Chapter 12 – Steps

“Tim,” you’re saying, “are you making fun of alcoholics?”

No, I’m not. But I might have an addiction to this guitar building thing.

You might also be asking why I switched from spelling numbers out in my title lines to typing the actual numbers, but I think its goodly Englishes to use numbers when it’s greater than ten. You might also not have noticed the numbers thing, and I totally wouldn’t blame you, because I don’t think anybody else is putting these posts under the microscope. You might also have noticed that “its goodly Englishes” isn’t really a sentence.

Last week, I had strung up and played the first notes that this guitar had ever played. Exhilarating, truly. The next time I worked on it, though, it was time to fine tune the instrument in a very literal way. Adjusting the saddle so that the guitar would intonate properly was my next task. Basically, the saddle was made higher than it needed to be, so that I would have room to shave down either the front or back edge to make sure, when each string was fretted up the entire neck, it would play in tune. I might have been a little distracted when doing this, and/or enamoured with the idea of getting it home, so I know I could have done a better job. That said, it is nearly perfect, and I can come back to it very easily.

My next step was the headstock. I had decided a while ago that I wanted to use a fermata as my logo. For the uninitiated, a fermata is a symbol in music telling the player that the note should be held for longer than its normal duration. I like the sentiment behind having it on an instrument. I went to work on the brass again, as I love the way it looks on the fretboard, and thought it would be a nice complement.

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Jeweller’s saw time! Such a tiny little blade.

Once I had the crescent carved out, I traced it onto the headstock and started to dremel out the channel into which I would set it.

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I got way better at this compared to when I first started. Kinda makes me wish I could redo my top…

Then epoxy with black dust, and a whole lot of filing and sanding!

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In progress

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All finished! So shiny.

On the subject of finished: all I had left to do was a final sanding everywhere, cleaning with a tack cloth, and then the finish can be applied! I had a number of options, but tung oil was what I landed on. It feels great, looks great, smells pretty good, it’s all natural – there are loads of advantages. The only downside is that it’s not as shiny as other things but I feel like this guitar is flashy enough as it is.

I think a few times over the course of this blog, I’ve talked about the wood grain coming alive when the finish is applied. Well, if you didn’t know what I was talking about, here you friggin’ go:

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Both pieces of wood in this photo are curly walnut – one with a coat of oil, the other totally naked.

What a difference! The back blows me away, and might be my favourite part of the guitar, visually. I put on four coats; it’ll be well-protected, but it’s on thin enough that it will be easily sanded off, should I find some imperfections that I want to fix down the road (another advantage of oil – very easy to reapply).

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This was following one coat on the whole body

It’s hard to say it without feeling like I’m not doing the moment justice, but, that was it. Once the finish was on and it had time to harden, I strung it up and it was a real live guitar. One that I built from top to bottom.

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I’ll get out my big boy camera and take some real photos soon, to show off everything I can, and I’ll record some video and audio as soon as I decide what song it is I want to play for its first performance.

Until such a time, here’s one last photo. Apparently, my first guitar won’t be my last…

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Chapter 11 – The 11th Hour

So, the title didn’t tie in exactly like the other good ones, but still, I was pretty close.

Speaking of close, the guitar is very close to being done. I’m pretty blown away by that, actually. It seems like so recently the whole thing was in pieces, and now it’s just a few steps away from being a real thing that makes (hopefully beautiful) sound.

I have noticed that I’m taking far fewer photos as I go through, and that’s probably both good and bad. Bad because I’ve got less to show you on here; but good because it means I’m more in the moment, and my skills are improving so that I feel like not everything I do is photo-worthy.

Now that the bridge is fixed on, it was time to drill out the holes for the tuners. Simple enough, a quick trip to the drill press and I was done. Installing the tuners is a breeze, too, so I don’t have much to say there. I had to buy Hipshot because they were one of the only companies who sold individual tuners, but it worked out nicely because they’re mostly polished silver with a dull brass gear – just like my frets and inlays, respectively.

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I know the middle one on the bass side is severely crooked – this was just a mock-up.

Back to the bridge – I had to drill down into the body so that the string holes go all the way through the top and the bridge plate that I glued in all those weeks ago. Yes, it was terrifying, thank you for asking. Once those were done, it was time to make my nut and saddle. The word saddle makes sense to me, because the strings sit on it and stuff, but I have no idea why a nut is called a nut. One day, I might investigate the etymology, but today is not that day.

