Guitars for Service Members

There is a great program that matches active duty Service Members with guitar builders here:

The idea is that a lot of people serving our country would like to play an instrument in their time off away from their families. Right now I have 2 Ukuleles and 4 Cigar Box guitars in progress to donate to the program. If you build, I encourage you to build something to send over. If you Don’t build why not buy one for a service member?

If this is something you would like to do, write me and I’ll work something for cost or pretty near it, I’ll continue to donate my time.


The Story Behind the “ghetto” Line of Instruments

447When I was in college I met and Made friends with a guy named Bernie Larsen. Bernie Had moved to the desolate upper peninsula of Michigan to be closer to his dad, but he had the great past of playing with some fantastic musicians including David Lindley and El-Rayo-X, and later Melissa Etheridge. I first met him when my band, Dred Scott, went to record in his studio. Long story short, I ended up working in the studio as a session engineer and playing in Bernie’s Reggae/Soul band Cry On Cue.

Through these experiences I learned a couple things that I carry with me to this day, that old strings sometimes have a sound of their own. Instruments from garage sales can be gold, and that  Danelectro guitars deserve to get mentioned in the same sentence as Fender and Gibson. I’ll could get into the Danelectro thing, but I’ll save that for another day. For now let’s just say that Danelectros where built to be affordable, out of the the cheapest materials that could be had, clear soft pine and masonite.

Following conventional “wisdom”, good guitars are made out of expensive wood and crummy guitars are not. This conventional though is why Danelectro guitars are still somewhat obscure. The problem with the conventional line of thought is the fact that Danelectros break the mold and actually have an amazing sound all their own.  A good guitar does not have to be be built from expensive components.

The first guitar I built, I built like a Danlectro, but since I made it using a Fender tele neck, I made the body shaped like a telecaster and called it a Danocaster. It was fun but I couldn’t help feeling like I had just ripped off Danelectro and Fender and did it in such a way that the resulting guitar wasn’t as good as either.

I started thinking about how i could apply the low tech/cost approach to guitars that Danelectro stood for without copying someone else, how could I give it mor of my own spin and vibe. At the same time, I had recently  gotten a K&S Weissenborn-style lap guitar and was really into lap style playing. At some point it dawned on me that Danelectro had never made a lap guitar, and Weissenborn had never made an electric. So I built one. The problem was that I didn’t have the skills or tools at that point and it came out kind of uneven and generally messed up. I thought to myself that it was “ghetto” and it stuck. It became the Ghettoborn. (Ghetto-Weissenborn).

As I’ve continued on and gotten better, the instruments really aren’t so “ghetto” anymore, but the same construction principles apply and you always get a little bit of that magic Danelectro hollow body tone even if I don’t use masonite for the tops and backs.

Today I also build:

  • Ghettolele – ukulele
  • Ghettolin – mandolin and octave mandolin
  • Ghettocello – mandocello
  • Ghettoshorty – Short scale 22″ or less of various string and fretting configurations

Examples can be found in the galleries here or my facebook page. Who knows where this goes next, Ghettosaz? Ghettoud? The possibilities are pretty far-ranging and I’m excited to see where it goes.

My new Valve Child Amp

I traded a ghettoshorty for this sweet little 6w all-tube amp from Valve Child. The mastermind behind this creation and Valve Child amps is Mark Carter. Mark re-purposes old tube tube radios and other audio goods into sweet amps and preamps that have real soul.

This particular model features a 12ax7 preamp, a single el84 power tube, and 6v6 rectifier. Controls are gain, tone, and master volume with a switch on the back that bypasses the tone stack and adds more gain.

Clean this amp is spongy and thick, and despite me doing the video with a telecaster, it responds really well to my hollow-body my Aria 3002t. With the tone stack bypassed, it features a nice vintage crunch at very reasonable volumes.

if your looking for something unique with a great vintage vibe, drop Mark a line!

My Day Job and Guitars – Measure Twice, Cut Once

While guitars are a rewarding hobby for me I do have a day job that pays the bills. I work as a consultant on HR related issues and Human Performance. I also write a blog that supports that business and I recently published the following blog that draws some parallels between guitars and my day job. You can find my business blog at

My biggest hobby outside of work is building musical instruments. I don’t have a woodworking or lutherie background. In fact, I’ve never taken a single class on either, and my dad is more shade tree mechanic than wood worker. So my instruments are generally pretty primitive.

I started building instruments out of cigar boxes. The practice of building instruments out of found objects is nothing new, in fact there is a long history of improvising to create something that you couldn’t afford for less than the cost to acquire that item. If you don’t have anything good to work from, then use what you have and improvise.

