The Design Process

I’ve always been of the view that the best instruments just shouldn’t be made on a CNC machine…how can a machine make the best guitar?

Well, realistically, guitars that we revere and yearn after are so often the product of a set of numbers fed into a machine that result in machine-shaped pieces of mainly wood that, when painted and polished,  people will pay sometimes an alarming amount of money for…

After making over ninety guitars, basses and mandolins, I seem to have developed the need to build a “Richards” guitar. By way of explanation, every instrument that I’ve built over the last twenty years or so has been at the request of a customer who came to me to build them an instrument of their design or specification. By and large, I think in the vast majority of cases I’ve been able to build them their “dream” instrument.

Over the years, though, many people have asked if I have any instruments that they can try, and often as not, I can only show them photos of completed ones. Which started me thinking…Yes, there should be guitars that I can show people, let them try and if they like what they see and hear, buy.

My young friend Paul Mah first came to me a couple of years ago wanting a setup for his Telecaster and his Maton CW80/6.  One thing led to another and last year he designed the Richards Guitars website and in exchange, I built him the Dark Horse Dreadnought. Paul is a graphic designer of quite some ability and someone- like me- who just loves guitars. When I mentioned to him the need to make a “Richards” guitar, he offered his services to design the ideal guitar for me to perhaps put into production.

Here’s how the project seems to have developed:

A bit of market research determined that people like what they like! But a lot of guitar players like familiarity and the design for the Project Guitar should therefore look “familiar”. We should not try to redesign the guitar. Both Paul and I have owned Telecasters and the guitar appeals to us both. But there’s no point whatsoever in just making yet another Tele. So Paul did some designing…

But…Well, Paul’s not the only designer on the team. I’m also an industrial designer and I felt the need to offer my two cents worth. Maple fretboards bring their own problems in production. And the headstock…? No. The first guitar design was just too Tele-like. We also thought that the Tele control plate presented limitations…

So Paul modified the design to a rosewood fretboard and an enlarged scratchplate that at least one of the pickups is mounted into.

rg_mockups2Much better and we’ve also made the shape less Tele-ish. And I want to be able to fit a Bigsby, because I like the look and the operation of Bigsbys. But the body shape still didn’t look quite right yet. And the headstock…What if we used the Richards headstock?

rg_sandy_headNo, still not right…but we liked the more rounded body shape. I felt that both pickups should mount on the scratchplate, to make for simpler, Strat-like assembly with no need to rout from the back.

rg_mockups7And a new, more unique headstock shape. By now, we were getting close to how we wanted the guitar to look.

Paul, though, thought that the treble side cutaway left the horn looking out of balance and felt that it could be subtly reshaped.

rg_mockups8

Now the guitar is looking more individual but still retains the required “familiarity” that we want. By now, it was time to actually convert Paul’s graphics into wood…

pmrg-001I want to use the bolt-on neck system that I’ve used on various instruments in the past that actually uses stainless steel bolts and t-nuts to provide an exceptionally good neck-to-body joint. I also liked the knobs that I used on Darren’s 381- style guitar earlier this year. I am keen to use a really good quality Tune-o-matic- style bridge and tailpiece because then I could simply replace the stop tailpiece with a Bigsby. Because I envisage several pickup concepts, the body should be routed under the scratchplate to accomodate two or three P90s, or two or perhaps three humbuckers with a push/push pot to switch in the middle pickup and a LP style switch for the neck and bridge pickups. And I also like Maton’s use of acrylic scratchplates on their MS series of electrics…

pmrg-004pmrg-005pmrg-007The timber that I use is plantation grown Swietenia mahogany. It’s very similar to the Honduras mahogany that Gibson have used for decades, but it doesn’t come from the Amazon rainforest. It’s grown in plantations in Fiji, and also here in Australia. It’s straight grained, finishes really nicely and it has wonderful sustain.

I’ve always been a fan of  Gibson’s P-90 pickups and the very first design that I came up with for the Project was inspired by Keith Urban’s old single-pickup Melody Maker. The pickups that I want to use are going to be the best P90s I can get. I’ve tracked down some really good sounding P90- style pickups but I’d really like to source them from Australia. But, in the interim, I fitted D’Marzio Mini humbuckers to see what our design was going to be like.

