About the only thing more powerful and evocative for roots music than a Fender Telecaster is a baritone guitar----that is, a six-string guitar with a longer neck and a righteous rumble that sits in the mix between a regular guitar and a bass. While you can hear a single-coil baritone on many Nashville recordings, the humbuckered version is featured in some of the hardest metal on the planet. It's a versatile sound----and a baritone guitar isn't appreciably harder to play than a regular guitar. Here's how to make a baritone guitar to hit all your favourite low notes.
- Skill level:
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Things you need
- For an unfinished neck:
- Spray lacquer (polyurethane is fine)
- Tuners (Sperzel locking tuners or other brand) (optional)
- Nut blank (Corian or Tusq preferred)
- Wet-or-dry sandpaper, 400 to 2,000 grit
- Superglue (optional)
- Steel wool, grades fine to superfine
- For all necks:
- Power drill and drill bits
The overwhelming majority of non-factory-made baritone guitars have bolt-on necks. Most of the following applies to bolt-on-neck baritones. If you're attempting to build a set-neck or neck-through baritone, you're beyond the scope of this column. Good luck.
The starting point with your baritone is deciding whether to use a new body and pickup configuration or add a baritone neck to a body and pickup set-up you like. If you like the sounds you're getting from the pickups and switching system, but don't like the neck you're playing with, keep the body and buy a baritone neck. If not, start from scratch.
Caveat: If the sound you like comes from a non-active dual-humbucker guitar, and you want to make that guitar into a baritone, realise that humbucking pickups without active circuitry (like EMGs) or coil taps can sound muddy with distortion and a longer scale length. That's why so many baritones use single-coil pickups with extended high end, like a Telecaster pickup.
Choose Your Weapon
Knowing that, go ahead and choose your neck. Necks from WD Music (wdmusic.com) or Warmoth (warmoth.com) are high quality and offer a variety of grain/fretboard material combinations. Keep it simple: If you're playing roots music, consider a maple fretboard; otherwise, go with rosewood. The rest is all cosmetics.
If you buy a used neck from eBay or craigslist, your options will naturally be more limited; plus, there will likely be at least one set of screw holes to be filled and sanded.
Second, and more importantly, make sure the neck you buy matches your guitar. You cannot put a Telecaster baritone neck on a Stratocaster guitar and have it stay in tune. If you don't know what neck fits your guitar body, ask.
Choose Your Neck
The key to a successful baritone conversion is fitting and finishing the neck. You can buy a neck without frets, nut, tuners or finish, or you can buy a completely finished neck. Unless you've installed frets before, you do not want to learn on a £195 baritone-guitar neck. Have the factory put in the frets----and install a nut, while they're at it. (If you install the nut, here's a favourite trick for filing slots: Once the slot is cut, superglue a piece of 800-grit sandpaper to a piece of guitar string two string positions smaller than the slot you're filing----a D string for a low E string, for example----and use that to finish the slot. It works.)
Most necks will have tuner holes drilled. Talk to the factory about tuner types. Vintage-type tuners work fine for a fixed-bridge guitar; a guitar with a vibrato bridge might benefit from Sperzel locking tuners. If you don't know the tuners you're going to use, have them drill the smallest possible holes. You can enlarge them later. Once you have the tuners, drill pilot holes for the screws (measure three times, drill once----and make sure the drill is perpendicular to the neck) and install.
If you're finishing a non-maple neck, mask off the fretboard before applying finish. With any neck, follow the mantra that less is better when applying and more is better when rubbing out. You can use spray lacquer for finishing; just apply light, even coats. Spray a light coat and then, a second before it dries, rub it out with very fine steel wool. If you want a tint, try gun oil or a 10-to-1 mix of water and black acrylic paint, rubbed in and rubbed out several times.
If you want something with more staying power for the back of the neck, try this quick and easy finish: Get a large bottle of superglue from Stewart-MacDonald (stew-mac.com). Squirt a copious amount on a piece of 400-grit wet-or-dry sandpaper, and rub it up and down the neck. Wear gloves, and change gloves and sandpaper frequently. When the glue dries, sand down the finish, then repeat four or five times. Sand with successively finer grits of wet-or-dry before a final buffing.
After the neck is finished, do a final fitting in the neck pocket, marking the locations for the attachment screws through the holes in the guitar body. Drill pilot holes smaller than the screw diameter. Shimming necks is largely a thing of the past, but here's a tip for shim materials if needed: high-end baseball cards work great.
Once the neck is attached, string up the guitar with baritone-approved strings (a .12 or .14 on top to a .68 on the bottom) and wail away. You've earned it.
Finishing the Neck
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