The Squier Vintage Modified Bass VI: a 100% Pun-Free Upgrade Guide

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My Squier VI lounging with Paul Frank’s amazing Custom Shop model, strung with Gabriel Tenorio strings

While Fender’s Jazzmaster and Jaguar seem more popular than ever, the Bass VI still seems mysterious, or at the very least, under-appreciated. Players seem confused by its mere presence in the catalog: Is it a bass? Is it a guitar? Is it a baritone?

Let’s clear up the confusion right now: The Bass VI is a bass guitar in the strictest sense. Tuned E to E a full octave lower than a standard guitar, the VI is an incredibly versatile instrument that’s as well-suited for familiar chord shapes as it is for punchy bass lines.

Right now, the easiest way to get into a VI is the Squier Vintage Modified model. Fundamentally a great instrument, the Squier VI ticks all of the right boxes for me: it has Jaguar-style pickups and the all-important fourth Bass Cut switch, it’s affordable, and it’s damn fun to play. We’re still talking about an import model, so if you pick one up and find it lacking, I’m here to provide a handy upgrade guide to the “ba-VI” of “VI-sessfully” upping your Squier’s “VI appeal” into a machine for making “mu-VI.” (My deepest apologies for how poorly those puns worked.)

The first mod I’m going to suggest can hardly be called a mod at all, but believe you me, it’s crucial.

STRINGS

Far and away, the most common complaint with current Bass VI models is that the low E string lacks tension. You’ll hear it described as “floppy” or “sloppy,” and those adjectives sum it up nicely. It feels unbalanced and just can’t stand up to aggressive picking.

The problem with your Bass VI’s low E is thanks to a too-light gauge of string. When Fender released the Bass VI in 1961, the standard set was made up of strings gauged .026”-.095”, and that .095” is key here. At some point in the recent past, the low E string changed to .084” which is woefully under-built for the task. A .095” E is going to feel taut, stable, and will gleefully accept heavy attack, whereas the lighter string ends up feeling, well, just as described in the paragraph above.

In my view, the most essential mod you can perform on your VI is installing a heavier, more balanced string set. Even without upgrading the bridge or swapping pickups, this very simple and easily overlooked tweak can tighten up the whole instrument and bring back the low end that’s so sorely missing with the stock strings.

Because this information doesn’t seem to be collected anywhere, here’s a handy shortlist of string makers that offer a good set of VI strings with adequately heavy E string, which I’ll update as I stumble upon them. The only set Fender currently offers is gauged .024″-.084″, sadly.

La Bella (Flats and Rounds)
Kalium (Rounds, tons of options)
Gabriel Tenorio String Company (Rounds and Gabriel’s new Ground Wounds)

Or, if you want a genuine set from the 1960s

BRIDGE

A '62 Bass VI that I recently fell in love with at the Fretboard Journal Summit, courtesy of Gryphon Stringed Instruments

An original ’62 Bass VI that I recently fell in love with at the Fretboard Journal Summit, courtesy of Gryphon Stringed Instruments

If you ever have a chance to inspect a vintage Bass VI, you’ll notice that the original bridge is much wider than the one found on most reissues, which is just a standard offset bridge slapped on likely due to the costs of tooling-up for such a niche item. That original 1” width is a big part of the Bass VI functionality puzzle, which translates to more flexibility when it comes to intonation. Original examples have nearly twice the saddle travel as the current part, and with the Bass VI’s 30” scale, every little bit is precious.

The stock Squier VI bridge

The stock Squier VI bridge

The bridge found on the Squier Bass VI is essentially the same as the other VM offsets, save for the adjustable Mustang-style saddles, which have deep grooves and the ability to set the radius of the strings to match the fretboard. It does, however, have a propensity to rattle around so much that even correct offset setup techniques may not quell it. (See my Demystifying series for more info)

What to do? Track down an original bridge from the 1960s or 1970s? Nah, Staytrem’s got you covered with their fantastic and appropriately wide Bass VI bridge. If you’re looking for a stable bridge that’ll intonate for sure, this is the way to go. I have a Mastery on my personal Squier, and while it does intonate perfectly for me, your mileage may vary depending on string gauge and type as well as setup.

TREM

img_8743As I mentioned in my recent article on the J.Mascis model, if you’re planning on using the vibrato you really should upgrade this part. Import vibratos are made of inferior metals and often have manufacturing flaws that render them less stable than their US-made counterparts.

A great solution here is obtaining a Fender AVRI/AV65 vibrato, especially if you’re on a budget. I’ve chosen the Mastery Vibrato for my own specifically because of the heavy-duty spring Mastery uses, which replicates the sturdier feel of early 1960s units and really stands up to the extra tension of those thick strings.

 

NUT

As you might expect, the nut work on these instruments is passable, but not great. The soft plastic used wears easily, and the slots are often too tight even for the string gauge used at the factory. I’ve also seen a number of them with poor string spacing, but hey, I don’t expect perfection on a sub-$500 instrument.

I highly recommend having the nut replaced by a competent tech in the material of your choice; my preference is bone. And for those of you that use the vibrato, a properly-cut nut is your best defense against tuning issues.

ELECTRONICS

The electronics in the Squier Vintage Modified series are, understandably, on the cheap side of things. I’ve seen and heard of a number of VMs that had wiring issues or faulty parts right out of the box, so if you’re going to be using this instrument heavily I would insist that you have the instrument rewired with higher quality pots, switches, capacitors, and even replace the jack while you’re at it. Not only will you end up with an instrument you can really trust, you’ll also have better sound as a result.

Look to CTS, Bourns, or my good friends at Emerson Custom for pots, Switchcraft for the jack and switches, and any number of options exist for capacitors. Most of these parts can be found via AllParts or Angela.

Note: US parts will require enlarged holes on the volume-tone control plate.


PICKUPS

While I confess that you can get by with the Squier in its stock configuration, let’s be honest: there are better pickups out there. They’re a little trebly, a bit noisy, and too weak on output to keep up with other basses. It’s well worth your time to explore the myriad pickup options that exist in today’s market, but where to start?

Star Trek stickers optional, of course

Star Trek stickers optional, of course

In my mind, Curtis Novak has his finger firmly on the pulse of offset guitars’ unique capabilities, and he’s the first person I bring up when a customer has a specific sound in their head. From traditional sounds to obscure designs stuffed into familiar covers, Curtis excels at wringing every last drop of tone from your instrument.

For Bass VI, he offers both the early ’61-’62 Jack Bruce-style pickups and the Jaguar-style pickups that came as standard on the model from 1962 onward. However, if you’re looking for something different, I’m sure Curtis could wind up a trio of his Jaguar-sized Lipsticks, some unique Gold Foils, or even something humbucking if you’re that kind.

Another good option would be the fantastic pickups made by our friend Jaime of At The Creamery. He offers a VI set with much higher output than the stock pickups, and with custom options if desired. Jaime does exceptional work!

On my personal VI, I started out by building a set out of three Fender AV65 Jaguar pickups, which I really like. They’re affordable and great-sounding pickups for the price, but ultimately, a little too bright for my tastes. If you need a good Tic-Tac sound, this would be a great way to go. If you create a set out of three separate pickups, do pay attention to output in each position as well as polarity to make sure they all play well together.

Currently, my VI is loaded with a set wound by our good friends a Lollar Pickups, which have a bump in midrange and output, and they really keep up with my other instruments no matter the setting. Plenty of bass on tap and clarity through any amp. I’m a huge fan of Lollar Pickups.

TUNERS

Prepare to be amazed: there’s no good reason to toss these. The Kluson-style tuners you find stock on the Squier VI are great. On the many examples I’ve had across my bench, I have never found them to be problematic. Keep them.

LINE VI

When Squier introduced their take on the VI, I was immediately excited. At the time, the VI wasn’t an instrument I was keen to spend a lot of money on, simply because I didn’t think I’d be using it heavily. Squier made that sound accessible and did so with a lot of bang for the buck. When you mod this instrument, it isn’t so much a lipstick-on-a-pig scenario, you’re genuinely taking a good instrument and making it better.

My VI and '73 Precision, just after we got back from tour.

My VI and ’73 Precision, just after we got back from tour.

