Happy Halloween from all of us at Mike & Mike’s Guitar Bar. This is the scariest costume I could come up with. Very specific audience, mind.
Happy Halloween from all of us at Mike & Mike’s Guitar Bar. This is the scariest costume I could come up with. Very specific audience, mind.
Recently I was tasked with installing two Kinman “Nasty 90” P90 pickups into this Fender ’62 AVRI Jazzmaster. Already a great guitar, I was excited to hear how the Kinman pickups changed the sound compared with the stock Fender pickups I know so well. I spent time with Kinman pickups at some convention hall guitar gathering a few years back, and although I remember liking them I think we can all agree that guitar shows are among the worst places to actually hear how a thing sounds. The prospect of demoing them in the quiet comfort of my own home was alluring, to say the least.
Generally speaking, I come away from other noiseless pickups feeling like I was given a raw deal; it seems that the trade-off for hum-free operation is the loss of some pleasant frequencies as casualties of the noise cancellation process. Yet Kinman are widely praised for their ability to retain the tonality of classic single-coil pickups while eradicating 60 cycle hum in their trademark elegant and complex manner––the Nasty 90 pickups have over 200 parts!
Hype, hearsay, or honesty? The real question is, how’d they fare?
Pretty damn well, I’d say.
Installation of the pickups went smoothly, but was a bigger job than most simple pickup swaps. While Kinman’s proper Jazzmaster pickup is a drop-in replacement, the Nasty 90 pickup has a rather tall assembly, far too tall to install without routing. I removed about 5/8” of wood from the neck pickup rout and a little less in the bridge position. The Kinman website recommends removing 10mm from each cavity, but I wanted a little more room for hard foam so height adjustment was easier down the line. Anyway, I’d rather take a little too much than to have to do the job over again.
Additionally, the dimensions of these pickups also meant that I had to remove the big brass shielding tub present on this stock Fender Jazzmaster. The deeper pickups couldn’t be installed with the tub overhanging into the pickup routs, where it normally meets up with the brass plates found beneath the pickups. I also had to remove those plates, which I made up for with some foil tape as described in my previous article. This proved only to be a minor setback.
Once placed in their respective positions, the pickups were just as easy to connect to the wiring harness as any other pickup. The fit of those lovely black covers in the pickguard was snug but not too tight. I did note, however, that the pole piece spacing was a bit slim for the Mustang bridge installed on this guitar, so the pole pieces never quite lined up with the strings. Kinman offers multiple spacing options and I suspect that the spacing here would line up perfectly with a Mastery or Staytrem bridge.
Even with the very simple installation process, the Kinman website refers you to installation guides which I did not consult, locked away in the “members area” for which I did not register on principle. It’s puzzling that information deemed to be crucial is kept out of reach of a simple internet search; in any case, nothing untoward popped up during this job.
Let me say that these pickups sounded good. As is my test for good, growly P90s, I fired up my ’79 Marshall, cranked the gain, and chugged out the rhythm part from Weezer’s “The World Has Turned and Left Me Here,” which I contend has some of the most massive sounds ever committed to tape. As I’d hoped, the Kinman Nasty 90s handled those tight inversions beautifully, exhibiting all of the colossal midrange I expect––nay, demand––from P90s.
The neck offered woolier tones while the bridge felt punchy and loud. As a guy who purposely runs bright guitars into dark amps, I did find the Nasty 90s to be a tad dark for my tastes. Even with the brightness of my ’65 Bassman piggyback, the pickups seemed to slightly favor midrange honk over treble clarity. This is the conceit of the Nasty 90 model, which the Kinman website calls “dark and syrupy” so I wouldn’t say I’m surprised or disappointed. I suspect that, were I to order a set, I’d be much happier with the standard Jazzmaster set or even the Clear or Sweet 90s models. If brightness is your bane, the Nasty may be just the right tincture.
And indeed, they were Q-U-I-E-T. So quiet, so noiseless were they that I found them a bit unnerving, as if my living room had become a vacuum. At first I even wondered if my amp was on, and it wasn’t until I slapped the strings did I realize that yes, it was on, and yes, I needed to turn down before the neighbors complained.
I would wholeheartedly recommend these pickups to anyone frustrated by the excessive noise of their favorite single coil pickups. I think that Kinman’s done a remarkable job harnessing some of the magic of classic pickups while forging their own path on the quest for tone. After playing these pickups for the better part of a morning, I quite liked their sound and response, and at one point I totally forgot that I was playing a noiseless pickup.
The extra routing required for the P90 set is off-putting both from the extra work involved, and if you can’t do it yourself, the added expense of hiring a tech. Again, this isn’t an issue with the Kinman Jazzmaster set, yet worth noting for Jazzmaster owners looking for an easy P90 swap. And at $189USD each plus shipping from the Philippines, they aren’t the cheapest pickups around. But hey, you’re not here for cheap; if Kinman’s in your sights, then you’re after something special and you’ve likely factored in a premium price already.
