Building a Baritone Fretless Guitar
Jahloon – 2004
Well its actually more of a conversion, taking a Hamer Strat and fitting a Baritone Fretless neck
For some time I’d hankered after a baritone fretless. First I tried to persuade Vigier to make one, but Patrice explained his machinery was geared to normal guitar. So then I tried a couple of UK guitar makers only to get a twelve month lead time. So I sat for a while thinking.
I had planned a ritual unfretting of the Hamer (the one fitted with a sustainer) see Fitting a Fernandes Sustainer for that mod. But then already having a couple of fretless (Godin Multiac Fretless & Vigier Surfretter) introducing a “me too” was not a good road to travel.
Then one day, maybe in the bath, it came to me; fit a baritone neck to the Hamer, then you have everything you wanted on a baritone, the sustainer, the midi output, and its more cost effective than a complete new build.
So I found a local luthier, dropped the guitar off and it sat trembling in his workshop for a few weeks, sadly, it was apparent his workload would not allow the project to reach fruition.
So what to do? The usual answer is; if you want a job doing, you better do it yourself.
Hamer slammer (fretted), before the operation.
Sourcing the neck
A quick look on the web brought up the Warmoth site, and they did baritone necks to specification. Plus the price looked good at $147 so after a few e-mails we called up on the phone and spoke to Bill Cook.
The conversation went along the lines of….
Bill – Hi this is Bill
Jeff – Oh Hi, I’m after a baritone fretless neck with an ebony fingerboard.
Bill – Yeah we can do that but are you sure about fretless?
Jeff – Positive.
Bill – ‘Cause a lot of people try them and then don’t want them.
Jeff – No, I do want it.
Bill – Well this is a non reversable sale, we don’t refund fretless necks.
Jeff – Promise I’ll keep it Bill, I’ve got two other fretless guitars and they are happy with me.
Bill – OK Jeff, but its an extra $50 for fretless.
Jeff – Without the frets!!
Bill – Yeah, its ’cause people always want to return them.
Jeff – Err… OK
Bill – What wood would you like?
Jeff – Maple neck, ebony fingerboard, whats the quarter sawn option?
Bill – That’s where the maple is cut in a special way, increases sustain.
Jeff – I better have that then.
Bill – OK the quarter sawn is an extra $50.
Jeff – That’s fine if it improves quality, we want the best on this.
Bill – How do you want the neck finished?
Jeff – Don’t really know, don’t want any markers or fretlines.
Bill – Fine, satin finish is nice.
Jeff – OK satin.
Bill – Satin finish is $50, you see any kind of pattern here?
Jeff – Here’s your fifty dollars Mary (Frank Zappa reference)
Bill – Ha Ha
Jeff – Also need a nut and a set of files.
Bill – Hey, that’s good, only $3.75 for a bone nut, but I do recommend you take two.
Jeff – Two?
Bill – Just in case you make any mistakes, its easily done.
Jeff – OK, and some locking winders.
Bill – Uh-Oh, what gauge strings do you intend to use?
Jeff – Heavy as possible.
Bill – Might not fit into a locking winder, one guy tried drilling the hole larger and wrecked his winder.
Jeff – Well we’ll take some open slot Klusons then.
Bill – Good call
Jeff – And some of those little white dots
Bill – They come in a twelve inch length
Jeff – Should be plenty.
Bill – Better take two.
Jeff – Fine, and a string retaining bar in black.
Bill – That’s all?
Jeff – I think so.
Now the actual call was of course a lot longer, and Bill was very helpful with hints and suggestions, and everything did come within budget.
So it was off to the till to pay for the goods, due to finishing the neck it would take six weeks from point of order. Good to their word it did take around six weeks, credit card was charged 15 November and the neck arrived 29th December.
Listing the costs involved:
Existing Hamer Slammer inc. Sustainer mod $450 (£250 UK pounds)
Baritone neck with ebony fingerboard $157
Fretless option $50
Quarter sawn maple $50
Satin finish $50
Tuners Gotoh Kluson $32
String retainer bar $4.50
2x Nut blank, bone $7.50
White side dot material $3.00
Set of eight nut files $64
Grand total: $468.99 which converted to £261.66 UK pounds in Nov 2004
UK customs VAT duty 17.5% £44.21 ($85)
UPS custom clearance charge £10.00 ($19)
This all adds up to $525 (£275 UK pounds) not including tools.
The time involved?
About 3 hours total, including setting intonation.
The skills involved?
None really, apart from making the nut and cutting string grooves. This took the most time and effort, but was worth it as the nut is critical to good fretless setup.
The Baritone neck itself
I must say the satin finish is excellent, very much worth the $50, I could never have got this finish with my skills. The neck is well made, maple and ebony look just fine, no flaws, very pretty.
Shaping the nut.
Well I was starting to get nervous about this, after what Bill said about making mistakes. The actual piece of nut that arrives is slightly larger than expected.
Nut before shaping, a tad oversize.
So first off I cut it to the width of the fingerboard. That was the easy bit. I found conventional files to be very slow in carving the nut to the correct shape. So a small powered sander (Black & Decker Mouse) did the trick. This gave a fair degree of control in shaping the nut to the fingerboard.
After trying the nut in the slot a few times it dawned on me that the base of the slot itself had the same curvature as the fingerboard, so the nut required a radius on both sides.
The nut itself is cut to a very low profile, so that string slides can be accomplished from open strings, the string slots are also cut very low to the fingerboard.
Then the easy bit, fitting the tuners and the full width string retainer. This was chosen to keep all the strings stable as the nut has such a low profile.
Finished headstock with hardware.
Fitting the neck
Now Bill had said that the neck was really intended for Fender or Squire guitars and he thought it might not fit on a Hamer.
No probs at all, it was a perfect fit, with just one downside. On the Hamer the truss rod adjustment is on the headstock itself, on the Warmoth neck it is recessed in the neck / body joint. So any later adjustments of the truss rod requires that the neck is removed from the guitar.
The neck is supplied with a small amount of underbow, we could not estimate how this would change under string tension and so adjusted the neck against a straight edge until it was as flat as possible.
Then it was as easy as unbolt one neck, bolt on the other. String the guitar, set the intonation, set the string height, adjust the pickups and off we go.
What we did with the whammy bar.
I’ve very rarely used the whammy bar on this guitar so decided to lock it out, at least in the short term. So we added another two springs and moved the seating bar to ensure nothing moved.
Five springs are better than three?
How’s it turned out then? – Far better than I had hoped, the neck is excellent, the sound is impressive and the baritone length is just right for Unfretted, fretless work. The neck gives a full two octave stretch.
Is it value for money? – We did the exercise on a “buy the best for the job” basis and it was within our budget of $550.
Any gripes? – None, went like a dream.
How does it play? – Very well indeed. The sustain is very good, so good at times I had to check the Sustainer circuit was actually switched off. Scale length is 730mm or 28 3/4 inches and using 12 gauge flatwounds the guitar tunes up naturally in C, that’s four semitones below normal C F Bb Eb G C.
The finished product December 2014.
Total cost of guitar including Sustainer, GK2A, Baritone Neck, $975 (£525 UK pounds in 2004)
Article: Jahloon (Jeff Berg) 2004