Home > Lutherie > Solid Body Guitar Makeover

Solid Body Guitar Makeover

Susan and I returned home yesterday from our week together celebrating 5 years of marriage. Actually I have been off since last Friday but Susan had to work Friday, Monday and Tuesday so it wasn’t until Wednesday last that we were able to get away. So let’s do the math here:   (Art-home)+(Susan-working) = Shop-time

I’m pretty sure I mentioned in a previously post that I wanted to get started working on guitars this year and I’ve finally gotten a start. The plan was to get my feet wet by rehabbing an Ibanez CX140 fat Strat knock-off from the 90’s. I (foolishly?!?) picked it up from a pawn shop for about $30. Most of the components were still functional although the guitar was filthy dirty and the Tone potentiometer was blown. I didn’t want to spend very much money on this project guitar but…. I did want a project where I could learn and had some ideas about what I wanted in the end. In the end, I spent more than was strictly necessary but I didn’t crazy. My objectives were to 1) learn 2) fix the tone cicuit and 3) “black out” the looks.

Stabilizing the Neck

I began my odyssey by removing the bolt-on neck only to discover “I was not her first”. In fact two of the neck bolts were shorter than the other two and one of the longer bolts had been broken off in the neck. My first official act of lutherie was to remove the broken screw and plug the hole. I found that I could use one of my medium plug cutters to both extract the screw and make a uniform hole with one operation. Unfortunately I didn’t have any hardwood plugs that would fit the new hole. Doesn’t seem right does it but keep in mind the plug cutter makes a plug but that plug is much smaller in diameter than the hole it made cutting the plug. As a work around I used a larger plug cutter on a piece of oak then I carefully sanded it down until it just fit.

A new neck plate and bolts in black

The rest of the neck was in decent shape although there was a rather annoying ding on the bass side that my thumb always knew was there. I decided to sand this area of the neck back to bare wood and use the steam heat trick to pop out the ding. I used my soldering iron and a wet rag and damned if it didn’t work. So I continued working out other smaller dings and then as you might expect I inadvertently touched the hot tip of the iron leaving a tiny black brand. It is only the size of a spec but you know, be extremely careful doing this sort of thing.


Cavity Shielding

I finally bit the bullet and placed an order with Stewart-MacDonald for some of the parts I was going to need including conductive copper tape for shielding the control cavities. This tape isn’t exactly cheap so for this project I decided to use aluminum foil for shielding and save the copper tape for my first “original” build. I know, I know, how cheap can you get? Well, I’ve done some research and I know that aluminum foil works as does the metal tape I decided to use instead of foil. The real difference is that the sticky part of the copper tape conducts as well as the copper itself. This means that overlapping tape strips will conduct whereas with the aluminum tape this doesn’t happen. No worries, I can fix that.

 Metal Tape for Shielding the Cavity

I thought about connecting the strips with a dollop of solder but then realized that I could use a tiny piece of the copper tape to connect them. Used very little of the copper tape to bridge all the strips, presumably saving a bundle. Well I just didn’t want to spend a ton on this build (notice the “swimming pool” style route) so I still think this was a good solution.

Locking Tuners

The stock tuners on this guitar were chrome and although most of them worked I did have a couple that seemed very sloppy when tensioned. I decided to spring for the Guitar Fetish locking / staggered tuners in black. They weren’t extravagant ($35) but they were just what I wanted so I sprung for them. The good news, the bushings fit perfectly on the face side of the headstock so I didn’t need to do any work there. The not-so-great-better-learn-to-be-a-luthier news was that the tuner barrels were too big for the back of the headstock. Plus these tuners had one mounting screw and the old ones had two mounting screws and alas, none of  holes lined up! So job one was to plug the twelve old screw holes and sand them flush. Then I used a stepped drill bit to carefully center in the existing hole while widening the shaft to the closest step on the bit. This left everything a tad to small so I hand fit each tuner using a T-handle reamer and some patience.