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Getting the width right first

Horn is a bit like fingernails, in that it’s made from the exact same stuff as hair, and with that said, working this stuff was one of the smelliest jobs in this entire process (epoxy and hide glue are still in the lead). It’s easy enough to work with, though, so the process wasn’t too frustrating. The worst part was my punishment for doing a good job – the saddle fits into the bridge very snugly, and once it was all polished it was incredibly smooth. Those two coupled together meant taking the saddle off was a huge pain in the ass when I needed to make more adjustments. It’s worth it, though, to know that I’ve got a really solid connection on all the pieces there; the better the contact, the more efficient the energy transfer, the better the sustain, the fuller the tone. At least, that’s how it works in my head with its rather limited understanding of physics and acoustics.

So the saddle was seated tightly, and the nut was made in very much the same way, but with the added challenge of an angled bottom. Because the headstock goes off at an angle, and contact is important (like I just mentioned talking about the saddle), I had to do some tricky sanding. There is also the matter of string slots. This is where those plans I made before I even had glue on wood came into play. The string spacing was determined a long time ago, so now I had to reference that to file out channels in which the strings would sit as they break over the headstock. The ‘break angle’ is pretty key to the sustain, and ideally it is in the middle of the angle made by the headstock and fretboard (15º). With each slot filed out a little larger than the strings I had planned to put on, I was ready to polish both the nut and saddle, then string this thing up for the first time!

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Ta-freaking-da, right?! Who knows how many hours between when I started and when I first heard it, but I can tell you it was a bunch. So, the immediate question in your mind is probably, ‘how did it sound?’ My answer – underwhelming. Terrifying, right? I spent all this time and money building a guitar that sounded sort of choked. But, like almost any crack, dent, or mistake, it can be fixed! The simplest way was to use heavier strings on the bass side. This is the nature of multiscale guitars – the longer strings can have more massive strings. Another solution is to scrape away some of the bracing with a small plane. This allows the top to vibrate a bit easier. But the last method was the coolest – do nothing.

Especially with acoustic guitars, people celebrate the oldest ones, and say they definitely sound best, and it’s true. Acoustic guitars grow into their sound, and as they age they just get better and better. What I was able to observe was that there is even an improvement within the first couple of weeks of having it strung up, and a pretty marked one at that. If you imagine one of those graphs of diminishing returns, it was just like that. The improvement in the tone was huge.

And with that, there are just a few more steps before I can call this guitar complete. I’m really looking forward to showing you all the final product!

Chapter Ten – Light at the End of the Bridge

A guitar bridge on an acoustic guitar is what connects the strings to the guitar so that the energy from the strings vibrating is transferred to the resonant top. That’s why they call it the bridge. …I mean, I assume it is. Makes sense, doesn’t it? Let’s go with that. So, it was time to make mine.

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This one turned out to be a little flimsy. I made a stronger one.

On my instagram page, I posted a photo of the wood that I bought for my bridge a few months back. In case you missed it, it’s this piece of black and white ebony. It’s a dense wood, and it immediately caught my eye in a box full of a few different varieties. Typically, guitar bridges are made from rosewood or ebony, darker woods. Not that I needed help making this guitar stand out, but the black and white ebony will contribute to the uniqueness of my instrument. And so, I set about cutting it to shape:

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That looks better.

You might have noticed that the D string hole isn’t exactly in the centre. That’s okay – I spaced the treble strings a little tighter together to give the bass strings more room. After cutting it to shape on that plane, I gave it some dimension by rounding off the back edge, and shaping the wings of it so that it wasn’t cutting into my hand, and so that it looked nice. Also, I drilled through the outermost string holes into the guitar top exactly where the bridge would sit. That distance was determined by the scale length that I had chosen in the beginning when making my plans. This guitar has a different length for each string (hence, a ‘multiscale’ guitar), so the high E and low B were the two that I measured to set the bridge in place. Then, I stuck 2 pieces of dowel into those holes so that I had a perfect guide for the bridge to sit in place for when I would later glue it on. The last step in bridge-making is the slot for the saddle. I clamped the bridge onto my workbench and used a router and a guide to route out a perfectly straight channel down to a precise depth.

