Electric Guitar kits – Are they the IKEA of guitars?

Electric Guitar Kits

Lately companies and websites selling electric guitar kits have been popping up like mushrooms after the first rain. Sure, having your own ‘custom made guitar’ can be great, but will it even play properly? will sound as good? is it a good bargain and what are the options?

The Electric Luthier has scoured the internet to get the essence of what’s really out there. There are some premium kits out there, a lot of middle of the road varieties and some challenges along the way. Let’s dive in and see what we’ve dug up…

What types of Guitar Kits are there as far as styles go?

That’s the beautiful part. You can naturally find your garden variety of Strats, Teles, Les Pauls and other classic styles, but a fair share of more unique and even unusual ones..
If you are opting for a left-handed guitar, a headless guitar, a seven string or other less common variations, you may have to look a bit further, but they are out there too.
Well, what should you actually expect to get when you buy a guitar kit?
Most guitar kits come with everything you need as far as parts are concerned. There will always be variations for different styles of guitars and different makers and you do need to make sure before ordering because there are exceptions and it would be very disappointing to realize it at any time after the package has arrived.

Your Kit will include:

  • The body of the guitar will be cut, routed (cavities for pickups, the rest of the electronics and) and usually pre-drilled and with a neck slot. I will be sanded to a certain degree but not finished as far as oil, color or any type of lacquer or gloss.
  • The neck will be fretted, have a truss rod imbedded, inlayed with dots and with a drilled headstock. (may have a blank ‘paddle board’ headstock)
  • Electronics may come pre-wired and welded (mostly with on the pickguard of Strat like versions) and either way include: Pickups, switches, volume and tone nobs and a plug
  • A bridge. May be anything from a Floyd Rose Tremolo style, to a Tune-o-matic bridge or a classic Tele bridge. You should have one in your kit
  • Tuners/ Machine heads to match the headstock style, either six in a row, inverted or mirroring two rows of three.
  • An Allen key (or other) for the Truss Rod
  • All the matching screws bolts and wires
  • Covers and Pickguards as applicable for your choice of guitar
  • Strings and a cable are optional

Is it like Putting together an Ikea Table or do I need a Guitar Building Luthier degree to get started?

They are advertised as if it was a “Some assembly required” product or a Lego Kit you can just slap together and start playing, and in fact an experienced builder will probably mange to have it done within a couple of hours. 
However,  the body always requires some kind of a finish and depending on the precision and quality of the fret work you the neck will require a proper set at best, or some serios fret leveling crowning and setup. Chances are the cheaper the kit, the more work you will have to put into it. (Which may not be a bad thing, right? It’s a hobby after all)

So what do I need to do before I can play it? 

As mentioned above the body comes unfinished so it will definitely need some sanding. 
After sanding it to your desired smoothness you will want to give it some kind of coating or other protection. Depending on your skill level and tools available there are a few basic finishes to consider. 

  • Oil finish: The best way to maintain the natural look of the wood. With or without stain (added color) this is the easiest way to bypass more complex methods of painting and finishing. It will give a satin sheen (although can be worked up to a shine) and does not require any special tool.
  • A matt Finish. This type of finish can achieve relatively easily and can even be applied using spray cans to get a great look. It can be transparent or opaque, the latter can also be useful to hide fillings or blemishes in the wood.
  • Go for the classic multilayered gloss. This will require many layers of paint, sanding, lacquer and buffering. All that work is not a bad thing, but will require time and effort, and you will not be playing the guitar the day it arrives…

There are more artistic finishes as well, and the sky is the limit. Go crazy, the body you received is like a blank canvas.
Assuming the fretwork is decent, setup to some extent will also be advised.
If the electronics are not fully assembled you will also need some soldering done. The pickups to the pots, the switch and the plug. That would be the basic. ** Most kits don’t come with detailed instructions or a wiring guide or diagram for the electronics so be prepared to look it up.
Electronic shielding: Not a must but since most guitars don’t have shielding in their cavities, you may want to add your own.

Do I need any special tools to put it together?

