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Building the
Frenocaster

This guitar has been through a lot of changes over the years. Originally assembled in '04 as an updated mid '50's Strat with wood from USA Custom Guitars, it is now much more customized, although it's still a sleeper. People still ask me, "What year is that?".

It currently has a quilted maple neck with 22 fret (medium jumbo) ebony fingerboard. Nut width is 1 5/8", 1" thick asymetrical neck profile, 12" fretboard radius. It has staggered tuners to avoid having a string tree, and has a tung oil finish on the back of the neck, which is very smooth.

I'm currently using Suhr ML pickup, with two singles set up as a humbucker in the bridge, and one in the middle and neck. It's set up so that it acts as a conventional Strat, with 3 singles, but when a push pot is activated, it goes to the 2 bridge singles in series, as a humbucker. Sounds like a standard humbucker, but a little more focused. It also has a push pot to activate the bridge or neck pickup, depending on where the 5-position switch is. I have the Suhr Backplate system to keep it quiet. Over all it's very versatile.

It still has the Callaham bridge plate, but I installed a titanium block and saddles, which gives it a real nice snap and great sustain. It's set up with the Buzz Feiten Tuning System, which I think does an excellent job of keeping it in tune all over the neck.

I gave up on keeping it clean and am letting it relic naturally. Over time, in bars, and at the hands of my children.

It is the main guitar I use live, and the neck profile is the benchmark for my custom Asken guitars.

Here is a photo of it as it is now.

Below is the original account of the build.

 

BUILDING THE FRENSTER FRENOCASTER

My idea with this project was to make a relatively stock looking mid '50's Fender Stratocaster replica using some tried and true vintage construction methods, like a one piece neck and body, nitro finish, bone nut, etc., with some updates, such as a 22 fret neck, noiseless pickups and modern shielding methods.The only glue I want on this guitar is to keep the nut in place. That's why a one piece neck and one piece body was the way to go.

I wanted a guitar that was a custom fit for me, from the shape of the deep boat neck and grain of wood, to the custom decal on the headstock, which I can get away with using because this is a personal instrument I use all the time and not for sale.

For wood I went to USA Custom Guitars and asked for Tommy Rosamond, because according to the FDP, that's who you ask for. Tommy filled me in on what kind and how much as I gave him this detailed list. My criteria was:

Neck

  • one piece hard rock maple neck
  • 22 frets
  • quartersawn
  • close, straight grain
  • 1 11/16" nut
  • 1" boat neck
  • 7-1/4" to 9-1/2" compound radius
  • rolled edges
  • drilled for Gotoh vintage tuners
Body
  • One piece Swamp Ash
  • relatively light
  • nice tone
  • nice grain

Tommy said the neck would take 6 to 8 weeks, but the body would be done in a week. I asked him about a good place for a nice nitro 2-tone sunburst and he recommended Bill Crook Custom Guitars, so I asked Tommy to send the body to Bill when it was done. He ended up sending the neck there too, but Bill sent it over to me while he worked on the finish.


Now that's what I call quartersawn!
Click to see a close-up


Click on the image to see a close-up.

The neck I got was superb. The grain is a serious 90 degrees off the fretboard. The grain is straight and close. I ordered it an inch thick, so I was expecting it to feel bigger in my hand, but the boat shape made it feel very comfortable and not at all bulky. The headstock was "strat"ish, but needed some tweaking to really copy the lines of a strat headstock, so I filed and sanded here and there until it looked pretty good. Of course three quarters of the way into oiling the neck I realized I still needed to file some more, but like an idiot, I didn't wait for the oil to fully cure before I took the files, sandpaper and steel wool to the offending curve and left some of that steel wool deeply embedded and sealed in the wood. You can barely notice it, but it's there.