To that point, I recently joined my good friends Vanessa and Sarah, a duo better known as Leo Leo. The LA-based contemplative rock-pop outfit plays complex, beautiful music that’s as energetic as it is challenging; they are one of my favorite bands. When they asked me to tour with them on bass, I have to admit that I was overjoyed and overwhelmed, especially with just a week to learn ten songs. It was a lot of work, but I’m so proud of the noise we made together at those shows.

At the center of my bass sound: my trusty Squier VI. I plugged into a borrowed Salvage Custom board (thank you, Gabriel!) populated with pedal necessities run through a mini SVT. Night after night, that thing performed beautifully and never let me down. Even as we rehearsed, it became clear that the VI was the sound. It proved to be such a bruiser that next time, I may leave my ’73 Precision Bass at home.

Each time I took it out of its case, I was immediately greeted with questions from perplexed onlookers that wondered about my weird bass. I showed it off proudly and handed it over to person after person, none of whom could believe what they were playing was a lowly Squier. There was only one occasion before a show where a churlish bassist chided me for playing––and I quote––a “piece of shit.”

I’m happy to say that I proved him wrong that night. I’m proud to play my Squier.

Here's how that Squier looked the day I recieved it. (Thanks, Nate!)

Here’s how that Squier looked the day I recieved it. (Thanks, Nate!) See below for a post-mod comparison.

This one's getting a TON of use in the @leoleoband set for the tour that starts—holy shit—tomorrow. Now, the weight of this Squier Bass VI never bothered me until we started this hours-long rehearsal process, but at the end of the night my back is screaming at me for relief. I think it may be time to look into a real '60s VI refin or something, that is of course assuming that the band wants to keep me! 😁 I also wish it were brightly-colored, but eh, such is life. Upgrades: -Lollar pickups -Fenderparts mint guard -Mastery Bridge + Vibrato (thanks Woody!) -upgraded wiring -La Bella Deep Talkin' Flats -Matching headstock #guitar #bass #bassvi #leoleo #tour #masatour #makeamericashakeagain #squier #fender #offsetguitars #lollarpickups #masterybridge #fenderparts

A photo posted by Michael James Adams (@puisheen) on

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When Relics Go Wrong: A Cautionary Tale

Whether or not you’re a fan of the look of so-called “Relic” instruments, the appeal is certainly there and well-represented in the guitar market. Day after day, there’s a new “old” guitar on my favorite gear site, touting authenticity and that same feel as well-used vintage instruments at a price that’s usually many thousands less.

IMG_0458Relicking–and etymology will back me up on that spelling–is a divisive topic in the world of guitars and guitar ephemera. Some argue that it’s disingenuous, that scars should be earned and not faked; others admit that it’s a feel-thing, and many unabashedly love a good relic and to heck with what anyone else thinks.

Me, I’m right there in the middle. Good fake wear can look great, but bad fake wear looks, well, terrible. I mean, there are some truly awful relic jobs out there, and while I won’t call any out in particular, I would point to my next statement as the only thing I’m prepared to say about the visual aspects of artificial aging techniques:

When ageing a guitar, a bit of mindfulness goes a long way.

And that goes double for functionality. I’m not here to argue over looks. What I care about first and foremost is making sure that making guitars look old and used doesn’t impede the viability of a given instrument. Have you ever tried to remove a fake-aged screw from a pickguard only to have the head snap off on the first try? A bridge saddle you couldn’t raise because the saddle screws refused to budge? A set of relic tuners were tough to turn even with extra lubricant applied? I’ve had to deal with all of the above on more than one occasion.

I recently recently worked on a Jaguar, one that was exceptionally well-made and superbly playable, yet it had one fatal flaw: because of the over-the-top nature of the rusty parts, the tension adjustment screw on the vibrato was frozen to the spring retainer, rendering proper adjustment of the vibrato impossible. Frustrating, to say the least.

FullSizeRender(8)No matter what I tried, from DIY suggestions of white vinegar or Coca-Cola, soaking it in WD-40 overnight, even a number of other high-concept solutions, I just could not free the screw from the set nut. Eventually, the tension screw broke in half from all of my hopeful twisting, but we planned on replacing the entire spring assembly anyway. There was no way I was going to call a job finished when the thing couldn’t be adjusted.

The true irony of this situation is that these parts don’t rust like that on vintage guitars. Even the most beat-up, weathered vintage Jazzmasters and Jaguars we’ve had through the shop never exhibited this problem. That’s not to say it’s impossible, but for a shop like ours to specialize in these instruments and yet never encounter an example of such drastic corrosion is telling.

If you’re going to age a guitar artificially, it’s important to remember that, while a rusty screw might look cool, ultimately the part has a job to do. Functionality should always be priority number one.

There’s also the matter of relicking parts that are not meant to rust, like the Mastery Bridge. A feat of engineering by our good friend Woody, we’ve praised this bridge on numerous occasions. While we also adore and respect the original bridge design, the Mastery is nonetheless our favorite option for upgrading if one is so inclined.

Woody designed the bridge specifically so that it wouldn’t corrode. The Mastery website even has this to say: “Every part of our bridge is precision machined out of the highest quality, non-corrosive materials to protect against any rust.” So, when I see these bridges being artificially aged, I just don’t get it. I mean, sure, I understand that a new part on an old-looking guitar might seem out of place, but going so far combats the fundamental design of such a bridge. And while Mastery Bridges will certainly collect their fair share of dirt and grime from heavy use, I have yet to see one rust out so drastically.

Plus, the Mastery Bridge didn’t exist until 2008, so simulating 60 years of wear is anachronistic, and Federation temporal agents will be very cross with you indeed.IMG_7619

In many cases that have come across my repair bench, such a process renders this amazing bridge less functional, and sometimes, unusable. At this very moment, I have a lone Mastery saddle tossed aside in my parts drawer that can’t be adjusted thanks to overzealous ageing techniques.

So I ask intrepid fakers everywhere to please consider the consequences of extreme relic processes on the instruments we choose to make “old” lest we become like the lamentable genetic engineers of Jurassic Park. Heed the grave words of Ian Malcolm:

“Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

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Upgrading a Squier J. Mascis Jazzmaster

FullSizeRender_1As you can imagine, I get asked about mods all the time. Recently, my new friend Brent brought his Squier J. Mascis model to me to hear my impressions of it and the many potential upgrades he was looking to have done. As-is, the JMJM is such a good guitar that many players don’t see the need for new pickups or hardware, but given the cheap price he paid and his needs, it totally made sense to do the work.

As I said before, the JMJM is a pretty cool guitar for the money. The neck feels great in your hand, the stock pickups are alright, and it has all of the right electronic appointments a Jazzmaster should have. Still, there’s room for improvement. Let’s jump in, shall we?

Tuners: Actually, these are good enough that I don’t see the need for a swap. As long as know how to string a slotted post correctly (string goes in the hole, 3-5 wraps) they work just fine. Great, actually. Even on my Squier VI!

Pickups: The stock units are pretty decent, but they are indeed P90s instead of Jazzmaster pickups, with big bar magnets and adjustable poles, with a tall coil that’s wound hot. If you want a real Jazzmaster sound, you’re not going to get it from those. Plus, as far as P90s go, I just feel there are better ones out there. I recommend a swap.

Electronics: On this particular instrument, I didn’t totally rewire the guitar. Generally, the one area where the current Squier builds fall short is the dependability of the electronics, which often develop shorts due to sloppy wiring or inferior parts. Instead, I went through and checked every wire and re-flowed some particularly bad connections. I do, however, recommend gutting the electronics and starting fresh with better components.

AOM/TOM Bridge: If you’re familiar with us, you’ll know that the AOM/TOM is the bridge we least recommend for offset guitars, both for sound and setup. Adjust-O-Matic/Tune-O-Matic bridges generally aren’t the correct radius for the most common Fender necks (7.25” and 9.5”) and even with heavy re-slotting of the saddles, it’s not always possible to totally correct that. As a result, the E strings will always feel more stiff than the others.

Additionally, even these bridges don’t always address the most common complaints with the original style bridges: buzzing and stability. This bridge already had some pretty nasty buzzing going on, which was mostly cured by re-seating the saddles. A shallow slot on the low E saddle meant that string impulsively jumped out with heavy picking as well. 

