The retrospec – The Core Design, Part 2

[The previous article can be found here: The retrospec – Introduction, Part 1]

I have always been a student of design, fascinated with how people create from their imagination. Having worked across a number of mediums over the years, I’ve enjoyed carrying inspiration from one discipline and applying it to another.

In the case of the retrospecss our goal was to bring forward the essence of the classic Fender® Telecaster®, accentuating its iconic aspects and removing those design elements which detract from the guitar. Obviously such an exercise is one of personal interpretation!

The French Connection - Coddington's interpretation of the Lincoln Roadster.

The French Connection – Coddington’s interpretation of the Lincoln Roadster.

The French Connection

I know of few people better at the game of reductionist design than hotrodder, Boyd Coddington. While customizing cars has been an American passion for sixty years, Boyd took the craft to a high artform.

Striving to create a crisp visual representation – accentuating lines, perfecting proportions, and shaving off parts such as door handles – Boyd’s cars always evoke a deep sense of style and beauty. His use of color was often minimal, accentuating the overall form in two colors or using one to allow the underlying shape to speak for itself.

1939 Lincoln Roadster, as original as they came.

1939 Lincoln Zephyr, as original as they came.

When we began working on our modern interpretation of the Telecaster, I immediately thought back 20 years to when I read Boyd’s (then new) books. I spent hours studying his designs and settled on Boyd’s last work before he passed away. Named the French Connection, Coddington’s creation was based on the 1939 Lincoln Zephyr as its inspiration.

Much like the Tele, the Lincoln Zephyr was a beautiful design, yet contained several stodgy elements. With smooth flowing lines, the Zephyr is nonetheless upright with broad step up rocker panels, an abrupt snout and period whitewall tires which detract from the essence of its shape. The bumpers and mirrors, while functional, are details which detract from the flowing shape.

Shaping the Body

Jumping right into the retrospecss there are a few basic elements that I wanted to address – the horn on the Tele looks bulbous – almost as if someone designed the cutaway with a hole saw. I reshaped the lower horn, creating a more gentle transition. Furthermore the shape of the body above and below the fretboard was re-curved to increase fretboard access while also creating a better visual line.

retrospecss body outline with mock hardware.

retrospecss body outline with mock hardware.

On the bass side above the fretboard, we reduced the top line body shape, shrinking the body by almost a 1/4″. As of this drawing we are still debating the jack area (it is shown as flat).

A few design elements are not evident in the drawing. The top of the body will be slightly carved with recurve, just enough to reflect light at different angles. The back of the body will have a tummy cut like the Stratocaster®.

Unlike the Tele, the body to neck transition will not be square but rather transition as a smooth curve. As a result the necks will not have a bolt-on plate but rather a 3 bolt system, freeing up the treble side of the body to be carved to meet the neck.

Finally several details on the body face depart from the classic Telecaster. Gone is the bulky “ashtray” bridge, replaced with a an elegant bobtail bridge. The chrome control plate is removed, the tone and volume staggered to follow the body line, and a 3 way toggle switch (with Tele switch tip) centered in the lower horn. Finally the bulky pickguard is removed and the pickups are rear mounted, with front routs just large enough for the pickup bodies to protrude.

The Headstock

Headstock designs always have a strong visual correlation to guitar makers. Fender electric headstocks, for example, mount tuners on one side and tend to have a similar (but varying) curvature on the treble side. There are many mediocre headstock designs (after all beauty is in the eye of the beholder). Designing an elegant headstock can be no small feat.

Headstock design maintains inline tuners with Starcaster flair.

Headstock design maintains inline tuners with Starcaster flair.

Starting with the Telecaster, I found the treble side shape oddly disproportionate. Ironically the Stratocaster shape seems too large. Of all the Fender shapes, the Starcaster® is one of the more unique (but odd) designs, with a large swoop following the treble side of the headstock – oh so seventies!

The retrospecss headstock creates both a more elegant treble side shape and more consistent proportion from end to end. The headstock is also slightly longer and introduces a relieved tip that is reminiscent of the Starcaster. Finally a more unique transition from the fretboard to the headstock brings a more elegant transition versus Fender headstocks which have a simple swoop designed to be shaped on a cylindrical sander.

The next article will discuss the hardware choices and how they are mounted to the body. There are some unique design decisions which we’re excited to see come to life!

Drafting templates. Vellum. Digital calipers.

Drafting templates. Vellum. Digital calipers.

The retrospec – Introduction, Part 1

At the beginning of the year a number of Fender® Telecasters® came through the shop for various repairs. Their unique sound and affordable price have made them popular for over half a century. Consequently there are no lack of Teles® in need of setups, refrets or upgrades. I’ve always enjoyed the Telecaster’s unique sound and iconic design. In fact the Telecaster has become so iconic that Fender’s attempt to receive trademark protection of its shape was denied in 2009 by the U.S. Trademark Trial and Appeals board.

