QUICK HIT: Matt Dunn shares his experience building an electric guitar from a kit with a custom headstock.
Between creating a partscaster and building a cheap electric guitar from wood blanks lies guitar kits. They can be a great way to create a customized, personal guitar with unique finishes or a one-off headstock. Having just assembled my first guitar kit, a Trini Lopez style guitar with a vintage 70’s Fender headstock, I thought I'd share my experience and help discuss the pros and cons of these retail alternatives.
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Getting Required Materials Together
First, for those of you who are experienced guitar modifiers, feel free to ignore this. But, if you're starting to alter your own instruments - or build new ones - here is a quick list of everything you might need (that I needed) aside from the kit itself.
- Screwdrivers of various sizes
- Polyurethane (for the natural finish)
- Sand paper 600 grit, 120 grit, 40 grit
- Soldering Iron
Things I needed but you don’t necessarily need:
- Screw clamps for set neck (don’t need for Fender style bolt-on necks)
- Wood glue for set neck (don’t need for Fender style bolt-on necks)
- Power drill and various bit sizes (not necessary, but needed it for mine specifically)
- Power saw for cutting out headstock blank
Nothing on that list - that's absolutely required - is expensive with sand paper costing under $10 per pack of multiple sheets and soldering irons going on Amazon for about $20. Still, if you’re pursuing a kit because of their cheap cost, it's important to add these materials to your final budget. The power saw was only necessary because I made the personal decision to cut my own headstock shape, but many kits are available with pre-shaped headstocks. As stated above, Fender guitar models feature necks screwed on to their body.
Choosing Your Kit
When it comes to picking the kit it's important to shop around as you can find multiple brands online via their own websites or sold on Reverb. I'd recommend doing your research, reading reviews, and even asking around on forums (or the comments section in this article).
Here are some great sites where you can start looking for guitar kits:
The Buzz Feiten kits are a great higher end option but aside from them, most kits will run you anywhere from $175-300 on average, which can make them a great budget alternative to low quality beginner guitars or brand name guitars out of your price range. My kit cost me a little over $165 on Reverb but I was able to get a few bucks back after my neck arrived without the pre-drilled tuning holes, thus the inclusion of the drill on the gear list.
With any online guitar-related purchase in this price range, it's always important to remember mistakes like this can happen. Always give yourself more time, more budget room, and more patience as assembling a guitar isn’t always as simple as snapping everything into place.
Lessons Learned Throughout the Process
Throughout the process, I learned a great deal about how electric guitars actually work and how little I knew about them. The things I thought would be easiest ended up being the hardest and vice versa. As someone who loves building partscasters, I figured soldering in the pickups would be easy and quick. Turns out I over estimated myself a bit. Semi-hollow bodies like this one can actually be a pain to pull the pickups and pots through the f-holes. I even needed to get outside help at one point.
Originally, I expected that giving the guitar its natural finish would be the biggest pain, but it ended up being the most enjoyable part, sanding it down every day, and polishing on the next coat of polyurethane. I find all guitar modification and building projects to be a great hands-on way to escape the computer screen I stare at during work all day and the endless bored social media scrolling the cold winter weather encourages.
The Final Result
All labor and experience aside, the guitar I ended up with blows away any other $150 semi hollow body guitar I could buy. I love having a Gibson-style guitar with two high-output humbuckers while also having the big Fender-style headstock. The natural finish is unlike any other color of guitar I have and it’s great to be able to mix and match features on an instrument that feels uniquely mine. However, it is important to take the time and compare the pros and cons of these kits before investing money and time into one.
- Cheaper than average retail instrument of similar quality
- $150 for kit compared to $400 for entry level Epiphone Dot.
- You get to choose variety of features such as guitar’s finish and color, some give you headstock blank to hand cut, easy to replace pickups or tuners.
- Great opportunity to learn about and practice guitar repairs such as soldering, fret leveling, intonation checks, and wiring.
- Requires a time and labor investment. Buying your next guitar or modifying an already finished guitar is obviously easier and faster.
- Quality of guitar finish and construction is in your hands, any mistakes or delays could cost you future money on repairs and corrections.
- If you aren’t comfortable soldering or performing more advanced technical guitar work, this is not for you.
If nothing else, assembling a guitar kit is a great stepping stone into eventually building your own guitar from wood blanks using a CNC or hand router and band saw. I imagine most players interested in trying these kits will see it as the first build of many.
Questions and Comments
With so many great resources online the average guitar player has more help now than ever when it comes to assembling a personalized instrument. Give it a try and join the conversation. Let me know about your success and horror stories with these kits and tell me if you want to hear more about this topic.