I'm one of those addicted guitar collectors it's not like I need another guitar, but they're so darn attractive! Others are into cars... I'm into guitars. Recently I've vowed to restrict my collection to quality, high-end instruments, and this decision has pursued a particular direction hand-built guitars by an experienced luthier and then hand-carved by a skilled artisan. Let me tell you, the end result can be stunning if you know what you want. Think about it... The shape and build, neck action, electronics, etc., all to your specs, then having the body carved into further unique shapes and designs that make the instrument a truly one-of-a-kind that stimulates the collector's passion as a musician.
A year back I had a carver, Mark "Gig" Goldstein develop an axe with an Alien (H.R. Giger) theme. This was a trial run, and one that went extremely well; his work was impeccable. Seeing his craft on YouTube was one thing, but holding one of his carvings is quite something else. And, now, for the next project, but what should it be?
Just about every guitarist is influenced by Jimi Hendrix; even if not into his stylings a person certainly can appreciate Jimi's abilities. I never found anyone so "organic" on the guitar, as though it was part of him as his emotion melded into the strings. He undoubtedly was and still is a wonder to behold. Likewise, if anyone deserved a unique tribute guitar, one that is "organic" in constitution, then it has to be Jimi.
I wanted to take this project to the max, and have several artisans cooperate in developing their ideas into my fantasy guitar gear package. I gave direction, but the credit must be given to this special group:
1. Casper Guitar Technologies (Stephen Casper) developed the guitar and all the electronics and neck design.
2. Mark "Gig" Goldstein carved and painted the body of the guitar once received from Stephen.
3. Nick Koukotas of Double Treble straps, who initially picked up the guitar due to his admiration for Mr. Hendrix, crafted one of the guitar straps.
4. Garry Merola of Legacy Straps developed a guitar strap of a different persuasion and to stimulate my senses in a more traditional direction.
5. Scott Ouderkirk, who has his hands in several artistic endeavors, came to my interest with his attention-grabbing artwork on guitar cases.
Developed by master luthier Stephen Casper (of Casper Guitar Technologies, www.casper-gt.com), this 25.5 inch scale guitar matches near exact (with a few modifications to suit my playing tastes) a mid- to late 1960s Fender Stratocaster. The "Goldilockian" body is solid alder to produce a sound characterized best as not being too dark or too bright but just right.
Stephen incorporated an Oaks Grisby 5-way switch, ideal for any guitar with 3 single coils. It functions just like a Strat's 5-way, with the exception that in the middle position it combines the neck and bridge in parallel, rather than selecting the middle pickup:
- Position 1: Bridge pickup
- Position 2: Bridge and middle pickups in parallel
- Position 3: Bridge and neck pickups in parallel
- Position 4: Neck and middle pickups in parallel
- Position 5: Neck pickup
Positions 1, 2, 4, 5 are stock Strat, only position 3 is different, and so the switch is very intuitive to use. For the electronics Stephen used CTS 250k pots and Sprague Orange Drop capacitors, very standard fare in high-end instruments.
Added to the tribute guitar is the Wilkinson VS100G bridge system, selected for its exceptional performance and enhanced tremolo block design, which adds mass as well as enhancing the sustain and overall tone. This bridge features height-adjustable saddles that lock to a hardened steel base plate, for better tuning stability, string energy transfer and note sustain.
One other bit of electronics added was a Radio Frequency Identification Device (RFID) from www.snagg.com; a well-hidden (within the wood of the body) micro-chip used for purposes of theft deterrence and asset recovery, in the event that it is stolen. With this one-of-a-kind hand-made instrument, the RFID was a no-brainer as a very inexpensive add-on.
Inlayed between medium-jumbo nickel (.100" x.040") frets, the "Hendrix" name is made of laminate shell, using the same font style as found on Jimi's first album, "Are You Experienced". And at the 12th fret is a dragonfly, an ode to one of Jimi's most played songs in concert, "Spanish Castle Magic"... "It's very far away, it takes about a half a day to get there, if we travel by my uh, dragon-fly."
The guitar's headstock also is of a late 1960s to early 1970s size and shape, with slight modification (a few mm displacement of the machine head to fit an embedded guitar pick with Jimi's image). The headstock also has Jimi's date of birth and passing: November 27, 1942 September 18, 1970. Stephen used one of the industry standards in quality machine heads, the Gotoh M-6s.
To finish off the guitar, Grover-trophy Custom Designed chrome "star" strap buttons were added (to commemorate Jimi's take on the Star Spangled Banner), as well as Jimi Hendrix guitar strings, by Dean Markley. I have preferences toward specific guitar string manufacturers, but I could not pass up these nickel plated steel strings, as they reflect a similar type used by Hendrix in his later career.