Fitting the Tuners

Even though this is my very first project, I have been paying attention and I have read where a lot of luthiers break screws during their builds. So what I learned is 1) make sure your screwdriver fits the screw head with no wiggle or play (learned this from Galeazzo Frudua) 2) make sure you drill an appropriate sized pilot hole (learned this from Mike Snider) 3) lubricate your screws with paraffin or bee’s wax  (learned this from Chris Schwarz) 4) if the screw squeaks while you’re driving it STOP, back it out and widen the hole by wiggling around the (pilot hole) bit. You can run the drill in reverse so that you don’t deepen the hole. (also a Mike Snider tip). Knock, touch and work wood, I didn’t have a single problem taking this advice.

Once I had sanded and shellacked the back of the neck, I was ready for the final installation of the tuners. I lined them all up with a straight edge and drilled the holes for the screws.

Tuners Installed

Fitting the New Tremolo Bridge

Again I took a chance and ordered a new tremolo bridge mainly because I wanted the bridge in black. Vanity they name is Arturo. Well the new bridge looked great and seemed to be a bit beefier than the old bridge only it didn’t fit the opening on the top of the guitar. Turns out very little work was required as a very thin layer of material needed to be removed from each end and this was easily worked with a Dremel tool and small sanding drum attachment.

Test Fitting the Pickguard and Bridge

When lining up the new bridge, I was fortunate that the center two of the six attachment screws lined up with existing holes. This gave me a solid reference for lining up the new bridge but I did have to plug and re-drill the outer four screw holes before attaching the new bridge. I compared the new bridge’s spring attachment plate and bolts and they were essentially identical to the existing ones so I didn’t bother changing them from original. I haven’t yet setup the tremolo but with the bridge in place I moved on to the electrics.

Hacking the Pickguard

As I mentioned before, it didn’t make any sense to spend a lot of money fixing up this low-end guitar from the 90’s but I did have a couple of goals. First, the volume circuit worked but the tone circuit was fried. Second I wanted to “black out” the guitar so I wanted (but didn’t need) a black pick guard. Lastly, although I really like humbuckers I kind of wanted the “pure” Strat S-S-S setup mainly because I’ve never owned or even played one and I wanted to experiment.

At first I was just going to upgrade the pots and capacitors but I also had a wicked snap-crackle-pop associated with the 1/4″ jack.  I decided to purchase a (black) pre-wired Strat pickguard from Stewart-MacDonald and was not surprised at all to find that it didn’t fit my guitar. Oh well I gambled and knew this was likely. I could have adapted the pickguard to my guitar but I didn’t like the idea of plugging and drilling all new holes plus I wasn’t happy about what I was going to have to cut off the pickguard (can you say mutilation?). Early in the project I had spray painted the white tremelo cover with some flat black paint I had on hand and decided it looked pretty good. This led me to the conclusion that spray painting the original pickguard was a viable option. All I needed to do was to purchase or fabricate a humbucker to single coil mounting adapter. Dude, I’m a woodworker so I can do anything I’ll just make one. In hind sight it would have been better to just buy the thing. I spent way too much time making the adapter and although it works, I could have used those  hours to better advantage I think.  And on a related note, I found out on final fitting that I’d have to trim the pickguard where it meets the new bridge (remember it was a tad larger than the old one). So in a dumb-ass-move I thought I could just chisel off the small piece of plastic. Fail, not only did the chisel not do what I was hoping, I managed to break/snap the thin piece of plastic which separates the bridge pickup and the bridge. I repeat FAIL!

Only after this did I bring out the Dremel with drum sanding attachment and perfectly fixed it in about 20 seconds. Now I have a blemish, what will I do?

Getting the humbucker-single mounting adapter right was the tedious part but I also needed to drill a hole for the second tone pot as the original only had one. So I eyeballed a good spot in between volume and tone and drilled a pilot hole before widening with a stepped drill bit. I didn’t want another split or cracked piece of plastic. This went well and I mounted and installed the newly populated and painted original pickguard.

Will it Play?

Answer yes, all the electronics and tuners check out. But I haven’t taken it back to the basement to set it up so it is very difficult to play bordering on impossible.  Did I mention that I also replaced the plastic nut with a Tusq XL? Well I haven’t exactly shaped the nut properly so this is a big part of the problem. Once I shape the nut, setup the string radius on the bridge and float the tremolo I think it will be ready to play. So far its been a fun project and I am achieving my goal of learning by doing. I’ll keep you posted when I get her back into the shop.

Phase I Build Completed


You have been reading an excerpt from the shop journal of the Turtlecovebrewer.
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