Curriculum: Building the TunaTone x She Shreds Electric Guitar
My name is Leila Sidi and I’m a woodworker and dad-joker in Edmonton, Canada. I’m also an occupational therapist who thinks about the state of the world a lot, and as a result I’m constantly considering bodies and how they function. So naturally with TunaTone I aim to make instruments that are lightweight, ergonomic, and comfortable because a guitar should enable playing rather than act as a barrier.
Since I’m not a musician and don’t play guitar, my mentor and friend Dion James has helped me throughout the learning process of my craft to demystify the instrument by dissecting it into its most functional elements. That process has drawn me to boldly simple design choices, including ones that require me to manufacture my own hardware. I’ve also relied on the expertise of friends who are professional musicians to guide me in choices around tone. In particular, Jenni Roberts and Aaron Parker have helped me—through conversation and listening to music together—discern that I love a warm, woody, and well-balanced tone that is sufficiently bright, which is what I’ve chosen for my instruments. (For more information about the relationships I build alongside my guitars, read my previous Curriculum article, “Luthiery and Reinvention: The Interdependence of TunaTone Instruments.”)
In May 2020, Fabi Reyna and I started talking about the She Shreds build. We oscillated between a standard six-string electric guitar and a baritone, eventually landing on the former for its versatility. While it’s not uncommon to inquire about certain specs or customizations when planning a guitar, Fabi had virtually none. She very much just wanted me to do what it is that I do and build her the guitar that I’ve spent three years prototyping and dialing in at every angle, measurement, and detail. The model I built for her is called the TeenyTuna. It is on the shorter side of a standard scale length at 24.75” and has a single-coil neck pickup which is handwound by Roadhouse Pickups, as well as handmade brass appointments with custom stainless steel hardware.
I’m going to walk you through some of the parts of the months-long process of the build, focussing on the most enjoyable parts, most arduous parts and my favourite collaborations.
Shaping of body, neck, and fingerboard
When I start a guitar, I mill up three wood pieces for the body, neck, and fingerboard into blanks. They each take shape independently for a while, before the focus shifts to unifying the pieces. I love this part of the process because it involves making a lot of dust and the progress is palpable in relatively short spans of time. It took me a long time to learn the basics of how to square up a board or how to make a tight joint, so it feels celebratory to do it now.
For this guitar, I used Sitka spruce for the body because it’s a great tone wood, is lightweight, and has a high strength-to-weight ratio. I started this build with a Black Walnut neck and Robinia fingerboard, but that changed part way through the process.
At the beginning stages of a build, I use a combination of hand tools and power tools to make cuts. To make the general body and headstock shapes of the instrument, I use templates that my friend Aaron Parker, who helps me design the aesthetics of the guitars, draws as vectors. Then, I have these lasered or cut out of plywood or plastic. I also use a number of handmade devices that hold work and guide tools called jigs.
Broken Neck/Starting Over
Even though I very much dislike making jigs, I’m always adding to and improving upon them because they make my work more efficient, reliable, and safer. On this build, I made a new set of jigs that helped me shape the neck and fingerboard.
A long way down the process, I discovered that I had made an error in my jigs, which meant that I not only had to make them again, but I had to start my neck and fingerboard again too. This set me back a number of weeks.
I somehow managed to get a surprising amount of work done in an undeniable state of shock immediately after discovering my error and its implications, but as soon as that started to wear off I knew I needed to head home, get in the comforting waters of my bathtub, and let it sink in.
I did remake the jigs and started the necks over, this time using some Indian Rosewood since Fabi has an affinity for Rosewood and it nicely matched the body colour we were discussing. Indian Rosewood is harvested primarily for use in perfumes, so when sanding and cutting into it, the fine dust fills the shop with a very distinct fragrance.
When the two pieces of the guitar (neck/fingerboard and body) finally came together, they were then separated again to be worked on individually.
Fabi and I had gone back and forth around colour. The initial photo she sent was of a handwoven suit, and from this we sent each other photos and paint swatches until we came up with a colour that felt close. I remember talking to Rob Bustos at Vancouver Guitar Finishing—where I send my bodies to get painted and finished—on the phone, pacing the back alley of my shop describing the changes we wanted to the colour. He got the paint closely matched and then hand mixed the rest to get it just right—the finishing process takes a few weeks.
While the body was getting finished, I worked on carving the neck. I’m methodical about the process: I start out with drawings and remove material in facets to help me ensure the neck is carved accurately. Though I used to struggle with it, carving the transition between the flat headstock and the rounded neck (the volute) has quickly become one of my favourite parts of the process. I use various hand tools to do the carve, including files, a scraper, a chisel, knives, and finally, lots of sandpaper.
I also worked on fretting the fingerboard, which includes some prep, and filing the fret ends for hours once the frets are glued in place.
Once the neck was carved, I worked on making some of my hardware—I make my bridges, nuts, and string retainers out of brass by hand in my shop. It’s messy and hard on the fingers because brass heats up really quickly, but the beauty makes it worth it. I also worked on getting pickguards made.
The guitar body returned finished after a few weeks, and the guitar was ready for assembly. My friend Stefan Duret helped me wire up the pickguard with electronics, including a hand-wound single-coil pickup by Ken Calvet at Roadhouse Pickups. And at that point I was ready to fully assemble the instrument and set it up!
Before shipping the guitar to She Shreds, I fussed over small details for a while, getting ready to let it go. I also shared it with a couple of the people I collaborate with throughout the process—it feels nourishing to be able to celebrate the end product with the people who helped make it happen.
This guitar build was really significant and meaningful to me because I feel so aligned with She Shreds in our work and how we share the value of centering musicians that are typically left out of the guitar/gear world. Additionally, this was the first guitar I built without my mentor in the shop with me due to the pandemic. As you can tell, I’ve always loved and relied on interdependence as a part of my process; this build taught me to trust myself as much as I’ve learned to trust my collaborators—an unexpected pandemic lesson.
I was once asked what it feels like to hear someone play one of my instruments for the first time, and I answered that it felt like a gift I couldn’t ever give to myself. This collaboration with Fabi has been such a pleasure, and it truly feels like a gift to know that this guitar is in the hands of one of my favourite shredders.