I recommend a change here, but obviously, your mileage will vary.

A Mastery bridge is almost always my first pick here, which does indeed require pulling the old AOM/TOM inserts, filling the holes, then re-drilling. Staytrem also makes a drop-in thimble replacement for these, so do keep that in mind if you’re looking for something less, well, surgical. They also used to make a drop-in replacement, but I can’t seem to find it on their site. I may be interneting improperly.

The Vibrato: I won’t totally rehash my arguments from our prior blog post on the quality issues of import vibrato units, but suffice it to say, if you’re a heavy trem user––hell, even a pedestrian––you should consider an upgrade here. Tuning stability is key, and the sloppy fit of the internals on these can be a nightmare.

In this case, we went with an American Vintage Reissue trem from eBay user trickedoutguitar, which came with the correct AVRI arm with the ever-so-lovely, gentle bend. Mastery also makes a delightful trem of their own, which I recommend highly for truly intense users.

IMG_8439So, when we finished our assessment meeting, I made my list of recommendations known. With Duncan Antiquity Is, a Mastery M1 kit, and an AVRI trem, I felt we’d pretty much covered everything. Obviously, the Mastery and pickups can be a significant investment for such an affordable guitar, but Brent wanted a guitar that would meet his needs without having to think about it ever again. Good call, says I.

After doing all of that and a proper setup by Yours Truly, I really believe we made a good instrument great. The difference in tone, unplugged and amplified, was immediately apparent. Whereas the guitar sounded pretty good plugged-in but was rather dead acoustically, the superior fit of the Mastery bridge and thimbles really made the thing come alive. And the trem? Smooth and immediate, and of course, stable as hell.

When I’m asked about my favorite Jazzmaster pickups, I always recommend Lollar, Novak, and Duncan Antiquity Is, the latter of which I feel does an excellent job of approximating the sound and response a 60+ year old black-bobbin pickup. In the case of this JMJM, we ended up with a brand new guitar, the sound of which belied its youth. Really a stunning pickup set. It has so much of the warmth and midrange complexity that’s associated with the best old pickups, woody and natural as can be.

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Brent’s finished Squier J. Mascis pictured with Artoo and Pancake

We came so close to that sound that I decided to do a comparison video of the J.Mascis  Squier up against my 1961 Jazzmaster “Pancake”, which is the greatest guitar I’ve ever played. This was all rather last minute and I didn’t yet have a proper microphone, but the iPhone did a good job showing some of the more overt differences between them. I even threw in “Artoo”, my 2007 Thin Skin with Lollars for fun. Check the video below!

In the end, Brent was absolutely blown away by his guitar, and so was I.

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New Gear’s Resolutions: 10 for 2016

DSC01741_2 - Version 2-impEarlier this week, my wife and I sat down on our all-too-comfy couch to look back on the year and make plans for the next. 2015 was crazy, right? But it was good to take stock of 2015 and have hope that 2016 might be full of more surprises. And while making my personal list of resolutions with joy and sobriety, I started thinking about the world of guitars and guitar-related ephemera.

2015 had some ups and downs just like any other year, from Gibson’s calculated-yet-consumer-pleasing move to return to their roots as far as robo-tuners and the like are concerned, as well as the sadness of losing greats like B.B. King, Lemmy, Chris Squire and others. So, while looking back at this crazy year, I started wondering about what resolutions I might suggest for the world of gear in 2016, and here’s what I’ve come up with. Feel free to add your own in the comments!

10) Let’s Be More Helpful

There is nothing I love more than seeing musicians helping other musicians come up. Whether it’s a recommendation that helps another guy or girl land a gig, or a shop like ours stepping in with spare equipment when something unexpected happens, the guitar community can truly be wonderful. Let’s keep that up!

9) Realize Competition Can Be Healthy and Friendly

I am so thankful for our fellow guitar shops in Seattle. Every time we attend the SEATAC Guitar Show, one of the first things everyone does is get together, shake hands, check out each other’s gear, and maybe, buy and trade a few things. In fact, the most fun we’ve had at a guitar show was going out for drinks with our good pals at Thunder Road Guitars. We spent two hours swapping stories, marveling at acquisitions we made, and plans for the future, and we did so while laughing our asses off. Frank and co. are great people, and they run a tight ship over there. We have the utmost respect for them!

And that’s not to mention the many, many other shops we partner with to get gear sorted out. We all visit each other’s shops, catch up, recommend when we don’t have a particular part or piece of gear available, and treat each other with respect. It makes the whole gear chase even more absurdly fun than it is already!

8) Let’s Celebrate Artists Before They Die

When we suddenly find ourselves mourning a beloved musician, it’s common to see tributes popping up all over the place, and that’s great. Of course we should celebrate the life of an artist and how their work affected our own. Sometimes I come away from it all wondering how cool it would have been to do that before the tragedy.

Yes, it’s impossible to predict the future, and in the case of music legends, they’re plenty celebrated as it is. B.B. King was universally known as “king of the blues,” and rightly so. Two weeks before he passed, Lemmy had his 70th birthday party at Hollywood’s Whiskey A Go Go with friends and fans alike, which included a performance.

But what about Ben E. King or Percy Sledge, two greats that I haven’t heard anyone talk about in a long time up to their deaths in April. I mean, I get it; staying relevant as an artist certainly contributes, but if you sang “Stand By Me” or “When a Man Loves a Woman” respectively, that’s worth remembering and honoring.

I think, personally speaking, if I like a piece of music or an artist, I’ll make sure I say so.

7) Try Some New Things

You my favorite thing about playing the guitar? The fact that, while you can be a technical master or a fretboard wizard, there is literally always something new to learn. Maybe you sat down to practice a scale and accidentally held the pick wrong, but now you’re getting a sound you didn’t expect. Perhaps a friend left his Whammy pedal at your house and that 4th/5th setting is inspiring the hell out of you. This year, I discovered how to bend strings behind the bridge on my Jazzmasters, enabling some super-authentic pedal steel bends. It’s a lot of fun, and I’m still figuring out how to use it effectively, but it keeps me going.

With the guitar, the ocean of musical possibilities is vast, and if you’re ever stuck in a rut, it’s relatively easy to find ways of snapping yourself out of it. Try a new pedal, buy a pick made of stone, change up your string brand, twist your amp knobs in new and terrifying combinations, maybe pick up a cheap guitar that would drive tone snobs crazy.

6) Stop Labeling Gear by Musical Style

There is no such thing as a “country” guitar or a “surf” guitar, but some people seem to believe that you can only play certain styles on certain instruments. That’s silly.

I’ve had my mind blown by an old man playing squeaky-clean country on an EMG-loaded Schecter. I once saw a girl that made the wildest noise-rock I’ve ever heard with a ‘50s Gibson ES-125 with P90s. One of my favorite punk-metal players of the ‘90s used 100% stock American Standard Telecasters and sounded heavy as hell doing so. I remember reading an article by a guitar guru where he wrote, “You can’t play blues on a Jaguar.” Bullshit! Hendrix did it. Or better yet, let’s throw jazz into the mix! Google ‘Joe Pass Fender Jaguar’ and you’ll bring up some incredibly smooth tones coming from one of the finest players on one of the most misunderstood instruments ever.

The point is, you can literally play anything you want on any guitar. In an age where everything is at our fingertips, for every person saying “you can’t play x music on y guitar” we can find hundreds of examples of someone doing that very thing.

5) Down with Blanket Statements

Going hand-in-hand with the last point, I’d like to add that many of the oft-repeated maxims we hear in the gear world are not always true, and hard opinions are often just that: opinons. Stop me if you’ve heard these before:

“Adirondack is the only good top wood.”
“Squiers suck.”
“Ugh, ‘70s Gibsons are the worst.”
“Long magnet PAFs are better than the short kind.”
“The Prequels were bad movies.”

I think we’ve all heard these time and time again, and thanks to the internet, they spread like wildfire through forums, sparking arguments and pissing contests at guitar shops around the globe. Here’s the thing: sometimes, you can see where some of these things come from.