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You can see how the wings taper down toward the edges, and how the back edge is rounded off

You can also see that it looks like I screwed this part up, too. Well, I didn’t! Thankfully – I didn’t have a backup piece of this ebony. Yes, the slot for the saddle is off to the side, but that’s because the bridge will be angled back on the bass side, so actually, this will be the perfect offset for the strings. Don’t worry, it still looks weird to me, too. This next picture helps you to visualize.

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It still looks weird, but I think it looks less weird now

As has been the case with everything I’ve done in this build, customization means some extra considerations. Before gluing anything, I always do a dry run, but for this it was incredibly important because an improperly glued bridge can end up rendering the entire guitar basically useless (because I’m imagining it ripping off half of it and destroying the whole guitar top. I guess nothing is totally irreparable, but still…). Once everything looked to be fitting snugly, it was time to put glue on and clamp it into place.

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That body looks deep enough to swim in

So there it is, sitting pretty, waiting to set. There are so few steps left, I’m so excited to string it up and play it finally!

Chapter Nine – The End is Nighne…

Oh dear, that title. They can’t all be great.

I’m not entirely sure how to encapsulate the tedium of the next piece of the guitar puzzle. They had warned me about it. They told me it’s the worst step, somebody else had spent a week and a half on it, it’s worse than the last thing you thought was the worst, and so on. I can’t lie, it wasn’t a lot of fun. But I got through it.

Fitting the neck to the body sucked. There isn’t much redemption in it. Relief, when you finally get it on there, but outside of that, it is an ugly process. Basically, I had to hollow out a bit of the neck at the heel, place the neck rather carefully onto the body of the guitar where it would sit when it was all said and done, and sandwiched between those two pieces was a sheet of sandpaper. Pull sandpaper out. Place carefully again. Pull. Place. Pull. Repeat. So many times. Then check to see if the neck is all squared up. If it’s not, fix it. Then do the sandpaper thing again. Then check it again. Then hollow it out some more. Then your brain turns to mush for a bit. Keep going for a few hours after that and you’ve got it. Maybe. Or maybe keep going.

Like I said though – I did it. It came out looking like this:

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The twain shall meet!

It’s hard to talk about without repeating myself, but it was really boring. With that fitting well though, it was almost time to attach the neck to the body. I had to create some shims to sit underneath the part of the fretboard floating above the body itself so that it …well, so that it wasn’t floating over the body, but attached securely to it. Using the same wood as the fretboard (wenge), I shaped some ramp-lookin’ things to slide into the sides of the overhang so that it sat flat on top of the body. At that point, it was finally time to join the two pieces to make a guitar!

Writer’s note: I know I keep saying “I did this step and now it’s a guitar!” But this moment was the most this-kind-of-momenty moment out of all of these types of moments so far. A guitar is effectively a body and neck, with some strings over it. Everything else is secondary. So, y’know, just…it was pretty awesome.

In creating the neck block (documented in an earlier chapter), There were two holes that I predrilled and countersunk before gluing it into place. These two holes would house the screws that would be threaded into the neck to keep the guitar in one piece, meaning yes, they’re important. I used these to test-fit my neck and to make sure it would sit dead straight.

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You can tell somebody to screw off, but ‘screw on’ only works for a guitar neck. …but actually, it’s usually bolt on, so even that doesn’t work.

Here’s how it looked outside:

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Before gluing it up and joining these two permanently, I took off the neck and shaped the fretboard where it hangs over the soundhole. As you can see in the photos, it doesn’t look super great as a squared off thing that goes out way farther than it should. Or, maybe you think it does. I don’t. So I rounded it off, with a similar curve to what I had done on the headstock, this sort of wave-like thing, that – …well, it’s this sort of wave-like thing:

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The edge is angled up on one side and down on the other

Once I knew everything was fitting right and tight, it was time to make this joint permanent. With some glue to keep the fretboard in place, and a few different clamps and cauls, I tightened those two screws to make sure this thing wasn’t going anywhere soon.

I left that all clamped overnight, and when I came back, it was solid as a rock. Without taking time to pat myself on the back, since I mostly wanted to distance myself from the memory of fitting the neck on there (I swear, I’ll stop complaining about it. …soon), I started fretting. Not like, worrying. I mean, putting in the frets. This was a little repetitive, but otherwise a smooth and quick process. They’re held in place with a bit of glue, and each one is hammered in by hand, then cleaned up so as to not turn my hand into a bloody mess when playing it.

