Don’t be a slow poke, Mr. B. Angels don’t wait for slow pokes.
— BioShock little sister.
Back in 2007, Irrational Games released their critically acclaimed first person shooter, BioShock. In February of 2018, I wanted to build a guitar, and decided that BioShock’s most iconic character — Big Daddy — would be my inspiration for the build.
BioShock takes place in the 1960s, in the ruins of the fictional underwater city of Rapture, a disemboweled capitalist utopia meant to free its citizen of political oversight and social/religious interference, allowing them to just focus on their creative endeavors, in pursuit of personal gain. ADAM, an elixir capable of manifesting super-hero-like powers, was a prime example of the type of advancements that could be made in Rapture. It also lead to the cities downfall. Prolonged consumption of ADAM had some nasty side effects. Violent insanity. Incurable addiction. There’s probably some social commentary about consumerism to be dissected here, but that’s for another post, not written by me.
Bizarrely, It’s actually possible to reclaim ADAM from the recently deceased. Even more bizarrely, it turns out that the best way to reclaim it is to genetically engineer and brainwash little girls for the task. The little sisters, their official job title, carry around this giant brass needle and poke away at the dead bodies that litter the streets of Rapture. The biggest problem with this approach to ADAM reclamation is the vulnerability of the girls. Being all of nine or ten years old, and possessing the infatuation of hordes of tweaked out splicers, little sisters need a protector. The Big Daddies are the solution to this problem.
Inspired by the dive suits used for salvage in the late 1800s and the early 20th century, Big Daddy is a hulking beast of tarnished brass and weathered canvas. Wielding a giant auger of a right arm, if you even look at a little sister cross-eyed, Big Daddy will mess you up. This was the aesthetic I wanted to achieve in the Mr. Bubbles guitar.
Oh, by the way! Mr. Bubbles was the nickname the little sisters gave to their Big Daddy. Hence the project code name.
I can’t remember what exactly got me interested in building guitars. I played guitar when I was in high-school. Badly. As many do. But, I didn’t play much in college or thereafter. A couple years back we moved into a home with a basement that I turned into my office. Having this space where I could play without disturbing my family or the neighbors made me want to pick up the guitar again. I bought a used ESP and got a nice Vox amp. I started practicing with the Yousician app on my phone, which immediately triggered the obsessive game player inside me.
At some point during my musical “renaissance” I started getting interested in how the guitar works. As I mentioned, I can’t pinpoint an exact moment when I wanted to build a guitar. I think it was a slow accumulation of curiosity. I remember wanting to learn a song that required drop tuning. But, my strings were too light for the tuning. I was concerned about installing heavier strings and whether or not that would ruin my guitar in some way. That lead to some internet research and deep diving on forums. So, maybe that’s the root of all this. It’s not all that important, I suppose. At some point I decided I wanted to build a guitar and started researching exactly what that entailed. What I discovered was, there’s a ton to building guitars! Wood working. Visual design. Finishing. Basic circuit theory. Hardware installation. Setup. Audiophilia. It’s an amazingly diverse collections of disciplines to learn and master. And I found it fascinating. I needed to give it try.
I also don’t remember why I was inspired to build a guitar based on Big Daddy. I just thought it would be cool, I guess. But this decision informed my goals for the build. The guitar needed to look weathered and beaten to shit. Like it had been through a thing or two. Like its inspiration. It also needed to look like it belonged in Rapture, not just a guitar paying homage to the video game. It had to make sense in the universe. For the time period we’re talking about (late 50s, early 60s) that really only left two choices. It either had to be a Les Paul or it had to be a Telecaster. Rapture is very industrial, with a glaze of chique. There’s lots of steal and brass and concrete paired with red velvet rugs and drapes. It’s all about commercialization of vision. All this rings Telecaster to me, for some reason. I can see a spliced out musician in a bunny mask hacking away at me with his Telecaster strapped to his back. I can’t say the same for the Les Paul. And, since the Telecaster is credited with being the first commercially successful electric guitar, it aligns with the spirit of Rapture.