For instance, are 1970s Gibson guitars bad? Well, it’s true that when Norlin took over, quality control did suffer, and things like three-piece necks and heavy woods make them less desirable to collectors than their 1950s and 1960s counterparts. All of that is true, but does that automatically make them bad guitars? Not at all! Go try a few out and you might be surprised.

The simple truth is, there’s more than just one good wood for a guitar top, Squier had some great models (like the Vista Series) and is making great guitars these days, a good guitar is a good guitar no matter when it was made, some pickups sound great regardless of magnet length, and the Prequels weren’t––well, okay, so that one’s true.

4) Stop Equating Gear with the Skill Level of a Player

Too often, musicians are ridiculed because of their “budget” or “substandard” gear. Just because you can’t afford a $3,000 vintage guitar doesn’t mean you’re a bad player. Some of my favorite bands use cheap gear, and they’re great players as well.

Example: Don’t really care for Epiphone guitars? Totally valid opinion! I applaud your experience and would love to hear your thoughts. Roll your eyes at the kid toting an Epiphone case to a gig? Think using anything less than a real Gibson means they aren’t real musicians? That’s a ridiculous assertion, and I hope the kid you’re talking about is better than you.

3) Stop Telling Bass Players They Can’t Use A Pick

Seriously, just stop. You can’t even talk about playing bass anymore without someone screaming “REAL BASS PLAYERS DON’T USE PICKS!!!” This old argument is almost as tired as the word “tone” these days.

See also, Carol Kaye, Paul McCartney, Lemmy, Noel Redding, Chris Squire, etc. etc. etc.

2) Stop Comparing Your Skills to Others

When I had students, one thing I heard come out of the mouths of frustrated novices was “I’ll never be as good as ____.” Not only does something like this needlessly discourage the student from realize his or her potential, it’s also a fundamental misunderstanding of the way music and art actually work. My answer was always this:

“Music is a grid, not a ladder.”

When we speak about something abstract like skill level, I think we tend to over-simplify and visualize the thing like a straight line, a progression from point A to point B, measuring our success like a ruler.

Creative outlets, however, don’t work like that at all. Where one player could be a shredding metal virtuoso, another could be a master of wringing atmospheric sounds and minor chords from her instrument. This player might have perfect pitch, but that one is fully content being able to play songs at church. He might think Lou Reed is God, but she finds herself in more of a Gilmour or Zappa kind of place. All are valid.

In each case I’ve come up with, the player in question could have conceivably reached his or her goal. And truly, art should never be a checklist to complete so you can say, “That’s it, I’ve done all the art.” Yes, it’s good to have heroes, and if there’s a player that personifies the place you’d like to be, of course, use them as inspiration. If your goal is to play loud power chords in a four-piece rock outfit, that’s great! If you want to give Steve Vai a run for his money, then I wish you well on your journey.

Just remember that it’s not about who is above or below you on the skill ladder; on a grid, you’re over there, she’s up here, and I’m somewhere on the left.

1) Sexism

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The guitar world has always been a boy’s club of sorts, with female musicians often used as set dressing, their bodies co-opted to boost sales and are otherwise overlooked for no reason other than their sex. I mean, how often have you heard the phrase, “pretty good for a girl” used to describe female guitarists? In my line of work, all the damn time.

I’ve worked with many female musicians, both as a tech and as a musician myself, and hearing about and experiencing the marginalization of women in shops or at shows is infuriating. I’ve seen sound guys turn up the wrong guitar during a song because “chicks can’t solo.” I’ve seen guitar shop employees outright laugh at female customers asking genuine questions about a guitar they wanted to buy. Or take some big guitar hardware manufacturers and organizations that have “sexy girls” included in their logos for no flipping reason. I mean, check out the ads for the most recent LA Amp Show! What does this even have to do with guitar amps???

What about the bassist of my former band, a good friend that, without fail, would have to endure shouts of “show us your tits” at every gig we played. It didn’t matter that she was good, that she was fierce, or that she was freaking classically trained. She was a woman, and because of that, she was treated like garbage everywhere we went. There were times that other male band members had to keep close to her because creepy guys were making her feel incredibly uncomfortable. They would back off when we said so, but never when she told them. That’s messed up, and it’s an all-too-common tale.

You can’t even post a photo of a woman playing music without the dumb comments rolling in. Do me a favor, and scroll up to the screenshot of the girl playing bass above. The original Facebook post by Ampeg features Laena Geronimo from The Like, and even without anonymity, these guys can’t resist spouting off whatever lewd comment they can think of. (And in a shocking two-birds twist, the first comment is about her using a pick. Ugh.)

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Or what about this post from Gibson? In no time at all, this woman sharing a shot she really liked of herself posed with her favorite guitar was met with

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I mean, come on. I can’t believe these guys took the time to type out this nonsense without taking  a moment to ask themselves, “Does anybody need to read this?” Even crazier is the fact that it would have taken less time to click the link above and discover that this woman that Travis doubts is really a guitar player IS REALLY A GUITAR PLAYER. And a damn good one at that.

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Luckily (finally) it seems like people are starting to wake up. Discussions are taking place, women are sharing their stories and fighting back. In 2015, I was introduced to a magazine called She Shreds, a guitar mag for women and by women. Interviews, gear reviews, tech tips and editorials all written with women in mind. Even the ads in the magazine are thoughtful, showing women actually playing guitar and retaining their agency. I am so thankful it exists. READ THIS MAGAZINE.

In 2016, be mindful of how these kinds of comments, attitudes, and routines described above make the guitar world less inclusive and less safe for women. And better yet, be open to hearing from women how these things make them feel. Men, educate yourselves.

So please, can we have less of this

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And more of this?

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I would also like to say that it makes me sad that Annie Clark of St. Vincent has not been on the cover of a guitar magazine.

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In case you missed my Back to the Future costume…

Just in case you missed it over the weekend, I went as ZZ Top in Back to the Future III for Halloween this year. I think I nailed it.

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To Mod or Not To Mod…

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…that is the question
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous guitar tone
Or to take arms against percieved troubles
And by opposing end them.

In the opening phrase of Act III of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the titular character weighs in on death and suicide, the unfairness of life, and whether one is any better than the other. Likely the most quoted phrase in existence, The Bard’s universally famous question has been repeated, adapted, chopped up, parodied, and revered in innumerable ways since the great tragedy was written in or around the year 1600.

And so, in a flash of utter predictability, I’ve tweaked those first six lines to fit today’s musings, and to be honest, I think it works. The despondent prince was, in essence, comparing life and death, wondering if one had merit over the other. And when we’re modding guitars, it sometimes feels so dire, does it not?

The Heart-ache, and the thousand Natural shocks That Flesh is heir to

When customers write, call, or visit me to ask what I think of their proposed modifications, it’s an exciting prospect no matter what we end up deciding. Instruments are an intensely personal thing for musicians, so the idea that we can easily take a guitar you like and turn it into one you’ll love is why this world is so fun. Like all things, mods have their place, and can be just the thing to rejuvenate your creativity.

True, guitarists are fickle, and what works on Tuesday may be the complete wrong thing come Friday. You may have a friend that tried out a new pickup over the weekend, and blazed through the honeymoon phase and went straight on into divorce. Or take my friend, who bought that expensive boutique speaker for his Princeton and later told me, “I tried to convince myself that I liked that thing.”

I actually really like the mods done to this '70s Les Paul Recording. Many players hated the low-impedance pickups, and those brass plates look particularly good, says I.

I actually really like the mods done to this ’70s Les Paul Recording. Many players hated the low-impedance pickups, and those brass plates look particularly good, says I.

Another good friend toured with a big-time act as tech and tells the story of a night when the guitarist decided that his fuzz pedal didn’t sound right, so he asked for the spare to be put in its place. He played it for sound check, decided he didn’t like it, and had the tech replace it with the third spare, only there was never a third, so the tech put the original back in line. Immediately the response was, “Oh yeah, YEAH, that’s the one!”

And that’s how we are, including myself. From my extensive and incredibly scientific studies, I know that it takes me exactly 0.00359 seconds after performing a mod to start researching other options, even if I love what I’ve come up with. Is this due to the quest for tone we often talk about, or perhaps an inner dissatisfaction that lurks within my being? Perhaps it boils down to musicians being such staunch individualists. No matter the cause, it’s not so surprising that we’re looking for the next new thing as soon as the old new thing is, well, old.

