The Wine Barrel Two

Introducing The Wine Barrel Two, my new guitar duo with Julio Alfaro. We will be playing the 2nd and 4th Saturdays of every month at the Aptos Coffee Roasting Company in the Rancho Del Mar Shopping Center (next to Safeway) in Aptos. We play from 10am to Noon, so drop by for a cup of joe and some live music.

 

The Ashley Kingman Model

I’m currently in the process of building a guitar for my buddy Ashley Kingman. Ashley is the guitar player for Big Sandy and his Fly-Rite Boys. He’s one of the best rockabilly guitarists on the planet and he’s a real nice bloke as well.

For years now, Ash’s guitar of choice has been a late fifties Magnatone Mark V (right). The Mark V was designed for Magnatone by none other that Paul “P.A.” Bigsby, legendary pioneer of the solid body electric guitar, forefather of the modern pedal steel guitar and inventor of his namesake vibrato tailpiece.

Magnatone contracted Bigsby to design three guitar models for them. The Mark V was the top of the line model and while it differs considerably from Bigsby’s own custom-built guitars, there is no denying that the shape of the Mark V is classic Bigsby all the way.

In fact, Bigsby designed a similarly shaped double-cutaway electric as early as 1949. That guitar was made famous by country guitar great Billy Byrd.

But getting back to Ashley’s guitar, the first thing you’ll notice when you see his Magnatone (below) is that the headstock does not look like the example above. That’s because Ashley had a new neck made for his guitar, which was damaged.

Instead of replicating the original Magnatone headstock, Ashley opted to give the guitar a Bigsby-style headstock. This he thought, not only looked cooler, but it emphasized the Bigsby/Magnatone connection. So what he ended up with is a one-of-a-kind “what-if” guitar that historically never existed. A Bigsby/Magnatone mash-up, if you will.

I’m not sure if Ash realized it at the time, but he had effectively created his own signature model—one that he’s now been associated with for the past fifteen years or so.

Well, fifteen years of touring will take their toll on a guitar and to say that Ashley’s Mark V is starting to show it’s age would be a vast understatement. What once was a clean looking vintage specimen is now a road-worn relic. Not only that, but the market for vintage Mark V’s has risen considerably. If Ashley wanted to replace his guitar today, he’d be looking at quite an investment.

I suggested to Ashley that I build him a new guitar, using his as the starting point. It would be a fully realized signature model—not pieced together, but built his way from the very start.

I met with Ashley (below) and took measurements of his guitar, traced the body shape and scribbled down as many notes as I could. We discussed the options and agreed that the level of craftsmanship and finish of the new guitar should be more along the lines of a true Bigsby guitar. Since Bigsby used birdseye maple to make his guitars, we decided to use the same for Ashley’s. Other critical details like the neck profile, fingerboard width and fret height we agreed should be kept as close to Ashley’s original as possible.

I know Ashley’s guitar will not be an easy build. There are many aspects of the Mark V’s construction that make it more complex than it looks. I expect there will be endless details to work out before I’m finished—like what am I going to do for pickups?— but I’m up for the challenge and I look forward to delivering Ashley a guitar that we can both be proud of.

(Thanks to Kim Smallwood for the photo of me and Ashley.)

A Starting Point

As with everything in life, a blog has to start somewhere, so here goes nothing…

For years now, I’ve wanted to try building an electric guitar. It’s just something I wanted to see if I could do. No, I’m not an experienced woodworker but I’ve always looked at guitars with an “artistic eye” and felt that my background in graphic design and mechanical drafting might give me an advantage if I ever tried building one.

Another advantage is that I’m a longtime guitar geek. I’ve read all kinds of books on vintage guitars, guitar construction, guitar history and the like. In fact, I’ve stuffed my brain with altogether far too much information on obscure, weird old guitars—and amps too! (Don’t even get me started about the hours spent ogling guitars on eBay.)

I can’t help it though. I’ve been obsessed with guitars since I was thirteen years old—the year I got my first guitar, of course.

