Earl Grey Guitar (build notes)

A while back I picked up a used Yamaha EG-112 electric guitar. A cheap strat clone, yes, but it was a decent guitar for my purposes - which usually involves lots of heavy detuning, feedback, and general abuse.

But I found myself not playing this guitar much. It sounded ok, but it felt very...artifical. Covered in plastic and thick nitrocellulose lacquer. Stiff and unforgiving. 3 pickups and a tone switch tone knob, which I never really used.

I decided to strip down the guitar back to raw wood, remove as many plastic parts as possible, and rewire the electronics to be simpler. I wanted a simpler and more organic feel overall.

Using several different solvents, a heat gun, and razor blades I was able to strip the paint off the body of the guitar. I was shocked how much paint was on the guitar and how difficult it was to remove. Just removing the paint seemed to make the guitar lighter. Removing the paint exposed the basswood, which is a fairly soft and pale looking wood with no grain.

I experimented with trying to stain the wood with water based and oil based wood stains but didn't really like the results. I wanted a more natural look, so I turned to an old school wood stain based on concentrated tea. I boiled several earl grey tea bags for about half an hour on the stove, and applied about 5 coats of tea to the wood. From what I understand, the tannins in the tea leaves are the same tannins that cause wood to be lighter or darker. As it ages, the wood will grow darker as well.

I removed the original plastic pick guard, and used a jigsaw and dremel to make my own pick guard out of 6mm aircraft birch plywood. I split the pick guard into two parts to make it easier to access the pickup switch and 1/4 jack without having to remove all the strings. I stained one part of the pick guard with tea again to give it a golden brown hue, and for the other part, I did something a little different. It turns out if you combine dark tea and rust you get black ink! This is a result of the tannins in the tea reacting with the rust. So I took some steel wool and placed it into a jar of vinegar, letting it rust for a few days. Then, I stained the wood with tea to get a base brown coat. I then applied a light coat of the rusty vinegar which filled the porous grain, staining it black. Although unexpected, I kinda liked how it highlighted the grain and went with it.

Inspired by the simplicity of the Thurston Moore Fender Jazzmaster, I removed the middle pickup, removed the tone knob, and replaced the 5 way selector switch with a Gibson 3-way toggle switch. I upgraded the flimsy 1/4" jack with a Neutrik jack. I lined the inside with metal foil to reduce some of the pickup buzz. Lastly - I added a red momentary killswitch which when pressed cuts the signal out completely, which can be used to generate some weird percussive sounds.

Finally, I painted the headstock black, and used a pencil to draw some victorian style spirals. I sealed the wood and paint with a wiping polyurethane for the body (really just polyurethane cut with mineral spirits) and spray polyurethane for the headstock.

Yes it was a lot of work. But aside from gaining an intimate understanding of every part of an instrument, I find that putting time and energy into making custom music gear results in a deep and meaningful connection with it. The result is that I am more motivated to pick it up and create music with it, embracing both the intentions and accidents acquired during the build process. I am inspired by the unique variations of handmade Mbiras from Africa, each one having a distinct color, tone, feel, and preferred tuning by its maker.