When Buying a Guitar

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Guitar Quality Handbook for Custom Made Guitars

This is a compilation of some of my thoughts. I will probably reprint some other opinions that I agree with on this page. At this time they are in no particular order. To determine the level of importance I have assigned an X designation to each subject.   The more X's the more careful you should be. I will add more information as time allows.


Neck Joint Tightness

The most important thing to pay attention to is how tight the neck joint on a guitar is. If you read this whole page and follow every link and only get one thing out of it. I hope it's the fact that your neck joint is the heart and soul of your guitar. Understand that the stability and tone are hugely affected by the neck joint. I believe there should never be anything on a guitar that can dampen the tone between the neck and body. Much tone comes off the neck & fingerboard & much tone comes from the body. Don't fall victim to a poor sounding guitar simply because you didn't check to see how tight your neck fit was.
I firmly believe that the neck joint should be so tight that you should be able to insert the neck into the pocket and be able to lift the entire guitar by the neck with nothing but the pressure of the wood against the wood to hold it. There should never be any paint or glue in the neck joint. If a shim has to be used it must be of the same type of wood and cannot be glued in. Direct Coupling has to be achieved in 3 places and the neck is essential. Always check any Fender or other Bolt On Neck for a tight neck before you buy it. It will save you hours of playing every one in the store. You will be able to pick out the good sounding one's just by checking the neck fit.  It's easy to check see if you can force a thin pick into the neck joint. If you can try a different one.

Neck Joint

Machine screws with  brass or steel inserts in the neck is the best way to affix a bolted neck to a guitar. Sadly very few companies do this. It is costlier than simply using wood screws and it takes a lot more time to sink the brass or steel inserts into the butt of the neck. There is also an added bonus, The extra mass of the inserts assists in cancelling out dead spots on the neck.
I avoid glued in necks (set neck guitars) Corporate high production guitars for example usually slather in the glue thickly in the joint and clamp it down and forget about it. You lose 75% of your high end frequency response.  In my shop we use a steam needle system. When we sweat or steam  the neck out of an old Gibson it sometimes takes less than 20 minutes for the glue to heat up and break down. This is because they used very little glue then. On new models we have to sweat them for hours and drill several more steam needle holes. Some companies make up for poor tolerances by using way too much glue in the neck joint.
There are many types of fingerboard woods. I myself use Ebony, Snakewood, Morado, Pau Ferro, Macassar Ebony, Maple, Wenge, & I have experimented with Purple Heart, Pink Ivory, Koa and others I can't think of at this time.
Most companies offer East Indian Rosewood as their principal fingerboard wood. It works Ok but it is dry & coarse. I personally prefer, Madagascar Rosewood or Brazilian Rosewood because it is slightly more resonant and it feels much better on your fingers. It's not as dry as East Indian Rosewood. it's darker & it exudes a slight oil.
Rosewood is by far the least expensive of woods suitable for fingerboards. Just make sure if you are buying an expensive premium guitar that you aren't getting cheap Rosewood. Personally I almost never use Rosewood.
Ebony is the choice of most pro players. The Eddie Van Halen contingent prefer Maple fingerboards. The sound of Maple & Ebony are very similar. They are both percussive, bright & smooth and easy on your fingers. Ebonies are cosmetically & tonally my favorite.  They show great contrast with inlays & the black Ebony goes with any color. I see many guitars with black paint jobs, black hardware, black pickups, Ruined by a light brown East Indian Rosewood fingerboard.  Urghhh !!!
Wood selection is important if you read this whole page a couple of times and follow most of the links you will come to realize that woods need to be married together for a good sound. Maple and Ebony are both very hard. It would be imprudent to make a solid maple body & neck and then put an Ebony fingerboard on it. I believe that a great guitar will have a combination of warm woods (Soft) and cold woods (Hard)
Body Woods
Most common body woods are alder, ash, poplar, mahogany & basswood. These are all good with the possible of exception of basswood. maple tops are usually the norm. Fine & dandy, as long as you aren't spending higher dollars. Then you should be looking for korina, koa and heavily figured maples or other exotic tops like spalted or burled maple. consider macassar ebony, cocobolo, redwood's like paduak and beautiful rosewoods.
Stay away from plywood's and multi laminates on the lower cost models. On the expensive guitars make sure the company is using tuned tonewoods.
Click here for a primer on tonewoods.  You can read all about different woods!!!
Body Shapes
Make sure the guitar is comfortable to play standing or sitting. make sure the lower bout or horn doesn't block your left hand. Make sure none of pointy edges sticks into a part of you that will make you uncomfortable. look for a comfortable forearm rest for your right hand. You don't want a crease in your forearm from resting on a sharp edge. Body binding will cause that problem. 
Neck Volutes
A neck volute will usually prevent a guitar from breaking at that weak area by the nut. If the guitar has no neck volute and and has a tilt back headstock and the body is heavy. It will be prone to breakage.  ( A Volute is a carved built up area usually behind the first fret.)
Tuning Pegs
Be careful of cheap lower cost tuning pegs. Don't think you can replace them later. If you do you can ruin the value of your guitar. It's extremely hard to find a good set of tuning pegs, that will  retrofit correctly on your guitar. Most will not use the same screw holes as the original.
My shop has replaced more than 100 Gibson necks on old vintage models where the tuning pegs had extra holes which ruined the value and the originality of the guitar. If you have a $60,000.00 1959 Gibson Les Paul that someone redrilled the tuning pegs on. You can always bring it to me.  $3,000.00 later you will have a new neck with an original set of tuners a matching finish and a signed non disclosure statement that I will never reveal to anyone that I modified or repaired your guitar!!!
Stay away from wrap around bridges, There are some very expensive guitars out there that only come with  wrap around style bridges.  A Tun A Matic 2 piece bridge system will usually work much better. A flat sustainer style bridge also works well.  Breaking a string on a wraparound is a pain and very few of of the wraparound style models will intonate. Some of the ones that do like the BC Rich Quadmatic is very uncomfortable to deal with.