Leo Fender designed these guitars to be built with cheaply available materials, a simplistic shape and rudimentary assembly techniques that could be executed by unskilled labor. The ease of construction is clearly seen in 1950's footage of the Fender factory . While a fan of the Telecaster, I wondered how might a Telecaster look and play if designed today for skilled production?

As I began to conjure alternate designs, my good friend and superb musician Saleh Sabat began waxing poetic about the Tele. You see he’s a big fan of Leo’s creation and has even assembled his own mongrel Tele courtesy of Warmoth and a half dozen other boutique manufacturers. Be it the chicken pickin’ twang or good looks of a worn out Telecaster, Saleh had a lot to say about what made good ones sing. It became obvious we had much to do.

Saleh Sabat's "Chewie" - a starting point.

Saleh Sabat’s “Chewie” – a starting point.

At the beginning of 2013 we began what became a six month journey to design a new guitar – one inspired by several Fender icons – primarily the Telecaster, along with the Stratocaster®, Starcaster® and Jaguar®.

The nascent guitar’s new name, the retrospecss, seemed fitting – the subscript representing Saleh’s initials.

Our goal became clear – to design an elegant and sometimes ingenious guitar that retained the essence of the icon, in sound and design cues, yet embodied a completely new and modern interpretation.

The culmination of ideas has been codified on vellum with french curves under the lead of a Mirado Black Warrior, in design spec documents, and a stream of SMS and Facebook message long enough to write a small novel. A relentless pursuit with many epiphanies, we have strived to leave no detail unturned. Along the way I constructed a standard Telecaster to gain a more intimate understanding of the instrument. We’ve now acquired the woods and the hardware; it’s time to build templates, jigs and develop the construction processes. Over the next six months we’ll be creating four retrospecss guitars. We hope they do their iconic inspiration justice.

We just may have a few great ideas up our sleeves and we’re looking forward to sharing them with you! Keep an eye out on our blog as we begin realizing the retrospecss from our imaginations to wood, metal and electricity.

Comparing the retrospec headstock design to the Telecaster.

Comparing the retrospec headstock design to the Telecaster.

Building the Flax

Made from Spruce fibers formed in a vacuum composite, the Flax is a rather unique hollowbody electric. A new process invented in Finland, Spruce is shredded along fiber length then mixed with a resin to form the body. A colleague of mine had a connection which led to our receiving two bodies and necks. This is the first guitar built in the USA from this process, to my knowledge. How did it work out? Well it sold quickly to the first customer that played the instrument.

Vintage cloth and Orange Spragues

Vintage cloth connects CTS pots and a Superswitch. Orange Sprague capacitors.

Flaxwood guitars can be purchased from a few outlets in the USA. But this one is much like a custom shop model and bears little resemblance to the factory guitars.

I had Lindy Fralin wind the single coils. The wiring is super slick – a 5 way 4 wafer superswitch and some modifications to the single coil wiring allows for parallel, series and series out of phase configurations. The black finish is a special electrical insulating paint which I use at the controls and in the pickup cavity to reduce noise in the circuit.

The tone pots are no load which allows the player to take the tone pot (and capacitor) completely out of the circuit. Quite a bit of versatility with minimal controls.

Knurled Cocobolo Rosewood

Knurled Cocobolo Rosewood Control knobs and switch tip.

All the accents on this guitar is crafted from Cocobolo Rosewood. This includes the truss rod cover, pickup covers, knurled control knobs and oval logo inset in the back. Cocobolo is a beautiful and resinous wood, yet harmful to inhale when producing sawdust, so extra care must be taken when cutting and sanding.

Typically Morelli electrics have the M signature logo in the headstock. Given the flying eagle landing on the truss rod, I moved the logos to the control knobs. The knurled surface provides a very positive feel, and very unusual detail on electric guitars. This is more often found on the grips of high end pistol grips and rifle stocks.

White MOP Eagle Inlays

White MOP fly Eagle inlays.

As a bit of an off-take from Paul Reed Smith’s flying birds, this guitar has the American Eagle landing on the headstock truss rod and flying across the fretboard.

The inlays are individually made feather and body sections, mostly in varying pieces of white Mother of Pearl. The birds are assembled on cardstock, then glued together, finally sanding off the cardstock. It is far easier to inlay one bird rather than its twenty constituent pieces.

Given the unusual black dyed Spruce composite neck (the fretboard is not black Ebony) a few tricks were necessary to get an effective fill during the inlay process. Dust was made from the fretboard material, along with cyanoacrylate. The fretboard was then black dyed again to ensure a uniform finish. As a final detail, the fretboard side markers were finished in a special glow-in-the-dark orange dots – quite visible in dim light onstage.

