Building a replica Hendrix guitar

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Published on 28 March 2024 by Andrew Owen (6 minutes)

If you work in IT, it can’t have escaped your notice that there are a lot of musicians around, including enough guitarists to fill a stairway. Indeed, one of my former managers was the bass player in a band that had a UK top ten hit and appeared on “Top of the Pops”. The nearest I got to that was having a hastily written 8-bit computer game included on a vinyl EP released by Plastic Raygun (although I’m told it was used for scratching in live sets by the likes of Fat Boy Slim). I mention this to tenuously tie in this week’s article into the general tech theme of the blog. But the truth is that after 116 weeks of putting out a blog every week, I need a break. But they say a change is as good as a rest, so expect more left-field content until I’m fully recharged.

“Sometimes you want to give up the guitar, you’ll hate the guitar. But if you stick with it, you’re gonna be rewarded.”—Jimi Hendrix

I’ve been playing guitar for over 30 years now (and I still haven’t recorded my album). I discovered Jimi Hendrix in my teens, and I’ll never tire of listening to his music. He’s known for playing a right-hand Fender Stratocaster reversed for left-hand use. But he wasn’t actually left-handed (he wrote right-handed), he just found it more comfortable to play guitar that way (even though his dad forced him to play right-handed). In 2021 there was a Twitter storm over a talk at the University of Carolina on “right-handed privilege”. But the truth is that it is harder to find left-hand versions of things, from utensils to instruments, and if you can find them they are more expensive. So Hendrix would take a right-hand guitar and flip it.

There’s been much argument among guitarists about the contribution this would have made to Hendrix’s tone. I’m convinced his guitar tech would have reversed the nut to stop the strings slopping around. With the headstock reversed, the length (and thus the tensions) is reduced on the highest strings, which makes it easier to bend them. The bridge pickup is at an angle to give a better treble response. Reversing it would have the opposite effect. People say this was part of Hendrix’s signature tone, but I think it’s more likely that he never used the bridge pickup on its own. The other thing to consider is that Hendrix played CBS era (1965 to 1985) guitars. These are identified by a larger headstock and cheaper construction.

Fender has made a number of licensed Hendrix replicas over the years for right-handed players like me, including a reversed left-hand 1968 Olympic White strat with a mirrored headstock decal (so if you stand in front of a mirror you look like a southpaw). One of those sold for $1,800 a decade ago. Now that seems a bit much for a reproduction of poorer quality hardware, with a bridge pickup that actively makes the sound worse. Then there’s the fact that I’ve never been much of a fan of the standard strat neck (my first guitar was a Washburn G5V superstrat with a bridge humbucker, coil-tap and a licensed Floyd-Rose vibrato—which in a trend started by Leo Fender it mistakenly calls a tremolo).

But then I heard about one of the lesser known music festivals of the 1960s: California’s Newport Pop Festival. It only ran twice. In August 1968 it was held at the Orange County Fairgrounds, Costa Mesa. It may have been the first pop music concert with over 100,000 paid attendees. In June 1969 it was held at Devonshire Downs, Northridge. This is the more widely known of the two due to the appearance of the Jimi Hendrix Experience. The guitar Hendrix used at that gig was unique. It was another Olympic White strat with the neck from a Telecaster (Fender’s first electric guitar design). Legend has it that the neck was broken at the previous gig and no replacement strat neck was available. He never used it again (although he did use a tele for the solo on Purple Haze).

So I decided to make my own replica. I bought an Indiana Guitar Company white left-hand strat copy. It was made cheaply in China and you could tell from the finish. It cost me as much in import duty as the guitar was worth. The neck, frets and tuners were cheap and nasty, but I didn’t care as I would be replacing them. The body was alder and the pickups were individually routed. The pickups were no worse than those procured by CBS. The bridge was reasonable. I bought a quarter-sawn maple cap 22-fret left-hand tele style neck that was already fretted from a UK supplier. I bought some period-correct tuners, a bone nut and two string tensioners from StewMac.

The tele neck has a square end, so I had to sand it down to fit the curved strat pocket. I was chatting to the luthier in the guitar shop that sold Paul McCartney his first mandolin and was advised that the way to get better tone from a bolt on neck is to drill right through the body. This means the bolts (screws really) hold the neck as close to the body as possible. If you don’t do this, then the threads can actually hold the neck slightly away from the body.

To resolve the bridge pickup issue, I bought a custom pick guard for a left-hand strat with the bridge pickup position reversed. When you’re playing, your hand usually covers that pickup so no-one can see which way it’s facing. I also found a vendor of Fender logo waterslide transfers. I asked if they could do a mirrored version and they said yes. This also means that, strictly speaking, I haven’t ripped off the Fender logo. I also tried to get a custom mirror sticker from a series of Hendrix guitars that Gibson was planning to release, but that was declined on copyright grounds.

I wanted the pots (tone and volume) to be reversed as well. No one sold them, so I ended up 3D printing them. I couldn’t source a copy of the strap Hendrix used at Newport, but I did get a copy of the one he used at Woodstock. Lastly, I needed to find some appropriate strings. Hendrix used to use Fender Rock ‘n’ Roll 150 strings (.010, .013, .015, .026, .032 and .038). But strings aren’t made the same and I think Ernie Ball Rock’n’Roll regular slinky (.010, .013, .017, .026, .036, .046) is a good substitute.

Then what was supposed to be a novelty guitar became my go-to electric guitar that I would just pick up and play. It’s the least valuable guitar I own, so I can take it anywhere. And having played rosewood necks my entire musical life, I finally came to appreciate the tone of a maple neck. And then I got into playing funk on it, even learning the riff from Daft Punk and Nile Rodgers’ “Get Lucky”. But be warned. I only made a few mistakes, but nothing I couldn’t mask over. After this success, I decided to upgrade my resonator guitar and wrecked the headstock.