With my goals defined, and knowing I wanted to build a Telecaster, I set off on figuring out what I needed. Being my first build, I needed to limit the scope of the project. I couldn’t possibly do this from scratch. I didn’t know the first thing about building guitars. Of course, that’s part of the fun, but I didn’t need to learn everything in one build. I figured out what exactly had me excited about building a guitar and focused on that. I was excited about the finish work, the assembly process, wiring of the pickups and the final setup process. Those were the big, “How do I do that?” questions bouncing around in my head. This made it clear that I should start with a guitar kit that gives me everything I needed.
I purchased a Telecaster kit from a company called BYOGuitar for about $130. It came with everything. A mahogany body. A maple neck. Pickups. All the hardware. Everything I needed.
I started by focusing on the finish. This was so much fun. For the body, I experimented mainly with acrylic paints and application methods. I actually turned it into a family activity. I bought a bunch of Basswood boards from Michael’s and my wife, daughter and myself set to figuring out the best finishing process. We used sponges, bubble wrap, tinfoil, anything we could think of to simulate weathered brass and metal. My daughter still loves to tell people how she discovered the perfect rust color for Mr. Bubbles. She loved it.
I ended up landing on a combination of sea sponges and a sponge that you would use to wash your car. As I was writing this I realized there really wasn’t another choice for a Rapture themed guitar. Sea sponges? Come on, that’s the only possible choice. Anyway, the sea sponge does a really nice job on creating the weathered markings you see on metal as it ages. And, the synthetic sponge does a great job of muting and blending the paint together. For the color palette, I went with a mix of my daughter’s rusty brown, gold and a blue that looked like the patina you would find on aged copper. There’s actually not a lot of blue patina on Mr. Bubbles. But, being under water, Rapture has a lot of blue highlights that reflect off the Big Daddies. I wanted to capture that.
One of the unexpected results of this finishing process was that the body of the guitar was left with a texture. It’s not smooth. It actually feels bumpy and rough like you would expect a weathered piece of metal to feel.
For the protective finish, I went with nitrocellulose lacquer. I bought a spray can of Mohawk flat finish, which was more than enough. A warning on nitrocellulose. It’s brutal from a fumes perspective. Make sure to spray it in a well ventilated space, and wear a respirator. It’s really bad for you. I underestimated how potent the fumes were. I could’ve used more ventilation.
Next, I set out to age the hardware. Shiny, brand new chrome just wouldn’t cut it in this case. I started out by hanging a couple of the ferules in a mason jar with a little bit of vinegar at the bottom. This actually works. After a couple of days the ferules were completely covered in rust. Unfortunately, after wiping off the rust I realized I still had shiny chrome underneath. It seemed like it would take a really long time to eat through the chrome to a point where it looked weathered. I was pretty impatient, so I got some sandpaper and just started scratching away at the chrome. I then took the scuffed up hardware and put it in a Tupperware container with a shot glass full of vinegar. This did the trick. I even got a nice patina on some of the pieces.
The final piece that needed to be aged was the neck. Again, I turned to vinegar. But in this case I first dissolved a steel wool pad in the vinegar. After letting that mixture sit for a couple of days, I had this really gross, rusty concoction that I applied to the neck. Note that this is probably not great for the wood. I wouldn’t recommend it on any super expensive woods. But, being an inexpensive kit, I was fine with risking it. And the end result was exactly what I was looking for. The maple really darkened up and worked well with the overall aesthetic of the guitar. I finished the neck in Tru-oil, which gave it a subtle satin finish and feel. I love the feel of Tru-oil.
In general, this build went really well. Since the initial assembly, I’ve swapped out the tuners for some locking tuners. I scuffed those up, too, but didn’t finish them in vinegar. I was concerned about the vinegar corroding the gears. They’ll just have to age naturally, which is already starting. It doesn’t take long once you scuff up the chrome.
I also replaced the pickups with a set of Tonerider Hot Classics, which sound great. The last thing I want to do, to finalize this build, is to replace the plastic pickguard with a tooled leather pickguard, one that looks just as worn as the rest of the guitar. That’ll be the final piece to a really fun, successful build.