If you’re in the market, the Kinman set should definitely be on your list. In future, I hope to get my hands on the Jazzmaster set for a direct comparison with my other guitars.
Just One More Thing…
And if you’ll indulge me one Columbo reference, the Kinman Jazzzmaster page makes the following claim:“Kinman transforms Jazzmaster into THE BEST Fender guitar.” These pickups are great, mind you, but lemme let you in on a little secret…
C L O S E R .
Single coil pickups are the source of some of my favorite sounds on the planet. As a player who cut his teeth on humbucker-equipped instruments, I thought I had it all figured out until I stumbled upon my first good Telecaster. And when I found the Jazzmaster––rather, when it found me––I finally knew how to get that sound that I’ve had in my head since I started playing.
As good as they sound, the problem of 60 cycle hum has been and will always be persistent, though many of us who swear by single coil pickups have either simply gotten used to it. Some have even developed tricks to mitigating unwanted noise, like finding that magically noiseless spot on stage and staying put, using a volume pedal to kill your signal when you’re not playing, or adding a hum eliminator of some kind to your signal chain.
Those are all fine ideas, but in the war against noise, the best, first line of defense is shielding.
The Front Lines
Shielding the guitar entails lining the control and pickup cavities with a layer of electrically conductive material in order to reject as much outside RF (Radio Frequency) interference as possible. I say “as much… as possible” because shielding alone won’t kill 100% of the interference, but the difference between ‘with’ and ‘without’ it is staggering.
This is a must-have modification for all of my personal guitars and one that I recommend wholeheartedly to customers and friends alike.
I prefer to use foil tape over shielding paint for a few reasons, the main ones being that paint requires more than a few coats to work properly, as well as being much more difficult to test for continuity using conventional methods. After all, paint is paint; graphite particles suspended in paint have much greater resistance than one layer of foil. Plus, I just like working with foil; as Data might say, “I have become accustomed to its sensory input patterns.”
Copper tape is generally considered to be superior to aluminum, but I’ve had good results with both. While there’s no contest that copper is indeed the better conductor, I haven’t found it to be so much better that it’s worth the additional price. I plan on revisiting this in the future, but for the purposes of this blog we’ll be using aluminum.
Doing the Deed
Now, I’ve removed enough balled-up foil over the years to know that just because I find something easy to work with, that doesn’t make it so. The truth is, shielding a guitar yourself for the first time––even the first few times––isn’t an easy thing to do. Trying to cleanly line a cavity while simultaneously ensuring that all of your pieces have continuity with each other can be a maddening exercise. Here’s how I do the job cleanly and efficiently:
What You Need
-A razor blade of some description
-A multimeter to test continuity
I prefer to use a roll of adhesive-backed foil for this job, easily obtained from the hardware store of your choosing. You can also order aluminum or copper tape from most guitar parts suppliers but they normally sell it in lesser quantities and at a premium. Be sure that the foil tape you use has conductive adhesive, as many brands use a non-conductive backing that makes this job much trickier and more labor-intensive. It’s incredibly frustrating to do a nice, clean job only to discover that none of it works.
And honestly, don’t bother with spray adhesive and plain foil. It’s messy and easy to ruin.
I use the same box cutter blades I always have, but any good blade will do the trick. An X-Acto knife would be an asset here, its long handle allowing for more fine control and a better view of what you’re cutting.
I begin by unspooling an appropriate length of tape for the rout in question. I trace the shape of the rout onto the foil by firmly pressing my index finger along its edges. At this stage it’s crucial to remember that you’re tracing a two-dimensional version of a three-dimensional cavity. Take care to anticipate the way depths might change and how wires are routed through the body. Each rout will need its own tracing, and it’s important to know how they’ll all fit together.
After I’ve traced the shape onto the tape, I use my razor blade to cut it out, making sure to press hard enough to cut through the backing paper. Once satisfied with the cutout, I’ll peel off the backing and line the bottom of the cavity with it. Because the top of a rout is generally the same shape as the bottom, it’s usually a good fit.
Lining the Cavity
When it comes to lining the sides of the cavity, I prefer to use a single piece of tape if I can help it; one continuous piece of foil is always more reliable than a few pieces spliced together. I crudely measure the length of the cavity walls, then cut slightly more foil from the roll than I need. Backing removed, it’s a simple job to line the sides of the rout. I’ll then trim down the excess material for a clean look.
Leave an Overhang
Be sure to leave a bit of an overhang, preferably in the vicinity of a screw hole. Doing so ensures contact between the foil on the body and the foil that we’ll be installing on the pickguard, something which many folks seem to forget.