Spring Mounted Pickups

I am very much down on spring mounted pickups, I believe a pickup should be directly coupled to either the body or the neck or better yet one to each. This presents problems for the large companies because it requires a lot more factory set up. If you spring mount the pickups as most companies do, You won't get a direct couple on your guitar. Sadly very few companies offer this so you may have to settle.  It can be done later by a competent shop.

Tilted Headstocks

Be careful of radically tilted headstocks, they can break easily especially if there is no volute on the back of the neck just below the headstock to help prevent breakage.
Fender style guitars almost never break because there is no tilt-back on the headstock.


Make sure you can easily reach the top frets, Today's music unlike music from the 50's, requires that you can reach the high notes. Watch out for big heels, Watch out for fat neck joints, watch out for fretboards that are 1/4 on the body. Look for a long neck with a good reach to your top frets.
There are numerous scales (lengths) of necks. I am not going to get in deep here. A longer scale like Fender will usually deliver clearer sound, A shorter scale like a Gibson will usually deliver a fatter of sound.  I recommend that you look for an in between scale that will give you the most versatility.
How Many Frets
Personally I like a minimum of 24 frets. Even if I wasn't going to play up to the top registers. All the new progressive companies have been using 24 frets. I offer 22, 24 and even 27 frets on many of the guitars I build.
Consider this, most of today's exceptional quality instruments are 24 frets. 24 frets are a full double octave. It just makes more sense based on mapping out a fingerboard. PRS made their entire reputation on 24 fret 25" scale guitars. When they went to 22 frets it was a giant step backwards. It probably sounded their death knell. They still build awesome guitars but it's very hard to get hold of a 24 fret model. Their popularity has been steadily waning since they opted for the older market in 1995 and began pushing their 22 fret guitars. I believe it was an incredible mistake. They opened the door for countless boutique brands to spring up out of nowhere. My reason for developing the Quicksilver Guitar line was because for a while it looked like PRS was going to discontinue all their 24 fret guitars.
Today's most influential builders Rick Turner, Ned Steinberger, Bernie Rico, Ron Wickersham, Jerry Auerswald & Ken Parker all employ a minimum of 24 frets.  All the new generation of great players use 24 frets Steve Vai, John Petrucci, Paul Gilbert, Reb Beach, Mark Hitt, Paul Crook and many of the older generation are using them Carlos Santana, Brian May, Leslie West, Lindsey Buckingham. I would bet anything that Innovative players like Jimi Hendrix & Randy Rhoads would be using 24 fret guitars if they were still alive.  Rickenbacker the company credited with inventing the electric guitar has been offering 24 fret guitars on most of their models for 40 or more years.
What Scale
Very Important Articles To Read Regarding Scale
Controls The controls should be simple as possible and comfortable to reach,  Complicated controls only make it harder to get that great tone back. Personally I favor 1 Volume, 1 Tone & one pickup selector. There should be independent coil taps for each pickup & possibly a preamp. I like a stutter switch also and the beauty of a stutter switch is you can place it anywhere and it never gets in the way.
Pickups XX There are numerous combinations of pickups, There are numerous brands I favor the Seymour Duncans in almost all cases. except perhaps Soapbars where Jason Lollar wins hands down. I sell very few guitars with soapbar pickups but when I do I recommend the Jason Lollar pickup.
Preamps XXX Stay far away from The Bullet preamp, It is basically 3 to 5 dollars worth of parts and has weak gain & very little to no headroom, I really don't like that product. The EMG is better than the bullet but Ultra tone has a preamp released in 2009 that decimates anything I have seen. It comes with a varitone and a separate tone control. It is an 18 volt unit and took 2 1/2 years to develop and test out. You will really know the preamp is working when this baby is switched on.
