330 Project/Abbey Road guitar

When I moved to Ballarat some 30-odd years ago, I heard about a “legendary” Gibson guitar that various people spoke about in hushed tones; a guitar that had come to Ballarat sometime in the mid sixties.

Stories abound about this guitar- about how it was found in a shed, and “somebody” paid next to nothing for it because it had a broken headstock, about a repair done by a young Merv Cargill and about how it was just the most incredible sounding guitar.

A guitar that just had the sound of the Sixties…

The guitar had changed hands several times – Gordon Trounce, Ruyggie, John Ducardis all owned it at various times – and then it mysteriously disappeared, never to see the light of day ever again.

Well, some of us knew where that guitar went…

The guitar? A Cherry Red 1962 Gibson 330 TDC. Not the more usual 335 with its central block but the totally hollow member of the 330/335/345/355 series of Gibsons; the Gibson version of the Epiphone Casino that the Beatles played at Abbey Road…

Now, I first encountered this guitar in 1997 when its current owner asked me to do a bit of repair work on it and then I had the pleasure of living with another 330, this time a 1972 “re-issue” that lived at my house for a year or so, on loan  from a Melbourne collector.

Those who know me will know that I have always had an enthusiasm for hollow body guitars- Gretsches, Guilds and Gibsons and the like and I’ve also made a number of Gretsch-style archtops over the years.

When I repaired the broken output jack and re-ran the earth wire on “the” 330, I took a series of photos at the time , thinking that at some stage, I’d like to build a similar instrument but just didn’t quite get around to it.

But talking to my old friend Adrian (who had also used this guitar many years ago) about this “legendary” guitar a couple of weeks back, I thought that perhaps this might just be the time to do something about it. I rang Russ and explained what I wanted to do and he dropped in with “the 330″ the very next day.

Now, the intention was not to copy the 330, but to produce something that looked similar but more importantly, re-created the “vibe” of the old 330.

So the aim is to make an instrument that is light and resonant, very playable and fitted with pickups that emulate the early 60s’ sound of the original.

First, this project was going to need a mould for shaping the sides and another for pressing the front and the back plates.

The side mould is the easy one…

The paper pattern has been used to create the perspex pattern and from that, the side mould is made from three layers of chipboard.

The top and back mould isn’t quite so simple. The “carving” of the top and back is achieved by pressing the top and back, but because the 330/335 shape is symmetrical, the same mould will be used for both the top and the back.

The mould starts out with a substantial base of 50mm pine and the desired shaping is a piece of 19mm pine glued to the base.

The “carving” for the top and back is created by “carving” the appropriate shape into the glued-on piece of wood. When all is good, the former is waxed…

…and the “carve” shape is cut out of a piece of 19mm chipboard that is then screwed to the base.

How well will this work? I’ll have to wait and see…

A couple of pieces of fibreglass matte are cut and a batch of resin mixed and the matte is laid into the “mould”…

…and after a suitable lapse of time…

…the mould is split and I have a top and bottom- male and female- mould for pressing the top and back.

I’ve drilled for and inserted a couple of locating dowels so that the two halves register appropriately.

Now to prepare the top and back. What I’ve done in the past is is to use my abrasive thicknesser to remove the back veneer from three-ply to allow a bit more- well considerably more- flexibility. I can then use two thicknesses of two-ply glued together in my newly made mould.

And here’s the outcome…

The shaping is much too abrupt and the edges around the waist have distorted. And to add insult, etc, the birch veneer has lifted on the front and the pine ply on the underside has cracked. Not quite what I was hoping for…

And the top seemed to be just too thin.

Back to the drawing board.

The height of the shaping is reduced appreciably and the edges are softened and the fibreglass top half of the mould is remade.

And as often is the case in my workshop, the 330 Project was overtaken initially by another archtop that had been ordered and then a succession of jobs that actually paid bills…

And so-nearly two years later- the dust has settled sufficiently to return to the “330 Project”

The return to this project was prompted by the order of another Gretsch-style instrument. I needed to source some plain, clear plywood and found just what was needed at one of the local joineries where I bought three sheets of 3.6mm ply.

