Category Archives: Guitar Repairs

American Whoa: The American Pro Jazzmaster’s Peculiar Pickups

An American Pro Jazzmaster came into my life recently and I’m enjoying it quite a bit. I’m loving the light weight and solid feel of the guitar, and for a guy that’s not such a huge fan of maple fretboards I’m delighted to have one close at hand. Those same concerns I had in my December review are still present, mainly the selector switch placement and the proximity of the E strings to the edges of the fretboard. I’ll be posting more of my long-term impressions down the road, but do go back and read that review if you’d like the full scoop.

After the last week of ownership, I have to admit that I’m not entirely thrilled with the sound of the guitar. The pickups leave me a bit cold, lacking some of depth of sound and dynamic range of other Jazzmaster pickups. They exhibit an almost Strat-like quality which I initially attributed to the new design, or perhaps the use of 500K pots and a treble bleed network, both of which can have an effect on the sound.

It wasn’t until I popped off the covers that I discovered the shocking reason for my dissatisfaction: these are not Jazzmaster pickups at all – they’re Strat-like coils in oversized bobbins.

As we’ve described previously, traditional Jazzmaster pickups have wide, flat, relatively hot coils wound right to the edges of the bobbin, which is why they possess such a wide range of bright highs, present low-mids, and round bass. Because of their size, Jazzmaster pickups sense a wider aperture of the string’s vibrational length than most, producing the dynamic, three-dimensional sound that makes Jazzmasters so damn sonically spectacular as well as unusually versatile.

Fender sells the sound of the newly-designed V-Mod pickups as “hot, vintage-inspired tone with plenty of punch and definition.” Vintage-inspired or not, the pickups found in the AM-PRO are a far cry from the sound and construction of traditional Jazzmaster pickups, which is kind of the reason folks buy a Jazzmaster in the first place. Wound tall and dense, the V-Mod pickups have much more in common with overwound Strat pickups or even P90s, minus the bar magnets and adjustable poles.

While I won’t go so far as to say they’re bad-sounding pickups I do feel vindicated in suspecting that I wasn’t getting the full experience. The sound is, to my ears, more narrow in scope and toward the sterile side comparatively; lows are there but rigid, and while highs aren’t biting, they also aren’t as sparkly. Again, they’re not bad, just not Jazzmasters.

Puzzlingly, this new pickup design isn’t new at all; these pickups are eerily similar if not virtually identical to those found on Japanese Jazzmasters since the mid-1980s. This Strat-in-a-Jazzmaster-cover construction is a hallmark of MIJ/CIJ guitars, generally considered the weak link of those models. In fact, swapping out for better pickups is always my first suggestion to players looking for more out of their import Jazzmaster. Check out this comparison shot of a Japanese pickup (left) next to a Lollar: (right)

I took this photo years ago, and the brand-new V-Mod pickups look just like the MIJ

It’s perplexing, then, that Fender would double down on such a design for their new, more modern take on the guitar. Along with the omission of the Rhythm Circuit, I suspect that this was an attempt to broaden the appeal of the instrument, to homogenize the new line so that none of the models stray far from each other. From that corporate perspective it almost makes sense to stuff a Strat pickup into a Jazzmaster, but in doing so they’ve undermined one of the most fundamental and desirable aspects of the guitar: the sound.

Look, I’m a reasonable if not opinionated guy, and I’m sure there are plenty of folks who like these pickups. Who am I to dissuade them! One of my Instagram followers was just telling me how much he loves his MIJ pickups, and I wouldn’t dream of shaming him for enjoying his guitar. I may personally find them lacking and if asked I’ll quickly suggest a replacement of superior quality. Otherwise, my motto is “Chase your bliss.”

But for those looking to spend their hard-earned money chasing Jazzmaster tones in an affordable and updated package, I’m afraid you won’t find it here. Bluntly, this guitar won’t sound like a proper Jazzmaster without modification, and at $1500, having to spend more for the ‘correct’ tone may be a mark against the American Pro series to some. To others like myself, for whom changing pickups is as routine as brushing teeth, same as it ever was.

