July 2013

The retrospec – Tasty Bits, Part 3

[The previous articles can be found here: The retrospec – Introduction, Part 1 :: The retrospec – The Core Design, Part 2]

Sorting out the parts for the retrospec

Sorting out the parts for the retrospec

Unlike a classical or steel string acoustic, electric guitars are chock full of electronic goodies and accessories. My uncle once told me that the more controls on an amplifier the less the chance you’ll ever find the sound you are looking for. I must say I’ve come to realize the wisdom in his comment.

But with that said, the retrospecss is an electric guitar so choices we must make. Thankfully this is one of several places where my co-conspirator, Saleh Sabat, is a whirling dervish of gear. So into the deep end of the pool!

From Tuners to Bridge

Let’s start at the headstock and work to the body. Telecasters, for the most part, have always had string trees. We opted to go with staggered Gotoh tuners, requiring no string trees. Tuners will be mounted without top nuts, but rather with the shafts sleeved and free floating in the headstock.

Snake Oil pure Nickel Strings with Buffalo Bone white nut material

Snake Oil pure Nickel Strings with Buffalo Bone white nut material

From the tuning shafts we mount pure nickel Snake Oil strings. As the strings come to the fretboard, they are supported by a white Buffalo bone nut, which is very hard. This is a small but important detail. The nut slots are polished and facilitate string bending. How so, you ask? We designed the headstock slightly longer than a stock Fender neck, then removed the string trees, ensured the string are a straight line from bridge to tuners.

We then went with the hardest nut material we could polish – all of this to create additional unencumbered string length behind the nut to ease string bending. These are the kinds of details we think about when spending six months designing a guitar!

Evo wire on a Ziricote fretboard.

Evo wire on a Ziricote fretboard.

The strings make their way over Evo fret wire, which is a fairly new fret material made by Jescar. Evo wire is harder than regular nickel frets (better bends and better wear) but doesn’t feel different like stainless steel frets. A shiny gold color when new, Evo wire eventually oxidizes to a dull gold color which looks very attractive, both on maple necks and darker fretboards. Underneath the frets is a two way truss rod, which can be adjusted by removing the neck pickup backplate.

Finally at the body end, the strings crest the brass saddles of a Rutters Chopped Bridge. Machined from cold rolled plate steel, it is both elegant and tone enhancing. The strings finally pass through the body and are secured by flush mount chrome ferrules.

Custom steel bobtail bridge with compensated polished brass saddles

Custom steel bobtail bridge with compensated polished brass saddles

Unlike Fender guitars which mount the neck perfectly horizontal to the body, the retrospecss will have a mild neck back angle. This allows us to project a slightly higher string height over the saddles, which we find better contributes to the guitar’s tone. The added height will add a sixteenth of an inch of saddle height, without requiring a taller neck mount or higher neck pickup setting.

The retrospecss is available with four different pickup configurations. The first will be the standard Telecaster bridge/neck pair. The second, a Nashville version which adds a third middle pickup and unique six-way toggle switch. The third configuration will be the minimalist’s guitar – a single bridge pickup. Finally a special Charlie Christian version of

Custom wound pickups, specific to the retrospec

Custom wound pickups, specific to the retrospec

the retrospecss will be a hollowbody with archtop bridge using Charlie Christian style jazz pickups. These will be excitingly unique guitars and offer a wide range of capability atop the retrospecss core design.

Unlike the Telecaster, our pickups will be rear mounted and rear adjusted. The front body routs will allow the top of the pickup to protrude through the body. The back plates will be made from the same body wood material, yet carrying more wood mass behind the pickup. The pickups will mount to the back plates and their height adjusted from the rear.

Electronics and Control Gear

High quality electronics are important to an accurate and well focused sound. The retrospecss starts with CTS pots with 10% tolerances. The tone pot is no-load, so it can be completely taken out of the circuit (along with the capacitor). Wiring is vintage cloth. The capacitors are oil filled, new old stock from Russia, which are known for great tone. The jack is Electrosocket mated to a Switchcraft jack, which is a far superior solution to the traditional Tele cup. Finally the switch is a 3 way toggle, as one would see on a Gibson, but still maintaining the round Telecaster style switch tip.

Like the pickups, the tone and volume controls will be mounted through the rear. Instead of being surface mounted, the front routs will allow for the knobs to protrude through the top. Controls will be mounted on an inner cavity plate, allowing the knob depth to be adjusted.

Assembling the parts for the retrospec

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..