Because the re-made mould hadn’t been tested, I thought that might be a good initial step and after having marked out the required pieces of ply, yesterday I cut out and glued up sufficient ply for a trial run.

And this time, I didn’t thin the ply like I did last time- just plain three-ply…

This time, the result is much more satisfactory. Aside from a small split in the top veneer (which can be just sanded out), the new pressed top should work really well.

For the next plate, I’ll tighten the clamps more gently around the front and the splitting should then be avoidable.

I also notice that other makers of 335-style guitars can have a less pronounced shape to the raised section in the horns- and this Collings 335-style is one of the tastier offerings…

and, if need be, I’m quite happy to adopt a softer profile also.

The next task is how to go about making the laminated sides.

This is how Gibson has been doing it for years according to a Factory Tour on YouTube…

…a series of veneers are glued together in this hydraulic press.

I can’t do it quite this way but I had thought that by reducing the three-ply to TWO plies, I might be able to fold the thinned ply into the mould…

No. It just snaps when flexing the two-ply into the horn section of the mould.

So I spent another day producing an adaptation of my side bending machine to accommodate the 330 profile.

The process is this:-

The four strips that will make up the sides are dampened…

…and placed into the hot bender for about twenty minutes.

On allowing the bender to cool, the waist and cutaway clamps are removed…

…and the plies have conformed to the bender’s profile.

Glue is applied between the plies and placed in the mould and clamped.

When the glue has dried- one appropriately shaped 4-ply side, just like Gibson’s.

Gibson reinforces the point of the horn with a piece of shaped wood which also serves as the reinforcement for the strap button, and I’ll do the same.

Because the 330/335 shape is symmetrical, the other side will be made exactly the same way.

With both sides formed in the mould, and then cut to length, the tail block is glued in place and the head block- the mahogany block that will support the neck- is marked out and cut to match the cutaways.

Glue is applied and the head block is clamped in place…

…and allowed to dry overnight.

So far so good…

The linings are glued in place…

…and the drying process hurried up in front of my workshop heater.

With the edges levelled, the top is glued on.

The edges are trimmed flush and the body put back into the mould so the f holes can be routed.

About now, I can glue the back on…

Yes – all good…

But- I’m not particularly happy with the back’s lack of arch. It’s ok, but not what I really want.

And it’s a bit heavier than I’d like.

The top is good…

…but I’d like to improve on the shaping generally. (There’s going to be several of these guitars…)

My friend David was around today and I discussed the concerns I had with him and we put our heads together on the issue of improving the moulded shape of the 330 Project.

The current top and back are just too thick at about 7mm. The guitar body is still resonant, but heavier than I wanted and the top just looks too heavy.

We carried out several experimental pressings and confirmed that the ply I was using just wouldn’t conform as I would have liked. Even wetted, the ply wouldn’t happily conform to the mould’s shape .

But reducing the thickness of the ply from 3.6mm to about 2.5mm- in effect removing one of the plies- and the result this time was exactly what I wanted.

Here was the profile that I was trying to achieve and with no splitting of the top veneer and producing a finished thickness of about 5mm…

Just right!

A couple of years ago I had bought a small press that I thought might improve the pressing process but aside from fitting wheels to it, it hasn’t really been tried.

And after giving the mould some reinforcing, the new technique of shaping the top and back was tried out full size.

The result was as satisfactory as the smaller test pressing and even better, I have a means of replicating the pressed shape as many times as I need, without sacrificing the horn shaping.

So all that remains is to make a proper prototype of my version of the 330/ Casino style guitar.

And I’ve given the new model a name- “Abbey Road”, for the reason that it’s such an emotive name for someone of my generation…

And yes- I’ve walked across that zebra crossing as have a number of these people on their way to and from…

I don’t know about Lou Reed and Paul Weller, but everybody else recorded with a Casino/330 at Abbey Road…