Built the old school way by Ken McKay in Traverse City Michigan. Neck by Chris Wargo in Somerset, NJ and the finish and pickup rewinding was done by Dan Neafsey (DGN Guitars) in Fairfield CT. I put it together.
When you talk to vintage players and collectors, many will sing the praises of old wood. Many will sing the praises of classic old electronics. And old wood. Many will wax rhapsodic about great craftsmanship. And old wood. And you can count me in on all of the above but I’m having some second thoughts. About the old wood part. Perhaps we should be talking about good wood rather than old wood.
Is it possible that wood is good just because it’s old? There are plenty of theories out there regarding old wood and most seem to make a lot of sense. The trees weren’t farmed or fertilized or even planted by humans. They were simply there. They grew at the speed at which nature intended and they grew under conditions that generally weren’t under the control of humans. Old growth predates the guitar business by eons. Then there’s the processing part. Some of the tonal qualities of wood come from moisture content or the lack thereof. Generally, wood was dried before it was turned into a guitar. In the ways of old school guitar building, the wood was dried over a long period of time-years even until someone who knew about these things said it was ready to use. I’m no expert and would welcome any details as to how this worked. Today, the process is speeded up by managed growth and enhanced methods. The time to season the wood has been replaced by heat and dehumidifiers and I would expect that might make a difference. Again, not an expert, just using some logic.
So, let’s say a builder sources some high quality (but not old) wood and lets it season the old school way and even makes his own plywood, again the old school way. We are talking about ES’s here and they are, of course, plywood. The maple center block contributes to the tone as well, so the builder seasons that the old school way as well. Then he builds the guitar using the same methods that the folks at Gibson used in 1959. He shapes the plywood using a form and methodology that is the same. He hand carves a neck from a piece of seasoned Honduran mahogany and attaches the components together with hide glue. He scavenges some Brazilian rosewood from a secret source and builds a 335. Next, it gets finished using nitrocellulose lacquer-the old kind that you can’t get in the US anymore-maybe he goes to Canada-maybe he has squirreled away a few cans.
Of course, the question will be “does this guitar sound as good as the real thing?’ Does the fact that the old fashioned way of building and the use of old wood when possible and new wood treated the old way make a difference in tone in an ES style plywood bodied guitar. One way to find out. Let’s drop in a set of old pickups and use some other older parts (although I don’t think we have to). I had a double white re-wound PAF on hand that measured well into the 8K range, so that went into the bridge position. For the neck, I used a Tim Shaw husk that had been re-wound using enamel .042 wire like a PAF and was wound to the low 8K range. I used a newer harness because it simply was easier and I’m a big believer in the concept that proper electronic values will sound the same no matter what age the components are. I defy anyone to actually hear a difference between same value tone caps. You might sense a difference in how the tone changes when you crank the tone knob and you might like having a bumblebee better than a 25 cent disc cap but the tone will be largely the same. Feel free to disagree.
So, this guitar actually exists and I’ve been playing it a lot lately. It’s my Ken McKay “tribute”. I can feel the “newness” for sure. The neck bindings need to roll off a bit but that will come from years of playing not a number 12 bastard file (whatever that is). I can still smell the lacquer and that’s most un-vintage like but that will go away soon, I think. The frets are a little high and angular but an hour or two a day of playing ought to fix that. I really like the feel of the guitar probably because the neck was made with me in the room. Play a little, sand a little, play little, sand a little more until it feels exactly right. That’s a real luxury. The neck on the guitar is kind of 64ish at the first fret-maybe .85 with a little more shoulder than the usual 64. Then, by the twelfth fret, it’s a full tilt 59 at 1″. The fingerboard was made very slightly wider than usual as well at 1 23/32″. You don’t think you can feel an extra 1/32″? I promise, you can.
Last, we plug it in. I’ve got a 59 Bassman here that wants to be played loud. Old wood? We don’t need no stinkin’ old wood. This is mostly new wood treated like old wood. The only old wood here was the Brazilian and that wasn’t more than 25 years old. I’d been saving a few pieces for projects since 1990 or so. This is mostly new wood with old pickups with new windings. It took four years to complete. And this thing plays and sounds as good as any 335 on the “A” rack here at OK Guitars and that currently includes 2 59’s, 2 60’s, a 62 and a 64. Another sacred cow, shot dead? I think so.