4 tips to make a CBG play and sound better

Hi folks,

I thought I'd share a few of my tricks and techniques which I employ on my builds to make them sound and play better. Obviously to some of the more experienced builders out there these may seem obvious, but that aside these are all things I wish I knew when I began making these.

1. The nut

The nut is an extremely important part of any guitar's construction, and has a huge impact on the intonation and the clarity of the tone. All of my guitars are fretted so I set up my builds to play with fingers rather than slides. Some of these steps are unnecessary if you intend to only play with a slide.

My tips for nuts would be:

  • Use a hard material. I always use bone these days but a hardwood/corian works fine too
  • When you file the slots, do so at an angle down towards the headstock so that the string rests on only a tiny area right where the nut meets the fretboard. I use the same size small triangle file for all the slots and it works just fine.
  • The 'break angle' at the nut is important - the strings need to slope downwards towards the tuners. This will help open strings ring true. Where possible wrap the strings around the bottom of the tuner shaft a few times before feeding them through the hole
  • When setting up intonation, use your tuner to ensure that if the open string plays a G, the first fret plays a G#. If the note sharpens when fretted, you need to make the slot deeper. Be careful not to go too far of you may get buzzing on the frets, which would effectively mean a new nut
  • When you are happy with the intonation at the nut, take the strings off and sand down the nut so that the strings are resting in a shallow, rather than deep, groove - I tend to find they ring out a bit better this way

2. The bridge

Much like the nut, the bridge is very important for both intonation and allowing the strings to ring out as they should.

I use a floating bridge for all of my builds, as they are super easy to set up and I like the way they look. There is good information on setting bridge intonation all over the internet so I won't go into that here. My tips for bridges:

  • As with nuts, hard materials will transfer sound better than soft ones. I use bone and hardwood for mine. I made a blog post on how I make them here
  • I make the slots for the strings to sit in using a small triangle file. They are very shallow, with the break angle towards the tailpiece holding them firmly in place
  • I sand my bridges to a point at the top - this way the string is only resting on a very small area at the top. If the string is sitting on a flat surface this can cause buzzing
  • I tend to find bridges with a smaller amount of surface area contact with the soundboard (or cigar box lid) sound better (but please don't ask for the science behind this!)
  • You may have noticed my bridges are rather high (this one is 3/4" tall) - see number 3.

3. Back angle

I started using a back angle on the neck on roughly my 12th build. The difference in playability compared to a straight neck is huge. It is actually quite easy to achieve and well worth a try.

As you can see, using a back angle on the neck allows for a much higher bridge, and the action stays nice and low all the way up the neck.

  • Imagine that the neck is resting on 2 blocks, which are at either end of the box. Make the block at the front of the box slightly lower than the one at the tail, and you have a back angle. Easy! The tail block on this guitar is 10mm taller than the front one.
  • If you're a bit more of a perfectionist you can cut the blocks at an angle to the neck rests flat on them (recommended)
  • Coupled with having the fretboard sitting higher than the box, you will achieve low action and a good amount of clearance between the strings and the soundboard, making the guitar easier to play with fingers or a pick.

4. String gauge

Although it is standard CBG building practice to use strings 3,4 & 5 from a 6 string set, I have found better result using strings at equal tension, which is probably more important on instruments without truss rods to prevent the neck warping over time. I also find equal string tension easier to play.

  • I use the MPUSTC String Tension Calculator to work out which strings I need for a particular build. It's easy to use; just enter your scale length and tuning and it does the calculation for you
  • For this build I used GDG tuning, and went for 44,28 and 20w, with each string having a tension of between 10.4 and 10.8kg over the 630mm scale length. I tend to find anything below 9kg to sloppy, and over 14kg too tight
  • I also find that using equal tension makes setting the intonation at the bridge much easier. I usually manage to achieve close to spot on intonation at the 12th fret
  • If you want to give equal tension a try, just go to your local guitar shop and ask for the individual strings you need. If anyone's going to understand your needs, it will be a fellow guitar geek!

Well, I hope this is of some help to those of us just starting out with this rewarding hobby. I suppose my best tip would be not to think too much about it, otherwise you'll end up like me :(

Cheers!

Richey

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Comment by Solazule Lunanegro on June 15, 2017 at 9:04am

Great stuff Richey, Thanks man! I'm all about nuts and saddles right now but the neck angle is something I will try too, same with the strings.

Comment by Alberto Magotti on April 12, 2017 at 12:46pm

I Will use the back angle neck on my next build!

Comment by Andy R on November 23, 2016 at 9:21pm
Good nuts, bridges and saddles do justice to any instrument, whereas lesser ones can make even the best come up short. Great advice on that. Have you ever come across a composite material called phenolic?
I have used it on my dulcimers and it fits the bill for quality nuts and saddles. Easy to file and sand as well.
Comment by Philip Hale on June 17, 2016 at 6:55am
Great information, many thanks
Comment by Rough Cut Tom on February 14, 2016 at 7:12pm

After reading your post "4 Tips..." I knew what I had to do and...
It turned out AWESOME. Did a 2 degree angle and the volume and projection are ridiculous! I made my bridge a little different from yours but calculated the compensation and the intonation is dead-on. You can see the bridge at the link below. Life will not be the same; thanks! Owe you more than a few beers :-)
Tom roughcutguitars fb & yt

Comment by Richey Kay on November 5, 2015 at 3:00am
You're absolutely welcome. Let me know how you get on.
Comment by Muddbone on November 5, 2015 at 2:55am
Absolutely awesome. All of my builds have been slide action and this will help me take the next step. Thank you.
Comment by Richey Kay on October 19, 2015 at 1:28am

No worries, happy to help!

Comment by Jim Morris on October 17, 2015 at 10:43am

Excellent info Richey. Even after 100+ builds I can find useful stuff from your posts. I'm gonna go back to your bridge making post to see what I can steal since yours are so very nice looking and sounding.

Comment by Hard luck chuck on October 15, 2015 at 8:37pm

good stuff - I learned some of this the wrong way on my first couple builds.  I'll definitely use the nut slot depth and string tension tips.

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