The Guitar Case
If one were to customize a guitar, it seems logical to have a protective case that matches in theme. When I searched out "Hendrix Custom Guitar Case" I was uncertain what I was going to find, besides the usual mass produced Hendrix licensed products. However, the most obvious choice hit a bulls-eye as it was something I have never seen before. Developed by Scott Ouderkirk (www.scottouderkirk.com), his custom cases typically involve a three-step process. First the case is primed white, thus resulting in a "drawing" area. Scott then sketches (using both charcoal pencil and fingers) onto the primer, and usually within one sitting to keep his artistic spontaneity intact. (For color paintings, a guiding sketch is drawn and then the paint is applied on top with a brush.) The last step is to seal the drawing with several layers of a clear coating to protect the one-of-a-kind image.
The design for this case was developed in general by myself and relayed to Scott, who then realized my vision to a "T." Of course, if you don't have a creative spark, Scott will design something for you based on the subject moreover, even if you share a subject (e.g., you want a Jimi case similar to mine), each drawing will remain unique, thus making you an envy among your guitar playing friends!
When creating straps for the likes of BB King, Dickie Betts, Rick Derrenger, and Edgar Winter, a craftsman better be good and, obviously, have a sound reputation. Nick Koukotas, founder of Double Treble Guitar Straps (www.DoubleTreble.com), is just such an individual. A big Hendix fan (Nick's inspiration to first attack the guitar in his younger years), he was anxious to dig into a tribute strap, but with some reservations.
Fundamentally, Hendrix was so eclectic when it came to fashion styles, from what he wore, to his guitars and straps (and the artwork involved on his albums) that dozens of guitar straps could be developed and be suitable. However, the strap Nick was to create had to meld fluidly into the guitar being crafted by Stephen Casper and Mark Goldstein; and once Nick saw a picture of the painted carved body of the Voodoo Child tribute guitar, he almost knew exactly where he wanted the concept to go. He pondered on various colors and shades, including natural leather and black, but white seemed the most obvious, together with appropriate colored embroidery work that reflected the carving of the guitar... Hearts and paisleys.
I suspect straps likely have the greatest possible "play" in creative expression, with so many possible ideas. I've seen all types of Hendrix straps, but a likely generalized theme of the 1960s was tie-dyeing. This got me to wondering if such a strap existed, and a quick search on the Net brought me to Garry Merola's site, www.LegacyStraps.com.
Each hand-made tie-dyed strap starts with a bleached cotton web that is custom woven specifically for dyeing (most cotton webbing uses synthetic edge threads that will not accept dye). Prior to dyeing, the webbing is soaked in HOT water with an adjusted pH to be very alkaline. Normal tap water has a pH of about 7, whereas Legacy Straps brings it to 12. This soaking preps the cotton to achieve bright vibrant colors. After the dye is applied the strap is placed in a plastic bag for 24 hours to allow the colors time to set. Thereafter, the strap is rinsed, washed, once or twice (depending on the colors used), dried, and the wrinkles removed with a HOT press that, in addition to smoothing, further sets the colors. At this point the webbing is ready to be made into a guitar strap that screams 1960s. // 10
Sound: When it comes to the playability of this guitar, Stephen Casper is a true master of his craft, and the Jimi tribute guitar plays like a dream (and none of the carving gets in the way as the total thickness of the guitar is the same as though there were no carvings). The neck size was custom to fit my preferences, and the frets smooth as can be. Neck action is low, but concurrently just high enough for some serious string bending. The entire vibe of the guitar melts like butter and far better than Fender Strats I've played both the overall feel and modest weight have something to do with it, I suspect. The pickup choice certainly was the correct selection for the mix as the tone is very clear (even in the lower registers), but meaty at the same time.
My main concern was the choice of pickups, as I wanted something that was authentic for its time, but with a slight modern twist to give it more of a heavy Jimi vibe a Strat with a bit of edge. Selected were Porter 60's Classics with a steel base plate on the bridge pickup, which feature staggered AlNiCo 5 magnets and are wound with the same spec dark purple 42 AWG wire used on Vintage 60s pickups. Stephen likes Porters due to their ability to duplicate exactly the original design, materials and patterns used in a lot of the classic designs modern materials to the specs of a Strat's 1967-1972 era tones. Moreover, Stephen had these pups special wound to give a bit extra growl as per my desires.