Don’t Forget the Pickguard
Shielding works best when it’s comprehensive, so to really get the job done, you absolutely must line the pickguard as well. Shielding the guard is a much simpler, almost thoughtless enterprise, requiring only a few strips of foil to completely cover the cavities hidden by the scratch plate. I like to completely cover the surface of the guard and then cut out the control and pickup routs.
Before you button up the guitar, it’s a good idea to double-check continuity between all of those bits of foil using a multimeter. Most have a function for conductivity, such as the unit shown here. When the probes are electrically connected to each other, the unit emits a beep, removing the guesswork and ensuring that you’ve adequately lined your guitar cavities.
If you find that two pieces of foil tape aren’t properly connected, or if you used foil with non-conductive adhesive, you can fix that by making a little bridge from one piece to the other. Cut a small strip of foil and mate it face-down to the back of a much wider piece of tape, then simply stick it across the seam between the non-conductive areas. Bam! Connection.
Once you’re satisfied with your work, reinstall the electronic components and screw the guard back into place. When you plug in again, you will be greeted with a much quieter instrument.
Speak of the devil, check this out: loose foil stapled into the control cavity. That’s a new one for me. Don’t do this either.
They say money can’t buy happiness, but scoring a deal on a roughed-up 1963 Jaguar is pretty damn close. The guitar in question retained all of its original hardware and even the case, but because it had been poorly refinished in a horribly thick, yellowed-out white, it could be had at a deep discount. I had been looking for a project Jaguar to utterly ruin for some time, so I jumped on it.
As soon as it arrived, I set about the task of stripping the finish, which had the texture of a Pringle’s chip. I sent the body off to be refinished by the incomparable Joe Riggio, whose spot-on work truly deserves its own blog post. When it came back, the Charcoal Frost Metallic finish was perfect and the aging was tasteful as well as thoughtful. Joe is one of the few relickers out there that seems to understand that old guitars started out glossy, which is one reason his finishes look so authentic.
Once the guitar came back from Joe’s, I knew that such an attractive guitar would need an equally alluring pickguard as the original wasn’t fit for my purposes. For this, I turned to Mark of Spitfire Tortoiseshell Pickguards.
For the uninitiated, Spitfire Tortoiseshell Pickguards is the most respected purveyor of vintage-style shell. Whereas many of the available shell guards on the market lack the depth and character of the original Fender celluloid guards, Mark has approached the task of recreating that swirly handsomeness as a true craftsman.
Each bespoke piece is handcrafted using a number of made-to-order options to narrow down color and degree of aging suitable to match the customer’s instrument. And even better, Mark is a pleasant sort of fellow who puts up with endless questions with an ironclad resolve. Believe you me, I tested this extensively. When you speak with him, you get the sense that he really wants you to love his work because he loves his work.
It’s Good to Have Options
When you order, the form will run you through all of the possible selections, from color to style, to the various types of relicking available. There are four basic colors––Faded Orange, Bright Red, Vintage Burgundy, and Vintage Dark––as well as a range of different pattern types; “Subtle” is a very gentle gradation from orange to red, appearing almost solid from a distance; “Speckled” is what you’d expect from most early tort guards, with more distinct patterns; “Crazy” has very pronounced, sometimes jagged bursts of color; “Solar Flare” is for the more adventurous, making a bold, brash visual statement that’s worthy of the churning, molten nature of our solar system’s bright center.
“Condition” allows you to choose the degree to which the guard is artificially aged, from new to Extra Heavy. New guards will, obviously, look brand new while the relic process becomes more drastic from there. Extra Light guards will have the patina of a closet-kept example, while Heavy will resemble a guard that’s seen thousands of nicotine-soaked bar gigs and relinquished its glossy shine long ago. If you want the premier vintage experience, you can even have them pre-warped!
In addition to those options, you’ll also see the price breakdown for pickguards, ranging from a modest $50 for white, $75 for mint, and all the way up to $230 for relic tort guards. Let’s be real: It’s true that $200 for a pickguard will seem steep to many of you reading this, and I fully understand. Like many of the toys we guitarists employ, a Spitfire pickguard is a luxury item, so if you’re unconcerned by vintage-correct looks and a 30-degree bevel, then there are plenty of other options out there.
However, I think the price point justifies itself relatively easily. For the sake of perspective, actual vintage Fender pickguards routinely sell for $300 and higher, so choosing a Spitfire guard––made to your specs and without the threat of shrinkage––makes good sense when you’re in the market. Surely, there are other options for custom guards, but none of them offer the level of detail or control over the look of the thing, only how it’s cut. The attractive nature of Spitfire’s work and the number of available colors makes it well worth the asking price.
I Went With A Burgundy
Clicking submit sends your order off to Mark, who will follow up to let you know he’s received it. Ask him some pressing questions if need be, lay down the $50 deposit, and you’re set! If it all seems a bit overwhelming, bear in mind that you’re not just picking something off of the shelf, you’re ordering unique kit custom-tailored specifically for your guitar, and this will help Mark match it perfectly.