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Fretting in progress

Each one is measured and cut roughly to length first. After that, they’re cut right to the end of the fretboard, then they’re dressed, levelled, crowned, and finally polished. That takes a lot less time to say than it takes to do. Still better than the neck joint.

Okay that’s the last time.

I’m getting very, very close here. The end is nigh…check out the blog next time to see the bridge come alive!

 

Chapter Eight – What’s Neckst?

That was so terrible. Really, really awful. Worst pun yet, by far.

Sorry.

*ahem* I’ve kept a secret going for a little while, and some of you might have pieced it together that my guitar has been missing something pretty important.

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The neck!

Well here it is in all its glory. This will be a picture heavy post, since the wood looks so pretty. It’s flamed maple on the outsides, and padauk/padouk within.

It even smells good. I get vanilla, and I’m told it smells a lot like pipe tobacco, too. Although, being that I’m not a smoker and it’s no longer 1948, I don’t actually know what that smells like.

Getting the angles just right was tricky, tricky stuff. Making sure I had a flat headstock meant I needed extra depth on my wood, and actually it still ended up being on a bit of an angle. You can see what I mean in this photo:

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I actually like the look of that; it’s visually interesting for sure, and won’t have any impact structurally, so we’re all good. I also channeled out the cavity for the truss rod and secured that in place.

From there, I felt like the headstock would have looked too thin, especially with seven strings, so I glued on some padauk wings to either side:

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Gluey Glewis and the Glews.

Gluing on my fretboard and headstock veneer was next, and taking off the excess wood on either side of it came after. These were both simple enough tasks.

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At this point, I wouldn’t call the neck ‘playable.’

Next was the fretboard radius. a 20-inch radius is pretty minimal, but with the extra width of the neck, maybe it will feel closer to a classical guitar. I then made my fretboard inlays using brass, used a Dremel to channel out the slots for them, and mixed up some leftover dust in the epoxy to ensure a clean look.

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Here’s a quick mock-up I did – the camera perspective messes with the fan of the frets, but only the 8th fret is perfectly perpendicular.

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Homemade glitter! NSFL (not safe for lungs).

Following this, I took the excess maple off of either side of the neck, and shaped the headstock with a spindle sander.

Shaping the neck was pretty fun, to be honest, and this is one of the more gratifying tasks. Using a dragon rasp, I took the material down to the depth I wanted at the first fret and down close to the heel. From there, I shaped everything else to the same dimensions, basically (more on the shape in a bit). I liked this part because it was largely about feel and seemed like this must be what Michelangelo was talking about on a far, far, far more basic level. He saw an angel in the marble, I saw a neck in the neck-shaped hunk of wood. Potato, padaukto.

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Not pictured: potatoes

In the process of shaping the neck, several of the fretboard inlays popped out. I’m not entirely sure why that is, because the epoxy had cured for sure. My best guess is that I added too much  wenge dust and it messed with the adhesion. In any case, I was able to repair everything with no major issues. I then sanded the neck at 120 grit, 180, 320, and finally 800, removing any scratches and making it all crazy smooth.

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It’s real!

The neck profile is an odd one. I knew I wanted a chunkier neck, because any seven-string I’ve picked up feels super thin and flat. For this guitar, I wanted it to feel more natural, more like a standard guitar. …but I also wanted it to feel nothing like a standard guitar since I went for a totally weird neck profile. After reading up on the various shapes, I discovered .strandberg* and their EndurNeck. The reviews were all glowing, and the guitars are incredible works of art, so I thought it must be a good idea. I modified it a bit, however, to make it feel closer to ‘normal,’ and to not violate any copyright claims they may have.

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See, ladies? Guitar makers appreciate a good heel.

I’m particularly proud of the heel design because it was something I thought of as I was working on it, I feel like it’s original, and it looks damn good, if I do say so.

That’s all for now. Every time I come back to the shop, I get to see how much closer I am and I think about how wild it is that a few weeks ago these were just flat bits of wood. Next time, I’ll have even more to share. Cheers!

Chapter Seven – Lucky

So, this chapter starts with a bit of a mess.

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Attempt #1 – Failure

Yes, that’s the mess to which I’m referring. I had chosen to use the same African blackwood for my veneer here, and it looked good until I botched gluing it in. The clamps went on fine, but the ratchet strap pulled the veneer sideways, and I couldn’t see underneath the caul. It ended up looking like this:

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Not the best.

