These 25 simple ways to customize your guitar without changing the tone are safe places that you can add your own personal touch without worrying about ruining the sound of the instrument. Thankfully, there are plenty of places to add your own touch. Here they are.
Customize in Safe Places
This can be a challenge in the beginning, because you may not know how certain areas of the guitar affect the sound.
The best thing to do is focus on areas where you can add detail without having an effect on the sound of the instrument. There are several of them to work with.
Go through this list and take a look at the areas that have little to no effect on tone. Pick out a couple that you want to try out, and use your woodworking knowledge to make them your own. You do not have to add a custom element for everything on this list.
However, you can select several or just a few and build a guitar that doesn’t look like it came from a store.
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Here is the List, all of which are explained in detail further down in the article.
25 Ways to Customize Your Guitar Without Altering the Sound
- Add Purfling Strips to Your Binding Design
- Use a Contrasting Species for a 12th Fret Overlay
- Make Custom Hardwood Fret Markers from an Exotic Species
- Create a Hardwood Fretboard From High End Wood
- Make Binding Strips in Different Species than Usual
- Design and Inlay a Unique Rosette
- Create a Laminated Neck
- Make Your Fretboard Without Fret Markers
- Use a Laminated Heel Cap on the Neck
- Add an Exotic Hardwood Strip to your Binding Design
- Use an Attractive Piece of Headstock Veneer
- Bind the Fretboard in a Contrasting Species
- Use Binding on the Bridge along with Purfling
- Add Side Dots with Inlace or Other Inlay Material
- Create a Larger End Graft from an Attractive Species
- Use Inlays on the Bridge
- Add Custom Inlays to the Fretboard
- Inlay the Headstock in a Different Way
- Add a Custom Truss Rod Cover
- Use Wood Burning and Inlay on the Back
- Make a Pick Guard from Veneer
- Make a Custom Bridge Shape
- Create a Signature Headstock Shape
- Make Your Soundhole More than Just a Circle
- Use a Different Species for the Back and Sides
Add Purfling Strips to Your Binding Design
Binding the guitar is a process where rabbets are made and wooden strips are glued into those recesses. Whether you use one strip of contrasting wood or seven, the process remains largely the same.
Add a couple purfling strips to the binding design, and you can really make it pop. The guitar on the left has a Maple strip, then two BWB purfling strips and a herringbone strip.
Those four strips were no more difficult to glue down than a single strip, and the look around the guitar is much fatter and more detailed. All you have to do is make your rabbets bigger to accommodate the strips. Once you do that, you can glue them in one at a time, or all at once depending on your level of comfort. I do them a couple at a time.
Use a Contrasting 12th Fret Overlay
This is one of my favorites. If you are not going to have any fret markers, a 12th fret overlay can really make the neck stand out.
This acoustic bass has a Rosewood fretboard, and I use Maple for the overlay. You can use a Dremel or router to create a recess over the fret, and then just glue in your piece. A thin contrasting piece is all you need for the overlay.
After you are finished gluing, simply slot the new piece on both sides, and sand it flush with the rest of the board. If you like, you can use this area for a nice inlay, or you can leave it simple and let the contrast be the only design element. You could also do an exotic burl, a colorful piece of wood, or something personal like a piece of wood from the customer.
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Add Custom Made Exotic Hardwood Fret Dots
If you are going to do fret dots, like most guitars, then you should do them well. All you need is a plug cutter and some exotic wood, and you can make custom fret dots on demand.
I have a tutorial for Making Fret Dots on the site already. This shows you how to turn smaller scraps into very nice looking fret dots for almost no cost.
Since you are making a guitar from wood, it makes sense that you would craft as much as you can from wood as well. When you make your own fret dots, they install just like the store bought kind. However, they are not made from plastics or shell. These wood dots have more life and character, and are a nice custom element.
Make a Custom Fretboard in Your Shop
One thing that can really set off your guitar from across the room is a custom fretboard that is out of the ordinary.
Most fretboards are black or brown, and they do not pull much attention. Once you start milling your own boards, you can use almost any species you like to make a fretboard.
