Jimmy Page Dragoncaster scratch guitar build

My replica take on the 1959 Fender Telecaster which Jimmy Page inherited from Jeff Beck on joining the Yardbirds, and customised during his time with that seminal Brit psychedelic blues rock outfit. His main guitar on stage for the first frenetic year of Led Zeppelin tours in Europe and the US, having figured heavily on the 1968-recorded first Zep LP, there was probably further studio use with Zeppelin thereafter, and I guess the guitar’s apogee moment was the recording of the solo for Stairway To Heaven in 1971. 

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I wanted to build a Tele anyway, but the Page guitar is intriguing, being an example of guitars that came out of the Fender Fullerton factory with rosewood slab fingerboards, a very thin profile neck , and still sporting a string through bridge even though the factory had reverted back to the traditional string-through body by then and was merely using up the stock of drilled bridges. These features overlapping together only figured in production for a short timespan, certainly less than a year during late ’59 to early ‘60. The neck (predating  ‘80s Charval, Jackson et al, and Ibby Wizard type profiles, and completely different to the subsequent early ‘60s oval so-called ‘C shape’ that Fender uses to this day) is what mainly marks these guitars out. It’s likely no co-incidence that the sunburst Gibson Les Paul Standard that Page adopted to replace it as his main axe had had its neck shaved.

I scratch-built the guitar from raw timber, so it’s not really a ‘partscaster’; the exact build spec is detailed below. A Tele does make a satisfying build; much like the originals the focus is on the guitar and sonic aspects, rather than big concerns with cosmetics such as bookmatched carved tops, fancy headstocks, inlays etc. With this one, underneath the psychedelic paintjob and custom pickguard it is actually very standard to 1959 Fender Tele specs. You may have a different opinion, but the factory solid colour finish Teles are a bit plain to my eyes, so the Page paint scheme did appeal (though my fave finish would have to be those ’68 blue or red Paisley Teles…)

Going through the build is pretty easy (with extensive hat-tipping to the genius of Leo Fender’s mass production techniques along the way, and to the excellent TDPRI online forum); rather more time is spent making the necessary jigs and templates for accurate routing of truss rod channel, pickup and control cavities and neck pocket, and body and neck outlines than is taken on the actual guitar. Actually you do get a fair bit of leeway with a vintage repro; tolerances and QA were much looser then than is the case  with modern CNC-produced equivalent guitars, with often considerable variation between individual examples.

Given that Page still appreciates the ’59 neck enough to retain it on his favorite B-Bender ’53 Tele (which would have had a chunkier all maple neck, possibly with a V profile) to this day – the Dragon body having been ‘retired’ – I wanted to get the neck true to the ’59 feel. The neck profile carve was much easier than I thought it would be, as you basically just follow your own feel once the basic parameters for shoulder, overall depth and taper etc have been cut in. 

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In fact, hardest by far was the custom scratch plate – the hard, brittle acrylic ‘perspex’ tends to melt back together behind a jigsaw blade, and the material is very fragile. Cosmetically I’ve only gone for a representation of the Page guitar anyway (his paintjob was re-applied at least twice during the guitar’s stage life with significant detail differences, and I left the unpainted areas natural whereas the original had a beige-ish translucent shellac applied overall). With the scratch plate I’ve in no way tried to replicate the exact pattern of what was probably a random glue effect on the original film backing. All the metal parts are aged and the body is pretty scuffed up relic stylee. With the guitar sat in your lap, well it does kinda feel like someone might have raided a Hard Rock Café display case…

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And for the sound, yup it sounds like an old Tele: lots of raucous snappy twang with the bridge pup, cleanly (ie no ‘mud’) overdriving valve amps which have reasonable gain; the neck pup is sweeter and mellower though still engagingly ‘wirey’. The overall sound harmonically complex (there are lots of body/bridge resonances affecting the bridge pup with physical feedback). I found stringing through the bridge compared to through the body doesn’t affect the primary sound really so much, but maybe the strings are a tad easier to move for bends and legato with the string ends at the bridge (it does result in reduced breakover angle). As strung this guitar weighs in at 6-¼ lbs, so it’s a nice light swamp ash in the body, but with a denser heartwood area right where the bridge screws in, which perhaps helps its snappy sustain and resonance (similar to Page’s grain pattern). The vintage three-saddle bridges can have a reputation for making Teles tricky to intonate accurately, but I found this not to be a problem on this guitar.

The guitar doesn’t seem particularly susceptible to the dreaded 50Hz induced hum, so I reckon the pups’ baseplate and cover shielding and the cloth screening on the wiring to be pretty effective on this design.

