Future Conan O'Brien

Customized Fender Stratocaster

When I was invited to have an exhibit at Brandstater Gallery, I decided to show a retrospective of my life’s work from my first commercial efforts in the 1980s up to my mysterious disappearance in the year 2075. I had to bring a fair amount of future work into the here and now. It gave me a chance to work on a lot of things that I haven’t yet been hired to do. One of the projects that’s long been on my wish list was customizing a guitar.

From the get-go I knew I wanted to use gold leaf. I’ve been fascinated with it going back to the Piccolo Principe project and the 344 Skateboard. But who should be the person commissioning this guitar? The show was a chance to do exactly what I wanted to do, and to do it for my perfect clients. Why not do something for Conan O’Brien? He’d started his Late Night Show just as I arrived in the United States, and I’ve been a fan ever since. The man makes me laugh, he’s known to be a good guy, and he’s a guitar afficionado. Conan was a perfect fit for this tricked out six-string!

There are projects that I approach with a great deal of deliberation and prep work. I’ll make a lot of sketches, I’ll think about the ins and outs of the production process. This wasn’t one of those projects. This was one of the other ones, where I proceed strictly on jolly hubris. Because really… painting a guitar… how hard could it be? I marched myself down to the nearest Guitar Center and started looking for the right axe to rescue. I alighted on an old Squier Stratocaster that was in nice condition, but wasn’t so precious as to be intimidating. 

I took it home and started playing around. My original plan was to tag the guitar with Daily Monsters. This plan failed almost immediately. There’s not enough room on the damn thing for a big shape. I didn’t want anything fiddly. This guitar had to work on stage, it had to look great from a distance. For a character design I should’ve bought a Gibson with its big open space behind the bridge. This is where some advance work would’ve paid off. But then, where’s the fun in making a plan and sticking to it? This was an R&D project. Time to research and develop.


Step 1: Take guitar apart without taking notes on what parts go where. That’s what Google is for.

After some sketching I decided to have a goldleafed body with a fat black racing stripe going down the length of the guitar, including the neck and headstock. Not just black. Matte black. Murdered car black. Tim Musso at the gallery suggested Montana Black, the choice for graffiti artists everywhere. Good enough! I strapped on my respirator and went to work.

I hung the body and neck in my garage and got to spraying. I wiped the parts down with a rag first. That was the extent of my prep. And the paint went on beautifully! The finish was coarse, like the slightly rough metal surface of old lab equipment. It looked gorgeous. This was going to be easy. Not counting drying time, I’d estimated about two days for the project, so I was happy that things were humming along. 


With the black coat on the guitar I was ready to add the gold leaf. I masked the pick guard and the body, and sprayed on a special gold leaf glue called “sizing” to cover the top and bottom of the body with solid gold.


I’d designed a special C O’B crest for Conan that would live between those two gold blocks and to the left of the tremolo bridge. My initial plan had been to transfer the design with tracing paper and pencil and then brush on the goldleaf glue freehand. Happily, I had help from designer Maureen Perry, who owns a digital cutter that could cut precision masks instead. This would make the whole process a lot easier and the result much cleaner. I took the design apart into different stages. We’d put on a base layer of gold, and then apply partial masks to create dimensionality with fine layers of black spray paint.


We applied the base mask, I sprayed on the glue, and applied the gold leaf. This is a wonderfully satisfying process. It’s literally sheets of gold that lay down all nice and smooth and shiny. It feels like magic. Once the glue has had a chance to dry, you brush away the excess gold, and your design remains, crisp and clean and perfect. Except… the rough surface of the black that I loved so much also made it impossible for the gold to stick evenly. So this happened instead:


Some parts didn’t stick at all, while others became forever one with the finish. I tried to rub off the ruined crest, I even tried some gentle sanding. No dice. I tried lifting the gold leaf off with Scotch tape. It wouldn’t budge. I tried heavy duty packing tape that I burnished into the gold, hoping to effect a transfer. Which it did. Now the crest was covered in tape goo. It was time for more sanding and another layer of paint. 


The first thing that happened at this stage was that I ruined the nice sandy finish of the first coat by laying on too much paint. Now the paint got the dreaded orange peel texture every online paint tutorial warns against. I also got some paint on the gold parts, and some of the gold was starting to come off. And the crest? I don’t know if it was the gold leaf glue, or the gold leaf itself, or if it was that layer of packing tape goo, but the crest rose up through the new layer of black like a ghost poodle in a pet cemetary. 


It was obvious that I’d have to start over. But first I wanted to have a plan for the second attempt. Might as well run some paint and glue tests on the body before stripping it. Maureen kindly cut me a few more masks for the crest, and I painted on the glue with a brush instead of spraying it. Maybe having more glue on the guitar would make the gold adhere better. I still think that’s probably true. Unfortunately, the glue bled beneath the mask, creating a complete mess. We tried the same thing again on a different part of the body with a stenciling brush, but got the same result, except with added bubbles. Plan or no plan, it was time to strip the damn thing if only for catharsis. 


At this point experience kicked in. That’s why I was ready to start over instead of spending more time trying to fix things. Experience also told me that I should simply buy a new guitar or order a replacement body—preferably one of unfinished wood. The original guitar had cost $80 and time was growing short. But I hate tossing material that can be salvaged, and I do own a hand-held power sander. I went back into my garage. 

Of this I have no photos. If I did, you would see days of futility. Sanding did nothing. The black paint would heat up and gunk up the sandpaper. The gold that had been coming off the guitar if you looked at it wrong now reacted to sanding by forming an unbreakable bond with the paint and wood. I tried sanding by hand, and all I had to show for it were cramps in my arms and hands. 