At the end of the day, it’s up to the individual player to decide whether or not this is a dealbreaker. And really, I’m not so sure it should be, the guitar’s great fun all around. However, I also won’t pretend I’m not disappointed; perhaps it wouldn’t be so if the specs were a little more forthcoming, letting potential buyers know what they’re getting. Fender’s been vague on this issue in the past – just look at the “special design hot single coil Jazzmaster pickups” of the Classic Player line which are actually P90s through and through.

To simply call them “Jazzmaster pickups” is misleading, when in reality they are not. Beneath those big, white covers isn’t just a combination, it’s a compromise; the guitar sounds good enough, yet lacks the signature tone and feel you’d expect from such an instrument. And while there’s nothing wrong with a good Stratocaster pickup, like many other “crossovers” that aim to straddle two very different traditions, I can’t help but feel the end result is only half as effective as either.

As for me, I’ll be swapping pickups on this one sooner than later.

MIJ on top, V-MOD on bottom.

Shelton Electric: A Very Special Valentine’s Review

img_1870Valentines Day came and went this week, a day filled with heart emoji, chocolates and stomach-turning cuteness from couples telling the stories of how they met. Love at first sight gets a lot of play in tales of romance, but it is most definitely a thing with musicians as well. It can even lead to trouble sometimes.

You’ve heard the stories of chance encounters and missed connections, I’m sure:

“I walked into the store, and there it was, just hanging on that wall. I had to make it mine.”

“Begged my friend to sell it to me for three years, and then one day he asked me if I still wanted it. I went to the bank right then and there!”

“I came back later that day with the money and it was gone! Wish I would have put it on layaway.”

For this piece, I want to tell you how Shelton Electric Instruments turned the longing gaze of this furtive lover into a two-week whirlwind romance with the GalaxyFlite model. Like the flickering light of a candle, our passion danced and then suffocated quickly, leaving behind only wisps of smoke and memories that won’t soon fade.

I Swiped Right on the Flite

img_1886The first time I saw Shelton Breeden’s work, I was intrigued. Shelton Electric Instruments offers up instruments based on familiar shapes but with a few modern twists that set them apart from a room filled with suitors. Such twists range from back-painted pickguards and racing stripe finishes, to electronic tweaks and non-standard pickup configurations. From the photos posted on Instagram, Shelton’s manifest commitment to quality shined in a frankly oversaturated social media landscape. I was hooked.

I skulked about on the app for some time, liking and commenting away but careful never to draw too much attention to myself. Just an admirer, this fellow. To my surprise, a direct message from Shelton soon appeared in my inbox, asking if I’d like to give some of his guitars a thorough once-over and offer some suggestions. I accepted without hesitation; any builder that wants to send me gear so I can blab about it on the internet knows how to push all of my buttons.

Red Dress and a Pearl Neck…lace

This case really gets the imagination going.

This case really gets the imagination going.

Quick to arrive at my door was this GalaxyFlite Super III model, which uses the classic offset shape as a basis for customization. Opening the very classy-looking case, that familiar candy smell of new finish rose from it and greeted me like a handshake. Immediately apparent is Shelton’s eye for detail, the nitro finish being flawless in both hue and sheen. Fiesta Red is one of those colors that just exudes cool, and Shelton certainly nailed the shade, rich and alluring as it should be. A bound-and-blocked rosewood fretboard was perfectly accessorized to the ensemble.