Anyway, I finally reached the point where I told myself, “Dude, you can think about making a guitar forever or you can actually try doing it. If not, you’re going to end up wondering ‘what if’ for the rest of your life.” So, armed with my “get-on-with-it-already” self-ultimatum and completely putting aside any doubts in my—nonexistent—woodworking skills, I got started on my first guitar project.

I figured my first build ought to be something basic like a Fender Telecaster. I didn’t want to start with anything too complex and you can’t get more basic—or classic for that matter—than Leo Fender’s timeless blueprint for the workingman’s electric guitar. It wasn’t too long, however, before the nonconformist in me said, “Everybody makes a Telecaster-style guitar. You should try making something more unique than that.”

As it turns out, the guitar I really had my heart set on replicating was a 1950s Carvin solid body. “A 1950s what?”, you say. Well, the Carvin company has actually been around since the ’40s and still sells guitars and amps today. These days Carvin is largely known for supplying guitars to metalheads but the long running Southern California brand originally catered to country & western players and boasted a product line sporting more steel guitars than standard ones. By the mid ’50s they had introduced their first solid body electric guitar, which it turns out wasn’t so vastly different from Leo’s Telecaster—if Fender had made his guitars in 7th grade wood shop, that is.

All joking aside, the Carvin model #3-SGB (left) was a serviceable enough bolt-on neck, slab-body affair. Its “looks” may not appear familiar to the modern eye but its rustic curves clearly evoke not only the stylings of Fender’s guitars but also those of fellow SoCal electric guitar pioneer Paul “P.A.” Bigsby. This guitar was truly a product of its time and place. On top of that, it was blessed with a pair of sweet sounding Carvin AP-6 pickups, making it a genuine twang machine.

Or, in other words, the ideal, obscure but cool, “off brand”, not too complicated, guitar project I was seeking for my first attempt at the art of lutherie.

To get my project started, I needed to track down an original Carvin guitar that I could copy the body shape from. I turned to serious Carvin enthusiast Lloyd Tripp, of Austin, Texas. Lloyd has been rockin’ vintage Carvin gear for years and graciously agreed to send me a pencil outline of his original specimen.

The next step was to purchase some wood. I searched all the major guitar parts suppliers for a body blank and quickly found out one thing. While every supplier offered guitar body blanks, not one of them offered one in maple, which is what my project called for.

Not having a clue and not knowing where to turn, I banged my head against the wall until I finally thought, “Why not call Carvin?” So I called up Carvin and asked if they’d sell me a maple body blank. Sure enough they said, “No problem,” and in an ironic twist to this tale, I ended up buying my wood from the very same company whose obsolete, fifty-something year old guitar I was trying to replicate.

Well, my next hurdle was the neck, which I was a little nervous about. Should I try to make one from scratch or buy an “off the shelf” Strat-style neck and modify the headstock to make it look more like a Carvin?

While I was deliberating these options, the clouds parted and the Guitar Gods smiled down on me. I spotted an eBay auction for an original vintage Carvin neck! Amazingly I won the neck for $37 and was sure that this was a sign that my project was “meant to be”. I had successfully sidestepped the neck hurdle.

After carefully making a template from Lloyd’s Carvin body shape, I invested in a new router and template bit. Next, I scrounged an old router table from my neighbor buddy Bob Barbour. He just happened to have one sitting in his driveway and said, “If you don’t mind the rust, it’s yours.” Well, a little steel wool later and that table was back in action.

Next I rough bandsawed out the body. My pal Gary Evans at Seabright Hot Rods let me use his bandsaw for the job. I hope that one day I’ll be half the craftsman Gary is.

Finally, it was time to trim the final body shape to my template on the router table and see what this thing looked like. When the sawdust had settled, I was sort of stunned. It looked like a perfect copy of a Carvin guitar (below). Somehow I had gotten it right and hadn’t blown any of the steps along the way. It was a good feeling for sure and definitely boosted my confidence in what I was doing.

That’s when a funny thing happened though. I got real busy with a lot of other things and like so many projects of mine, the guitar gradually languished on the back burner until it was almost forgotten.

I know what you’re thinking. That’s a lousy ending to the story but I did learn a whole lot from the experience. Do I see it now as a huge failure, that it meant I’d never try making a guitar again? No, not at all. I see it now as a starting point.