Iconic Electric Guitars and How to Build Them: Part 2

In our last article we discussed three of the most revered guitarists of all time, and their iconic guitars, B.B. King’s ‘Lucille’, Paul McCartney’s ‘Violin Bass’ and Buddy Guy’s ‘Polkadot' guitar.  

This week, we’ll be taking a closer look at former Ozzy Osbourne guitarist Zakk Wylde’s ‘Grail’ guitar, aka the ‘Bullseye’ and Eric Clapton’s highly revered ‘Blackie’, which up until 2006 was the most expensive guitar on the planet!

So if you have always wanted your own replica ‘Blackie’ or ‘Grail’ guitar but didn’t want to pay the kind of money guitar’s like this tend to sell for, stay tuned, this article is for you.

Zakk Wylde’s ‘Grail’ Guitar

Ozzy Osbourne, especially during his solo career, has been fortunate to have acquired the talents of some incredibly gifted guitarists. But, two men stand out above all others, the classically inspired (and tragically taken far too early) Randy Rhoads, and of course Zack Wylde, the ‘Viking king’ of metal.

Wylde, with his sleeveless shirt, blond locks and signature beard are hard to miss. His guitars (many of them featured custom-designed finishes) are just as recognizable.

Image source

 

But the ‘Grail’, Wylde’s cream-colored Les Paul® featuring a black bullseye graphic is perhaps the most iconic.

Interestingly, the initial design was a misinterpretation, a mistake, and was supposed to be similar to the graphic used for Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’. However, after getting the thumbs up from Wylde, the original design stuck and the rest is history.

How to build your own Zakk Wylde ‘Grail’:

The Les Paul played by Zakk Wylde is a custom 1981 Les Paul® featuring a maple neck. (Gibson® made these with maple necks between 1974 and 1981) and EMG active pickups.

To order your LP guitar kit with similar specs, select the custom options listed below:

  • Mahogany body
  • Maple Neck
  • Rosewood Fretboard
  • Block (Mother of Pearl) inlays
  • Gold hardware
  • Black tone and volume knobs

You may also want to order a set of Zakk Wylde’s signature EMG 81/85 active humbuckers.

Finishing:

Like all Mahogany body guitars, the first step (after checking the included components) is to grain fill the body. You can read more about grain filling here, which is essential when finishing a loose grained tonewood such as Mahogany. 

The next step is to finish the body in a blond or cream gloss. You can read more about the process of finishing with a solid color, including masking the binding, sanding, and undercoating, along with finishing safety here.

*Keep in mind, your health is at risk when spray painting guitars. Ensure you have adequate ventilation and take all necessary safety precautions. The toxic substances found in aerosol spray cans can cause quite severe reactions.

Once you have finished applying solid color to the guitar, the next stage is to add the ‘bullseye’ graphic. 

There’s a couple of ways to go about this, including masking the body of the guitar and painting the bullseye graphic manually. However, I’d recommend using a high-grade gloss vinyl custom decal, which can be sourced at Etsy here or other distributors on eBay.

The advantage of using a decal is you can position the graphic before committing to its position and if you change your mind at a later date, it can be removed, although if left too long the guitar may acquire tan lines.

Level Of Difficulty:

Les Paul® style kit is one of our simpler DIY guitars to assemble. However, it is advised to take extra care when gluing the neck. Correct alignment and positioning will ensure good intonation and an accurate scale length (24.75).

Eric Clapton’s ‘Blackie

It’s difficult to imagine a world in which Eric Clapton played any type of electric guitar other than a Strat® but, up until 1970 Clapton favored Gibsons®

However in 1970, after being inspired by Jimi Hendrix, Clapton acquired his first Strat®, dubbed ‘Brownie’ thanks to the guitar’s sunburst finish. 

Blackie - Eric Clapton

Image source

Later that year Clapton purchased 6 more Stratocasters® (Strats® were very inexpensive at the time), and after gifting three of them to friends such as former band mate Steve Winwood, Pete Townshend (The Who) and George Harrison (The Beatles) he used the remaining three to build (in partnership with luthier Ted Newman Jones) his now iconic ‘Blackie’. Thus named, due to its black gloss finish.

Little could anyone have anticipated that the same guitar would go on to feature on legendary tracks such as ‘Cocaine’, ‘I Shot the Sheriff’ and ‘Lay Down Sally’. 

Perhaps even more historically relevant, Blackie after being auctioned in 2004 to aid Clapton’s drug and alcohol addiction rehabilitation center, fetched $959,500, making it the most expensive guitar in the world at the time.

How to build your own ‘Blackie’:

You can pick up an Eric Clapton signature model (closely modeled on the original Blackie) for a little over $1600.00 USD. 

If, however, you don’t have that kind of money lying around and would prefer to attempt to match the finish of the original 'Blackie' (wear and tear, cigarette burns and all!) you can build your own replica using an ST guitar kit from guitarkitworld.com.

The custom options you will require are listed below:

  • Alder body
  • Maple Neck
  • Maple Fretboard
  • Dot (Mother of Pearl) inlays
  • Chrome hardware
  • White pickguard and tone and volume knobs

Finishing:

For the most part, replicating ‘Blackie’ will require dexterity and patience. While the guitar body itself features a black gloss finish which would otherwise be straightforward. If you truly want to replicate ‘Blackie’ you will also need to relic the guitar body (artificially reproduce the wear and tear) which requires staining the exposed sections of the timber and using adhesive vinyl to mask the areas where the paint had worn off on the original ‘blackie’.

Alder, being a very dense timber does not require grain filling. With this in mind, you can start by applying a light stain to the entire guitar body as large sections of the body will be exposed.

The stain will help give the guitar an aged look, however, it should be applied quite sparingly. Any dark stain such as Ebony or Charcoal will do the job, just apply lightly.

The next step is to apply the masking to show the artificial wear and tear of the guitar. As per Zakk Wyldes’ ‘Grail’ guitar, adhesive vinyl is a useful product for the job. However, this will need to be cut out in detail, matching the original wear and tear as much as possible.

Using a backing board and scalpel, make detailed cuts on the edges of the mask, using a reference e.g. a printout of the original ‘Blackie’.

Alternatively, if you have the required skills and available hardware, using a graphics program such as Adobe Illustrator, design the mask edges in a digital format and print using a CNC machine to vinyl.

Once the adhesive vinyl is ready take great care to position accurately on the body of the guitar and then follow up with 4-6 coats of black gloss, followed by between 6–8 coats of clear lacquer.  

Stewmac and other online retailers offer an aged clear lacquer which, if your budget permits, will help you reproduce the aged look of the guitar. 

Once the gloss coats have cured remove the adhesive vinyl and assemble the guitar.

Level of Difficulty:

The ST is one of the easiest DIY kit guitars available to assemble due to the wiring being pre-installed on the scratchplate. The finishing process, however, (if relicing) is quite involved and is best taken on by those with some experience, or those who particularly like a challenge.

Summary

As you can see, owning your own replica ‘Blackie’ or ‘Grail’ guitar is not beyond the realm of possibility if building from a kit guitar. And, while you can do most of the finishing work manually, I’d recommend taking advantage of materials such as adhesive vinyl which will allow you to build a more accurate replica and avoid doing much of the detailed work directly on the body of the guitar, thus avoiding the potential for mistakes which, after assembling correctly can be incredibly frustrating, being the last part of the process.

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