Mini Kotzen Telecaster
Headless Travel Guitar Heavily Inspired By Richie Kotzen Telecaster
After we built the Mini LP, I liked the idea of travel guitar but couldn’t get used to the feel of the tune-o-matic bridge and warmth of the all-mahogany guitar, so I sold it. With lessons learned from that project, I decided to kick it up a notch and try building a very different travel guitar. It would be heavily inspired by Richie Kotzen signature Telecaster, but headless. I never liked the sound of neck single coil pickup of Telecaster, so I originally planned to omit it, but at the last moment changed my mind and added a routing for another single-sized humbucker. In contrast to my other guitars, this was going to have a thicker, but narrower neck, similar to some Telecaster models (Baja), but still slimmer than the gigantic Kotzen neck. I really liked Steve Lukather signature Musicman neck shape which has a very nice soft V shape that is very comfortable, so we used it as a starting point and made it slightly ticker to push it towards the Kotzen territory.
Richie Kotzen Signature Fender Telecaster
The key component of any headless guitar is the bridge/headpiece system. Because they are not as common as typical Strat or LP bridges, they are often rather expensive and sometimes hard to find. Also, every maker has their own idea how a headless system should work, so they are all vastly different. The design of the headless system greatly affects the design of the whole guitar. I went back and forth between several different options, but eventually got the Hipshot system. Click here for more information on the system.
One thing I hate about most headless guitars is the “butt-crack” behind the bridge/tuners that is necessary to make to make it possible to tune the guitar. Putting a headless bridge on a full-sized body means that we need to get rid of a lot of wood behind the bridge and would result with a huge butt-crack. To minimize the effect and to make the guitar travel-friendly, we shrunk to body to the point where the crack is just deep enough to keep the tuners tucked inside and prevent them from touching anything.
- 20% smaller than original Telecaster and 40mm thick alder body with bookmatched flame maple top, cream binding and two tone sunburst finish. Belly cutout and armrest are added for improved comfort. Body outline is changed to include a tuner cutout behind the bridge and I also made the part or the body near the output jack round rather than flat. I hate that on original Telecasters.
- Asymmetrical soft V shape neck, 23mm thick and 41.5mm (1 5/8″) wide at the nut. The center line of the back profile is offset very slightly towards the bass side of the neck making it more comfortable to hold (refer to neck profile drawings below). Made of quartersawn maple with a separate piece quartersawn fingerboard and wenge skunk stripe.
- Hipshot headless system.
- DiMarzio Chopper pickup in the bridge position and DiMarzio Fast Track 1 in neck position.
- Dimarzio 250K push-pull pot for volume control with Kinman-style treble bleed circuit.
- 3-position Gibson-style toggle switch.
- Jescar FW57110-EVO Gold frets.
- Traditional neck joint.
- Threaded steel inserts in the neck heel and allen bolts to make it easier to disassemble many times without the risk damaging the wood.
- Gold hardware.
- Bone nut.
- “Football” style jack plate instead of the traditional Telecaster jack.
Flat side around the output jack – yikes!
Click here to download the PDF blueprint of the whole guitar.
Click here to download the PDF drawing of the neck profile.
Traditional Tele neck pickup like DiMarzio Twang King has very low output, much less compared to the Chopper. I wanted a pickup that balances the Chopper better and decided to use another rail humbucker in the neck position. In full humbucking mode it can deliver more power, but can also be coil-tapped in case I need lower output single coil sound. After a lot of back and forth, I bought a Fast Track 1 which is a DiMarzio recommended match for the Chopper. It’s similar to the Cruiser that Andy Timmons uses but a tad warmer and hotter, which should be a good thing as I didn’t want this guitar to sound like a Strat either. Pickup selector switch is wired the usual way, combining the two pickups in the middle position. To maximize the range of tones, the push-pull is wired to split both pickups, giving three new tones – bridge single, neck single and two singles together (noise canceling). I was on the fence between this function of the push-pull and trying to do series/parallel switching like Kotzen Telecaster, but went with this because it covers more ground.
To make the middle position hum-cancelling in split mode, I had to flip the order of coils in one of the pickups and combine two coils of the opposite polarity. This doesn’t affect the sound of the pickup in full humbucking mode, but it affects which of the two coils is engaged when in split more. DiMarzio people confirmed that the two coils are not wound symmetrically on their rail pickups and they will sound differently. The south coil of the Chopper measures a bit over 5K while the north coil is slightly more tame at around 4K. With Fast Track 1, the south coil is a bit weaker, measuring around 2.5K compared to around 3K of the north coil. In split mode, the Chopper engages north coil and Fast Track 1 engages south coil. Opposite polarities of the two coils cause noise-cancellation when combined together.