Over the years I’ve had the pleasure of installing a few Spitfire guards, so I knew the fiery nature of Mark’s work well. Fit and finish is normally excellent, and once installed the Spitfire guard lends a certain allure to the instrument. When compared with modern tort, especially that found on new production instruments, the difference is staggering.
I ordered a Vintage Burgundy guard in the Speckled ‘60s variety, lightly aged. The time between ordering my guard and receiving it was about two weeks, which isn’t bad at all. When it finally arrived, I was floored by how vivid and bold the pattern looked in person. Deep reds and browns as well as orange-yellows were present, and the swirl was particularly lovely. I especially like how the colors seem to dance like flame in direct sunlight.
I took an immediate liking to the guard as well as the new “Thin Line” material, with white-black-white layering which more accurately replicates the sandwiched materials of vintage 1960s pickguards. The aging was also tasteful and not at all overblown like one might expect in this era of torched and mutilated custom guitars. The shine was dulled a bit, but not completely eradicated, and the edges were given a touch of a brownish-yellow hue to tone down the bright white of freshly-cut plastic.
The general fit of the guard to my 1963 Jaguar body was snug as far as the outer perimeter is concerned, better than most other aftermarket guards, too. The lines of the pickguard mated cleanly with those of the Jaguar’s various control plates, a characteristic fault of aftermarket Jaguar guards. It may be true that they’re a tougher guitar to get right––what, with all of the control plates––but Mark’s made short work of it. A couple of the screw locations didn’t line up perfectly, particularly in the treble-side cutaway. This didn’t totally surprise me, given that it’s a vintage guitar and I believe Mark uses an AV65 template. In any case, they aren’t so off that I won’t be able to mount it, but concerned parties should know that sending a tracing isn’t out of the question.
In the interest of being Fair and Balanced (remember that?) I suppose my one critique would be with the images presented on the Spitfire website. There’s a lack of consistency in lighting and quality throughout the Gallery section, where the mix of sunlit and indoor photos can lead to some confusion between the four basic tort varieties, particularly with the very different Bright Red and Burgundy where many shots imply some overlap. (see below)
Of course, these are mainly comprised of images from happy customers, which is surely a fine thing––and so many of them, too! I think even a single well-lit professional studio shot of the four styles placed together would do the trick, something that gives potential customers a better idea of what they should expect when ordering.
Twas a Very Good Year
So, how does Spitfire hold up when compared with original 1960s tort? Beautifully! It’s definitely in the same arena as vintage tort, although it does have its own distinctive look. That’s not to say it’s inferior by any stretch, but it’s difficult to quantify until you’ve seen them both side-by-side. Here’s a shot of the Spitfire next to the original guard on on Pancake, my 1961 Jazzmaster.
For lack of a better descriptor, I’d say the Spitfire is more ‘in focus’ if that makes any sense; the Fender piece has a sort of burred smoothness to its pattern whereas the Spitfire has cleaner, more defined edges to its colors. There’s also a tightness to the grouping of colors here, with yellows most prevalent in the middle of the guard, with browns and dark reds surrounding. The ’61 material more or less stays uniform throughout.
This, however, is the strength of the Spitfire: It’s a one-of-a-kind work of art, like a thumbprint for your guitar. With Spitfire, you’re guaranteed to receive something that no one else will have, something meant to enhance the visual essence of your instrument. Instead of simply rehashing the techniques of old, Spitfire’s taken them a step further. The results? Gorgeous.
Check out Spitfire and start your order HERE. Now to find time to finish this Jaguar.
When you think of a decent guitar setup, what comes to mind? Lowering action, correcting intonation, maybe giving the truss rod a good turn? They’re all components of a good setup for sure, but is that really the long and short of it? No, there’s more to it than that!
I’ve always believed that a thorough setup has to go beyond just the basics. You’ve got to take into account the whole instrument, from dressing the nut slots for the player’s preferred string gauge to even giving the tuners a quick twist just to make sure they aren’t sticking. De-gunking a fretboard, polishing frets, spraying out dirty pots, and even removing some problematic rust are often essential to making a guitar fully playable as well as functional.
Case in point, something I’ve often seen slip past the sensors is neck alignment, where the neck is tilted on the body in favor of one E string or the other. With a misaligned neck, the strings closest to the edge of the board are prone to slipping off and intonation can suffer greatly. Almost every bolt-on guitar on the market exhibits this issue in some form or another, which is commonly caused by the extra bit of play in the neck pocket that comes with mass-production. It’s an issue found on high-dollar guitars too, not just imports and affordable models like the guitar I’ll use below as an example.