My Fretboard Slotting Jig makes slotting your new fretboards really easy. This is one of the bigger hurtles in the beginning, and the reason a lot of new makers buy pre-slotted fretboards from a guitar making supplier. This jig will let you slot an entire board without measuring once.
I recommend that you try out some interesting wood species for fretboards like Padauk, Goncalo Alves, or Bubinga. All of these have bold looks, and none of them are more expensive than Rosewood or Ebony. They all stand out, and give your guitar a much more custom look.
Design and Inlay a Custom Rosette on the Soundboard
The rosette is a fairly safe place to showcase a little woodworking skill, but keep it within the normal size ranges. A gigantic rosette can stiffen the top and have an effect on the tone.
Design your rosette with hardwood, purfling strips, and binding strips. Lay them out on the bench and see what they look like next to each other.
Make changes, add and subtract elements, and come up with your final design. After that, you can use a router or a Dreml to create the cavity. I have an entire post on making an Easy Dremel Rosette if you want to see the process in action.
The only difference between a simple rosette and an elaborate rosette is the time it will take you to put it together. Cutting out the cavity, gluing in the rosette, and sanding it level will all be basically the same afterwards.
Making Your Own Binding Strips
There are places online that sell guitar binding strips in many different species now. Before, it used to be just Maple, Rosewood and Mahogany.
If you have a table saw, you can saw them yourself from anything you find in the hardwood store.
There is much more to the guitar making world than Maple, Rosewood, and Mahogany. Take the time to find a nice looking species of wood and use that for your binding strips. Padauk, Purple Heart, Goncalo Alves, Bubinga, Zebrawood, and Walnut all make excellent looking binding strips. They have a non-traditional look, and they draw attention because they are different.
The process for gluing and attaching the strips to guitar will be largely the same, no matter what species you choose. Some will be a little tougher to bend, like heavily figured pieces, but most of them will be about the same. Have a little fun, and use something beautiful.
Create a Laminated Neck
There is really no significant difference in construction between a laminated neck and a single species neck after the blank is made.
The work is done on the front side, and everything after that is about the same.
A laminated neck can be as simple as a single contrasting strip down the middle, or it can be a multi-species wonder that draws your attention from across the street. Either way you decide to go, making a laminated neck is an easy way to showcase your woodworking ability in a way that has a small effect on tone. I talk about this more in Laminated Guitar Necks.
The wood that you use in your neck does have an effect on the tone. However, the difference between one neck and another is not going to make you love or hate your guitar. Stiffer woods tend to be brighter and softer woods tend to be warmer.
Combine what you like into a great looking lamination and you can get the best of both. Don’t worry too much, and have fun with this process.
Go Without Fret Markers on Your Fretboard
Fretboards do not need to have markers in all cases. Dots are useful for knowing where you are playing, but any guitar player that has been playing for a while can adjust quickly to not having them.
The big thing you need to do if you are not using fret dots is to make sure that your fretboard species is great looking.
It’s odd, but people will be drawn to a fretboard that doesn’t have markers because something looks missing. Once they get up close, you need to give them something to look at. If they see something exotic, they will enjoy the fact that there are no fret markers, because deleting them will actually add to the look.
Add a Laminated Heel Cap for Your Neck
Most guitars have a heel cap on the end of the neck. This usually matches the binding, and is made from one piece of wood.
Consider making a laminated heel cap instead, which is not much more effort than a basic heel cap.
Pick out a piece of wood that matches the binding, and then use a couple thin pieces of cutoff from the back or sides. Laminate them together with the contrasting color in between, and you have a nice heel cap. Glue the cap on the end of the neck, and when it dries you can shape it. This is also a good place to put a dot inlay if you want, which can go right on the bottom of the heel. The small addition of the three piece lamination will give the neck a nice look.
Add an Exotic Hardwood Strip to Your Binding
There are binding strips you can buy that have a contrasting piece of exotic wood glued to one edge. You can also make these in the shop if you make your own binding.
Adding a strip of exotic wood to your binding really makes the design pop. The Padauk on this guitar is easily seen against the Mahogany sides, and was easy to bend.
Look online at a guitar making supplier for these strips, and find one that adds to the look of your binding design. When you bend and install the strip, the process is basically the same as a single species. However, be careful not to heat the strip too much otherwise you can break the glue layer and the strips will separate.