Although I started the project as a simple, cost efficient one-pickup guitar, I got carried away with the finish and just had to do it all the way to my liking. The first complication of the build is that I wanted to have a contoured body, like the Kotzen model, which makes it more difficult because the maple cap needs to be bent to follow the contour. The second complication was that I wanted to have cream binding around the whole body and that can be a major pain to do on the contoured body. My father did most of the routing with the router, but the contoured part needed to be done by hand. Installing the binding is also trickier because arm rest contour needs to be made from a separate piece of binding material and then joined seamlessly with the rest of the binding.
The rest of the details were not problematic and we’ve done it before. The body is stained in black and than sanded down removing most of the black stain. What little of the black remained helps to bring out the figure of the flame maple. Then it’s stained with Stewmac vintage amber liquid dye to get the base color I wanted. Then we shipped it offsite to get a sunburst and clear coat(s).
As far as the neck goes, it’s got small green abalone dots (they work great with the gold frets and gold hardware) and we stained it with very, very diluted amber dye to make it appear aged. I’m not a fan of pale white maple necks, they remind me of cheap guitars 🙂 . Ideally, aging dye would be mixed with clear coat, but I wanted to avoid complications and did the aging on the wood directly. Although it works, it’s not absolutely perfect because wood does not take the stain uniformly. Any figuring in the wood will take more stain than the rest of the surface making them a bit darker. Headstock logo is laser engraved.
We started with a nice 2-piece alder body blank, planed to the right thickness.
Then we roughly shaped the body and carved out the arm-rest. With the help of moisture and a heated iron we bent the maple top to follow the contour of the arm-rest and glued it to the top.
Following that, we roughly carved out control cavity and neck pocket using a router.
The body is sanded down into the final shape, control cavity and neck pocket are finely routed, binding routing is done and bridge pickup hole is routed. Originally I planned to have it as a one-pickup guitar, but was worried that I’ll miss the neck pickup, so we later routed another hole for the neck pickup.
In the meantime we took the finest piece of quartersawn maple for the neck and for the fingerboard. Most makers make maple necks from a single piece of maple, but we intentionally used a separate fingerboard blank to improve stability. Multi-piece necks are always more stable than those made from a single piece of wood.
I really like the look of skunk stripe on maple necks, so we installed it and shaped the neck into asymmetrical soft V profile. Note how the thickest part of the neck is shifted very slightly towards the bass side of the neck.
To finish the neck, we installed the small green abalone dots, slotted the neck for nut installation and engraved the logo on the headstock.
To ensure that the neck can be easily and frequently detached and attached without doing the damage to the wood, we made threaded steel inserts that are screwed in the neck heel.
Inserts are slotted so they can be screwed into the neck heel where they would stay permanently. The 4 neck attachment bolts will go through the body and then into the metal inserts, avoiding any wear on the wood.
Since there’s no room to fit an original Tele control plate on a small body, I had to make a custom plate that’s smaller and has one potentiometer hole and one switch hole. Luckily, custom stuff is not awfully expensive in Serbia, so I was able to find a company who made a solid brass plate based on my drawings and another company who gold plated it, together with the 4 stainless steel neck bolts.
To make the final assembly easier and to allow experimenting with pickups, I made a solderless harness on the control plate. The “jelly bean” on the left is epoxy sealed Kinman-style treble bleed circuit. I did not have a 1.2nF capacitor at hand so I made one by combining 1nF and two 470pF capacitors.
This turned out to be the best travel guitar we built so far. It’s portable and light (weighs only 2.6kg or 5.7lbs) and even though it’s not as loud played unplugged as my other guitars, it sustains as good or better than my other guitars. Hipshot headless system works pretty well. I reviewed it thoroughly in a separate article, but the short version is: string changes are relatively easy, it’s light, tuning is smooth and stable, it’s comfortable to play and looks amazing.
Coming from the world of thin and wide necks, it took a few days to get used to the thicker and narrower soft V neck profile, but it gets better every day I play it. It’s comfortable and fills the hand nicely, especially when playing with the thumb resting on the top of the neck. As expected, with the smaller body comes the smaller cutout, so it’s not as easy to reach the highest 2-3 frets as it is on a normal sized body. That’s the only drawback of the smaller body that I found. We did the setup that allows for a fairly low action and pretty straight neck, making it easier to play legato runs similar to Kotzen.
I’m also happy with the electronics. Chopper and Fast Track 1 are perfectly balanced and work great on their own and combined. They sit right in the middle between Strat, Tele, LP and modern guitars. There’s more power than Strat/Tele, but not too much. They are not harsh, but also not honky or muddy. Enough output to push the amp hard, but still can clean up nicely. Very usable sound that can be shaped to do pretty much anything. Splitting the coils roughly halves the output and adds some sparkle to the tone, so it can be used as a clean/drive or rhythm/lead switch.
And finally a couple of photos of the finished guitar.