Have a look at this Squier J.Mascis:
When I got my hands on this one, the high E had a tendency to slip off the fret ends, and intonation on the plain strings was nearly impossible, especially with the reduced saddle travel of the TOM bridge installed on the model. This kind of thing can even muck with string bending, as the string can be choked off as it crosses the fretboard at an angle. Also note that the strings do not line up with the pole pieces of the neck pickup!
Luckily, this is an easy thing to correct. The most basic solution is to simply pull the neck back into place. In this case, all that was needed was holding the guitar with the upper bout against my body and giving the neck a quick pull towards me, then tightening the neck bolts to ensure it stays put.
In more extreme cases, shimming around the perimeter of the neck pocket may be necessary for a tight fit. Where there’s only a little extra space, I’ll insert a shim where the neck touches the pocket when tilted. Using this J.Mascis as an example, this could mean shimming the treble side of the heel and along the bass side of the pocket to keep it in place. [See Fig. 1]
As for materials, wood veneer, cut-up baseball cards, or even discarded picks made to fit will work just fine if you’re more of a DIY fan. In the case of an oversized neck pocket, like those often found on some CBS Fender guitars, a qualified tech or luthier should be able to add material if necessary, even going so far as to add a shaped, painted shim along the bass side of the neck. Really, whatever keeps things stable is good enough in most cases.
Next time you’re cleaning or restringing your guitar, have a look at the neck and check to make sure it is properly aligned. If not, you could be missing out on a better setup and truer intonation as a result. All it takes is a little attention and experimentation to correct an issue like this one.
Hate is a strong word, and one I normally don’t like to use unless the subject is foods called “salad” which do not contain lettuce (the only exception being Fruit Salad, but why call it that when ‘Cup of Fruit’ would suffice). While I can’t call my feelings for the Buzz Stop ‘pure hatred,’ I have to admit that removing them from guitars is one of my favorite jobs.
For the uninitiated, the Buzz Stop is an aftermarket bracket for Fender Jazzmasters and Jaguars which acts as a tension bar, much like the roller bar on a Bigsby B7 vibrato. Affixed to the guitar via the forward-facing vibrato mounting screws, the Buzz Stop forces the strings against the bridge, keeping the them in place while also stopping the saddles from buzzing. Hence the name; it stops the buzz.
In theory it’s a fine idea that attempts to solve the problems so many have with the original Fender design, but it’s ultimately completely unnecessary and in many ways a detriment to your guitar’s sound and functionality. Below, you’ll find the reasons I elect to do away with the Buzz Stop, and why I find guitars without them to be better instruments for it.
1) The Buzz Stop Introduces New Points of Contact
The whole point of the Buzz Stop is to force the strings down, and in doing so invariably creates additional points of friction. The Buzz Stop’s roller bar is one of those points, and while it is intended to rotate as the vibrato arm is depressed, I’ve never encountered one that actually does so in a smooth manner. Most seem to require a bit of force to turn, more than the strings can dish out. As a result, many of the Stops I’ve removed have had grooves worn in them, which means the strings are just grinding against an immobile roller.
The second point of contact is the back of the bridge itself, a problem that Jazzmasters and Jaguars shouldn’t have to begin with. Under normal circumstances the strings flow from vibrato to bridge uninhibited; the sharp angle of the Buzz Stop causes them to dig into the back edge of the bridge, leading to tuning or even breakage issues. The less metal in the string’s path, the better.
2) Buzz Stops Decrease the Stability of the Vibrato
With its nearly unparalleled stability and smooth feel, the offset vibrato really is one of the biggest selling points of the Jazzmaster and Jaguar. But with the increased friction of a Buzz Stop, it’s a miracle when the thing returns to pitch. Anything that messes with the functionality of the vibrato is a liability, not an asset.
3) It Forces the E Strings onto the Dreaded Pivot Plate Screws
The vibrato pivot plate mounting screws which sit directly beneath the two E strings have long been a problem on reissue guitars, causing string breaks and tuning issues which can normally be cured with a proper setup and increased bridge height, or by simply turning them upside down as shown in one of the early Demystifying articles.
With a Buzz Stop installed, there simply is no hope for the strings (See above). Pulled down toward the vibrato plate, the Es are forced against those pesky domed screws. As they’re bent, tuned, or warbled with the vibrato, the screws eventually saw through the string’s finish wrap leading to sharp detuning, and eventually, breakage.
4) The Buzz Stop Alters the Guitar’s Unique Vibe
Part of the unique sound of Jaguars and Jazzmasters is the length of string behind the bridge. Like an archtop acoustic, every bit of vibration counts. There’s a fullness and a pluckiness to the tone that comes from the added string length, and the slight decrease in sustain and tension makes these guitars feel and respond unlike other solidbody electrics. It should be no surprise that I also wholly endorse vigorous picking behind the bridge for atonal, noisy fun.