So, that defintely wouldn’t do. Back to square one…

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The cavity re-routed.

I cut two new pieces, bookmatched them, glued them together, and this time…

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Attempt #2 – Success!

I still had a bit of cleaning up to do, but it sanded off quickly enough and you’d never tell what had happened. There were a couple things I learned – screw-ups aren’t always permanent, and they won’t take as long to redo as they did to ‘do’ in the first place. The same way it was easier and faster to shape braces each time I made one, replacing this veneer was nowhere near as big of a problem as I thought it would be.

On instagram, I made some hints as to what else I’d been working on, things I haven’t posted on here yet. It involved some math (math that I didn’t personally have to do, thanks to computers), a lot of precise measurements, and maybe a bit of acceleration of the development of carpal tunnel syndrome, however, I made it through. For the first time, I present to you…

My fretboard!

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Wenge! Such wonderful contrast

Wenge is, as I found out, an incredibly dense wood, and it took a lot out of me to get these fret slots sawed out. I measured these to within a 64th of an inch, and, in fact, maybe a bit more precisely. The whole idea of a fanned fret guitar is to get more accurate intonation, so being precise was top priority here.

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More than just the fret slots, you can see the binding and purfling channel I routed out of the body. A mounted router and even more precise measurements, I was able to get that step you see to account for the size difference between the binding and purfling. There are no process shots of this because it is never a good idea to operate machines while using a mobile device. I’m not saying that because I had a bad experience, I’m saying that because I’m smart enough to know that without having lost a finger. I hope anybody reading this knows as much.

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Taping the binding in place

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Here’s what it will eventually sort of look like!

This project keeps on amazing me. There are jobs like sawing out the fret slots that require a lot of attention on a pretty small area, and it’s easy to find it monotonous and lose sight of the project as a whole. But then I finish one or two steps and I take a look at the big picture and it looks so much more like a guitar! For as many times as I’ve felt bored or discouraged, I’ve gotten a huge thrill twice or three times over. It’s hard work, but it’s paying off!

I’m really excited to share my next big of progress with everybody – the as-yet unseen neck!

Stay tuned…

Chapter Six – Appeal

This one will be short and sweet. …actually, as I write this I’m rewatching season one of True Detective and this post might not be so sweet. In all honesty, it could take a dark turn. This show is so good. What happened with season two? What a letdown. I digress, I suppose. If you want my opinions on that just send me a message or something. I’ll talk True Detective ’til the cows come home. As for the title, it’s a stretch, but like, sex appeal? Six appeal? I dunno. I tried. Whatever, I’m building guitars, not a script. Oh no, I’m angry already. THIS SHOW IS SO POWERFUL.

As things were starting this week, I had a top, a back, and bent-up sides. Now, it was time to put them together. To start that process, I had to shave down the braces on the top and back so that they were a uniform height. That would allow me to cut channels into the sides so that I could glue everything together and have it fit together cleanly and securely. Using a chisel, I set to work at this, and this is where you really find out how important it is to have quality, well-maintained tools. Working with dull tools saves you five minutes of sharpening; but five minutes of sharpening will save you 10 minutes of work time, as well as a lot of fatigue. I’m so lucky to have a well-equipped shop at CSL, and I sort of dread the day, should it come, when I set up my own shop knowing how necessary it is not to cheap out on these kinds of things.

After getting everything neat and tidy, I copied, very precisely, the lines made by my braces so I could channel them out in my sides. From there, it was into the go bar deck for gluing! Here’s a big photo dump demonstrating how that all went down:

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Go bars!

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The back is glued – now time for the top

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More go bars!

Because of how deep my body is (i.e. much deeper than typical), getting these go bars on was pretty tough, especially at the lower bout. Luckily, I had another set of hands working with me and it was a snap. …and maybe one or two of the go bars snapped. But that sorta comes with the territory. Anyway, it all worked out. Once it was glued, I had a guitar body-shaped thing, but it had overhang from the excess I left when I roughcut the body shape into the back and sides. With that, I used a router mounted upside down to a special table to take that excess off. Once that was done…

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TA-FREAKIN-DA!

I cannot tell you how satisfying it was to see this come together. For as long as I’ve been working on it, my guitar has just been pieces of wood in different shapes. Now, I have a guitar! …well, a guitar body. The neck is coming, as are the finishing touches on the body (the binding, the bridge, etc.).

For now, you’ll just have to sit tight until next week!