So, when it comes to mods, whether the concept is a passing phase or a long-held belief, it’s good to have a measure of sobriety when considering chopping up your main squeeze. Here are a few things I like to consider before modding:

To sleep, perchance to Dream; aye, there’s the rub

So you have a killer idea to finally achieve that sound in your head. Great! Sleep on it, do some research, seek out demos or schematics, should they apply. Consult a friend, a tech, or the internet. Gather as much information as you possibly can so you’re making an informed decision.

Like all projects worth undertaking, it’s a good idea to slum around forums and the like to get a feel for the kind of work you’re in for. Has someone done this mod before? With billions of people on planet Earth, chances are, yes, someone has. And though it may fly in the face of individuality, checking up on the errant post to glean insight into your desired modification is encouraged if for no other reason than learning what NOT to do!

There have been a few times when I’ve taken on a project that I’ve never done before where checking out one of my favorite forums lead me to a thread simply entitled “HELP!” that gave me all of the information I needed to ensure a fool-proof installation. From wiring a four-conductor humbucker to routing a new cavity for that fancy tremolo you bought at the guitar show, there’s a lot to learn from folks that learned the hard way.

Thus Conscience does make Cowards of us all

Just like your favorite poncho, it’s good to ask, “Is this reversible?” While it’s not a make-or-break kind of question in most cases, this is a great thing to mull over before you pick up your screwdriver or Dremel. There’s no sense in utterly ruining your favorite guitar just because you wanted something different, especially with the glut of aftermarket parts out there these days.

In most cases, things like pickups are totally reversible and really only mean resoldering some connections. No big deal. Swapping necks, similar parts, bridges, all of that is totally fine and you should do it. There are a few cases where I’d caution against such things, and usually that’s when we get into the pristine vintage guitar realm.

Or take this old Gibson SG-1 that I modified for a neck pickup for a customer. Neither desirable nor rare, these guitars are ripe for mods.

Or take this old Gibson SG-1 that I modified for a neck pickup for a customer. Neither desirable nor rare, these guitars are ripe for mods.

If you’re modding, say, a Squier Vintage Modified Jazzmaster, go for it! There are so many of those guitars out there that routing for Wide Range pickups or adding one behind the bridge isn’t going to matter or affect the value in any appreciable way. For a $200 guitar, they’re perfect for this application, and I can tell you that they’re solid testbeds, having worked on more than a few. I also have very little problem doing the above to Fender AVRI guitars, again, because they’re plentiful. Unless you’re thinking of selling your black ’62 Jaguar reissue, don’t feel too bad about omitting the rhythm circuit or slamming some lipstick pickups in there.

If, however, you have a 100% original 1958 Jazzmaster but you really think it needs humbuckers and a Floyd Rose, I’ll probably champion the cause of the unspoiled instrument in front of me rather than simply agreeing and getting out my router.

I’m reminded of a customer we had last year that owned an absolutely mint ’65 Fender Mustang in Sonic Blue. I mean, this was an absolutely untouched, beautiful instrument in every respect. The customer, however, didn’t like blue, and asked if I would refinish it in red. That was one of the few jobs I flat-out declined, and instead suggested we should sell the instrument and acquire either a red one in like condition (for about the same price, too) or buy a guitar that had been mucked with, and refinish that one to the desired color. Eventually, we did the latter, and as far as I know, he ended up being really happy with the new guitar.

In my view, there’s no reason to carve up an immaculate instrument when there are literally thousands of already modded and refinished vintage guitars out there. Sure, things like sound, feel, and playability come into play here, but those things can usually be addressed rather easily. When it comes to devaluing an aged instrument, I try to think a few decades ahead and wonder what I’d think of myself for doing so. That solves more than a few problems.

Of course, if your old friend has been refinished, routed for humbuckers, missing its original guard and decal… then it’s either a good candidate for restoration, or you should do all of those mods you’ve been thinking of! Me, I’m always on the lookout for a cheap, routed-out, refinished ’63 Jaguar that I can do my own thing with.

Also worth mentioning: sometimes you don’t have to do anything drastic to your guitar, what with pickup makers like Curtis Novak putting Mosrite pickups, PAFs, Wide Range humbuckers and Gold Foils in more familiar bobbins.

How about this poor '60s Mustang we adopted last year?

How about this poor ’60s Mustang we adopted last year?

The insolence of Office

When I hear someone say, “It works for ____ so it’s good enough for me,” I tend to worry just a little bit. Not because the proposed mod is a bad idea, but that statement has a lot more going on than the speaker may realize.

Big-name guitarists can get what they want, generally speaking. When you have connections at your favorite guitar company, a dedicated tech or two, and the money to back up your whims, a lot of mods inevitably start to happen. Sure, there’s nothing wrong with swapping pickups in favor of something that suits your needs, but I’ve seen enough modified instruments to know that not every idea is a good one.

A modded '70s Telecaster bass used by studio musician Buell Neidlinger.

A modded ’70s Telecaster bass used by studio musician Buell Neidlinger.

One of the things that often separates the average musician and the touring pro is that they have an army of techs at their disposal, paid well (I hope) to swap those pickups, change out bridges, and glue splintered wood back together on the quick so the show can go on. Some things work, and some things don’t, while others require a lot of attention to keep in check.

I know of one such touring pro that had his tech quickly install a brass nut on his instrument, searching for that brighter sound he craved. When I worked on the guitar some time later, I discovered that the nut slots weren’t cut properly, so the strings were binding up, causing tuning problems. Obviously, this wasn’t ideal. 

The thing is, the player never noticed it, because he never played solos or bent strings, only big chords. He didn’t know about the problem his guitar had because he had a tech to tune it between songs!

The Undiscovered [Flavor] Country

That kind of sounds like a Shakespearean cigarette ad, doesn’t it?

Though this article may sound cautious, please don’t take it as a strict warning against figuring out that sound in your head. At most, I’m just offering a few thoughts to help the potential guitar modder some guidance. What matters most is that you’re happy with the instrument you’re using, and if a cool mod gets you there, then it’s a good one. Some mods might be more effective and less intrusive than others, but there is merit in tweaking a design to work for you.

The old adage “You won’t know until you try” certainly applies. So I say, go for it! But maybe have a good think about it first.

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Happy Birthday, Leo

I have always been bad with birthdays. Well, birthdays, numbers, names, locations… honestly, unless you want to know about guitar specs, 1980’s cartoons, Star Trek, and obsolete breakfast cereals, please don’t ask me questions. I will not know that answer, I’m telling you.

It’s not that I don’t know when they are generally, but also being a bad test-taker, the emotional stress of having to recall dates of supreme importance like birthdays––even my own!––forces me to make loud thinking noises until someone else answers for me. I remember not too long ago when I needed to pick up a prescription for my wife, and God bless her, she forgot to tell me there would be a pop quiz administered by the pharmacist. I ended up calling her from Rite-Aid to tell her that whatever ailment she had, well she was just going to have to wait it out, and thank the maker she wasn’t a crudely-named character in Oregon Trail.

You can imagine my near-shock when I awoke rather late this morning to discover it was August 10th. (I mean, yesterday was the 9th, so it wasn’t the sequential nature of the date.) Specifically, August 10th is the birthday of Leo Fender, a man that dreamed up the first mass-produced solid body electric guitar. What a guy!

Az-KD0QCEAAEmxn.png-largeDear Reader, do you truly understand the weight of that statement? Imagine a world without the Telecaster, imagine the evolution of popular music without the Precision Bass, the Twin amp, and the powerful, wiry sounds of the Stratocaster. This man couldn’t play a lick of guitar, yet he absolutely changed how music is made and played, as well as the world around him in profound ways. He didn’t invent rock ‘n roll, but his work certainly helped.

In honor of Leo’s 106th birthday, there are a lot of articles being published and a lot of celebratory forum threads you can check out with more info on the man and his career, so I’ll keep this one brief. Personally, there are a bunch of things I would love to thank him for, including blackface amps (the Twin Reverb and Bassman in particular) and the Esquire,  the Precision Bass, his wild and wonderful offset guitars with their vibratos, and by extension, my career.

