All projects have their individual challenges. Much of this one, is obviously all about the body. I’ve done a lot of research about this particular guitar over the last year or so, and an interesting tale emerges. The guitar – a 1959 Telecaster, with a maple neck and slab rosewood fingerboard, (dated february 1958), was given to Jimmy Page by his good friend Jeff Beck, by way of thanks for his work with the Yardbirds. The guitar originally had a white paint job, and Jimmy’s first customisation of the guitar was to add several circular mirrors to the front of the body. Eventually, he took about removing the paint finish entirely – back to the original ash – before hand painting the Dragon design. Page then used the Tele extensively during the first years of Led Zeppelin, and it’s the actual guitar which he used to play the recorded solo on “Stairway to Heaven”. Most people figure the Les Paul as Jimmy’s signature guitar. For me – Page bowing the dragon-painted Telecaster is definitive Zeppelin.
The video of the 1969 performance on TV BYEN/Danmarks Radio, (Gladsaxe Teen Club), for me, is where I want to be. Sat cross-legged – four feet away from the band. How’s your hearing nowadays kids?
I know the guitar was an unremarkable Fender two piece, ash body with an offset join. Typical of 1959 construction. It’s unlikely to be a custom selected, highest quality piece of lumber. Shop standard – painting grade. First thing I need to source is a suitable, contemporary version. I want, at least, a little say in how the grain of the wood looks – so I decide to go with a body from Phil Marshall at guitarbuild.co.uk. Phil offers a service wherby you can select a blank from a choice of three offered – before he cuts and routs the body to the exact specifications you want. I order up a 1959 spec body, which should suit my purposes, and select the piece of lumber which should best work with the design – bearing in mind that I can choose to hide or show particular details in the grain, with the painted design and scratchplate.
In a previous life – as a graphic designer – I began doing most tasks by hand, in the time-honoured, analogue way – but after a computer turned up on the end of the desk, one day back in the Eighties, I began to utilise all of the developing computer based programmes, which now make digital manipulation and design, a whole lot easier. I don’t use these skills anywhere near as much as I used to – so it’s good to blow the cobwebs off, and take a virtual look at how my reproduction guitar body might work out. The first thing I can do, is overlay a 1959 Fender Telecaster outline onto a photo of my chosen ash blank – masking off the body only. As I have no clear dimensions – it’s an approximation – but assuming that there’s not too much wastage, and that the orientation of the blank should, therefore, be reasonably accurate – the representation should be pretty close. I can also show the guy who’s cutting the body, exactly what I have in mind – so he can cut it just how I want it.
So with the body on order, I can carry on with the digital tools at my disposal, and try to nail down the design into some kind of format which I can print out, and then transfer onto the body for painting. Obviously – this may all need fine tuning once the actual body arrives – but it makes sense to use Photoshop and Illustrator to help look at the design in some detail.
The first problem anyone has in researching the Dragon design is that it doesn’t actually exist any more. A friend of Jimmy’s took it upon himself to “improve” the guitar by giving it an all over paint job. According to Page the favour “completely ruined” the guitar’s look and playability, and after removing the neck to use on the Brown, B-bender he used later, he put the body away, stating that it “wouldn’t be seen again”. So, in searching for an accurate version of the design, the only pieces of source material available tend to be photographs and stills taken from contemporary film and video. Of course – there are also countless other partscaster projects built – just like this one. Each one with their own, sometimes considerable, background research. I ended up collecting as many source images as I could, in the best resolution available – putting them all together in one big, layered photoshop file. Using the various digital manipulation tools available, it’s possible to distort some of the perspective information, and to combine several images into one – averaging out the differences – masking out particular parts of each image, to eventually provide a composite, based on multiple images.
The resolution of some of the images is pretty bad, but there’s usually something – one small detail maybe – in each image which can contribute to the overall composite. Although it’s a black and white sequence – the TV seqence from TV BYEN/Danmark’s Radio ended up as being perhaps the most useful source for final comparison. There are a couple of close up sequences in which the guitar changes angle slightly – crucially occupying the entire frame – and these images can help confirm the overall pattern, quite accurately. Smaller, partial, details from other images can then be accurately mapped onto the growing composite.
Having put together a composite image in Photoshop to work from, it’s then possible to import that image into Illustrator, and then to use accurate vector drawing tools to trace over the design – to produce an approximated copy.