I ordered it unfinished, as I was going to do my tung oil treatment to it, which is to hand rub the oil into the neck until it's close to gone, or at least evenly applied. Best to do thin coats...really rub it in. Let it dry 12 to 24 hours, 0000 steel wool it back down to the wood, and then repeat about a dozen times. I started doing it this time with an old t-shirt and rubber gloves, but soon realized it just wasn't the same as rubbing it in with your skin. There's some mojo that gets left in the finish from your sweat.

After I finished oiling the neck I cut a bone nut I got at Stew Mac. I went really slowly, but still ended up with a slightly loose end. I didn't have a calipers yet, and it wasn't until after I scraped off a little too much bone that I read about using an adjustable crescent wrench to check my thickness. With the tiny bit of tung oil that dried, the nut was a nice tight fit. I plan on making another nut that simulates the Feiten/Earvana nut compensation, and is made of one piece of bone with a lip that hangs over the fretboard. Future project.

UPDATE 7/14/05: The Frenocaster has been Feitenized! I am now an Authorized Buzz Feiten Tuning System Retrofitter! See the new nut at the bottom of the page.

The one piece swamp ash body weighed in at about 4 pounds, according to Tommy, who, over the phone tapped the wood and said, "Listen to this! 'TOOONNNGG, TOOONNNGG". I never saw it in it's raw state because Tommy send it directly to Bill Crook. I wanted a one piece swamp ash body because I think it would resonate better than anything glued, and I had it nitro finished because I think a thick poly coat kills the natural resonance of the wood.


Mouse over to see the block

For hardware I ordered from Callaham Guitars. I got the Strat Hardware Kit, which includes the most beautiful strat bridge assembly I've ever seen with the famed Callaham Tremolo Block. Absolute quality in the items from Callaham. it also includes the neck plate, Gotoh vintage tuners, jack and jackplate, stainless steel strap buttons, old-style round string tree, and all assorted screws, all stainless steel, of course. Everything stainless steel. Cool. I also had him send me an 8 hole parchment pickguard, his special pickguard shield, which is a nice, thick piece of aluminum, just like they used on the early 60's strats. I also ordered 3 CTS 250k pots, modified by Callaham to take the knobs better. Two of them I converted to no-load pots which I'll use as the tone control and a separate volume for the bridge pup. Also a 5-way CRL Switchcraft switch. I also had him send along 4 feet each of black and white vintage style cloth covered wire. Oh, did I mention that Callaham cryogenically treats anything that carries signal? The pots, the switch, the jack, even the wire. If I had bought pickups from him, those also would have been cryogenically treated. It's supposed to straighten out the molecules and make the signal flow better. We'll see. He says it works and he sells his strat and tele replicas for $2500, so he must be doing something right.

UPDATE 5/14/05: I replaced the Callaham block and saddles with DeTemple Titanium replacement parts. The difference is fantastic. The notes seem to jump out at you and last forever. I highly recommend these parts.

After about a dozen coats of tung oil, of which I used Formby's High Gloss, the neck was smooth as a babies booty, and ready to be bolted onto a body. Unfortunately, the body hadn't arrived yet, so I started to play with wiring.

Click for close-up.

I wanted a noiseless set of pickups in this axe, so I put my Bill Lawrence L-290/280/280 setup in there with a master tone and second independent volume for the bridge pickup. This has worked pretty well for me so far, so I'm gonna stick to it. I hate the hum of single coil pickups enough to sacrifice a tiny bit of "sheen" for clean. The Lawrence L-290/280 combo sounds really, really close to a really sweet strat, but without the hum. Best silent strat pickups to my ear. I use a no-load pot on the tone control to let through a little more single coil "sheen". The new Fender American Deluxe Strat pickups are supposed to sound amazingly like a true single coil pup without the hum. Of course, those are also designed by Bill Lawrence.

UPDATE 9/18/04: I just added a push/pull pot to the bridge pu volume to get 3 more sounds: neck/bridge in series, neck/middle in series and bridge parallel, and neck/middle in series. These add some real humbucker type sounds with added boost and are easy to get to. Now I get 10 usable and easy to access sounds out of this beast!