I have seen a lot of guitars over the years, but when asked about my work, I always mention that I specialize in offset guitars. They are, without a doubt, my most favorite guitars ever made, and I cherish the ones I own more than any other instruments that have been in my possession. The sound, feel, and near limitless possibilities of these guitars gives me new ideas on a daily basis, causing me to wonder if even Leo himself understood just how cool his guitars are. Never before have I been so enthralled by a guitar as I have been with the Jazzmaster and Jaguar, and because of that, people keep following me on Instagram, reading these blogs, and bringing them to me for setups, repairs, and restorations.

I realize that Mike & Mike’s Guitar Bar exists thanks in no small part to Leo Fender and his instruments. The first time Mike Ball and I met, he was cleaning the fretboard of a red Mustang. When we got together at his practice space, we geeked out about Nels Cline and his black Jazzmaster. Later, I bought my first Jazzmaster from Mike. And when we decided to create our own guitar shop, we specifically targeted Jazzmasters and Jaguars as focal points. When we both ended up with ’61 Jazzmasters, it was serendipitous but not without a sort of cosmic intentionality, as if nothing could have been more right for us.

These guitars are why we have a following, why we’re dealers for Lollar and Novak pickups and Mastery Bridge products, and why we use and install all of them frequently. I mean, hell, we use a silhouette of a Jazzmaster in our damn logo. And woe to those that stumble into the shop to inquire about offset guitars, unprepared for the avalanche of ramblings with which we are likely to answer.

So thank you, Leo. Thank you for your enduring designs. Thank you for continually creating and innovating. Thank you for conjuring these fantastic and inspiring musical instruments from the wellspring of your mind. Thank you for making your amps loud, too; we like that part.

Without Leo Fender, I don’t know that I would be doing any of this. Without Leo, this world and its music would be a lot less interesting.

Thanks, Leo.

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Boutique Builders and the Offset Vibrato: A Trem of Great Import

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I spend the bulk of my professional life thinking about offset guitars, from the next way in which I’ll be able to explain solutions to the myriad perceived bridge issues, to my idea of the perfect Jaguar, to mods and possible set up techniques I’d like to explore on one of my own. These guitars have been a huge part of my career, and I’m happy to say that recently I’ve discovered that I have a nickname among some enthusiasts: “The Jazzmaster Guy”.

Yes, dear reader, you likely know already how obsessed I am with these models, and in the same way that some proudly identify with a political party or religion, I wear my love of these quirky guitars as a badge of honor. If elections were held to determine the supreme guitar ruler of the world, I would firmly be in the Offset Party. I would totally rock a “Jazzmaster 2016” or “Jaguar 2016” bumper sticker. In fact, that might be worth putting some effort into.

Recently Summer NAMM took over the Music City Center in Nashville as well as our Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram feeds. Gear lovers had a lot to look forward to, with new offerings from boutique and indie guitar, pedal, and amp makers as well as updated models from the big boys, and even if you weren’t able to attend in person (like me) there were plenty of goodies showing up online to satisfy even the most stodgy of enthusiasts. Among said goodies were plenty of models in the offset tradition, which is something that should have elicited more excitement in me than I actually felt.

It’s true: everyone makes an offset guitar these days, and how could we begrudge them that? These guitars have never been more popular, what with the spate of indie bands, aftermarket parts like the Mastery Bridge, and Nels Cline’s mind-altering musicianship, new Jazzmaster and Jaguar models (as well as variations on the theme!) are flooding the market at rates never before seen or anticipated. What was once a bargain-barrel, “crappy” guitar is now every bit as coveted and hallowed as some of the other most successful and idolized guitar models out there.

But with all of the complaints levied against these models (all of which we disputed and dispelled in our Demystifying series) one would expect that new offerings would perhaps understand not only the setup techniques involved in making these guitars play as Leo Fender intended, but also the very real affect of sub-par parts on the tone and functionality of these amazing, misunderstood instruments.

And that’s what concerns me about these upmarket models and fresh takes on famous designs, that there appears to be a disturbing trend in the “boutique” guitar market far more pervasive than relic finishes, self-tuning guitars, and ultra-hot gimmicky pickups:

$2000 guitars with cheap import hardware.

Offset Apart

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My favorite iteration of the offset vibrato: the Pat Pend unit found on my ’61 Jazzmaster.

Many builders these days have homed in on the hot, hot, hot market share the offset body design has carved out for itself. Never more popular or readily available, the Jazzmaster and Jaguar-like body designs invading stores and internet forums alike are often as enticing as they are expensive. Offsets are being turned out in huge numbers these days, and so even small builders are looking to remain competitive in this not-so-niche market, and in order to stay that way, some builders are quietly installing inexpensive hardware on their guitars. And because we’re seeing this practice so often, these expensive custom guitars don’t perform nearly as well American reissues offered by the big company with the F-logo. I find that to be inexcusable, and too often, guitar makers are ignoring what I would argue is the most important piece of hardware on the guitar in terms of tuning stability: the offset vibrato tailpiece.

If you’ve read our Demystifying series, then you know that, when properly set up, Leo Fender’s offset vibrato design works flawlessly. Seriously, take a moment to read those articles, then come back to this one with your mind blown, and thus, more open. The offset vibrato is so popular right now for a reason, and that reason is, it’s stable as hell. When well-maintained, I can do more and get more out of the offset vibrato than I can with just about any other unit on the market, and although it may not ‘dive bomb’ the way a Floyd Rose does, how many non-locking trems do you know of where you can depress the bar the whole way, strings flopping about, then release and have it come straight back into tune? 

(For the record, I also love Gibson’s equally maligned Lyre Vibrola, Bigsbys, Rickenbacker’s Accent, and the tailpieces found on old Silvertone guitars. Sorry for answering my own question.)

But hold on a sec, the above statements come with a disclaimer: I’m only referring to vintage and US reissue tremolo units. There is no import part on the market that works as intended.

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From Allparts.com

I’m quite honestly shocked at the number of high end offset guitars at SNAMM  equipped with the unbranded offset vibrato, a unit that can be easily obtained from many parts suppliers yet is never worth even its modest cost. The reasons I’m so down on the ubiquitous, no-name import trem unit is that the parts are made from pot metal, poorly machined, and are generally bulkier in design. They also happen to have arms with the least graceful bend imaginable, something that I’d contend is as much a part of the feel of the trem as the spring.

See, not only are there issues with arms spinning freely, collets breaking and never quite locking-in properly on those units, they also just don’t stay in tune as well as those made in the America. Parts that don’t fit properly together mean that the unit won’t return to pitch or “zero out” perfectly. They feel cheap, and comparing one of these import trems with the real thing, one can plainly see the stark difference in quality between them.

Recently, my pal Jessica Dobson of Deep Sea Diver brought in a new guitar for a setup and to install new pickups, and as part of a setup, I always ensure that the trem unit functions smoothly and accurately. In the case of this instrument and many like it, the vibrato wouldn’t return to pitch even when properly set up. I removed and dismantled the unit, and saw something that I’d seen many times before.

IMG_2590In viewing this photo from my Instagram feed, you should be able to see that the pivot plate on this Asian-import trem is sloppily manufactured, and it’s not just this particular one! Every single one of these I’ve ever worked on is malformed in some way, leaving the hope of tuning stability a pipe dream at best. Now, this can be corrected to some extent by doing as I did here, grinding away the excess material until the plate was left with sharp edges and equally smooth contact points. And while this does ensure that the trem works much, much better than it did, weak springs and inferior materials will continue to cause issues much farther down the road.

Another mark against the import unit: bad metal sounds bad.

A Call to Trem Arms

If you’re a guitar maker offering a Jazzmaster-type model (or any model with that particular bridge and tailpiece combo) then I completely understand that you can’t just put a Fender-branded part on your guitar. In that regard, the no-name, unbranded import vibrato seems like a good alternative, and one that’s easy to relic to hell and back, if that’s your bag. The thing is, because they’re so poorly-made, you may be offering a guitar with a flaw right out of the gate. But there is hope!

