The Skyemaster: Our Custom-Made Jazzmaster for Skye of Fleet Foxes!

Trust me, it's not as complicated as it looks. It is, however, just as cool as it looks, which is a boon.

Isn’t that neat? I was just discussing with my wife the fact that when I first moved to Seattle, I’d have never dreamed that two years later I’d be working on guitars for real-live touring bands, let alone actually building guitars for them! What fun!

Self-congratulatory remarks aside, I really can’t tell you how excited I am to share this one with you. It was a lot of work (which you’ll hear all about in a moment) but I have to say what a rewarding project this was, with Skye–and his mum–being even more pleased than I was. But enough talk! Allons-y!

This project only came about a short time ago. We’re talking just months ago, when Skye first approached us about doing a little something special for him. His aim was to have a guitar built specifically for his forthcoming solo project, with a few custom touches that would make for a really interesting guitar. In his mind, this guitar was to be “the crux of the record.” The word “crux” was thrown around a lot, admittedly in jest by the end. It’s almost a meme ’round these parts. God forbid a fast-food run come back missing something. “Pickles are the CRUX of this burger!” or “Barry Gibb was the CRUX of the Bee Gees!” and “Pretty girls are the CRUX of my innermost personal torment!” you might imagine us yelling, feigning sincerity.

Here’s a quick rundown of the features, followed by a typically loquacious blog post about the guitar:

  •  A vintage Jazzmaster neck (1963) with a new set of TonePros Kluson tuners
  • A vintage (’63) Jazzmaster vibrato unit
  • AllParts body
  • A gold anodized aluminum guard
  • A Jaguar 3 switch control plate for switching
  • 2 Lollar Jazzmaster Pickups
  • A vintage (and very HOT) DeArmond Gold Foil pickup in the middle position
  • A Curtis Novak Lipstick pickup in the “behind-the-bridge” position for super-cool ghost tones and endless fun
  • Mastery Bridge
  • 500k pots for both sets of lead and rhythm circuit controls to tame the high end
  • A crazy-ass pickup selection scheme (it’s not that crazy)
  • VERY special roughly-polished brass thumb wheels that match the pickguard

Even though months sounds like plenty of time, when you’re waiting for correspondence, trying to plan a build whilst going back and forth on specs from across the country–Leading Tone in Seattle, Skye living in New York–things can take a lot longer than one might expect. At first, this build was supposed to be partially completed by the immensely talented Joe Riggio, whose F-style creations are as beautiful to behold as they are to play. We had already been working closely with Joe, talking about body shapes and contours, as well as setting up precision CNC routing for those special, Skye-approved touches.

Unfortunately, because of Skye’s impending studio dates, there just wasn’t time to have the right body cut and finished. Instead, an AllParts Jazzmaster body was ordered and shipped to us right away. In the mean time, I decided to have the neck ready.

That's the happiest decal Fender ever made.

For the neck, Skye opted for something he knew he would love: a genuine 1963 Fender Jazzmaster neck he scored on Ebay, which is very similar in profile to the neck on the white ’63 Jazzmaster he uses with the Foxes. The finish on the back of the neck was in that just-worn phase, with the slick feel of nearly-bare wood greeting the thumb like an old friend dropping by for tea. And can I say that the 7.25″ radius just feels magical?

Only a few lines' worth of fret! Oh noes!

As I expected, the neck was in need of a level and crown at the very least. In reality, there was far too little fret left for my files to even begin crowning, so a full refret was the only choice here. Then there was the bad news: the fretboard hadn’t exactly been taken care of, and had become so brittle that even very light fretwork meant flaking in the extreme. I tried to pre-treat the board with some lemon oil in hopes that the rosewood’s new found moistness would convince it to play fair, but to no avail. That board was intent on making my work way harder. “Whatever. Bring it.” I chided. Yes, I talk to myself.

And so I set about the great and arduous task of removing these frets without absolutely wrecking the fretboard. To test the waters, I utilized the normal soldering iron technique, wherein I heat the fret before pulling it out, minimizing chipping while liquifying any glue that may have been used. Some frets were easily liberated from the fretboard without too much fuss, but with more than a few frets threatening to tear wood away from their slots, I had to try taking them out the same way they might have gone in. It may be no surprise to you that Fender used to actually slide the frets in rather than the usual press-in method, using the sharpened tang of the fret to cut through its channel enabling it to seat properly and stably without glue. With the aid of my fretting hammer and one of my smaller files, I was able to [more] easily extract the aforementioned problem frets. Even so, that fretboard did not have the integrity to avoid some major chipping.

One has to look closely to see any of the patches!

Armed with super glue and my bag full of rosewood dust I’d collected from previous jobs, I started filling in the missing bits, taking care to slip a piece of Teflon in the fret slots to keep glue out. Once the “new wood” set, I used files to trim it flush with the existing rosewood, then sanded to a smooth finish. Sadly, each time I thought I was finished, more wood decided to flake away. In all I had to repeat this process three times, but I’m really happy with the end result. To my dismay, I neglected to take photos of this part of the process as time was at a premium. I do, however, have a photo of the finished board for you.

This fret job also required some patient work, but not because of any major problems; the extra care I took was due to my own nerves getting the better of me. Because this guitar was being made for Skye, I had the sneaking suspicion that it would eventually be seen by one of my personal guitar repair and tech heroes, luthier John Woodland. If the name sounds familiar, he’s the designer of the oft-lauded (and life-affirming) Mastery Bridge, an aftermarket replacement for the stock unit on Fender offset guitars. He also is the first-call repairman for the likes of Nels Cline, whom you may know from my numerous, nearly incoherent ramblings on the subject of best guitarists ever. And Wilco. Also the Nels Cline Singers. He’s also done work for Skye in the past, and Skye later confirmed that this guitar will probably make its way to him someday. So, you get my gist? I’m saying I was frigg’n nervous.

