How do you build a 36’ by 16’ three-dimensional guitar with a budget of around $3,000?
I know you’ve probably been wondering about this, so, I thought I’d describe a project I did a few years ago. “Every Kid’s a Rock Star” was the theme for a gala that raised money and public awareness for INOVA Fairfax Hospital for Children. This semi-annual event was a more playful and kid-friendly show than your typical fundraising gala. Shaun Simonides and Susan Keenan were co-chairs and during the run of that event, we did all sorts of whimsical themes. One year I designed and built a 1960’s set with a walk-thru VW bus entrance and a giant three-dimensional peace sign on the stage:

VW walk through entrance unit
Giant three-dimensional peace sign with huge tie-dye backdrops

Another year, I did an outer space theme with giant planets on the stage and funky, colorful air tubes snaking through the ballroom. 2006 was the 10th anniversary of the Hospital - a landmark year, so, Shaun and Susan wanted to do something really special. Newt Gingrich was the Honorary Chairman. Paul Green was to provide the entertainment. If you don’t know who Paul Green is, he is the inspiration for the movie “School Of Rock”. Even though Paramount won’t admit it, the Paul Green School of Rock Music in Philadelphia was the original School of Rock. Students from the school formed rock bands and gave concerts all over the country. Shaun and Susan had recruited them to be the entertainment for the INOVA Gala that year, so they wanted to do something extra cool.

The budget for this project was always very minimal. Let me say something about that. The budget should be minimal… the whole point is to raise money for a really important cause and most of the money raised should be going to the cause – not to the designer, or the caterer, or the florist, or the hotel or even the performers. Too often these events are a pageant of pomp and display, but yield nothing for the targeted charity. It pains me to see these excessive, glitzy galas and then find out, that the whole production (which may have cost in excess of 100K) only raised about 2K for the cause, after expenses. I may be cutting my own throat, but I’m in this business because I care about the issues that I’m working for and would rather not do the event, if it isn’t meeting fundraising objectives. Having said that, my company does have serious expenses and I can’t do anything at all, if I’m not getting paid something. I do one or two donated events every year. That’s my way of giving back… but in between those donated events, my company has to meet its’ overhead. So, my niche in this industry, is to find economical, cost-effective ways to put out something that looks monumental and creates a buzz of excitement, but doesn’t infringe upon the fundraising goals of my clients.

Building a giant guitar would be one thing if the project was financed by the Hard Rock Café and there was a six figure budget. I might have the luxury of months to build it. Then, I could draw up blueprints and use materials like fiberglass and foam resins. I would weld together a metal skeleton and make it structurally indestructible. It would be strong enough to withstand hurricane-force winds. I could have it hoisted in place with a giant crane. Yeah, well, that’s me dreaming. In my business, the budgets are small and there is very little time to turn projects around. Despite that, the product has to look good. At an event, nobody cares about how much time or how much budget I had – they only care about what is right there before their eyes.

That’s when I ask myself, “Should I stay, or should I go?” I did want to build the guitar and I imagined, it would look awesome at that event with the School of Rock band. I figured, if I could keep materials below 1K and, if I could build it in about 7 to 10 days, after about $750 for overhead expenses, $400 for install help at the event, $300 to rent a truck, that would still give me a little bit of a cushion to pay myself a modest salary and cover any unforeseen expenses. So, I decided to do it.

As I brainstormed about the design, I took a few practical things into consideration. The guitar had to be portable – and therefore, modular, so I could break it down and drive it to the event venue in a truck. The pieces would need to be small enough to go through a loading dock, up an elevator, and into a ballroom. I would assemble the pieces on the job site. It had to be lightweight enough that I could move it by myself or with one helper. I’d need to use inexpensive materials like: luan (thin ¼ “ plywood – about $8/sheet) and 1” by 3” boards to frame it, lots of liquid nails, spackle and joint tape, sand, screws, nuts and bolts, and paint …. The one expensive thing I’d have to buy was bendable plywood – but, only a sheet or two.

So, here’s how it went: Day 1… My design was based on the iconic Fender guitar. I took my sketch to a copy shop and had it copied onto transparency paper. Back at my studio, I fastened the sheets of luan to the wall. The luan was arranged in a pattern that would cover the size and shape of the guitar. I separated the guitar into three groupings: body, neck, and head. I used an over-head projector to enlarge my sketch onto the luan and I traced the shapes with a marker. Then, I took the sheets of luan down and, using a jig saw, I cut out the shapes. This was the “face” of the prop.

Sheets of luan attached to my studio wall with guitar design projected …
Bottom left section cut out and traced to make a back panel.

Day 2… I took all the pieces outside to the parking lot and fit them together like a big jigsaw puzzle. I carefully measured and ….uh oh!! …the neck of the guitar was at too steep of an angle. I had it pointing at 2:00 on a clock dial – which would make the guitar stand 22’ tall. The ceiling height in the ballroom was 16’ – so, I had to make a quick field modification. I cut a wedge out of the bottom two pieces of the body to make the angle of the neck tilt down to 2:30. I re-measured and that brought my height down to 16’.