Now about here, Paul thought that the scratchplate design needed a bit of a tweak…

rg_mockups91We thought that the curve on the lefthand side of the scratchplate was still too “Tele-ish” and Paul redesigned the curve. We both felt that the centre shape looked good.

And here’s what the first guitar looks like-

img_0221I needed to put this guitar in the hands of anybody who had even just a passing interest in guitars- and I took note of their observations. Some liked the headstock, others hated it. Everyone liked the colour and some just didn’t like the mini humbuckers. Everyone liked the way the guitar felt but others would prefer a slightly slimmer neck. But, happily,  most really liked the concept.

On the arrival of the P90- style pickups from the US of A,  I made a new scratchplate and fitted them.

What a transformation to the sound!

Now, I thought that mounting the pickups directly into the scratchplate might simplify construction, but Paul was keen to use a humbucker- style mounting ring because he felt it improved the look…So I did that with the new pickups.

the-body-03752Visually, it’s a large expanse of black, and we might look at chrome rings. We’ll see.

Anyway, the next step is for more people to play the guitar with the big single coils instead of the mini humbuckers…So far, the response has been most gratifying…my friend Wilson gave the guitar an interesting description: This is the Telecaster that Gretsch would have made…

And what are we going to call our new guitar? Probably the ” Radiomaster” and the “Radiomaster Deluxe” for the more upmarket model with gold hardware, Bigsby and binding on everything…but with the same brilliant pickups, perhaps even three of them…

00000000000

Well, the Radiomaster had its debut at Ballarat’s Irish Murphy’s last Saturday night in the extremely capable hands of  Shane Gilbert who plays guitar in My Other Brother. Gilbo has long been one of my favourite players and I think I’ve been trying to interest him in his own Richards guitar since at least 1997 or 98…

However, I think this time Shane has developed a real enthusiasm for the Radiomaster prototype that I talked him into trying out for me a couple of weeks ago. He was a bit reticent at first, thinking that the neck perhaps didn’t quite suit him and even though the Z90s sounded good, he has always been a Strat or Les Paul player. His current guitar for gigging is an Epi LP, obviously with humbucking pickups.

But he rang me a couple of days later saying that the Radiomaster had really stuck in his mind- struck a chord, you could say- and he wanted to know if he could use it at his next gig, which was last Saturday. Now, being an “older” person, I’m not all that fussed about venturing out too late on a cold and wet Ballarat  Saturday night, but I wasn’t going to miss Gilbo using the Radiomaster for quids… And Gilbo and the Radiomaster certainly didn’t disappoint- Shane made it sing. And growl. And everything else that I’d want to hear a really good guitar do.

Even though Shirley and I stood as inconspicuously as possible to one side,  several people came up wanting to know more about the guitar Gilbo was using. From people’s reaction to Shane and the Radiomaster, I think that perhaps we’re onto a real winner with this guitar.

If only we could all play like Gilbo…

- – - – - – - – - -

Time, perhaps, for an update…

The feedback that we’ve had on the Radiomaster Project has really been very positive. Many people have requested a bit of a play and I’ve had a number of  “I think this might be the guitar I’m looking for…”

The prototype Radiomaster now seems to have become Shane’s #1 guitar and the Strat and the Les Paul have been relegated…

So…

So, I’ve spent the last few weeks making patterns and jigs so that I can produce some more Radiomasters. I feel the need to stay with the original premise of hand-building each guitar. The world doesn’t need another mass produced guitar, regardless of how good…but a “world class” affordable hand-built guitar is worth a try.

Paul and I have had many discussions on how we are going to tell the world about the Radiomaster and where you can try one. Over the last twenty years or so, I’ve done repair and restoration work for a number of music shops both here in Ballarat and in Melbourne and I have a number of people who like what I do.  Consequently several shops have expressed an interest in carrying the Radiomaster. When we’re a little further down the track, we’ll let you know where you can see and try one…