As for the fret job, there’s really not much to tell. It actually went quite smoothly. Go figure. Once the StewMac #148 frets were perfectly level and crowned, and with ends invisible to the hand, I moved on to the body. Oh, the body.

Half futuristic raygun, half Victorian brass automaton.

This is where things got really tricky. Being that the body was from AllParts it’s no secret that they’re made to fit MIJ parts. This meant that there would be some required modification for proper fitting of the various parts we’d chosen for the project. For instance, the vintage, American-made neck wouldn’t quite fit the pocket, so I armed myself with a few files and went to work. Other necessary routing and drilling to the body included widening the tremolo cavity by a fraction of an inch to accommodate the vintage ’63 unit, the rhythm circuit cavity was too shallow for the wheels to turn freely, bridge thimbles had to be drilled and the lipstick behind the bridge had to have a special route added to the body. Luckily, John provided a kickass hand router with an ingenious depth stopper thing, so without wanting to show you pictures I can confirm that it looks fabulous.

I'm super excited about those brass wheels!

That was a lot of work. Luckily, wiring and assembly was far less vexing, with a fairly straightforward pickup selection scheme. The Jaguar control plate currently controls the three main pickups, with a simple on/off switch for each pickup. We’ve done away with the traditional rhythm circuit, replacing it with dedicated controls for the lipstick. This might change, as neither Skye or myself really knew what would work best at the time. We may move the lipstick to the last on/off switch on the Jag plate, leaving the upper-horn controls to govern the tone and volume of the Gold Foil, which might actually work a lot better as far as blending options go.

Once the guitar was together I really started digging this offset oddity. I wasn’t totally sold on the unfinished appearance of the body at first, but with everything in its right place I have to say that I’m partial to the D.I.Y. aesthetic of the piece as a whole. All of the colors at play on this guitar seem to blend well together; the three separate wood tones contrast nicely with the mix of gold, brass and chrome reminiscent of an old grandfather clock or a pocket watch. Now that I think of it, if you’ve ever seen the meant-to-be-sweet-but-is-creepy-as-hell kids movie Return To Oz, (Disney’s amazingly bleak sequel to the well-loved and far less jarring Wizard of Oz) you might even be reminded of Tik-Tok and Princess Mombi’s palace. I know I am. *shudders* *head rolls off*

Skye's guitar is this picture.

And, while I’m talking about the metal on this guitar, may I draw your attention to the brass thumb wheels! I’m really, really proud of them, but the look came about completely by accident. I had to enlarge the post holes of those wheels because they wouldn’t fit on what were supposed to be the correct pots. While drilling them out (which, let’s face it, is not a good idea) a wandering drill bit worked away at the black finish on these parts, exposing the shiny yellow metal hidden within. Coworker and BFF for life Mike Ball had the brilliant notion to machine away the black leaving behind only smooth brass with plenty of tooling marks in tact. I think the effect is quite alluring!

The stars of this show really are the DeArmond Gold Foil in the middle position and the lipstick in the far back position. If you aren’t familiar with them, Gold Foils are exceptionally loud, balanced pickups usually found on bargain brands from the ’60s. While the guitars have a sort of “love ’em or hate ’em” reception in the guitar world, the pickups are undeniably fun to play. I can’t remember what this particular one measured, but it’s loud for sure. Loud enough that it’s just slightly out-of-balance with the Lollar JM pickups that surround it, but not in a bad way. Gritty, thick and meaty. It’s really fun to engage this pickup in combination with either Lollar as you would engage a boost pedal or a third channel.

The Novak lipstick is absolutely the most fun aspect of the guitar; Jazzmasters already exhibit the quirky-but-cool overtones of the excess string that lives at the tailpiece, but with a dedicated pickup wired in series these tones take on a life of their own. A sort of cool, ghost-like chorus effect happens with the lipstick and one of the other three pickups engaged, where you can barely distinguish the jangly, “what’s that sound?!” nature back there.

My favorite trick, though, is turning off the main pickups and engaging the lipstick, bumping up the gain and strumming hard in the normal position. This causes a buzzy, droning effect with plenty of character while the normal chords poke through the cacophony. This alone makes me want to hack up my Sonic Blue so I can have fun too.

Any excuse to post this photo is good enough for me.

At the end of all of this, Skye seemed blown away by this guitar, and even his mother, whom he brought with him, was thrilled about it. As Skye’s fingers danced on the fretboard, going from free jazz to noise in an instant’s notice, those of us in the store were mesmerized by something completely new and completely unique. “That sounds beautiful!” his mother exclaimed repeatedly.

And it did. We were fully prepared to show you the super-cool demo video we recorded in celebration of this amazing guitar, but alas, it was deleted purely by accident and not because I played terribly. Not at all. Maybe Skye will be kind enough to let us borrow it again…

The whole gang! (minus BFF Ball)

UPDATE: BIG, BIG thanks goes out to the great folks at Mastery Bridge for drawing attention to this build. I’m honored that Skye trusts me enough to let me have at it, but I never expected the good vibes to spill over like this.

If you’re coming here from the Offset forums, cheers! It’s good to have you!

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