Given the Tele design originally prototypes from the late 1940s you’d think these would feel like primitive guitars, but actually while perhaps in some ways crude ergonomically (but arguably quite sophisticated in the important things) they are ultimately rewardingly charismatic to play – fittingly like rock’n’roll itself.

PS strange but true, the bill of materials for this guitar (timber, pups, hardware) totalled £666…

Build Notes

Body

American flat-sawn swamp ash routed to vintage dimensions (neck pocket area blends and neck pup cavity, jack plug face, open wiring channel)

Bridge standard Fender Tele drilled for string-through (I used a Wilkinson string-thru bridge as a jig), 3 threaded steel saddles with compensation and height adjustment (set to follow 9.5in string radius)

Strap buttons standard basic Fender

Scratch plate 8 screw custom plexiglass with mylar mirror film backing

Finish custom psychedelic abstract Chinese dragon design hand painted using Revell model kit acylic paints over stripped Olympic White; covered with thin wiped-on yacht varnish (logic: Page was living at his Pangbourne boathouse at the time…)

Neck fixing standard Fender 4 screw with plate

Control plate is a used ‘70s Tele (thicker gauge than current production – better suits scratch plate thickness). Has a hole drilled, presumably for an additional switch or pot.

 

Neck

American flat-sawn rock maple, late ‘50s proportioned headstock

Brazilian flat-sawn rosewood (likely stumpwood given its knots) slab fingerboard

Clay position markers (12th fret centred under A and B strings); clay side dots centred on maple/rosewood transition

Truss rod fabricated single acting vintage style with 1st position anchor, Fender crosshead adjustment barrel at heel

Scale length 25 1/2 in

Profile thin D – relatively deep shouldered, flattish back

Depth 1st fret 0.821in

Depth 12th fret 0.918in

Fretboard radius approx 9.5in throughout cylinder board (simulating numerous refrets over the years from the original 7-1/4in), slight fall away sanded in along top six frets 

21 frets Evo gold wire 0.080in width, 0.043in height, tang depth 0.050in, glued and hammer-tapped in (originally the frets would have been sideways-driven in as Fender did at the time), levelled and dressed height averaging 0.041in, acute fret end bevel not vintage shallow Fender bevel

Gotoh DeLuxe ‘single line’ Safeti-Post tuners, in holes counter-bored for bushings

String tree single for B/E strings

Bone nut set in 7-1/4in radius channel, 0.020in clearance above 1st fret at bass E; A, D, G, B slots blended to meet 0.018in clearance at treble E, cut to suit 9s

Neck width at nut just over 1-5/8in (actual measured 1.67in or 42.4mm)

Width across strings at nut 1.43in

Relief (7th fret) 0.012in bass E, 0.011 treble E

Action 17th fret bass E 5/64in, treble E 2/32in

No neck shim required

No truss rod tension initially needed for correct action (I anticipate that string tension will change this over time)

Finish vintage tint nitro to level of fret tang top, no headstock decal

 

Electronics

Neck pup Fender ’51 Nocaster neck A3 magnet (part no 0992109002) measured 7.1kohm, nickel/silver shielding cover, surgical rubber tube mounted, height setting 3/32in bass, 5/64in treble

Bridge pup Fender Custom ’62 Telecaster A3 magnet (part no 0056075000) measured 7.2kohm, staggered bevelled pole pieces, copper base shielding plate, surgical rubber tube mounted, height setting 3/32in bass, 5/64in treble

Controls genuine original vintage Stackpole pots from 1959 for volume and tone, with a very smooth taper (great for volume swells), scratch-free, fitted with flat top chromed barrel knobs; NOS CRL 1972 3-position pup selector switch

Jack Switchcraft 1/4in mono non-switching socket in vintage Fender cup fixture

Wiring standard pre-’67 Tele scheme (posn 1 preset bassy neck, posn 2 neck with tone control, posn 3 bridge with tone control), vintage pushback cloth screened wire. I’ll probably change this to the later scheme allowing both pups together – the preset bassy neck tone is not particularly useful and can anyway be duplicated using the tone control – and I’m sure there would have been a craze of people with older Teles changing over to it when it was introduced. It’s reported that Beck had this mod when he had the guitar, and some speculation that Page’s pups were out of phase in posn 2 (which would imply both pups were selectable together); also that the bridge was re-wound to be hotter (which would restore some otherwise lost out-of-phase output). Other common mods for Teles with the singlecoils setup are: pups selectable in series as well as the standard parallel using a 4-position selector switch (for higher output); various permutations of treble bleed circuits (actually to preserve treble otherwise lost as volume is rolled off); and tone/volume control bypass for direct output (for more of the pure pup sound – might try this too).

Tone caps 2 off Russian NOS milspec paper in oil 0.05uF

This stuff made it:

dump nats camera 020