The colours are, at this stage, only representative. There are quite a few theories as to what paints Jimmy used for the original Dragon – ranging from Humbrol enamels, (indispensible for UK based, teenage, military model builders in the ’60’s and ’70’s), through to everyday poster paints and special artist’s acrylics. Practically, a lot will depend on how any paint will cope with being applied over the initial grain filling and sanding sealer processes. Personally, I have high hopes that casein paints might do the job. Casein paints are something I’ve used in the past for custom finishing frames. Essentially they use a milk protein based carrier. Anyone who has used wallpaper paste, egg tempera, or other organic based paint prepartions will know about the strength of protein carried pigments. They are water based, and are relatively quick drying. The paint usually bonds extremely well to slightly porous substrates. The finish is highly durable, but also nice and flat – with little gloss sheen or build up with repeated coatings. Ultimately, much will depend on the results of the usual tests on scrap pieces of ash – to make sure that any oil based finishes that are used to prepare the wood, work with any intervening water based finishes. Usually – the two don’t sit well together – but it’s sometimes possible to work in layers, using shellac as a separating barrier.
I’ll be running a few tests using various types of paint as I run through the body preparation. I usually try to keep a few test pieces of wood running in parallel with any finish processes I go through. Sometimes, (although not this time), I run with two separate versions of any particular project so that I can try out, and test, different options. It’s likely that the final chosen colours will be influenced by what each particular paint sytem has in it’s particular range – and also how factors like opacity and paint surface build up, affect the final finish. I’m intending for the final, sealing coat to be a nitro clearcoat – so any prep and paint systems will have to work with that. Obviously – a super flat paint layer for the design would be an advantage, so that only a very thin layer of clearcoat is required to fully “bury” the design.
Of course – one of the benefits of working up the design digitally, is that having developed and worked up the coloured block areas – a line drawing can be instantly generated and printed off. This can then be used to transfer the design, by hand, to the prepped body. I intend to grain fill and seal the body first – then to trace the design onto the finished and sanded wood in pencil – before eventually sealing the design under another couple of coats of sanding sealer. That should give me a good template to follow. Hopefully one which won’t get smudged as the dragon design paint is applied by hand.
I’ll go back and revise the working digital files, once I get the body delivered. I might have to tweak the layout here and there before I print off the final design. There might also be a few “fiddle factors” to play with – especially around the edge of the guitar body, and at the interface of the various bits of hardware. For example, around the scratchplate – where the artwork curves around the top of the plate. Once again. I can try and anticipate some of the issues in advance, by using the digital mock-up – but until I actually hand trace the design onto the body, I won’t be able to commit on certain decisions. It is, however, possible at this stage to work up a pretty good idea of how the guitar might eventually work out.
So, now while waiting for the body to turn up, I can do some further research on that scratchplate. It’s going to be a custom job – that’s for sure – but it’ll just about be a whole project on it’s own. I’ve already sourced, and bought in, a proper Fender Vintage Telecaster bridge – importantly drilled for “toploading”, as was the original. Thanks again to the guys at the Rhoadhouse. This type of toploader bridge was only fitted to Fender guitars for a short period – transitioning, as it did, from stringing through the bridge, to the typical through-body stringing of today’s Telecasters. The actual date of transition – around 1959 – saw a short run of telecasters produced, in which the bridge plates were drilled for both eventualities. It’s thought that Jimmy’s guitar was one of these – although it’s almost certain that he favoured the top-loading facility.
It’s a pretty unique detail, and one worth getting right. The bridge, undoubtedly, contributes a part of the Jimmy Page Telecaster sound – changing the overall string tension and reputedly providing a “slinkier” feel to the strings. To go with the authentic bridge type, I’ve also sourced some late 50’s, vintage type, string saddles, a Gotoh, vintage correct, chrome control plate and a pair of high quality, brass bodied, chrome plated, vintage type, knurled control knobs. Over the past week or so, parts have begun to be sourced. Parts are starting to arrive, and are beginning to assemble in the project box.
But then, some parts will take a while to get around to. When I got to focus on researching pickups for the Dragoncaster, I kept coming up with the same advice – the same name, as simply the best person to build the pickups. The best builder of custom Telecaster pickups out there. That man is Don Mare, and the Dragoncaster will, eventually, use a set of his Zep-O-Tone “Graf” pickups, (the “live” variant, with the beefed up bridge). That is, of course once he’s hand built them, shipped them halfway across the world, and I’ve paid the VAT and customs charges, and then finally got them delivered. It’s going to be a long wait – hence the order in plenty of time. At the time of writing – Don’s waiting list is something like four months. And that doesn’t yet figure in our various postal services, and the voyage in between. I’m not really expecting to hear much until the summer – but it’ll be a nice surprise when the pickups eventually turn up. I’m hoping the pickups will impart some serious Tele tone, and some serious Page mojo – but there’s a long way to go before I can put that to the test. In the meanwhile – there’s more than enough to get on with.