Yes, tools are required even for the best planed out and accurately executed kits:
Screwdrivers of different sizes and shapes. Your tuning pegs, truss rod cover, some truss rods, the neck itself, the pickups, the bridge, the covers and the pickguard, are all screwed to their place.
A drill. Nothing Fancy (although a press drill is usually preferable and a good addition) but often pilot holes for the tuners, neck bolts and sometimes bridge will not come pre-drilled.
A small adjustable wrench to tighten the volume and treble nobs
A soldering iron and some lead solder wire for finishing the electronics
Ellen Keys for (most) Truss Rod, and bridge saddles

American Made? Canadian? British? Australian or Chinese?

A few words about Chinese made guitar kits. 
Chinese parts and kits usually get a bad rap. Most Chinese manufacturers are not fake or cheap knockoffs. (Though if you see a Fender Logo on the headstock you should be suspicious). They are legit factories who specialize in guitars and/ or other music instruments. With todays CNC machines and 3D CAD they have the potential to measuring up to their western counterparts and still save on labor costs to be more competitive. 
Just to remove any doubt, Fender, Gibson, Ibanez and most, if not all other major guitar brands DO NOT make guitar kits. You can surely go into their websites and order all the parts you want and create ‘your own custom kit’, but there will be a matching price tag.
With today’s machinery and technology, any mass-produced guitar kit can be as good or as bad as the standards the specific maker holds. If a guitar maker manufactures parts or whole kit, oversees the quality and then stores and sells is in the States, there is no reason for it to any different than the ones made in the US.   

Who are the major players in the guitar kit scene?

In the US:

I will start with general stores such as Walmart. They do carry Electric Guitar Kits (a nice selection actually) but I assume they are not checking every single kit for fret leveling, so these guitars will fall under the ‘cheap Chinese Kits” category. As I see it you should just treat it as any Custom Guitar Shop would: A base for a great guitar. That’s what I did. I bought a “no-Name” Stratocaster style Neck. It was kind of OK but I had to learn how properly level and re-crown the frets and then do a full set to the guitar. It was a great lesson, and all I risked was a $40 neck.

kieselguitars.com 

These are not average the hobbyist guitar kits. Kiesel Custom Guitars have been making kits (and Custom guitars) since long before online stores and have a stellar reputation. Their Guitar Kits are 100 percent customizable and deliver top grade materials and parts and will probably be a breeze to put together and great to play. What’s the catch? They start above the $500 mark.

thefretwire.com

Based in the USA, Fretwire is Upfront about their guitar Kits manufacturing in China and they do seem to back up the claims for quality and give good service.
They have an extensive range of guitars including Hollow bodies, double necks and bass guitars. The Prices range is around $100- $200
They also carry a range of decently priced Lutherie Tools, and they do have building and wiring guides.
See the review of P-90 Jazzmaster Guitar Kit from TheFretwire.com

 

TOMTOP

A large importer from china who seem to know what they’re doing and the ability to back it up. The brand name they carry is Ammoon, which I have run across a few times, and they carry a range that covers most styles. If you are concerned about shipping time, they do have some of the models in US warehouses to cut down on shipping time. On the up side, the do seem to have the best prices around. If you are interested, They are the only ones I have seen who carry Guitar Kits for Children.  They have 2 Les Paul Style Kits, one with a single humbucker and the other with two. There is also a ‘Strat-ish’ version with one Humbucker. The only thing is there are no detailed specs to those guitars and it’s hard to tell from the images although the Strat-ish one does look significantly smaller. 

(More about Guitars for Children in my Article:” Why Not Build a Badass Electric Guitar for your kid?”

byoguitar.com

Based in the USA BYO guitar claim Some of their guitars are made in the US as well which leads me to believe most are imported. Their imported guitars are inspected, instructions are added and then it’s repackaged. They do have Custom kits and ‘finished’ Kits as well.

Australian

pitbullguitars.com

The Aussie based e- store claims there are guitar enthusiasts who want to provide a “one stop” resource for guitar kit builders. The have  a wide variety of styles and shapes and option for finish and customization. 