Use a Attractive Piece of Headstock Veneer
Headstock veneer is used to cover up the joinery used on the neck. When making a guitar neck, there will be a joint that you can see right in the middle of the headstock. The common method of making it go away is to use veneer.
The type of veneer that you choose is completely up to you, but look for something that matches the guitar or really stands out. The match is good for blending and the contrast is a good way to showcase an exotic piece of wood.
You can also use a thicker piece of wood than traditional veneer. Most headstock overlay pieces are a little less than 1/8″ thick. This is a lot thicker than most veneer.
Whichever thickness you use, make sure that the headstock is very smooth before adding the veneer. Sand the surface, and then use a thin layer of glue to adhere the veneer. Use a flat caul along with your clamps if necessary, and trim it to match the headstock shape when dry.
Bind the Fretboard in a Contrasting Species
Making a bound fretboard only requires a little more effort than making a single species fretboard, but the look is well worth it.
Most bound fretboards tend to have the same color of binding as the guitar. Pick up a couple extra strips when you are buying your guitar binding, and you can do the neck as well.
Start with the long edges, and then do the end by the upper frets. It’s important to thin your main fretboard wood so that it’s the right size after the binding is installed. If you are using 1/16″ binding strips, then you need to remove that same amount from each edge of the fretboard. Then, when you glue the binding in place, you restore the board to the right size.
Use Binding and Purfling on the Bridge
The guitar bridge is often neglected when it comes to adding personal touches. You can do many things to a bridge without altering the tone of the guitar.
Binding and purfling is just one way to dress us a guitar bridge. When you are making your blank, reduce the overall dimensions so that you can add the binding and purfling around the outside edges.
Then, glue the additions in place. After it all dries, create your bridge shape just like normal, and it will have a more interesting look. You can use any color you like, or pick out a binding pattern that matches the binding on the rest of the guitar.
Use Inlace for Side Dots
Side dots help keep the musician in the right place when they are playing the guitar. If you add some oversized dots, you can add a custom layer and help out the musician at the same time.
These dots are made from a product called Inlace, which is an epoxy based inlay. All you need to do is drill holes and fill them with the product.
After the epoxy dries, you sand the surface flush, and your inlay is perfect every time. The kits come pre-mixed, or you can buy ingredients and make up your own mixture. I have done it both ways before, and have had success. You can also use larger wood or shell inlays instead of the tiny white or black plastic dots.
Add a Large End Graft from an Attractive Species
I am a big fan of the huge end graft. It’s no more difficult to install than a regular graft, and it showcases the wood species really well.
Match the end graft to the binding species and select a piece that really stands out. In the case of the guitar in the picture, the binding and graft material is Padauk.
Create a tapered piece, and use it to mark out the same taper on the bottom of the guitar. The nice thing about an even taper is that you only need to get the sides nice and straight, and the taper will wedge itself into place. Use a fine saw or a router and a straight edge to make the cuts. Then, clear out the middle section and test your end graft inlay piece.
Inlay the Bridge
On the guitar, the bridge is a focal point, because it is the only thing on the top besides the rosette. If you add some inlay work to the bridge, you can make it stand out even more.
Even a simple pair of diamond inlays adds a nice classic look to the guitar bridge.
If you are going to inlay your bridge, try and make the design symmetrical. If you inlay one wing, do the same thing to the other. You can also add some inlays behind where the bridge pins will be. A small inlay executed well is the perfect addition to the guitar bridge.
Use Alternative Inlay Materials on the Neck
This is one of my favorite inlay jobs, and it was for someone that really liked John Wayne. These are .45 Long Colt shells, which have been sawn off and inlaid into the fretboard.
You can use any type of shells you like, and the best are once fired, with the spent primers still in place to plug the hole.
I have used .223 shells before as well, and these are a little smaller, so they can be a little easier to work with. The .45 shells are pretty big, and can be a little more difficult to get placed well. Either way you go, make sure to use two part epoxy to glue them down. Epoxy is great at gluing different materials together with a very strong bond.
Inlay the Headstock Using Something Different
In general, headstock inlays are a great way to show off some woodworking skill and not effect the tone of your instrument. However, you can also use this area for inlays that are a little different.