With a Buzz Stop installed, you may as well have a stop tail. It effectively cancels out the length of string behind the bridge, sterilizing some of the three-dimensional resonance that make these guitars sing. And honestly, if you’re looking for more sustain or ‘better tone’ there are far better options available to you in the form of Mastery and Staytrem hardware.
5) It’s a Half Measure Response
The Buzz Stop is a product of a time when these guitars were thought of as toys rather than fully-playable instruments. Without the readily-available, conversational sources for setup and modification that we have today (including this blog and my recent Premier Guitar article) the Buzz Stop was perhaps a once-legitimate option for taming this misunderstood, often neglected offset design. Though its premise was flawed, it served its purpose.
The Buzz Stop, by its very nature, doesn’t really “fix” anything; it’s a stopgap which fails to address core issues, applying force instead of correcting an inadequate setup. All of the common complaints, from bridge buzz and string jumping, tuning stability, and unwanted string resonance are easily solved with an attentive eye, a couple of screwdrivers, and a few hex keys. Neck angle, bridge height, string gauge––all of these things are integral to the design of the guitar, some of which the Buzz Stop website actively recommends against.
With advent of the internet, players now know how to care for the Jazzmaster and Jaguar better than they ever have. Communities like Offset Guitar Forum and Shortscale.org popped up and thrived, surrounding the Jazzmaster and Jaguar with that perfect, geeky love that reminiscent of my fellow Star Trek fans, excitedly swapping tips and parts, digging into manuals and other documents to discover the proper way to work on them.
6) It’s Ugly
It is. Don’t @ me.
The Long Walk into the Sunset
Call me a pedant, call me a purist, even call me ol’ Henry’s favorite, “luddite”––I just think we have so many better options for modifying or ‘fixing’ these instruments, all of which leave the original sound and intent largely intact. And honestly, in every instance where I’ve removed a Buzz Stop and then properly set up the guitar, it just sounds better to me.
We used to joke at the old shop about a cardboard box tucked away in the back that was filled with forty discarded Buzz Stops. We’d always say “forty” for some reason––We have forty of them in a box!––but thinking back that number has to be low. Literally every time we took in a new Jaguar or Jazzmaster bearing one, off it would come, fate sealed, tossed with prejudice into said box never to be seen or thought of again. And that’s just the way we like it.
You know, I’ve heard it a million times: “Trems don’t stay in tune.” It’s a claim frequently repeated on forums and accepted as gospel among the masses. And these wards of warble, these princes of pitch, bear the brunt of that blame with a practiced stoicism, never asking that the judgement be revisited.
Flatly, the reputation is undeserved––it just isn’t true! When I’m told a guitar won’t hold pitch, the true culprit is almost always something else in the string’s path wreaking havoc on the guitar’s stability. Many players, enthusiasts, and techs don’t seem to realize that literally anything the string touches from tuner to trem can cause the very offenses placed squarely upon the shoulders of the Bigsby, Jazzmaster, Vibrola, and Strat-style vibrato systems, among others.
It’s high time the humble vibrato was vindicated, so I’m going to clue you in to a few key areas of difficulty and how to address them.
As I’ve discussed in my previous article entitled “String Theory,” the first, best preventative maintenance you can perform on a trem-equipped guitar is to make sure you’ve strung the instrument correctly. And by “correctly” I mean clean winds down the post, no overlapping, and it’s vital that you have a healthy amount of winds around the tuning post. Too few and the string won’t be able to grip the post and pitch will constantly drift. Too many, however, and the string can overlap instead of holding tight to the post itself. Check out “String Theory” for more in-depth info and some helpful GIFs as well!
It’s also important to adequately stretch the strings to help them settle in around the tuning post. I like to grip the string between the pickups and gently pull away from the body a few times, listening for a drop in pitch each time. After four or five repetitions, the strings should hold pitch perfectly.
String trees get a lot of flak for being bad for tuning, but much of it is misplaced. Oftentimes, they’re doing far more good than bad up there, increasing downward force on the nut. However, like any part that experiences metal-on-metal friction, they can wear in or become dirty over time, so check in every once in a while to make sure they’re clean and free of sharp edges.
The nut is one of the most important parts of your instrument, and one that is poorly-cut or worn can be the source of a whole host of headaches. Pinging, popping, and unpredictable changes in pitch are all symptoms of a nut in need of renewal.
Ensure that the nut slots are sized appropriately for the gauge of string being used, otherwise they could bind in the slots. Most guitars come with strings gauged .009”-.042” from the factory, but if you decide to step up even a little, the nut slots will have to be widened. If not, the nut will grip the string tightly, causing it to catch any time you bend or turn a tuning key. This is one of the major reasons for tuning problems on most guitars, let alone those with vibratos. It’s best to keep a few files on hand in gauges which correspond to your preferred string set, like the ones offered by Stewart Macdonald.