Floyd Rose
Other Secret
Tremolo Info
There are many tremolos on the market some excellent and some pretty crappy. While not being the sleekest or most beautiful. It is a generally accepted fact that the Floyd Rose Original Tremolo is the one that works the best. It is also legendary for holding tune. The reason is simple, It is built well, designed well and it utilizes hardened steel construction. The steel is hardened 60 Degrees Rockwell. If it is installed correctly there is nothing that will perform as well.
Most people today are aware that you should not buy a licensed Floyd Rose because Floyd doesn't license all the technology and they are usually made cheaply from soft metal. They never work as well. What most people don't know is that the original Floyd Rose tremolo is also available in a Chinese made model that looks identical to the real one. You have to look very carefully. While it may be the second best thing on the market it is definitely not as good as the original German made one. Worse yet they both say Original Floyd Rose on them, making them hard to differentiate from. At this time all the corporate guitar manufacturers have switched over to the Chinese model because the cost is less than half of the German one.

Beware  ESP,  BC Rich USA,  Charvel,  Jackson,  Washburn,  Dean,  Hamer  Beware

The small builders can't even get access to the Chinese models because they have to order them by the hundreds and most of them cannot afford to do so. By the end of 2008 they will be available too everyone because I'm sure there will be a distribution system in place by that time.
If you are sharp and try the tuners and look closely at the finish you may be able to tell one from another.
Tremolos of any kind will sap some of your tone even the Floyd Rose is not directly coupled to the guitar. It is spring loaded therefore it is impossible to hard mount like a Tune A Matic for example. 

Fret Alloys
For years I have been a proponent of German nickel silver as the absolute best sounding best feeling fret wire. Recently there has been controversy over whether stainless steel frets are better. Currently Rick Turner & myself are experimenting with a happy medium. Something that will sound as good as nickel silver and last almost as long as stainless steel. We are currently building some guitars with the new material. We have not named it yet but there is some Titanium in the mix so we are contemplating something along that nature. (Adamantium)
Stay away from heavy guitars, They are not as resonant because there is a high moisture content in the wood (That's what makes wood heavy) The lighter the wood the more overtones the guitar will emanate. Ask any vintage freak, The lighter the Les Paul The better they sound. Those old finishes let the moisture escape and over the years the guitars probably got a little lighter. This leaves more anaerobic chambers in the wood which act as millions of tiny escape chambers for overtones.
Heavy guitars are OK for metal and other music where the pickups do all the work. But a real purist will always try to get the guitar to sound great un-amplified.
Heavy guitars will put a dent in your shoulder, make you tired & old before your time. Besides being uncomfortable, they are a pain to work on. Usually they are balanced very poorly also.  A heavy guitar will break easier in shipping or if it gets dropped even at 6 inches from the ground.
A poorly balanced guitar or bass is unwieldy uncomfortable and a nightmare to play. Make sure you are buying the guitar from a builder that is concerned with such trivialities.  My old beloved BC Rich Mockingbird bass is a nose diver. The neck is too long for the body and the tuning pegs are heavy all adding to the problem. I have had the guitar since 1978 and even though I love that Bass (I have a matching guitar) I play it very rarely. Bernie redesigned the Mockingbird in 1979 but the design wasn't as graceful so esthetically it was a loser and did not sell. He soon went back to the original shape due to pressure from the buying public. The redesigned models were called shorthorns (More about this later)
Be careful of thick heavy bodies with short stubby necks, you will find yourself unconsciously holding the neck of the guitar up to prevent it from diving to the floor.



