The Amricaster

Year: 2019
Finish: Blueburst
Origin: China and California
Acquired: 2019
Mods: All of it
Still owned: Yes

One of my goals in 2019 was to learn more about how to set up, repair, and maintain my guitar collection. I had some successes over the summer, and by August I wondered: Could I now build an entire guitar from parts, custom to my preferences? Amazingly, the answer was yes — with significant help.

I had a few criteria: First, I prefer hardtail Strats, which are uncommon. Second, I love the sound of mini-humbuckers, which are also uncommon. That combo alone is something I could not buy off the rack, so it was worth building. And third, since my confidence was low, I wanted everything as cheap as possible, because if I screwed it all up, it would not be a big financial loss…but I also wanted it to be high enough quality to be worth keeping. Tricky.

I found a very attractive, very cheap combo at Guitar Fetish: a blueburst, hardtail basswood body and unusually (for the money) figured maple neck from Guitar Fetish. This was not their high-quality XGP line — this was the “Basics” line, which is a step above generic factory closeout. That was mistake number one, as the neck pocket and string holes were incorrectly cut at the factory, which I didn’t know until after I’d drilled the neck with the assistance of Kat’s dad, Herm Auch. Assembling a guitar was enough of a challenge for me, so I needed Brian Poedy and his woodworking skills to fix that for me. But even then, I found the neck super uncomfortable, and swapped it out for a Mighty Mite 9.5″ radius Strat replacement neck, which needed a lot of fret work. I also drilled the neck with some advice from Brian and help from Kat. It was worth the hassle (and the added expense — about $125 to fix the mistake of buying a cheap neck without knowing the full stats), and I am very happy with the ergonomics now.

While I cheaped out on the body, I invested in any hardware that I could re-use — that way if it all went south, I would still have some quality bits for the next project. I went with high-quality-but-affordable Hipshot hardware for the bridge and staggered locking tuners.

For the pickups, “Mad” Al Nash steered me toward Wilkinson, a well-regarded value brand from the UK I’d read about in magazines. Their mini-humbuckers were a third of the price of just one US boutique pickup, so I got three! They were generically voiced so I didn’t have to worry about which one went where. I wired them as standard Strat pickups on a 5-way switch just to see what it would sound like — again, what’s the point of remaking something I can buy off the shelf? Let’s turn left at all intersections, because it’s an experiment. To prepare, Kat painted the pickup cavity with shielding paint.

I didn’t want to use the pickups with their P90-shaped surround rings, so that meant making my own pickguard on the Glowforge out of 1/16th acrylic. I got lucky and found a vector file on the internet which I was able to modify in Illustrator. I went through six cardboard prototypes before I got it right…ish. The pickup cutouts and mounting holes are not perfect, but it’s more okay than not. I added foil tape shielding on the reverse side.

During that cardboard phase, I started questioning the control layout — the volume knob is traditionally uncomfortably close to the bridge pickup. I didn’t really care about the second tone control, so after Poedy asked “Why not just remove it?” I had no retort. This was custom anyway, so I simplified and went with one volume and one tone. Good call, Poedy!

So $50 for the body, 160 for both necks, 90 for the pickups, 25 for the wiring harness, 60 for the bridge, 50 for the tuners, 20 for the fancy knobs, $10 for the pickguard material, plus various shipping costs…this was around $475 in parts, about the same as it would cost to buy a used mid-grade and upgrade it with excellent parts. But I was paying for the experience, and the ability to have a guitar that was what I saw in my head. I made something I couldn’t find anywhere else and I am definitely happy with it, but I feel like it was an expensive lesson. I also learned that you get what you pay for, and I should have paid more up front to save myself some hassle and heartache, even if I was scared.

The unexpected part was the weird mix of pride and disbelief when I finally put strings on it. I made this? It plays? It actually…feels good? I got a little emotional. I don’t get this warm sense of accomplishment when I build a PC.

So, Amricaster version 1.1 complete; who knows if there will be a v2. But if there is, I’m stealing the tuners and bridge…!

The Amricaster