I noticed the holes where a bit tight for the tuner bushings, so I took an 11/32 bit, put my drill in reverse, and slowly widened the hole. One slow, smooth pass was all it took and the bushings went in with the help of a hand clamp.

I had gotten an Illustrator file of the old spaghetti Fender logo and began to modify it to suit my needs. I got to the "s" in "Frenster" and realized I needed help, so I IM'ed my internet pal MadWolff, who I know to be not only an exceptional artist and brilliant at many things, but a excellent fontographer (is that a word?). I sent the modified file to him and he sent it back a couple days later just about perfect. A couple tweaks was all it took to get it right. Thanks, Chris.


Click image to enlarge.

I got the ink jet decal paper, softening and setting solutions from Micro Mark and printed out a few examples at a couple different resolutions...ended up at 720dpi and it looked pretty damn good! Now to practice. I had a couple other necks that I could play with, one with a tung oil finish and one with what I think was a poly finish. I sanded most of it off and steel wool'd it down so it was nice and smooth. I had decal setting solution and decal softening solution and tried going about the instructions, which was setting solution first, then softening solution. I read somewhere that just using the softening solution was the best method, and I found that to be true. After I carefully placed the waterslide decal on the headstock and let it dry, I buffed the top just a little, giving it a matte finish and it looked great. Then I started with tung oil on one headstock, gloss acrylic on another neck, and also tried semi-gloss and matte lacquer finishes to top a couple off. I found that the matte lacquer finish was the best looking in general as far as blend and speed goes. I also found that you have to put a lot of coats of tung oil on a headstock to get rid of the raised look of the decal, but decided that was the best way to go, so I got the usacg neck out and started the process of applying the decal and putting on many coats of tung oil.

Don't even bother asking me to make you a decal like it.


Click image to enlarge.
I got the body back from Crook Guitars and it was fabulous. Traditional as it comes. The perfect mid-'50's 2-tone sunburst.


Click image to enlarge.
I shielded it with copper tape from StewMac. I soldered the jack ground and the spring retainer to the shielding and added a little shielding overhang over a couple of pickguard screw holes to make ground contact with the shielding on the pickguard. I do this with all my strat style guitars so there is only one "hot" wire coming from the pickguard assembly, which makes it easy to swap pickguards when I'm testing pickups.

I screwed the parts together, being very careful to place all the holes in the right places without chipping the nitro finish. I only chipped slightly on one hole, so not too bad. Now all I had to do is wait till the headstock is finished, install the nut and tuners and string tree, and I'll have the axe of my dreams!


Mouseover to see another nut angle and click to enlarge both.This nut has been replaced by the Buzz Feiten Tuning System Shelf Nut. See the bottom of the page.

The neck and body fit together like a glove. Of course the headstock was a pain in the ass. I wanted to do it all in tung oil. That way I wouldn't have to worry about any chemical reactions between the oil and lacquer. I built up the tung oil with coat after coat, sand it down to within a hair of the decal, then build up the finish again. I did this over and over until the decal and the rest of the headstock where just about even.


Click image to enlarge.

Finally the headstock was done at least close to my satisfaction, so I installed the tuners, drilled the screw holes to secure them, and fortunately, got it just right. The vintage Gotoh tuners are very positive and helped with the alignment. I screwed the neck and body together, put in the rough nut, and strung it up. I could almost taste it now. I then started filing the nut slots. Halfway into it I installed the string tree. I looked online at a bunch of headstocks to find the right placement. I roughed in the nut slots and then removed the nut to file and sanded it to a nice finish. I then glued it into place with Elmers white glue, put a clamp on it to get the excess glue out, and the retuned. She really rings nicely. I fine tuned the nut and tuned up again. To my pleasant surprise, the bridges height and intonation were just about perfect! Thank you Bill Callaham. No shimming needed for the neck, and I got a nice, tight, positive connection between the neck and the body.

 


Mouseover to see the back where I keep my homemade slide velcro'd to the back of the headstock. Click image to enlarge.