While this is a rewarding hobby for me, and it keeps me sharp in a lot of areas in my business life, my HR clients are not dealing with “found objects”. They don’t need to, and can’t afford to improvise on their talent to meet the needs of their companies. They are more mature at the practice of HR than a proverbial cigar box guitar.

The thing about learning slowly through experience alone is that while it takes a while, the journey is fairly rewarding. But the costs to get the experience are astronomical. Part of that cost is time, some of it is materials, tools have been a major expense, and some of it is lost to mistakes made.
As my skills have improved, the instruments I build take more time,
and the cost of materials I used have escalated rapidly.

maple guitarMeasure twice, cut once is an over-used cliché, especially when we are talking about ruining a 99 cent 2×4 that is part of the unseen interior hidden by drywall. But when I’m using a $100 set of spalted curly maple (as seen in the picture to the right), that over-used cliché suddenly means something. I measure multiple times from multiple directions because there are real consequences if I make a mistake. But it’s more than the cost of wood. That piece of wood directly determines how the instrument sounds, how it plays, and how attractive the end result is. It also determines, if I choose to sell it, how much I can sell that finished instrument for.

Companies spend more on their people than any other expense on the balance sheet, yet too many of them treat people like a 99 cent 2×4 and not like a beautiful set of unique one-of-a-kind wood that directly affects their profitability. That’s not to say that they treat those employees poorly, it’s that they fail to measure, let alone twice, what the real value of that person to the organization really is.

This is also more than a “cut” metaphor; this isn’t about “staff reduction” as much as it’s about being smart about how people are applied to the end result.

I want to build better guitars. If you want a better HR function, measurement that means something
needs to be part of your approach. You will never improve without it.

Picking the Right Strings

Truth is that guitar string manufacturers and guitar manufactures have been lying to us, the thing is really there is no good reason for it. Most prepackaged guitar string sets are all wrong because they are not optimized for the notes and scale lengths that they are intended for.

The fact is that for every string gauge (thickness) given a fixed scale length, there is an optimal tension range where good sustain is achieved and fretted notes still sound good and feel good. Then there is a range of notes above and below that optimal tension that will work, but the note will sound increasingly floppy or lose sustain on the upper end.

For example, let’s take a look at a “standard” D’addario exl110 electric guitar set:

    Diameter         Tension    
Note Inches lbs
E 0.0100 16.200
B 0.0130 15.400
G 0.0170 16.600
D 0.0260 18.400
A 0.0360 19.500
E 0.0460 17.500

Notice no two strings have the same tension very few are even within a half pound, and there is no rhyme or reason as to why. Some notes will sing, While others will sound flat and muddy. This wasn’t lost on D’Addario so they have now introduced “Balanced” string sets. This is the exact same nickel steel wound string in a balanced configuration. The exl110BT set:

    Diameter         Tension    
E 0.0100 16.220
B 0.0135 16.590
G 0.0170 16.580
D 0.0250 17.210
A 0.0340 17.220
E 0.0460 16.910

Notice that in this set, everything is in the 16-17 pound tension range? If you compare this set to the “standard” set only the high E and the high G where in an optimal range. ( Note: I have no idea how they magically reduced the tension of a .046 from 17.5 in standard set, to 16.9 on a balanced set, but for now let’s assume they’ve figured this out)

So what does all of this mean to people who build and play guitars, especially in open tunings? It means that prepackaged sets of strings are an exceptionally poor choice as a starting point for our homemade instruments.

To begin with, D’ Addario uses a 25. 5 inch scale to calculate all of their string tensions. This is the scale that fender uses on Stratocasters and Telecasters. However, Gibson uses a 25 inch scale  on most of their instruments. While the low E (.046) on the above set yields a tension of 16.91 on a 25.5″ scale, on a 25″ scale that tension rises to 18.44 (calculated using That’s a pretty dramatic difference. Scale length is a critical component in achieving optimized tension. (Note: this doesn’t make sense, shorter scale tension should decrease tension using the same scale, some thing smells funny with the data from the string companies and the calculators)

So let’s take a look at what a 25″ scale GDGB tuned cigar box instrument should have for strings shooting for a 16.5 pound tension.

    Diameter         Tension    

B          .014                                                        17.01

G          .017                                                       15.86

D          .022                                                       17.16

G          .036                                                       16.32

Using commonly available strings this is really as close as we can get, but no pre packaged sets include the four gauges that I am aware of. Also notice that the “balanced” D’Addario set comes with at least one not so common gauge for the high B, .0135.

You are much better off assembling your string sets together from singles if you are using alternate tunings or non traditional numbers of strings.

For a very “colorful” explanation of string tension see:

D’Addario publishes a string tension guide that you can find here:

And the string tension calculator I used, can be found here:

Thanks to Penny Nelson for this handy tension calculator as well



Zero Frets

zero fret, guitar, mandocelloI’ve been playing with zero frets a bit lately and I’ve decided that I like them.

