Custom Tele Build #2, or how to pick up something new and not get overwhelmed

22 May 2017

I put together a short video about my second guitar build (for those keeping count, I’m currently building 3 and 4). This guitar was a build for my brother, who currently is playing metalcore band Ikari, and wanted something that was atypically metal, so I made him a tele that sounds like something more grungy.

This guitar really took way longer than I expected, and was way more challenging that I had anticipated. Partly this is due to work getting in the way, but partly because I unintentionally broke my own rule of keeping things simple and only incrementally stepping out if my comfort zone. This is basically the rule that should prevent me trying to do too much and being overwhelmed in a project: each time (in this case, each guitar) stick with what you know but change just one thing to something new that you don’t know how to do.

With the first guitar, I mostly took existing bits and tweaked them to build a guitar that is to my tastes. So whilst I did have to do some woodwork, it was nothing too scary, and mostly it was within my comfort zone. And that worked: I still play that guitar most every day. For the second one I thought I’d try to increment in two ways (as a guitar has two major parts, why not do a small step on both?): I made the body from scratch, and I did the fretwork on the neck. Turns out, both of these were quite bigger challenges than I’d anticipated, so I should, in retrospect, have only done one. As such the project dragged on and on and risked never getting finished as it became more of a burden than a thing of fun.

But thankfully my second rule of that I apply to this sort of thing saved the project: I had a customer. Had I been making this guitar for just me, then I’d probably have just stalled and it would have languished. But to try and make sure I had a focus for the build, I started out by deciding I’d make one for my brother (who is a totally awesome guitarist), and I’d make it to his requirements. This meant that when the project seemed not fun, I still had a reason to drag myself into makespace and take yet another run at those darned annoying frets.

The guitar was originally meant to be finished for last christmas, and it’s only now in late May that I’m finally handing it over to my brother. I still am not happy with the guitar: I can see all the things I’d do differently, but there comes a time when you have to just ship it, take those lessons, and move on. I have impossibly high standards of what I’d like to achieve, but the only way to get there is keep trying, rather than just endlessly refining on thing. Making this video was actually quite cathartic; for the first time I actually just enjoyed playing it in the endless takes that didn’t make the video. Would I do things differently if I was building this guitar again? Of course. But actually, making the video enabled me to see actually I’d made something pretty cool, that if you asked me 12 and a bit months ago could I build, I’d have struggled to believe you.

Which is a good point to reflect: I set out to build my first guitar based on watching too many youtube videos on luthiers about 12 months ago, having not done any woodwork for 25 years. by having some simple rules in place to try and make sure the project didn’t stall, I’ve actually built two guitars, and I’m in the process of building two more. When people look at my guitars they mostly look at them and thing, “wow, I could never do that”, which is what I’d‘ve thought 13 months ago. I now mostly preach these two rules of personal project management to people: you can do it, you just need to set yourself up for success correctly by limiting scope and having a delivery target to hold yourself to to get through the bad times.