Tobacco Orange Burst in Nitrocellulose Lacquer

Tobacco Orange Burst in Nitrocellulose Lacquer. Translucent edge shows swirled Spruce.

When the bodies are vacuum formed, regular and black dyed Spruce fibers are mixed, which creates a swirl pattern in the body. I wanted to keep this aspect, and decided to shoot a yellow amber base which transitioned to an orange tobacco sunburst. These colors were chosen to complement the colors in Cocobolo Rosewood.

The sunburst colors were progressively mixed from a single base to create a fluid transition from amber to tobacco orange. The edge was sprayed light enough to allow the black swirls to also show at the darkest parts of the tint. Unlike Flaxwood guitars finished in urethane, this guitar was shot in nitrocellulose lacquer.

At the beginning of construction

At the beginning of construction, body and Cocobolo Rosewood.

The final guitar was set up with Gotoh 510 wraparound bridge, Hipshot locking tuners, a Graphtech nut and Switchcraft jack. Saleh, my good friend and in-house guitar gunslinger, worked with me to dial in the setup and electronics.

A full fret level and polish was performed to ensure we could dial down the action to where it played like butter. Careful attention was placed to round the fret ends and chamfer the fretboard, ensuring the best possible left hand comfort and playability.

Can we build one for you? Absolutely. To see more picture of the finished guitar, check it out in our Portfolio Page..

Custom Pickup Covers

Everyone has their pet peeves I suppose. I am not a huge fan of plastic on guitars, be it binding, purfling, electric guitar knobs …. or pickup covers. My guitars are carefully designed, sculpted and finished with just a bit of obsession to details.

Cocobolo Rosewood cut for pickups

Cocobolo Rosewood cut for pickups

For electric guitars that attention to detail includes the pickups. In this case, P90 single coils by Lindy Fralin, who is known as one of the czars of pickup tone.

For pickup covers, first I select the wood which compliments the guitar. In this case the instrument is to be finished in a orange sunburst. Cocobolo Rosewood is the obvious choice, with rich orange colors and wonderful dark ink lines. Cocobolo is a fantastic wood – hard, resonant and beautiful. The wood oxidizes over time, darkening to very rich and warm hues. Unfortunately Cocobolo dust is also very dangerous to breath. It is a sensitizer – the more one breathes the more one is likely to incur increasingly allergic reactions. When cutting and sanding, precautions are taken, vacuuming with a HEPA filter and wearing a protective breathing mask.

Top cover carrier used to index magnetic pole and screw holes

Top cover carrier used to index magnetic pole and screw holes

Once cut, the top covers are placed in a carrier which precisely locates the pole piece holes as well as the mounting screws. Holes must be carefully drilled with near perfect spacing and no chip out. The small 7/64″ mounting holes have very thin walls with no room for error! As one can see the carrier board centers the pickup cover top and registers the end precisely. The covers are brought to an 0.085″ thickness then careful sized in width to have a slight interference fit.

With the holes drilled I finally start assembling the pickup covers. P90 plugs are made from Mahogany and have 3/16″ steel pins to correctly register the pickup cover on center. The sides are tacked in place with cyanoacrylate (super glue). A bit of paste wax keeps the plug from becoming glued to the cover. Once the sides are glued to the cover top, the plugs are removed.

Tooling jigs - plugs and drill index carrier - for drilling and assembling covers

Tooling jigs – plugs and drill index carrier – for drilling and assembling covers

All the seams are then flooded with cyanoacrylate to ensure a sturdy pickup cover that will last for years. Final shaping and sanding is performed, then the wood pores are filled with cyanoacrylate and sanded smooth. A final coat of Tung Oil and Briwax provide some protection and a beautiful natural satin finish.

Covers take several hours to create. A small detail, maybe, but such details bring design cohesion to the final instrument. Do the rosewood covers contribute to the tone of the instrument? Of course not – but I’m sure someone will speculate nonetheless!

And the Winner Is …

IMAGE_95B7A9BA-D8C4-4FE5-B5B6-60C75527ED34We are excited to announce that we recently won an instrument building competition. Partnering with luthier Todd Stock we set out to build a matching set of Octave Mandolins. Judged by luthiers, this matching set took first place. These instruments were very unique – one third violin, one third mandolin and one third acoustic guitar.

We began building the pair of octave mandolins in August 2012. Inspired by the work of luthier Fletcher Brock, these instrumental twins were made from the same timbers with slight variations in details and finish . Eastern Hard Curly Maple comprised the back, sides, neck and binding. Canadian Spruce was hand carved and tap tuned to produce a very responsive carved archtop. Finally the fretboard, headstock, bridge and suspended pickguard were fashioned from Bolivian Rosewood. The finish is a vintage tobacco sunburst shot in Nitrocellulose Lacquer.

In the hands of a very capable gigging musician, this instrument now resides in Colorado. For details on the final instrument, please view the portfolio.

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