Chess Guitar part 1

When I was 16, the song “I Know Him So Well” was released and spent four weeks at number one in the singles chart. I didn’t really follow pop music much until then, although I sang in my school choir and played the piano. I loved that song, though, and my first ever purchase of recorded music was the album that it came from. I didn’t even know what it was but it turned out to be a concept album with most of the music from a forthcoming musical by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus with Tim Rice. The musical was called Chess.

The whole (double) album is brilliant. It’s probably still my favourite musical work of all time. The music is wonderful, with a great variety of styles and moods, and the lyrics are brilliant and witty. A couple of years later, I also saw the show itself in London and found it very moving.

I’ve done a lot of amateur musical theatre myself, but the lead role in Chess has always been my dream role. Fast forward more than thirty years, and my local society announced that it would be putting the show on in 2020 (now postponed to 2021). I shall be auditioning, although my chances are probably slim, but in the meantime this caused an idea to pop into my head.

The original concept

I drew this out to the best of my artistic abilities, i.e. very badly. Still, the idea was there! Next I found some pieces of ebony and sycamore and started cutting them…

Some pieces of wood…
Gluing them together, also with a thin veneer of padauk between each strip

So I worked out the required size and cut some pieces of sycamore and ebony to the right size…sort of, since actually then ended up a couple of mm smaller than I wanted. I partly compensated for this by adding a small strip of padauk between them (which is a nice touch anyway), and partly just by making the body a little smaller than originally intended. It’s based on a Les Paul Junior, so it’s a relatively simple shape and build.

After the strips were glued together, I cut them across and planned out how they would fit onto the body. I did this carefully so that any imperfections would end up in the parts that would be cut off in the final body.

Then those pieces were glued together, and the final top ended up like this. It was about 6mm thick, and it was a bit fragile but turned out pretty well.

Next I turned to the body itself. I picked out a two-piece blank of Khaya mahogany. I worked on that, and included some holes for weight relief – I didn’t want the holes to be too large to ensure that the top was well supported.

The body with the control cavity and weight relief cut out

Then I glued them together and tidied it all up (rounding the edges etc.) and ended up with a nice-looking guitar body.

The body, glued together and shaped. Looking good so far…

Next, my thoughts turned to the inlays. I found a picture of a nice chess set and printed them out several times until I got a size that worked on the body. I cut them out, and picked the materials to use. Since these are fairly large inlays, I decided that they needed to be made from several pieces to make them look more three-dimensional. I also had to find colours that would be visible against the top, so black and white were out anyway.

The printed chess pieces, used to cut out the inlays

Fortunately, I had some nice coloured celluloid sheets, so I used those together with a little piece of wood for the base. The first one I tried was the pawn, because it was the simplest.

The pawn – this is about 3.5 cm tall

As I made each piece, I stuck it to a piece of paper so that I didn’t lose any of the small pieces. Here are all of the pieces for the top, with a guitar pick next to them to give an idea of the size.

The pieces for the guitar top

Then I spent a considerable time routing out the shapes in the top of the guitar, and inlaid the pieces in the respective spaces. This is how that ended up – it still needs to be cleaned up, but that will happen a bit later in the build.

The top with the inlays

The second major component of a guitar build is the neck. I picked out some materials and actually build a very nice looking neck…sadly, I made a mistake and the fretboard glued on badly, so I have to start again. At the time of writing, I am waiting for a delivery of wood for the neck, so that will come in a second part.

I’m fairly happy with the progress of this build, and still hopeful that it will end up looking good. I got some vintage-style humbuckers, so this will be a rather classic type of guitar. I’m looking forward to seeing how it turns out, and will post a second page here when it’s done!