Speaking of visuals, let’s talk about that two-tone headstock. Some folks don’t seem to be on board with it, and I understand that it’s a deviation from the norm. Beauty is, as they say, in the eye of the beholder, yet this beholder loves it. It would seem that many builders prefer to stay in the well-tread peghead wheelhouse and only slightly tweak the shape so it’s not legally actionable. Instead, Shelton went for a design that’s half plank and half aircraft nose, evoking the image of a scimitar slicing through the air. Is it a success as unique and identifiable designs go? I’d say so. For those with less adventurous tastes, a new, sleeker version is already on its way.

img_1936Though the neck shares the 1 11/16” nut width of Fender reissues, Shelton’s shape is slightly more substantial than what you’d find on AVRI 62 models. The more modern 9.5” radius felt as comfortable as it did familiar, so players used to flatter or rounder necks should find something to love here.

The fretwork on this Galaxy Flite is perhaps the best I’ve seen on any custom instrument, and I’m not just being kind here – this work is superior to my own. Notes ring out clear in all positions, fret ends are meticulously sculpted, and the crowns are so perfectly rounded that you barely register them whilst sliding your hand up the neck. All of this is thanks to Rachel Quinn, who handles final setup duties for the company.

I Used “Pickup Lines” in a Previous Article So I Can’t Here

img_2023Equipped as standard are a few of my favorite brands, namely Mastery Bridge hardware, Porter pickups, and Emerson Custom electronics. Using such high-quality components means these instruments are guaranteed be fully functional and dependable right out of the box. Aside from matters of taste, there won’t be any need for round after round of upgrades here, setting Shelton apart from the few high-end builders that use cheap hardware and electronics.

Three Porter Jazzmaster-style pickups occupy a swimming pool body rout, a modern-wound J-90 for the neck, a standard Jazzmaster in the middle, and a WRJM in the bridge. I really love what Porter’s doing in the pickup world, but the selection here may be the only aspect of the guitar that may need some re-thinking. On their own, each pickup sounded great and well-suited to its position, but there was a disparity in volume between them that couldn’t readily be corrected with height adjustments. Really, it came down to the J-90 being louder than the other two, so perhaps a vintage wind on that one would settle in a bit better.

Something Cliché Involving the Word ‘Curves’

The control scheme on this one could be somewhat confusing if you’re expecting the normal layout of a Jazzmaster. Instead of the lead/rhythm circuits commonly found on the guitars, Shelton opts to use the on/off switch on the upper bass side horn to split the bridge pickup and add in the middle pickup via the rollers repurposed as volumes for the neck and middle pickups. Somewhat cumbersome the first time you use it, the array becomes second nature with a little persistence – and useful as well!

Even with the learning curve, there are some potent sounds on display here. Rather than shoehorn the same old descriptors for tones, why not just listen to the thing? Click the videos below for sound samples, including one that runs through all of the available pickup selections.

I rarely ever play totally clean, so you're in for a treat. Here's a quick run-through of all of the available pickup selections on the amazing @sheltonelectricinstruments GalaxyFlite III. The middle pickup and Wide Range in split mode are controlled via the typical Rhythm Circuit switch and roller pots, with the neck volume being the front roller and middle being the back one. RC switch UP: -> Middle -> Neck & Middle -> All -> WRJM Split! RC switch DOWN: -> Bridge (normal) -> Bridge & Neck -> Neck Sorry I rushed at the end there, I realized I was running out of time. Also, that ringing out you're hearing? That's coming from my acoustic, which I absent-minded li left on the chair right beside the camera. That's a good acoustic, though! So sympathetic. #guitar #demo #clean #cleantone #sheltonguitars #sheltonelectricinstruments #galaxyflite #jazzmaster #custom #customguitar #porterpickups #widerange #wrhb #p90 #offsetguitars #fiestared #music #musician #guitarist

A post shared by Michael James Adams (@puisheen) on

Hands-On Experience

From the moment I unboxed the guitar, it played magnificently. Shipped with 10 gauge strings, the action was low and comfortable and intonation was spot-on. Clean or distorted, the guitar had much to offer in harmonic complexity, never sounding dull or flat. Again, Rachel’s expert fret and nut work played a huge part in this.

img_2017With Mastery Bridge involved, it’s no wonder that the guitar felt solid and took all that my heavy right hand could give it. I’ve oft praised the Mastery Vibrato for finding a perfect balance of tension and smoothness, and here is no exception. With every wild stab of the arm, the guitar always returned to pitch and reacted tit-for-tat with any change in attack.