Nut slots can also become dirty after a lot of play, so it’s worth de-gunking as necessary during a string change. A slightly damp, clean cloth or even a Q-Tip run through the slots will usually do the trick, but in extreme cases it’s beneficial to use something a bit more heavy-duty such as Mitchell’s Abrasive Cord, which is available in a number of widths perfect for each gauge of string and will also smooth out any rough edges.
Just like the nut, you’re going to want to keep the slots clean but it’s also worth having a look at the saddles for wear, particularly grooves left from the winds of a string, which should be smoothed out to prevent the string from catching. In the case of bridges of the Tune-O-Matic style, the saddles often have a lightly roughed-in channel much smaller than the string itself, which can lead to breakage or tuning problems as you use the trem. Enjoy this poorly-drawn diagram of what I mean:
If this is the case, it’s best to file the saddle slot to the proper size. As long as the slot is smooth, you’re golden.
And perhaps the most important tip on this list:
Yes, friends, lubrication. If you haven’t considered that, remember that any point of contact on the string’s path means friction, and friction benefits from a bit of extra slip.
The best lubricant I’ve ever used for guitars is Chap-Stick, believe it or not. For one, it’s conveniently-sized so it fits in every case ever made, but it’s also thick enough to stay put as well as being hydrophobic, so there’s no chance of moisture getting under your strings and corroding them from the inside out. With a toothpick, Q-Tip, or even a bit at the end of a flat head screwdriver, smear a little bit of it in the nut slots, the bridge saddles, and even in the string tree.
Trust me, it works perfectly. I swear by the stuff, and if I’ve set your guitar up then there’s a better-than-good chance you’ve already got Chap Stick on your instrument. Well actually, Burt’s Bees; I’m all about that all-natch balm.
There’s no experience quite like that of a well-kept, totally original vintage guitar. It’s like opening a rift in the time-space continuum, a direct passageway to an era of craftsmanship that many claim is far behind us. The feel of an old finish or the smell of an old case is enough to drudge up memories of timeless tunes and the players that made them.
As a shop, it’s crucially important we know our stuff and that we’re able to confirm the originality of a piece. This builds trust with potential buyers, and trust is something we value greatly around here. We take pride in the stock we offer, and when something isn’t original we make sure to say so.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that “all original” is synonymous with “better” though. Let’s be realistic: any thing that comes into contact with human beings will wear and deteriorate with use, no matter how precious or well-maintained. Some parts simply must be changed as they fail, whether by age or use, and as many of our most hallowed vintage instruments reach the age of 70 and beyond, it may be time to accept the finite nature of wood, metal, and plastic. At least, those of us without infinite cash at hand.
Over the many years I’ve spent repairing, restoring, and dealing in vintage guitars, I’ve seen many examples of parts that were original but kept a vintage instrument from being fully playable, which is kind of the point of the thing in the first place. If it’s come to that, why not replace the malfunctioning part?
My personal mantra is this: Functionality over Originality.
Disclaimer: I’m about to list some parts on vintage guitars that are prone to wear or failure, and as I list them I want you to keep the Hippocratic Oath of “Do no harm” in mind. I’m suggesting that these parts be changed, but not at the expense of damaging the instrument in the process.
Disclaimer 2: Also, these opinions are those of Michael Adams alone, not necessarily of Mike & Mike’s Guitar Bar.
Disclaimer the third: except for a single case, all of these parts should be saved and kept close to the instrument in the event of future sale. A guitar with a changed part and the original included will always do far better on the market than without.
Disclaimer 4: Disclaim Harder: I still love an all-original vintage guitar.
Early Strats and Teles often used surgical tubing to mount pickups instead of the springs commonly used now. This tubing is squishy yet firm and provides adequate resistance between the bobbin and the pickguard, enabling height adjustment. After many decades, that tubing dries out and crumbles, becoming brittle and plasticky rather than the pleasantly gummy texture of its youth.
Obviously, this is no good and renders pickup height adjustment impossible. I’ve opened up too many vintage instruments to find the pickups rattling around in their mounts, the telltale yellow crumbs of tubing still in the cavities.
It’s best the replace these wholesale, either for springs or new tubing. Many aftermarket pickup makers include tubing with their wares, even. Originality be damned, there’s really not a good argument for keeping them in there.
Pickup Foam (Also Fender Mute Foam)
In my latest Demystifying article, I briefly discuss the tendency of old mute foam to degrade into a hard, sticky goop. The same is true for the foam stuffed under the pickups on old Jazzmasters and Jaguars – that stuff is disgusting. Once the foam turns to tar, it no longer allows the pickups to be adjusted, and it leaves residue everywhere, including your hands. If left in its place, it can damage the other parts it’s stuck to, so it really is best to toss this stuff the moment it’s discovered.
When your original foam turns to a gummy blob, it’s time to forget about being original and replace that stuff. Don’t even bother keeping it. Nobody’s going to be excited to find a bag of guitar jerky in their case.