Canadian

solomusicgear.com

This Ontario based company that specializes (Since 2008) in guitar Kits (and violins) , Parts and accessories. 

Their wide range of guitar styles start at around $100 up to

While browsing the guitar Kits, it’s worth mentioning they also have a nice range of Luthier Tools. (They look better than the average)

They Seem to be getting good review across the board

British

crimsonguitars.com

Again, a bit at the high end of the spectrum, Crimson guitars is custom guitar shop based in England. They also teach and have apprentice programs for young (at heart) Luthiers and they make and sell some of the best Luthier Tools out there. 

These kits get more personal attention than any out there. It’s unfortunate that their kit designs are the standard Strat, Telle and Les Paul Style guitars because their shops guitars are nothing but Inspirational. The Kits start at around 140 Euro.

This is not a review, It’s the owner Ben Crow, having fun and showing off  (I am not affiliated with Crimson guitar, Just love this guy)

Since I didn’t get a chance to do a proper Kit Comparison yet, I give you Dan’s from ‘Guns

and Guitars’ three-way head to head review “Who has the BEST DIY TELE KIT?” These are examples of three guitar kits which were manufactured in China but are very different. It will also give you a better understanding of what expect from a Guitar Kit and a very nice overview (and some more) of the guitar building process:

Guitar Kits  – Unbiased Reviews

Unbiased Reviews are getting harder and harder to come by. If you’ve seen the video above you would have noticed that Dan while critiquing all the guitar was still upfront about his affiliation with one or more of the companies. It is inevitable. But you can choose whether to be Upfront about it or not. For Full Disclosure I have to admit I too am affiliated with companies I have Mentioned and when I actually get to buy and do a full review of my own, I will do the same. Truth has its own rewards.

Sadly, there are many (Not trying to shame anyone) ‘Review and recommendation’ list that are just trying to push products. When I look for a review and see that all the reviewed products are rated ‘five stars’ with a large ‘Add to Cart’ Button next to them I get a bid suspicious. When I see a YouTube video with classic ‘click-bait’: “Don’t Buy Guitar ‘Whatever’ Before you watch this” my ‘Spider Senses start Tingling’ (I get a bid suspicious – if you didn’t get the Spidy reference)

Conclusion – The pros and cons of Guitar Kits

Pros – A lot to gain, little to loose

For under $250 (sometimes a lot under) you can have any style guitar, and customize any shape and part in it

  • It’s great fun. Whether you are already a wood working hobbyist or just getting started, you are sure to learn a lot and may have a lot of fun doing it even before playing the first chord.
  • You are really not risking to much. Any part you mess up can be replaced for under a $100.

Cons – There Is ‘Work’ Involved

As in any new field, there is a learning curve and this first one may not quit come out perfect.

  • If all you want is a cheap guitar to play. For the same price you can get a finished guitar (sometimes with accessories) with the same quality hardware.
  • It’s time consuming. If you won’t enjoy the ‘building’ part of it, it’ll just be a waste of time.

In my opinion you have to first ask yourself: “why do I want to buy a Kit?”

A. I just want a guitar, as cheap as possible, and I am willing to put a few hours of work into it.

B. I am a handyman and like projects. I think an Electric guitar might be a cool one for me.

C. I’ve wanted to build my dream guitar for a while. Starting with a Kit looks a reasonable place to try, I can always try another or just upgrade this one.

D. My life calling is Luthierie and until I jump into the deep waters of learning how to build a guitar from scratch , I want to wet my feet in the shallow waters of guitar Kits (May have gone a bit far with this one..)

Spoiler. There is no wrong I answer, but if you just want the best ‘bang for the Buck’ guitar, you should probably get a decent shape second hand Squier, Epiphone or equivalent.

If you think of guitar building as a fun activity, by all means, get the cheapest crappiest kit you can get, challenge yourself and “polish that Turd” till it shines. (‘Mythbusters’ proved that you CAN actually polish a Turd)

You can always, replace the neck, build a new body, upgrade the pickups and the list goes on, the fun never stops..

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