Revaluating Past Work: My Oso Guitar a.k.a. The Bumble Bee

Back around 2003 while I was building guitars in the shop off of my father’s art studio in Tucson, I experimented with an Oso body.  I call it that because it is similar to the Zuni bear fetishes in shape.  At the time Klein was building an interestingly shaped electric guitar that was designed so the neck would be elevated, angling upward when the guitarist was seated as opposed to parallel with the ground.  This appealed to me, as my classical training has always come into play when positioning any guitar or bass I play.  I didn’t want to copy a Klein, even if I was in the learning stages, so I came up with the Oso body.

I ended up making two Oso guitars, one black with EMG strat pickups and one yellow with two Lace P-90 pickups and a three way switch.  The black guitar had a nice lacquer paint job, thanks to my father.  The yellow I stained and sealed myself.  Between the two the yellow Oso was a more successful instrument once the build was completed.  I pulled it out of my closet today here in Oak Park and put it through its paces this morning, after years away from it, just to refresh my memory and reassess the instrument.

The guitar is quite comfortable on the leg, and on the shoulder as well.  I carved the body from ash, and it is smaller than say a Telecaster so the weight is fairly light, but not as light as swamp ash.  The neck is maple with a rosewood fretboard.  I carved a tall bone nut from a blank, and the bridge is a Schaller roller bridge with the spacer still attached to the base.  The tuners are Schallers as well.  I have the action set as low as I could get it, but there is some buzz on the low E and A at the sixth and seventh fret.  The neck is flat, no bow, so if I took it off and adjust it a bit I might be able to remedy that issue.

The guitar sounds quite good, particularly when using the neck pickup.  It produces a nice clear tone across the spectrum that warms up as the tone is rolled back.  The bridge pickup sounds quite good as well, with some bite but the highs aren’t piercing which is a relief.  When the two pickups are combined the tone is a bit weak and quacky.  Unfortunately it’s not one that I would choose to use, and I don’t think there would be too many alternative takers out there who would.  I am pleased though with how the neck pickup worked out, as it is the one that I use most anyway.

The neck is narrow across the fretboard and the string spacing is a bit on the narrow side as well.  This makes for fast picking, but also necessitates more precision with left hand finger placement.  It doesn’t take much to send the low E string over the edge.  The frets feel a bit tall, especially close to the nut which feels a little bumpy when sliding down to them.  I might be a bit overly sensitive on this right now, as I have some cracked skin that is bumping along over them.  One aspect that does displease me was that the access to adjust the truss rod is in the neck join like the original Fender guitars.  This makes adjusting the truss rod a bit of a pain since I have to take the neck off to make changes.  I built this guitar before I learned how to build the neck with the truss rod access at the headstock, though.  Later attempts eliminated that issue.

Overall, it’s a better instrument than I originally thought it was, and everything is still solid on it fourteen years after I built it.  That pleases me immensely.  That being said, there are definitely points that need improvement.  The neck pocket needs to be about a quarter inch deeper, allowing the strings to come down to the pickups more closely, and then the two areas with some fret buzz could be refined somewhat.  All in all, though it’s definitely not a bad guitar for a somewhat early attempt at building, especially when the reality is that I only did this for about a year, maybe a year and a half.  I have another from the same period that is still in Tucson.  It is blue with has a single cutaway and is a more traditional shape in some ways.  It is loaded with a pair of Rio Grande humbuckers in a Les Paul configuration.  I’m looking forward to bringing that one home and re-evaluating it as well.

 

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Building Instruments: A Business Experiment in Tucson

I’ve always been interested in guitars, and later that interest grew to include basses, and then a variety of stringed instruments. When we lived in Delaware, in the late 90s and into the early 00s, I worked at a music store, Mid-Atlantic Music where my boss, Nick Bucci, did repair work and was also beginning to build his own instruments. Nick was, and still is, both an excellent guitarist and luthier. Even his earlier instruments were formidable. I used to love watching Nick work on instruments, whether he was repairing something or building something from scratch. Watching Nick, led to learning basic repairs, set up techniques and wiring tips from Nick. I had some issues with not rushing things, which led to a fair share of mistakes, but by the time we left Delaware I was more than competent at doing setups and various other small repairs. I also had the bug, and was starting to move toward building.

My first attempt at assembling an instrument was a FrankenStrat I put together in Delaware from a Warmoth body and a reissue Fender Strat neck that I purchased from Tommy Alderson, another of Nick’s employees and currently one of Steve Morse’s guitar techs. Nick painted the body for me and I did all of the assembly. It was a decent strat in the end which went up for sale before we moved to Tucson. From there I bought an A style mandolin kit from Stewart-MacDonald, along with some tools and scrapers. It was an expensive mistake, and ended up being unplayable, but that didn’t stop me from buying an F style mandolin kit when we hit Tucson. It was more difficult than the A style, but it is still playable some fourteen years later and is currently hanging on my studio wall in Oak Park. From there I was determined to start making some functional instruments.

I came into a small inheritance at the time which financed tooling up and purchasing building supplies. My father generously let me use a back room in his art studio in Tucson to set up shop and I started designing and building electric guitars and basses. Honestly I loved the whole process. Working with the wood to carve necks and create bodies was a tactile joy. I loved the feel of the wood giving in to take shape under my hands, and the smell of the sawdust. Quite frankly it was one of the happiest periods in my life, out there in that shop creating something out of nothing. It wasn’t easy, to say the least, but it was very gratifying despite the intense learning curve. My time with Nick had given me a basic understanding of what I needed to do, but I hadn’t done any actual woodworking since middle school shop so many years ago.

I had to learn how to use the router effectively, and I found that it was a difficult tool to master. There was quite a good deal of torque involved which was quite tiring physically for my forearms and hands. The neck shaping was also quite physical because the roughing out was done with rasps and draw knives. I used a radial sander for smoothing and shaping as well, both on the necks and bodies. There were many blisters from the draw knives and a sore spot where I braced the necks against my chest during the process that would ache for days. There were always piles of wood shavings and sawdust everywhere. How it didn’t get into my dad’s painting studio still amazes me. I did keep the door shut between his area and mine, and then while I was running the sanders, band saw or router I always kept the windows and outside door open to push the sawdust outside as much as possible.

I read books about building, watched Stew-mac instructional videos and bought a compendium of wiring diagrams to learn from. While I had watched Nick refret instruments, I had never done it myself so that was a massive learning experience in itself. After close to a year in the shop I started building instruments that actually worked, played well and sounded good. Ironically enough my successes were primarily bass guitars, one of which I still own and play upon occasion, although it is quite heavy. It was at about this time that my daughter was born and I found myself going over to the shop less and less. My mother was more than willing to look after Phoebe while I was in there, but money concerns were building as well so I went into teaching part time at Pima County Community College. Soon thereafter I closed the door on my shop, focusing on playing as much as could, teaching and raising my daughter.

I still have the equipment to build, and finished a bass last August using a neck I’d built in Tucson. Most of the time, though, my shop in Oak Park is gathering dust and cobwebs. One of the things I learned was that building is an expensive process even after you have the required tools. The raw materials, particularly good ones worthy of building with, are inherently expensive, as well as the hardware and electronics. I do miss the feeling of the wood taking shape in my hands and the smell of sawdust from the various woods used. I also will value the experience of pursuing something that was a passion for that year or so, even if it didn’t lead to a profitable business in the end. Who knows, perhaps I will return to it someday in the future.