So what is a zero fret?

A zero fret is a fret in the position that a nut normally would be and the concept is that an open note will have the same character as a fretted note since both notes are created from the same string to fret intereaction. I’m not really sure that I buy that, or that it makes that big of a difference, but it sure makes nut making and setup a lot easier.

When you use a zero fret configuration, the zero fret sets your action height at the end of the fretboard, the nut simply controls spacing. This makes intonation better at the lower frets and allows me to get a consistent reasonably low action.

The downside, if there really is one, is that the bridge height needs to be at a sufficient height to have an angle greater than that of the fretboard. This means that the higher up the neck you go the higher the action will be and the more compensation will be required at the bridge. Conceptually with a traditional nut you should be able to have lower action across the entire fret board, but it’s still very difficult to achieve.

I may change my mind tomorrow, but for today i can get excellent results using a zero fret and I’m going to stick with it for a bit.

Intonation for Everyone

So I had a parking lot conversation the other day about intonation, and it really occurs to me that many players look upon the concept like it’s some sort of mystery and are sometimes intimidated by it. This is my attempt to simplify without over simplifying the concept.

Scale Length = the distance between the nut and the bridge

The 12th fret in a western chromatic scale is exactly half the distance of the scale.

Example: Fender Guitars use a 25.5 inch scale, therefore the 12th fret is 12.75 inches from either the nut or the bridge.

The halfway point in any given scale length will produce an octave (the same note only higher) of the open note. However by pushing down the string against a fret, you will cause the note to go slightly sharp. The amount the note goes sharp depends on the tension the string is under. the higher the tension the sharper the note. The tension is a factor of pitch (the note) and the gauge (thickness) of the string.

The process of intonation is to compensate for the note going sharp by slightly changing the scale of that individual string. With an instrument that has individually adjustable saddles, this typically means lengthening the string by moving that saddle farther towards the tail of the instrument. You will need to measure how much to move the saddle with a tuner. Tune the string to the desired pitch, then fret the 12th and play. If the note is sharp, move the saddle back and repeat. If it is flat, you’ve gone too far.

When all of your strings are properly compensated, your chords will be in tune all the way up the neck and your guitar will be adjusted for intonation properly. However, if your guitar is adjusted properly and notes are sharp in the first 3 or 4 frets, then your string height is too high at the nut. But that’s a topic for another day!


How to order a custom guitar

As a custom builder, I’m going to work with you to build something that is uniquely yours. I really derive a lot of my satisfaction from meeting a customer’s vision for thier unique creation. When you leave it up to me, I’ll build something great, but there’s that little tinge of loss that I feel.

First off, know what kind of instrument you want, that get’s us in the same ball park. But then let’s get the budget out of the way right way. I can do things to price point, and I’m good at it, but please don’t make me quote out the best of everything when you know your budget won’t accommodate it. Gimmie a target, we can always upgrade from there.

Next you’ll need to decide on a primary wood, generally maple or mahogany. If we’re building something special, we may pick out an accent wood that is highly figured. This can be anything from Spalted Maple to Curly Redwood. I love using great wood and work with some suppliers that can get some special things for not a huge ton of money. However, be aware that a nice set of matched wood can cost in excess of $100 by itself and can add significantly to the cost of your instrument.

Aside from wood, electronics are the second most costly component in a build. For example, a regular old gibson-branded humbucker can cost $120 by itself. I can get you an inexpensive import humbucker for $10, but that’s probably not what your looking for either. I’ll work with you to determine the sound your looking for and match that to an artisan builder like Randy Bretz, Ted Crocker, Bob Harrison, or Elmar Flatpup that will make some thing that will match the character and sound you’ve got in your head.

Finally, we’ll round out the hardware, bridge, tuners etc, to meet your budget and playing preferences. It may take an hour or two to get the details right, but it’ll be worth it. Build times run 6-8 weeks, i know that’s a long time, but this is a hobby business i do in my spare time and I price it accordingly. I do promise to keep you informed on the progress of your build on a very regular basis.



Handmade Guitars

My preferences in music and playing styles have always leaned towards the earlier versions found in the genre. When I listen to punk, I like old punk. Reggae = roots, blues was born in the delta, etc. I’m also a huge fan of slide style playing both lap-style and bottleneck. Now that I’m building instruments, it’s only logical that I take that same roots-based approach.

I occasionally have guitars in stock and list them on my facebook pagesixer

However, doing customs are my favorite, write me a note and let me know what you’re thinking and I’ll let you know if I want to do it and how much it will cost. Guitars can cost as little as $250 but can go up significantly based on materials and labor and can take between 6-8 weeks to finish.

I endorse and use products from:

CB Gitty Crafter Supply

Ted Crocker Guitars

Old Lowe