Loose Strings

Whenever buying a guitar from Fee Bay or mailorder. make sure it is shipped to you with the strings in tune. Many dealers will loosen the strings to avoid having to do a set up on the guitar before they ship it. This forces many people to spend money on it and get a professional set up done. This subconsciously motivates you to keep the guitar even if it isn't exactly what you expected.

Neck Size

Carpal Tunnel


Never ever buy a guitar from a store that cannot do full service right on the premises. If you are crazy enough to buy a guitar from a store that does not do service. You deserve what you get. I must stress this.

CNC Machined

There is a lot of Brouhaha about CNC'd Guitars. CNC means Computer Numerically Controlled construction. There is absolutely nothing wrong with CNC construction. As long as you don't pay a huge price for the guitar.  For example Baker guitars were originally advertised & touted as a hand made guitar. They sold for $3,000.00 to $5,000.00. The original owners of the company must have been making a lot of money because I found out later that they were actually CNC'd.  Today that I have control of the company we are hand building a Neck Thru Body model that sells for $4,000.00 or so. The CNC versions start at $1,000.00 we will even have some imported models for well under the $800.00 mark with all the bells & whistles.
Many people think I am against CNC Machines, That is wrong, I am against CNC Guitars that sell for high dollars like Gibson, PRS, Lakland, ESP etc etc.
There are $400.00 CNC'd guitars out there that are great. A CNC may take a lot of soul from the guitar, because it eliminates the human component. However a beginner can benefit from the precision of a lower cost CNC'd Guitar like a  Fender, Jackson, Ibanez, OLP, Baker, Hagstrom, Michael Kelly, Hamer etc etc. My lower cost Quicksilvers and Pearlcaster, Scorpion and LSR guitars are all CNC'd

Resale Value

Not as important as getting yourself the right guitar. Resale value is still important. Stay away from expensive guitars with tremolos they never seem to bring the resale value a non trem guitar will. Look for clear or translucent finishes where you can see the actual wood used. This helps resale value a lot.
Brand names are also important, however people are starting to realize that most brand names today are not real. When a big corporation comes along and buys a well known brand name it usually signals the beginning of the end for that company. I can think of only several exceptions to that rule. People are waking up to this fact, The evidence is overwhelming.
Don't make the mistake of buying a guitar for the person who will eventually buy the guitar from you. If you do that,  you will never be happy. I believe that if you get the right thing you will keep it for life. It will become part of your permanent psyche. I could no more sell my bike than sell my arm. Buying the right guitar will define you to yourself. You must be diligent and spend whatever time it takes to make sure you are happy with whatever your budget will allow.
Starter Packs Very unwise purchase. I know they come in a box and they are easy to wrap as a gift, This is a major mistake that most parents make at Christmas.  Smart parents should give their children the option to choose their guitar. Surprises are nice and the look on their faces is priceless I know,  But that's not a good enough reason to burn money.
A guitar is a tremendously personal thing, You hold it close to you, You lose yourself in it's intricacies & complexities. You make your music with it, It is a definite extension of your personality. If the guitar is substandard you will never establish a bond with it. Once you have this bond established there is no force in the universe that is stronger. And your guitar will never get mad at you for looking at another guitar.
Bent Tops Be careful of bent top guitars, I know of very few that actually sound good.
Brand Loyalty
Don't fall for Brand Loyalty.  You can never trust a big  corporation. They spend millions on hyping their brand loyalty.
Big Corporations are why this country is in trouble economically.  Boycott them when ever you can.  Shop independent merchants,  Don't eat at fast food chains, Buy USA when you can !!!!!!!