Rusty or Stripped Screws
I don’t know about you, but I have a soft spot for the patina of an old guitar, especially when hardware takes on a dulled nature. I find nickel and gold hardware especially alluring as the plating wears and oxidizes.
All of this stuff looks great, but once rust takes hold of screws they become more of a nuisance than anything. Stripped pickup screws take the fun out of functional, while rusty, frozen saddle height screws defeat the whole purpose of them being there in the first place. If a pickguard screw turns to ground cinnamon when you try to remove it, it’s best to simply replace it.
If you’re concerned about gleaming new screws looking out of place on your guitar, there are plenty of places to find aged hardware these days. Keep the old parts in a bag, tuck them in the case, and move on with your life.
Folks make a big deal about original frets, and I get that; In many cases, such a thing speaks to the quality of care the guitar experienced over the years. To contrast, a sloppy refret is a good indicator that the guitar’s been mucked with in some other way.
Original frets are a nice thing to have, but that doesn’t mean the guitar will play any better. Like anything else, frets wear over time, and at the very least they’ll need a good dressing. Too often guitars are advertised as having “plenty of life left” when they’re actually on the deck with deep grooves from a chord masher.
Personally, I don’t balk at a good refret except in cases where I don’t like the fret size used, like putting Dunlop 6000 on a Musicmaster or something. I count a quality fret job as a good thing, one that ensures my guitar will be playable for years to come. Even Pancake, my beloved ’61 Jazzmaster is at a point in its life where those original frets are just too low, and I’m a guy that likes them low to begin with. I’m loathe to make changes, but even I have to admit that new frets are the one thing that will make this guitar even better than it already is now. And so, that’s exactly what’s going to happen this summer.
Going back to the idea that a guitar should be functional, electronic parts can and will fail with age and use, they were never designed to last forever.
Now, a crackling, dirty pot can––and I’d argue should––be first be addressed with some contact cleaner. However, if the pot’s sweep is nonexistent or it just won’t pass signal any more, replace it. Don’t even trip, just get it out of there!
With so many options for high-quality components like Emerson, Bourns, and even tighter tolerance CTS pots, this is one decision that’s easy to make. And as I’ve said before, keep those components if you sell. Sometimes a pot can be salvaged by dismantling and repairing it, but that’s a lot of work for a relatively small payout.
Vanessa said some exceedingly kind things about my old 1973 Precision Bass the other day, and you know what? It is a fantastic bass. Out of the many basses I've played from every year of production, this one remains my favorite out of the lot. And I really enjoy seeing it pop up any time I search for beat-up basses, too. Caught it on Talkbass last night in a thread on distressed finishes among a bunch of other killer basses, some of which I've played! I love this bass! It's one of two instruments I absolutely cannot sell. #guitar #bass #fender #vintage #sunburst #fenderbass #fenderguitars #precisionbass #pbass #worn #distressed #1970s
To Re- or Not To Re-
It’s a hard thing for non-guitar oriented folks to understand, but a worn finish doesn’t mean it needs to be redone. I remember the first time my parents saw my beat to hell ’73 Precision Bass, my dad cried out, “That needs new paint!” It took the better part of the afternoon to explain that no, the finish is fine and even desirable to some just as it is, and no, I’m not going to touch it.
Still, there are cases where a refinish is a perfectly acceptable and possibly necessary thing to do. If the guitar in question had a previous owner that just didn’t know better and decided it would look great in his favorite color of latex paint, that’s a good candidate for a refin. Has contact with a reactive strap or cable in the case left worm-like marks all over the face of your guitar? Is your instrument a casualty of the 1970s brown stain and brass nut fad? Friend, you’ve got yourself a ticket to any color you want.
A finish that’s simply worn, I’d leave that alone, but one that’s been intentionally ruined deserves restoration. If you’re currently considering a refinish, I’d urge you to have the work done by a qualified professional, and preferably in the style of the guitar’s era of manufacture for the sake of resale value.
It all comes back to functionality, doesn’t it? Old tuners are no exception.
If your original tuners just aren’t holding tune, or if they’ve become hard to turn or locked up, it may be time for replacement. Obviously, lubrication goes a long way, so try that first. Barring maintenance, there are many modern tuners to chose from, most of which come in aged finishes and won’t require modification to your instrument.
On a side note, I can’t stress that last bit enough: don’t modify the headstock of your vintage guitar to install new tuners. If your guitar uses push-in bushings, stick with the same for the new set.
A changed part can be controversial for sure, but if the swap is done carefully and the original part is tucked away, then it shouldn’t negatively impact value. It will, however, positively affect the instrument’s usability. And in the end, that’s what matters to a player. Let the collectors have the pristine examples!
bfvc (My dog typed this accidentally, but I thought that was cute so I left it)