I think replica guitars have always fascinated me. They must, because there are a number in my bucket list to build. There are lots of great guitar builders who like to make something that is indistinguishable from the real thing. There are even several famous guitars that are disingenuous but have extra cool points based on the builder or even the owner. Hell, the Fender Custom Shop makes, what could be called, fabulous fakes or even counterfeit guitars. That is a discussion for another day and one that would, surely, make me even more unpopular. The guitars on my list all have a little mystery and while I don’t try to make them exactly as the originals were I like to go through the process and see if I can invest myself in a little of the same scenarios as the original builder. The guitar that Prince used in the Purple Rain movie was always one I wanted to build. I had a few extra bucks in the PayPal account one morning and ordered a set of templates. Now, it is important to note that the templates I bought were not really, exactly, patterned after the original. For starters, they are for a bolt on style neck rather than a neck through like the real thing. I will be using the templates for a jumping off point to build my own. I’m assuming that the perimeter body dimensions are pretty close and even if they are way off it does look right enough for me. There are no guides for the carve, headstock angle, neck rake etc. All of this will be coming right out of the Texas Toast playbook… that is to say 7 degree headstock and 2 degrees built into the body to accommodate the wrap-around style bridge. These iconic guitars were originally made by Dave Rusan in Minneapolis. They were all maple and though they were very small they are quite heavy and rugged. The first one built was all white and the maple construction allowed for a total body paint job… even the fretboard. Anyone who has ever tried to shoot paint onto rosewood knows all too well why you would want a maple board. There are a lot of parts that may or may not still be available these days. I will not really endeavor to make my guitar the same as the movie prop, I’m not even going to watch Purple Rain during the build process. I’m not going to try and fool anyone with this instrument, so I will be deviating from the real thing in significant ways, at least on the first one. Like I said before, the originals were neck through construction and mine will be too. I want to try and learn some of the same lessons that Rusan must have learned back in the 80’s. I have made lots of neck through guitars in the past and I’m not really a fan. I’m all jigged up to do set and bolt on necks, but I really want to have a smooth, clean neck joint and heel. I talked with Chris about what materials to use and we decided that it would be great if all woods were as easy to work with as mahogany. We went to the lumber yard and picked up what we thought was enough 8/4 African mahogany to get started. The neck and body core on my guitar is a two piece construction. It is how we start everything these days. I like to have the added stability of multiple laminations and having vertical grain doesn’t hurt either. With mahogany everything looks the same but when you do his with maple you get lots of neat fleck patterns, it is worth the price of admission right there. As I work on this I wonder if maple wouldn’t have been a better choice? I also wonder if there is a prototype floating around with alternate lumber? I can’t find any tribal lore on this but it wouldn’t surprise me if there was some parts of the original lost to history. After everything was glued up we had a nice big chunk for the neck blank it was almost 4” x 4” and nearly 4 feet long. Remember, this will eventually be the headstock, neck and core of the body…over 42” long by the time it is all said and done. Chris and I stared at this monolith and brainstormed a few courses of action. We drew on the neck blank an we erased the lines and drew again. I’m sure those of you who regularly make neck-through guitars already have all your steps planed out. Since it is us and we spend a lot of time flying by the seat of our pants we decided to chose one path and let the chips fall where they may. Knowing full well that there would be a few times when we probably should have done one step before another. It is all part of the learning process and if you already know everything, well, what fun is that? I cut out the basic outline of the headstock and neck taper and continued this angle all the way through the body. I could have made this transition to a parallel body section but thought it would be easier to shape the neck if it was a slender as possible. Next, I cleaned everything up on my beloved pin router and edge sander. We smoothed out the underside of the neck to 1.5” with the old man machine. This is one critical dimension as all of our necks work off of a 1.5” neck and 5/16 fretboard on the radius sander. We knew this had to be spot on. Speaking of spot on, since we are going to use a wrap-around bridge we knew we needed 5/8 clearance at the bridge location. I cut down the neck blank and with the help of the edge sander we were good to go and things were looking good.
Adding a 7 degree headstock angle is easy enough and the tuner holes were no problem. The truss rod slot should have been a no brainer…should have been. This Is What It Sounds Like When Doves Cry... I am working on this guitar in my spare time, something I already don’t have a surplus of. I was very excited to get the truss rod slot sorted out and even figured out how to use my pin router jig that was built specifically for set necks. Now those of you who are without sin can cast the first stone… but I broke one of my own rules and didn’t lock the pin router ram. A few short minutes from the finish line and I ruined my neck blank.
My beloved pin router is a fantastic tool and has changed the way I build guitars. Having said that, it can be temperamental and requires a little finesse. Any of y’all who watch my videos might remember that there are two things that control the distance from the bottom of the cutting bit to the top of the table. One is the crank on the starboard side of the machine and the other is a pneumatic ram operated by a foot switch. The crank is really only used to set the depth of each cut and the ram is used to plunge the cutter into the piece you are working on.When it’s cold (like it is in January here in Colorado) the ram doesn’t want to get up early and go to work. You’ve got to coax it into action with heat. Rather than do that this time I decided to simply use the crank… after all it was just a truss rod slot. Well, someone had inadvertently stepped on the foot switch and after running for a few minutes the pneumatic ram sprang into action plunging all the way through the neck. Uninjured and undeterred I decided to start over and since I actually had it to do over again… I decided to go with all maple construction. Just like the one Prince used to go Crazy in Purple Rain.
To be honest, I was having to talk myself into the idea that an easier to carve material was just as good as the original. I would also have a chance to do a few steps in a different sequence hopefully making my job as easy as possible.I ran down to the lumber yard and bought the last piece of 8/4 maple they had… all of a sudden the universe was clicking my way again and I began to think that the whole mahogany cloud guitar just wasn’t part of the divine plan.