Click here to see the Flash Frenocaster Magnifier!

Now that I'm finally playing it, the neck is real beefy...which I like! The boat, or soft V profile feels amazing. Takes a little getting used to. I have another neck with a soft V, but it's a 1 5/8 nut and shallower depth. This new neck is like a baseball bat! The trussrod needed no adjustment, at least so far. Thanks Tommy and USACG. The Callaham wammy is excellent. With a little bit of lip balm it stays in tune amazingly well unless I really dive-bomb it.

Overall I'm very impressed with the quality of all the parts and services I ordered and would recommend them all to anyone.

The guitar is definitely bright, but I think the mass of the neck helps to mellow it a bit. The quartersawn maple neck is doing what it's supposed to...nothing! Didn't hardly even move after I put on the strings! All the parts wen together easily and needed very little setup once together.

After having adjusted it and tweaked it here and there, and a couple hours playing time on it, I can honestly say that this is one baddass guitar! It has a sharp but sweet tone. The notes really jump out at you. I can really feel the body resonate quite a bit, certainly more than my cheaper strats. The hardware is top notch and I love the sound of the Lawrence pickups. It's hard to put it down!

I played a short set at a festival yesterday and ohmygawd does this thing KICK ASS!! The big fat neck is perfect for my hand, the pickups sound great, the combination of wood seems to make a difference and sounds great.

So in conclusion, my little experiment seems to have worked. My Frenster Frenocaster is simple, yet effective. Traditional, but updated. The guitar sounds and plays great, and I finally have a top quality strat style guitar, custom tailored to my needs.

I'd like to thank all the good people for their advice on the FDP (Fender Discussion Forum). You all are an invaluable source of information. I thank you.

Thank you Leo, you done a good thing ;-b

Now THIS is how you relic a guitar!
My first ding, dammit!

UPDATES:

1/2/12 - Many updates. I replaced the neck with a quilted maple neck with an ebony fretboard. The neck is a good inch thick with an asymmetrical shape...soft V on the treble side and C on the bass side. Very comfortable. I've also switched out the pickups for Fralins, but may be switching them back soon...the Suhrs are juicey! I've also done a "dually" mod and added another single coil, which is reverse wound, right next to the bridge pickup. When the first tone push-pot is down, the 5-way switch and the hum reduction system work conventionally, but with the push-pot up, it bypasses the switch and the hum reduction and goes directly to the the two bridge pickups in series like a humbucker. That way it's easy to go from rhythm to lead. The second tone push pot adds the neck or bridge pickup, depending on where the switch is. I continue to be inspired by this guitar.

7/15/07 - I recently installed a set of John Suhr Fletcher-Landau pickups along with the Backplate Silent Single Coil system, which quiets down the noise of the single coil pickups about 80 percent. The pickups are amazing...fat and juicey, but still has the traditional high end sheen, and the backplate makes high gain available to single coils! Brilliant, and highly recommended.

4/4/07 - It just keeps getting better! Currently using Kinman Trad 2's and they sound great.

7/14/05 - The Frenocaster has been Feitenized! I am honored to be an Authorized Buzz Feiten Tuning System Retrofitter. This revolutionary new tuning system eliminates those chords that always seem to sound out of tune. This system comes stock on many brands of guitars including such high-end guitars as Tom Anderson, Washburn and Suhr, to name just a few. Many top performers have adopted the Feiten System, including Robben Ford, Steve Vai, and Larry Carlton. Check out the Buzz Feiten website to find out more.

5/14/05 - I replaced the Callaham block and saddles with DeTemple Titanium replacement parts. The difference is fantastic. The notes seem to jump out at you and last forever. I highly recommend these parts.

9/18/04 - I just added a push/pull pot to the bridge pu volume to get 3 more sounds: neck/bridge in series, neck/middle in series and bridge parallel, and neck/middle in series. These add some real humbucker type sounds with added boost and are easy to get to. Now I get 10 usable and easy to access sounds out of this beast!

Parts List:

 

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