One option would be purchasing the U.S.-made ‘real thing’ and replacing the face plate. Companies like Faction Electric Guitars offer stainless steel plates (designed by our pal Paul Rhoney) that would suit this purpose well. Sure, that’s an added expense, but if you’re already charging $1800-$2500 for a guitar, well, it’s a worth while one.

An even better option? Investing in the Mastery Vibrato, a unit that’s free of ties to the California manufacturer with the familiar name that works perfectly and is perhaps the closest in feel and tonality to the units found on vintage offset guitars, and as many of us offset aficionado will tell you, they’re the cream of the crop. Woody designed this piece as an upgrade to the original, with the a new carbon steel spring meant to feel and perform as the originals, low-profile screws that won’t chew through your strings, and a pivot plate that runs the entire length of the string anchor plate. Sturdy, solidly-built, and tonally brilliant, this all adds up to the perfect vibrato for your equally well-made and attractive instruments.

If you’re building your own guitar from parts and you don’t have the coin to drop on upgraded or vintage units, you can find Fender AVRI trems in the $50-60 range, and you can even find ‘aged’ ones on eBay. The no-name unit goes for $35 over at Allparts but don’t say I didn’t warn you. Unfortunately, at this time the  import unit is the only option for those in need of gold hardware.

Now, the purpose of this article isn’t to call out any specific builders out there, so I’m not going to include the names of guitar makers that use the dreaded “no-name” vibrato. Instead, here’s a list of some of my favorite builders that, instead of attaching subpar parts to their instruments, go the extra mile and dollar to install the precision-machined Mastery Vibrato. These are builders that care about quality that you can buy from and know that your instrument will perform as promised every single time.

In alphabetical order:

Ayers
BilT
Collings
Creston
Deimel
Echo Park
Kauer
Rhoney

That’s all I could think of right now, but I’ll be sure to update this post once my other guitar-building friends read this and yell at me for forgetting them. I’ll deserve that much at least, I’m sure.

Anyway, this one’s the only unbranded trem I’ve ever liked, found on Freddie Tavares’ prototype ’58 Jazzmaster in Desert Sand with a huge maple Stratocaster neck and a sweet black anodized guard. Special thanks to Mark Agnesi of Norman’s Rare Guitars for letting me have an unforgettable hour with this thing. What. A. Guitar. Expect a short article about that hour in the future!

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If I only had $100K.

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Breaking Panera Bread with Evan Craig of Dirge Electronics

Dirge Edit
In my 33 years on this planet, I don’t think I’ve ever spent more than an hour at a time in a Panera Bread. Yet here I am, two hours in and hoping that my time here will soon come to an end.

It’s grey and cold outside; the bitter Pennsylvania winter greeted me the minute I stepped off the plane two weeks ago, and since then I’ve come to the startling realization that, no matter how well I think I’ve packed, I never seem to bring enough cold weather clothing. I am freezing, and I am ashamed.

On this particular day––this particularly cold day––I’m meeting my friend Evan Craig of Dirge Electronics, a guy who’s creating pedals that grind, quake, rattle and break amps, which is a fitting description of any clever device that calls itself Dirge.

He arrives about an hour later, apologizing profusely, and by this time I have inside jokes with each of the Panera staff. We’d grown close in those three hours; I’ve walked with them through life, watched as their kids left for college, cried with them at the loss of a family member, and attended four bar mitzvahs and two birthday parties. That’s grossly hyperbolic, but a cashier noted that I had been there a long time and I winked and told her, “I didn’t have a beard when I came in here.” Nailed it.

Thing is, Evan’s tardiness is neither true tardiness nor his fault; when we made plans earlier in the week, he was up-front about the nature of his job––Evan’s day job is selling doors to home improvement retailers––and that he often has to stay longer at a particular store location to train employees on the features and installation of said doors. I knew this going in, and for some reason, I thought, “I’ll just show up early” as if I were known for punctuality. What the hell. So really, it’s my fault for sitting there for so long, but that’s neither here nor there.

After Evan collected himself and had a sandwich, we breezed through the usual smalltalk rather quickly. It was going well, his day was meh, family’s good, etc., etc. It took little time for us to get acquainted, and soon we’d touched on guitar companies we like, bands we would die for, and most importantly, how Evan got into the pedal biz.

IMG_0013Before circuit bending and pedal vending, Evan (aka Skullservant on Instagram and other forums) began his career by listening first, homing in on the sounds he found compelling. Around the age of 13, Evan discovered Noise, a genre with the most appropriate designation ever. He cites Merzbow as a huge influence, speaking with exuberance about the impact of those sounds on his young mind. “I’m still trying to collect all of the Merzbow records, even though it’s impossible. He has, like, 300 of them out there.”

But it was his first rig, a Dean Vendetta guitar and a Digitech Death Metal pedal, that got him curious about creating his own sounds. He messed around with circuit bending, starting with toys, and soon did the same to his pedal, creating weirdness any way he could. Eventually, Evan found he had the knack for bending, and began acquiring loose boards to aid in his experiments.

“When I started, I would get circuit boards from places and just modify the hell out of them, just add as much stuff as I could cause it helped me learn. I got the basic circuit down, now here’s how I can expand it.”

And that’s what makes him attractive to so many players: expansion. Evan doesn’t shy away from requests, and any opportunity to twist a familiar design to fit his idea of the perfect sound is one he’ll gladly accept. His first commissions came from the I Love Fuzz community, where Evan would post his latest builds. Interest quickly built up around his work, and forum members started asking for specific builds based on what more traditional circuits were missing.

In short order, Evan’s brilliant little boxes began finding happy homes on the boards of some well-known musicians, such as Weezer’s Scott Shriner. Shriner owns Evan’s Dirge Dweller, which is based on the Mad Bean Cave Dweller delay project but with that special Dirge twist. Evan explains:

“One of the limitations of that circuit is the headroom––that’s the limitation of the pt2399 chip in general––so it clips kind of easily. That circuit’s… kind of dark and ambient, which I dig, but I refined it to be a little more bright. It doesn’t have a normal blend control, so I’ve been adding one and a clean boost… You can drive your amp with this delay.”

Evan originally made his ideal Dirge Dweller for himself, with every expansion he could think of crammed into the enclosure. But when the bassist of one of the biggest bands out there comes around, you definitely don’t want to make him wait. “Scott was like, ‘I want you to build me one’ after I had just finished that one. So I was like, have mine. He likes it a lot.”

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One of Dirge’s three-in-one pedals, with RAT, Boost, and Comp pedals in one convenient design.

Expansion, elevation… that’s what makes Dirge stand out to me; all of Evan’s designs seem to have a common thread that runs through them, and that thread is “more.” When he takes a custom order, or evaluates a common design––a RAT for example––and he asks himself, ‘How can I take this and elevate it?’ The last RAT-style pedal he did included a custom tone stack, clipping options, and an expression jack for external gain control. For Evan, there’s no such thing as too much, at least within reason. What’s his benchmark for reasonability?

“I like people looking at my pedals and saying, ‘What the fuck is going on here?’”

In fact, there was a period of time where Dirge pedals seemed to toy with their users, daring them to forget how they define things like ‘volume’ and ‘tone’. He used to leave controls unlabeled so that players could find their own way instead of relying upon familiar old settings.

“It’s cool seeing how they’re put to use,” he gushes. “I might not be into that type of music, but it just completely opens my mind up to how something can be used. I might have an idea for a modification to a circuit and they end up using it in a different way than I had intended.”

Evan’s goals as a pedal maker aren’t exactly in-line with most other manufacturers, who turn out product after product to reach as many players as possible. Evan prefers to keep his operation small, focusing on custom orders. “I honestly have more fun [doing custom orders]. I enjoy being able to just cycle through circuit boards, that’s really zen, just loading circuit boards, but at the same time there’s something special about having a story behind every single custom pedal that I’ve made.”

Working from custom order business model allows Evan to create something very player-specific, and he can guarantee that the pedal he makes for you will be something no one else has. It’s not just about churning out pedal after pedal, it’s about dreaming something up and putting it out into the world. “I remember building every single one. It’s been fun to see where they end up, where they travel and what’s happened to them.”

