You want to build your first guitar!? You’ve been watching videos, reading about it and constantly thinking about it. I know how you feel.
I can’t think of anything more exciting than to build an electric guitar, no really…, if I could think of something else, then I’d be doing that instead.
But let’s not fool ourselves, building an electric guitar from scratch is a complex project that involves many steps and requires multiple skills. It’s not necessarily difficult, but it’s complex nonetheless, especially for someone that’s just starting out.
Building a beautiful, ergonomic and great sounding guitar is one the most inspiring things you can do, but it’s a long road to become proficient at it.
Looking back at my own experience, I made plenty of mistakes that you don’t have to.
Here are eight pieces of wisdom you can use when building your first guitar.
1) Don’t Complicate The Design
Yes, binding on the headstock is beautiful, but be honest with yourself, do you have the skills needed for that job?
Make the design of your first guitar as simple as possible, it will simplify your life and make the whole process a lot more enjoyable.
No doubt about it, a carved top will look amazing, but if this is your first guitar then maybe you should reconsider it. I’m not saying you can’t do it, I’m saying that as a beginner builder, there are already so many elements to think about, learn about and implement that you can easily postpone some of these more complex elements to a future build.
So forget about building your dream guitar… for now. Instead focus on learning the foundational skills of guitar construction first, later when your skills have improved, think about adding more advanced elements to the build.
Keep the design simple and you’ll also minimize decision fatigue and paralysis from over-thinking (see Mistake #3).
There’s already so much to learn, adding more options will complicate the process even more, increase the level of difficulty, create anxiety and suck the fun out of it.
Know your limits, be aware of your skill set (what you know you can do), and plan your first guitar construction accordingly. If the design is complicated, then make it simpler, if it’s already simple, don’t complicate it much further than your current skill set.
I can tell you from experience that guitar-building is an addictive hobby and it’s unlikely that you’ll only build one guitar. So on your first project, start simple and you can incorporate more advanced elements on later guitars, when your skills have improved.
Tip: Keep the design of your first guitar as simple as possible. If you’ve never done an inlay before, then postpone that “vine of life” fretboard inlay to a future guitar.
2) Don’t Expect A Perfect Guitar, Manage Your Expectations.
Many first-time builders share the common daydream that they will build a perfect dream guitar.
Let’s bring something into perspective here, a professional guitar builder has crafted his art over many years of experimentation, mistakes and practice, so don’t expect to build a perfect guitar on your first try.
Instead, expect to make mistakes, many mistakes and be okay with that. Don’t expect your first guitar to be flawless, I can guarantee that it will not be.
That being said, your first guitar will be very special to you because you’ll have accomplished a complex project and have produced a musical instrument to show for it. You’ll be very proud of your first guitar.
Some more things to expect:
- Guitar building is an addictive hobby so expect to make many guitars
- You can expect your second guitar to be better than the first
- You can expect your third guitar to be better than the second
- Expect to make many guitars before a really great one appears
Looking at the craft of guitar building as a journey, the objective of the first few guitars is simply to finish them, learn from them and move on to the next one.
So expect to mess up and be okay with that. Let go of the idea that the guitar must be perfect.
Tip: Manage your expectations. You’ll make mistakes, many mistakes, be okay with that, it’s part of the learning process.
Have no fear of perfection – you’ll never reach it. ~ Salvador Dalí
3) Stop The Cycle Of Over-Thinking
A common problem with the first-time builder is that planning the project becomes an iterative cycle within the mind… thinking, re-thinking, over-thinking… on and on.
You’re terrified of making a concrete move because you haven’t figured out all the steps yet, so you keep re-reading, re-watching, re-thinking. You get trapped in this cycle and become paralyzed.
You don’t have to get it right, you just need to get it going.
The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. ~ Lao Tzu
Over-thinking and over-analyzing lead to decision fatigue and paralysis. They’re directly related to the first and second points in this article, i.e. #1 complicating the design way beyond your skill set, and #2 expecting not to make mistakes.
Keep your design simple, keep your expectations realistic and start building.
By actually starting, you’ll have a better chance of finishing.
Also, some people have the belief that building a guitar requires a special permission. As if it’s a craft only allowed to be practiced by a few members of a special community of highly trained luthiers. Well, I’m here to tell you that you don’t need permission from anyone to build a guitar.
In case you still feel the need to get permission, then by the powers given to me by this website, I hereby grant you official permission to be a guitar builder. There, it’s done, you now have permission to build guitars.
Tip: Stop the cycle of over-thinking and over-analyzing and just start building.
Don’t get too deep, it leads to over thinking, and over thinking leads to problems that don’t even exist in the first place. ~ Jayson Engay
4) Don’t Be Afraid To Fail
We learn from failure, not from success! ~ Bram Stoker, Dracula
I sacrificed 3 guitar bodies and 4 necks by the time I actually finished my first guitar.