Next, I took each luan shape and traced it onto another sheet of luan to make an exact copy. I had to do this because the prop would need both a “Face” or front side and a back side. I wanted the back side to be open because I needed to be able to reach into the prop and bolt sections together. So, after I cut out the copy of each front panel; I went back and cut out the middle for the back panels by following the contour of the shape about 3 inches in from the outer edge.

Day 3… It was time to make the guitar three-dimensional by connecting the front and back panels. I used 1” by 3” boards. Normally, I would want to use a hard wood, like poplar, so the boards would be straight and strong. But poplar is a lot more expensive, so I used a medium quality pine for this project. To make the guitar 20” thick, I pre-cut a bunch of 1” by 3”s at 20”. I used my pre-cut pieces to connect the front luan panels to the matching back luan panels. Then, I strengthened the structure by adding cross pieces, support beams, and liquid nails to make each individual section structurally solid.


Day 4… I covered the sides of each shape by using bendable plywood on the curved areas and luan along the bridge where the sides were straight. I finished off the edges by using spackle and spackling tape. Day 5… I added details and accessories. The reverb bar is a piece of conduit bent at the end and wrapped with white duct tape. The knobs were made out of two luan discs with 1” by 3” supports and bendable plywood on the side – just like the rest of the guitar. I used reflective mylar to make the circular shapes behind the strings. At hardware stores you can buy cable at varying weights – so, I used 6 different thicknesses of cable to express the different weight of the guitar strings.

Day 6… I started to assemble the pieces. I used “C” clamps to hold the sections together as I drilled holes for nuts and bolts. Once I had the body pieces bolted together, I put some sand bags in the base at the bottom to anchor the prop. You can buy sexy, gourmet sandbags from an AV/ theatrical supplier … or, you can save a lot of money and get bags of play sand at a hardware store. I wrapped the bags of play sand into garbage bags and then sewed them into canvas sacks. It worked well. I used a few hundred pounds of sand…four bags of play sand to anchor the body. I also used pipe uprites with 24” bases and strapped them to the back of the guitar body for additional support.

The guitar neck needed additional support

Since this was a low-budget project, I didn’t design it with a structural skeleton. When I started to attach the neck pieces, I knew I would have to support the long, heavy span of the neck and head of the guitar. It may not look heavy, but there is a lot of weight on the neck and head of the guitar. I used another metal uprite as a sort of “spine” for the neck. This worked perfectly because the adjustable uprites have an inner pole that can expand as I added sections of the neck. With the pole anchored in the guitar body, it stuck out at the point where the neck connected to the body. I put on the first neck section by sliding it onto the “spine” uprite. Then, I clamped it to the body and drilled the holes for nuts and bolts. The neck piece was still too heavy, though: I could feel it drooping and pulling at the guitar body. There was too much tension on the bolts, so I used yet another uprite and base coming up from the floor to give it additional support from the ground. I cut a hole in the bottom of the neck section and slid the second uprite into the neck. With supports coming from the guitar body and from the ground; the guitar was stable. Next, I pulled the “spine” uprite out a little further and slid on the second section of the neck. I used another uprite to support that section from the ground. I repeated this process for all neck pieces and for the guitar head section. I camouflaged the uprites by covering them with a black sleeve and hung black drape behind the guitar.

If are unfamiliar with the pipe system from Innovative Systems, you should check this equipment out. It’s not structural in the way that an “I” beam is – but for the event business, it is really useful.

Each uprite includes a set of aluminum tubes with the inner tube extending upward and locking into place as it telescopes upward.

A set of ball bearings inside the collar of the mechanism holds the inner pole firmly in place.

When you push up a set of tabs, the ball bearings release the inner pole and it slides back down.

Day 7… Before painting the guitar, I brushed on a coat of primer and let it dry. Next, it was time to breathe life into the giant prop. I could have just painted it red and white without any shading. But if I had done that, it wouldn’t have the effect of light shimmering across a fiberglass body. It wouldn’t have hot highlights and reflections ….. Without that, I don’t think the prop would look really three-dimensional … it would look like a giant, wooden hockey puck in the shape of a guitar. For me, painting the prop was the most important step. Since the guitar prop doesn’t have rounded edges like of a real guitar, I tried to create that illusion through the painting process. The hard, front edge of the body contour was the biggest problem. I made it disappear by adding shading and reflections to the red body. I mixed a sequence of reds from the deepest burgundy to hot pink. I blended the colors to create the illusion of a guitar with a rounded body. For the white areas, I mixed shades of blue, painted it with relatively dark values, and gradually brought out the white reflections. I went back into the red body and using pure white, I dry-brushed strong highlights where the light reflections burned intensely. I painted a faux wood grain effect to capture the texture of the neck and guitar head.

Here’s what it looked like at the event:

You can see the uprites that I used to support the neck and the guitar head. Sleeved in black, they disappear against the black drape. This photo is from a low perspective. At a normal viewing level, you can not see the uprites sticking up above the drape.
Up close, you can see the seams between the different sections of luan panels…but from a distance they are barely visible.

I barely broke even when I built this guitar. However, after the original construction, I have been able to rent it out a few times. For many of my projects, I think about the income a prop or backdrop will generate over its lifetime, rather than expect a sizeable return on its first gig. In the photos below, it was installed in a parking garage for a rock concert at Gallaudet University:

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