But what makes Dirge stand out isn’t just the sound, it’s also the look. His art style is chaotic, often consisting of squiggly, concentric lines that never touch but form patterns like ripples on a lake, but the lake is made of wide-ruled notebook pages and the ripples are colored inks from ballpoint pens. The artwork sells his pedals just as much as the sounds.

Looking at some of his work, you almost expect to see lewd drawings of his former Social Studies teacher, or some band logos scrawled around the edges, maybe a few romantic check boxes. There are frequent appearances of coffins, skulls, and scythes, and while there’s definitely a Jr. High aesthetic in play, it’s in earnest and gives his pedals the excitement of discovering heavy music for the first time all over again.

However, Evan’s not stuck in a particular idiom; he once made an Ibanez Bottom Booster in a Unicorn-adorned enclosure. He’s done hand-drawn Big Muff enclosures with the word “DIRGE” across the front, and even has some really nice etched looks to brag about. And while his pedals often embrace visual simplicity, Evan’s actually a very skilled artist.

The 1776 Reverb, based on the Rub-A-Dub board, with a gain knob to drive the reverb hard.

The 1776 Reverb, based on the Rub-A-Dub board, with a gain knob to drive the reverb hard.

“I used to sit at a desk job all day and just draw ‘cause it was on the phone, I didn’t need my hands for anything, so I would just doodle and that would give me inspiration for the builds and drawings on the builds.” And as for the content of his visuals, Evan confesses, “I don’t know why I turned morbid.”

Having never publicly displayed his art, giving himself creative freedom with his enclosures means he now has that outlet, a way to have his work seen as part of a very specific medium, and one that serves him well. While other artists might have a breakthrough via the blogosphere (can’t believe I just typed that) or a local art show, Evan’s artwork is already touring the world, and thanks to rig rundowns and social media, it’s being seen by thousands of people each day.

When we sat down for our informal chat, Dirge had been on somewhat of a hiatus for a few months. Evan was still finishing a few pedals here and there, but as we all know, real life can sort of take over other interests. Real life, in this case, means having a baby.

“I just wanted to be with my wife as she was going through pregnancy ‘cause there were definitely hard times. At first I would build and she would watch TV or whatever and then as [the due date] got closer I just stopped building and finished up the builds that I could so that I could spend more time with her, and now, spend the time with Hunter.”

Since the birth of his son six months ago, Evan has extended his break from the pedal-making biz, but rest assured, he’ll be back with a renewed vision soon. And when he does come back (potentially later this year) he’ll be making time for a handful of orders every month. “I think what I’m gonna do from here on out is just take one, finish it, another one, finish it, and not take on a bunch at once.”

9763149681_ee1b8b6396He’s also considered doing a production run in the future, but laments that at his level, there may not be a return on that investment. For the foreseeable future, Dirge is going to be a fully custom, very personal sort of company.

So what’s next for Dirge after the break? More tweaks, more modular pedals, and even a few new ideas that have been floating around in Evan’s head. One such idea that excites him is for a special delay pedal he’s been trying to figure out, “…having such a short delay that it almost becomes a sort of cone filter.” Color me intrigued.

While talking to Evan that day, it was clear to me that no matter how he decides to balance life and business, the subject of sound will always be exciting to him. Each time he spoke of a tone he loves or a new pedal he wants to make, the passion with which he approaches Dirge Electronics wells up in him, and he beams. But there is still one thing that eclipses even the pride he feels in his pedals being used the world over:

“Dude, my son is awesome. He’s fucking great. Just fucking awesome.”

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1969 Gibson SG Restoration

IMG_8037 - Version 2-impOver the summer, I picked up this 1969 Gibson SG Standard husk, totally stripped and poorly refinished in natural. The neck was cracked, some wood at the bridge area was replaced and filled, the contours were sanded away and altered, and before the finish was applied it seems like the body was sanded with nothing greater than 120 grit. Super rough, really disappointing!
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I paid about $400 for the wood, and decided that this would be a worthy candidate for total restoration. With all I’ve learned over the years (beginning in my dad’s woodshop as a kid – I was listening!) I felt as though I was finally able to tackle this kind of thing. I’ve been working on guitars for years now, and in the past few I’ve really focused on finishing techniques, but on a much smaller scale; fill-ins and color matching are more my specialty, but I thought, ‘Hey, why not dive in? What’s the worst that could happen?’ At the very least, I might end up with a vintage guitar that I’d enjoy playing.

Although I discussed this project openly, I didn’t advertise it for sale or anything because, to be perfectly frank, I wasn’t entirely sure what I’d end up with. I trusted in my abilities and my aptitude for learning quickly and adjusting my process on the fly, but this was my first total refinish, so I wanted to make sure it was good before I went spouting off about how we offer full restorations as one of our many services.IMG_6017-impWith all of the work that needed to be done, I absolutely had to strip the body again. I mean, I’d have to rework the carves on the body anyway, and the finish was really thick and the wood didn’t have the proper SG look. You see, one of the things that sets 1960s SGs apart from those made in the 1970s and beyond is those deep, gorgeous body bevels that make them look so much meaner and tougher than the others.

Given my obsessive-compulsive wiring, I set to work with sandpaper and a block with the mission of restoring the depth, sharpness and allure of the carves.

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Soon, I had the body stripped and sanded from 120-320 while I reshaped absolutely everything, from the horns to the backside bevels, to the neck joint and even the slightly sharper late ’60s bottom carves behind the tailpiece. The hardest part was the interior curves of the neck, for which I studied some hi-res photos as Mike Ball’s original 1968 SG for reference.

After sanding to 400 grit, the next step was grain filler, which is really important to getting the right look to that old Gibson Cherry. See, I searched the internet like crazy for examples of good refinished SGs to pattern my work after, and I couldn’t find anything. I saw a ton of refins, but few that looked quite right. I took it as a challenge to really dig into what makes these guitars look the way they do, and ebony grain filler is a big, big part of that late ’60s look. (everyone else seemed to either skip this step entirely or use a neutral color of filler that didn’t show off the grain of the mahogany.)
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Always up for a challenge, I decided that instead of purchasing proper spray equipment or building a spray booth, I was going to do this in true D.I.Y. fashion: I would only use only amateur finishing supplies to really get the feel for the pros and cons of what’s available to the first-time restorer. This meant rattle can finishes (I used Stew-Mac products entirely) and power tool buffing pads.

IMG_7075I was a little concerned when I sprayed the first coat of cherry. I expected it to be bright as the first run was a tack coat, laying down some color so the next coat sticks. But it was RED, not cherry. When spraying, I usually spray a coat, then wait 30 minutes and spray another. Two hours later, I’ll do another and let it go overnight. After two bright red coats, I started to get really worried, but I put it out of my mind on a Saturday night and came back on Tuesday to discover that the color had darkened considerably. That made me happy.

After the red, I sprayed some amber laquer to gently age the finish. As you know, nitro finishes ‘fade’ over timeIMG_7323, so the clear coat takes on a yellowish hue, which contributes to the softened look of older colors. This step really made all of the difference! The color just got more rich from then on, and after that, clear coats!

With some elbow grease and 1000-1500 grit wet sanding, as well as buffing on my wheel with various grades of compound, I ended up with a shiny finish far beyond what I expected.

Seriously, I still can’t believe that I did this with rattle cans and elbow grease! IMG_8036-imp

I sourced vintage parts all around (save for the tuners, electronics, Lollar imperial pickups and pickguard) and I couldn’t be happier with the results. It looks right, plays beautifully, and sounds freaking amazing.

Oh! And a note on the spot of wear on the horn: that’s fully intentional. I lightly aged this guitar, but the one rally cry against relic guitars that I hear more than any other is that the wear doesn’t have a story. Well, this one does: when I had all of the parts collected, I took a long, hard look at the guitar and thought about what fictional character may have used it before I came along. So, the story with that wear is, the previous owner stashed his picks right between the guard and the body, and when you’re in the heat of a hot solo, you don’t have time to be careful. IMG_8035-imp

If you’re on Tumblr you may recognize this same guitar from the many, many happy photographs of DeeBeeUs, one of the kindest souls on the web. He owns this one now, and from what I can tell, he’s very, very happy with it. -MJA

 

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