Playing this through two pedals designed for various Hendrix (and SRV) tones include Analog Alien's FuzzBubble-45 and Alien Twister SRV-based Fuzz, and once integrated with a "Marshall Voicing", a la my Pritchard Black Dagger amp, the sum of the parts make for an incredibly modern Hendrix tribute rig. The guitar, pedals and amp may be the cake, but the custom carving, straps and case certainly are the icing. // 9
Action, Fit & Finish: Jimi always spoke of love and peace, and so it seemed appropriate to incorporate peace signs, flowers and hearts within the psychedelic theme of the carving. I provided master carver Mark "Gig" Goldstein a basic concept of what I would like to see, such as Jimi's face and the word "Experienced", using the same font as on the album, "Are You Experienced". Mark's primary task was to fit the images to the contour of the body, but also to fill in the detail with 60's concepts, from paisleys to flowers, hearts and peace signs. This process is more challenging than it seems as there needs to be a flow to bring it all together and for the symbols and detail to work harmoniously.
Once everything was put into place, and we both were happy with it, Mark finished shaping and sanding the body. He then obtained a mother-of-pearl styled pickguard (to add some pizzazz), but took it one step further by customizing its shape (removing the lower horn projection) in order to add more carving detail, viz., Jimi's first name and a peace sign all of which balances the upper carving work quite nicely.
The painting involved a cream background, similar to Jimi's Woodstock Strat, together with 60s-based colors, and most notably purple lettering to give a "Purple Haze" vibe. These colors are a combination of lacquer and acrylic paints, for fast drying, but also to give it hardness and evenness in tone. After the color was set, Mark applied six coats of nitrocellulose instrument lacquer, with light sanding between each coat to maintain a silky smoothness throughout. The final touch involved rubbing down the carved body with extra fine steel wool.
I commissioned Mark for other work (including a guitar and a brook trout fish carving) and the quality of his craft has always been outstanding pictures do not do any of it justice! Amazingly, he does not have a dedicated website, but you can find his videos on YouTube by searching "carved guitar", or looking for Gig Goldstein. For more information on his custom carved guitar work, whether you have a clear idea or need Mark to help develop something unique and personal, email this address. // 9
Reliability & Durability: With the lack of spider fingers, I prefer a thin neck, and Stephen definitely delivers in this regard. His "wizard" neck has a 12" (348 mm) radius made from maple with a rosewood fingerboard and a Double HotRod heel accessible neck rod. Stephen prefers a dual truss rod setup (common with Rickenbackers) as the neck is more stable and less affected by seasonal climate changes.
The overall construction is all one would expect of a custom shop build. There is an obvious difference between an inexpensive off-the rack model and limited editions brought out by a top company, including Ibanez, Gibson and Fender. This guitar is of the latter class, and just like the first Casper GT guitar I had made, it is built to be played for years to come. // 9
Overall Impression: Some viewers may find this axe and its accessories a bit garish or ostentatious; however, there is a method to the guitar's madness. This project was meant to be more than a standard looking Strat with certain 60s specs, only to be called a Hendrix tribute (enough of those floating around). Rather, the idea was to take it to the extremes, just like Big Daddy Ross's Rat Fink dragsters, the painted buses at Woodstock, Jimi's "pimped out" clothing, or the psychedelic and eye-numbing artwork on "Axis: Bold As Love".
Every part of the guitar has something about Jimi, from the Star Spangled Banner strap locks to the embedded pick in the headstock; and the package was coordinated further with a two guitar straps and hardshell case that did not attempt to re-create what already existed among Hendrix memorabilia, but to compliment a new creation as myself and other artisans visualized the project.
And least we not forget, as we Keep on Truckin' Mr. Crumb, just how colourful and sometimes outlandish the 60s were... Its style and presentation far different than what it is today, as we now tend to be more at home with the sleek and modern space-age-looking metals and mirrors that slowly are burying the Legacy of the Age of Aquarius. No, this guitar is not meant to reflect the tastes of today, of flame-topped maple and "active" pickups, but represents the 60s in concept and form that would have been celebrated along with the hand-made clothes, beaded necklaces and analog recordings that nearly seem as much in the past and "illusionary" to the younger generation as the "Roaring 20s", "The Great Depression", and "Leave It To Beaver". Moreover, this guitar reflects the "man-machine" concept, merging the two into one homogenous entity (in that regard, seeing Jimi play was and continues to be profound, as his guitar became a mere extension of his fingers the fluidity of his musicianship demonstrated clearly how both Jimi and his axe were one indivisible unit.
Few people, musicians or not, deserve an ever-lasting legacy, and the Voodoo Child tribute guitar is but a small contribution to reminding people the importance and influence that Jimi Hendrix had on the world, an unfortunate realization that existed only after his untimely demise.
A final thanks goes out to Wendy Chokan for the photographs.
By Brian D. Johnston. // 9