Online I’d read that the way to strip a guitar was to get a heat gun. I have a hair dryer. Turns out that these are not interchangeable tools. I went to the hardware store to buy a heat gun. “Heat gun? No, no, no. You don’t want that. You want a chemical stripper.” I do? “Oh yes! This stuff is great. Totally biodegradable, non-toxic, but it’ll eat right through to the wood.” It will? “You bet!” I bought a bucket full of the stuff and slathered it onto the wood. It looked like the guitar had been dipped in ectoplasm.

24 hours later I was ready for my miracle. I wiped off the stripper and… nothing else. The paint was entirely intact. Hardware store guys don’t know shit about gee-tars, man! I went back and bought the damn heat gun. That took care of business. Blasting the body with intense heat and scraping off my paint and Fender’s lacquer was viscerally satisfying. With that done I still had to sand down the original sunburst finish. At this point I didn’t want to take any more shortcuts.

Word to the wise, it would’ve been easier, faster, and cheaper to buy a second guitar and use it for parts. Live and learn. 


This time I’d do things right. I smoothed out the wood with fine grit sandpaper. The parts designated for gold leaf I left raw, the rest I primed. We were getting close to opening day, and I couldn’t afford another do-over. Maureen and I figured out a way to feed masking tape into her cutter, so we could even mask the Conan crest. That way we’d have a better shot at getting the gold leaf right. 


When the masking tape came off we noticed that the black paint had significant depth to it. We came up with a plan: We’d adhere a solid square of gold leaf to a sheet of paper, attach a sheet of positionable mounting adhesive to the back of the paper, and then have her digital cutter make us a C O’B inlay sticker. It wouldn’t be as elegant or durable as bonding the gold directly to the wood, but we felt that it might actually work. There was no more time for mistakes.


On the rest of the body the gold-leaf went on like a charm. Stripping the guitar down to the wood turned out to be the exact right thing to do. Not a big revelation to any woodworker, I’m sure, but I was pretty excited about it. There were still spots that were giving us trouble, flaking off repeatedly, but by then I’d given up hope of a production quality guitar. I needed a solid prop for the show, and we were getting there.


Miraculously, the sticker idea worked like a charm. The thing fit right in, and stuck perfectly. Thank the Rock Gods for small favors. We used the same technique for an extra little touch I’d planned for the 12th fret. We cut the Gotham CONAN logo into tiny stickers and placed them, so that each letter would be bordered by a pair of strings. I finished that field of the fretboard with clear lacquer to further offset it from the rest of the neck. Now it was time to reassemble the guitar.


I’d ordered all kinds of replacement hardware to complement the new design: black pickup covers, gold and black tone and volume knobs (from a Telecaster), a gold cover for the jack, a black tremolo unit, and gold machine heads. Hell, I even ordered black and gold screws. All this stuff had been arriving in tiny packages from all over the Amazon Marketplace for a few weeks. I just piled up the unopened Jiffy Packs so I wouldn’t lose any of the parts. 

This was another mistake. When I was finally ready to put the guitar back together the night before installation, parts were missing. Some I could get from Guitar Center, but not all. Crucially, I’d ordered gold machine heads for a 4-and-2 configuration—four tuning pegs on one side of the headstock, two on the other. What I should have ordered were six in-line tuners. And there was no way of getting them in time. It was time to play dirty. I was able to cannibalize the 4-and-2 tuners for their gold bearings and shafts. For the rest I bought a can of gold paint, grabbed a pair of pliers and got busy spraying. I’m still proud of the little drying station I rigged up with a cardboard box and a hole punch.

Oh, and of course the black screws didn’t arrive, either. You’d think those would be easy to find at any hardware store. You’d be wrong. And my time was up. I ended up dipping the screws in model paint and filling in the slots with a brush after insertion. You do what you have to when it’s showtime. Having a faith-based inventory system was probably not the way to go.


The last big step was adding white pinstripes. I’d done some paint tests inside the neck joint. They hadn’t turned out well, so I decided on automotive pinstriping tape instead. The tape wasn’t a walk in the park either, what with the beveled pickguard, but I got it sorted out in the end. Magically, the whole thing came out looking beautiful. Seeing it all together for the first time was a serious thrill. I took a many, many photos.


The guitar didn’t have the totally pristine yet heavy duty finish I’d had in my head, but that was the beauty of the show title—“Everything Is Going Exactly As Planned” indeed. I simply changed the gallery label to say that this guitar was merely a prototype. In the future the finished instrument will be on view at the Conan O’Brien presidential library in Boston. 


I carried the guitar to Riverside in my old practice case as if it were a collection of Fabergé eggs. Gallery director Tim Musso cut a special mount, so that the guitar would appear to be floating in its lucite case. Which he also assembled from scratch. Sometime around 3am. I was there. I saw it happen. Insane. But not as insane as scheduling two days for this build. The whole thing ended up taking about six weeks. How any store can sell perfectly finished new guitars for less than $100 is beyond me. Hats off to the people who do this for a living! And to Maureen and Tim for helping me with this crazy little project. It was a journey. I hope I’ll get to take it again. Perhaps with the help of trained professionals. In the meantime, I hope that this guitar will eventually find its way into the hands of President O’Brien.


One more for the road. All the really great looking photos on this site—like this one—are by Jason Ware. Further thanks to Michael Glenwood for the “Strat O’Caster” name!
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