You may think that’s a bad track record, but for me, it’s how I learn, I call it practice. When I started my second guitar, those mistakes were behind me and that project went very smoothly.
Don’t be afraid of mis-takes, the more mis-takes you allow yourself to take, the fewer mistakes you will make. Actors take them all the time, it’s called practice.
Practice on scrap pieces of wood. Try, fail and experiment. See failures as practice and practice makes, well, progressively less bad.
Let go of the fear of failure and intentionally allow yourself to try and experiment. It’s very liberating, it will ease anxiety and you’ll feel much better.
To get the failures out of the way, fail quick and fail often. Personally, I fail in almost everything I try the first time, I expect to fail, that’s my learning method.
Tip: Don’t be afraid to experiment, try, make mistakes. The more mis-takes you allow yourself to take, the fewer mistakes you will make.
5) Don’t Underestimate The Dangers
Experience: that most brutal of teachers. But you learn, my God do you learn. ~ William Nicholson
We hear about safety so much these days that we’ve become deaf to it and generally ignore it. It’s like the boy who cried wolf too many times. However, in guitar building, there is real danger involved.
Guitar building is mostly woodworking and that entails sharp blades, power tools, solvent fumes and wood dust.
Blades and power tools are made to cut, they don’t care if it’s a piece of wood or a piece of human. This stuff is fairly obvious so I won’t dwell on it any longer.
What’s not so obvious however, is the danger of solvent fumes and wood dust!
Compared to loud power tools, a bit of fumes and dust seems harmless, but it’s not.
To the beginner, it often goes unnoticed but these things are some of the most dangerous elements in the workshop, the experienced woodworker knows this well.
Wood dust, in the form that gets generated in the workshop, does not actually exist in nature. Therefore, the human body did not evolve with wood dust and consequently, the bodies do not have a mechanism for dealing with it when it enters into our lungs. Same goes for solvent fumes!
It’s toxic! It’s dangerous! Do not breath this stuff into your lungs. You may not notice anything at first but eventually, it will make you sick.
Tip: Have a big dose of respect for tools, power tools and especially solvent fumes and wood dust.
6) Work With A Full-Size Plan
One of the most practical things you can do to make your first project a success is to have a full-size plan of your guitar.
As a beginner, it will help you understand the design, construction and planning of your guitar.
You can draw your own or print one from online sources, regardless, have a full-size plan of your guitar.
You’ll be able to take direct measurements of distances and angles from the plan itself, “how deep should I make the neck pocket?”, “what’s the thickness of the headstock?”, etc. easy! Check your plan.
The common beginner question, “how do I calculate the neck angle?” is a consequence of not having a full-size plan.
For your first guitar, work from a plan.
Tip: Take the time to make or print and work with a full-size plan
7) Take The Time To Build Jigs And Templates
The reason I scarified so much wood in my early days was because of this thinking pattern: “I don’t want to build a jig or template, it will take too much time”.
I was impatient and wanted to quickly make the cut so I could see tangible progress towards a guitar.
Today, the more mature me rarely makes a free-hand cut. Jigs and templates are many in my workshop and a new one seems to get born every few weeks.
Sometimes I still don’t feel like making a jig or template but I know that if I don’t, then the project will suffer.
In the end, I never regret taking the time to make a jig or template, they not only make the cut cleaner, but also safer to perform.
Tip: Get into the habit of making jigs and templates, you won’t regret it.
8) Don’t Be So Hard On Yourself, It’s Only A Hobby
Guitar building should not feel like a chore nor a task, it should’t feel like filing an income tax report (unless you like doing that). Remember, it’s a hobby, and by definition, hobbies should be fun, satisfying and rewarding.
If you’re not having fun, it’s probably because you’re not following some of the advice above.
Keep it simple, manage your expectations, don’t be afraid of taking mis-takes, stop over-thinking and just start building, respect the dangers, work with a full-size plan, take the time to make jigs and templates and finally have fun doing it.
Tip: Enjoy the process and have fun, remember you’re not filing an income tax return, you’re building a guitar.
Summary of the 8 tips:
1. Keep the design of your first guitar as simple as possible.
2. Manage your expectations. You will make mistakes, many mistakes, be okay with that. Don’t expect a perfect guitar.
3. Don’t be afraid to experiment, try, take mis-takes and practice.
4. Stop over-thinking and over-analyzing and just start building.
5. Have a big dose of respect for tools, power tools and especially solvent fumes and wood dust.
6. Work from a full-sized plan.
7. Take the time to build jigs and templates.
8. Enjoy the process and have fun.
What do you think? Do you agree with these tips? Do you have any tips to add to this list? Add them to the comments section below.