In this case, I inlaid a solid object into the headstock using a Dremel. This dog tag was a custom feature that a customer asked for, and I was happy to inlay it.
There are many flat items like this dog tag that you can inlay into the headstock. Look around online or ask your customer what they are interested in. You can typically find something flat that would look good as an inlay.
Make a Custom Truss Rod Cover
If you are using a truss rod that is adjustable from the headstock, then you are going to need to cover the end.
This is a great opportunity to make a custom cover from a nice looking piece of wood. This small piece of Goncalo Alves made a great looking truss rod cover.
For your cover, select something that looks nice and matches the rest of the guitar. Then, thin it to a little less than 1/8″. Mark out a shape that covers the truss rod end and also allows room for a few screws to hold it down. Then, test fit it after cutting and make the changes that are needed to get a perfect fit. Add the screw holes, and you have a custom truss rod cover. It’s also a good place for inlay work too if you desire.
Wood Burning and Inlay on the Back Plate
The back plate is the largest unobstructed surface on the guitar. This can be a huge opportunity for adding a custom element.
In the case of the guitar on the left, I use inlay and wood burning to add a cross with a thorny vine wrapping around it.
The inlay makes use of the center strip inlay that was already present, and is a nice use of the available space. Some makers use the back to showcase really detailed inlay and woodworking skill. You essentially have a blank canvas if you decide to use it. Plan out your design, and remember that a well made simple design is far better than a poorly done elaborate design.
Make a Pick Guard From Veneer
Some guitar makers use pick guards and some do not. If you like to use them, then you can make a simple three layer veneer guard really easily in the shop.
Pick out a really nice looking species for the top layer, and then a couple normal looking pieces for the bottom two.
Glue together all three layers with wood glue and press them with cauls to keep the layers nice and flat. After they dry, cut out the shape, and then sand the edges. Finally, finish the guard in the same way that you finish the guitar, or just add an oil. Attach the guard using double stick tape or small screws.
Create a Custom Bridge Shape
This one can effect the tone of your instrument if you go nuts with it. However, if you select a shape that is similar to standard bridges, you will be safe.
Most bridges have about the same shape, and you can vary this slightly without getting into trouble.
Select a shape that you like, and make sure that is it similar to the standard size and shape of the bridge in your plans. Make sure that the proportions (like the distance between the pins and the saddle slot) are all in the same place, because that makes a big difference. Make your bridge, and enjoy your custom shape.
Create a Signature Headstock Shape
The headstock of a guitar is a great place to add a custom element without changing the tone of the guitar. It’s also one of the best places to create a signature design.
The headstock is one of the ways that people can tell the manufacturer of a guitar, and the large brands all have their iconic shapes.
Use the standard dimensions of a headstock as a general guideline, and draw something that is original and catchy. Don’t worry if you need to make several attempts at a good drawing. It’s a little more difficult than it looks to create a simple headstock design.
You can use symmetry if you like, or shoot for something that is a little more artistic. It’s your headstock, just make sure that the tuners fit the design you use.
Make Your Soundhole More than Round
Almost every soundhole is round or oval, and that can get boring. This will have a small effect on your tone, but if you don’t let it get out of hand the change will be minimal.
For this customer, I used the soundhole as an opportunity to create a cross shape. Behind the cross are hardwood pieces for strength, but you can’t see them when playing the instrument.
You can play around with the soundhole shape but don’t deviate from the standard too much in the beginning. Smaller soundholes tend to be more bassy, and larger holes more brash. If you keep the overall volume of the opening about the same, you can add a custom element without changing the tone too much.
Use a Different Wood for Your Back and Sides
This one is going to have a huge effect on how your instrument sounds, but I couldn’t leave it out because it has the largest effect on the look of the guitar.
The material you use for your back and sides is one of the largest pieces of wood on the guitar, and therefore one of the areas that people will see first.
Pick out a nice looking and attractive piece of wood for your back and sides. This area of the guitar will draw attention if you use an interesting species. Select something like Padauk, Bubinga, Zebrawood, or Cocobolo. All of these are interesting looking, and much more than the standard Mahogany and Rosewood.
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