At home or a loud rehearsal, this instrument covered all of my tonal needs without sacrificing the integral, forward-facing characteristics of the guitar it’s based upon. Jazzmaster fans looking for more options should find their home in the Shelton. And, if wacky features aren’t your thing, Shelton does indeed offer more simplified and classic interpretations of the offset guitar.

Love Connection

I am in no way employing hyperbole when I tell you that this may be one of the most exciting and well-built guitars I’ve ever played out of the boutique market. The quality of this instrument is just superb, and you can tell that at the end of the day Shelton Electric care about making great instruments over statements. He lets the instruments do the talking rather than making bold claims about how his work will change your life.

Modesty aside, it just very well may.

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#NAMM2017 Day 2-3

Welcome back, dear readers, to our coverage of NAMM 2017. I spent my second and third days at NAMM attempting to see and play as many things as I could, and although there’s a rather large list of booths I didn’t get to see, I definitely got the full NAMM experience (and I’m not even sick, thank the maker).

And on a personal note, if you were one of the many, many new friends that stopped to tell me how much you love the shop and my Instagram posts, thank you. You made me so happy. I felt like a celebrity!

Ernie Ball | Music Man (Booth 5440)

At NAMM 2016, EB was one of those must-see exhibits for me. The newly-announced St. Vincent model had my attention from the first rumors of its release, and it blew me away with its angular design, light weight, and fantastic neck. This was one of the first new guitars to really wow me in years. I still really, really want one! img_4702

Now that there are four new color options, I’m even more into this guitar model. There’s an all-white model that Annie Clark calls “The Thin White Duke” (an homage to the late David Bowie); an “Angus Young” wine red with gold hardware; a very Firebird vintage sunburst; and my favorite, the “Stealth” model, fully blacked-out, looking tough as nails. I absolutely must own this guitar.

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Just like last year’s standard blue and black, these guitars boast three mini-humbucker pickups, the smooth and stable Ernie Ball Music Man tremolo, 5-way switching and Schaller locking tuners. Yes, please.

Thanks to Robert Ochoa, internet friend and Ernie Ball guitar tech, I also spent some time with their Cutlass model in a very attractive Charcoal Frost finish. I may not be much for Strats, but this fresh take on the shape felt comfortable and played like a dream. Thanks, Robert!

Ernie Ball also announced their new line of strings, intriguingly dubbed, “PARADIGM.” The advertising claims these strings won’t break––like, ever––and if they do Ernie Ball will replace them. Seems like quite a tall order to me, but hey, only time will tell. I’m hoping to pick up a pack of these strings to give them a go based on the claim alone. With so many variables that affect string longevity, I’m curious to see how they’ve fortified their strings.

CURTIS NOVAK

I caught up with Curtis Novak while passing by the EarthQuaker Devices booth, and it’s always good to hang out with him. It’s no secret that I adore Curtis’ work; from authentic and tuneful Jazzmaster pickups to recreations of my favorite off-brand pickups of the 1960s, Curtis knows what a good pickup should sound like. And while his standard designs are wonderful, his work really shines when he gets to shove something weird under a non-traditional cover.

For some time, Curtis Novak has been the only maker to offer a version of my favorite Gold Foil pickup, the DeArmond/Rowe-made units found most commonly on Silvertone and Harmony guitars. My favorites have always been wound extremely hot, sometimes in the 10-12K range, and Curtis not only nails the look but the output as well. In addition to new Diamond and Mustache covers, Curtis also has some new options for foil inserts as well. Those sparkles are right up my alley.

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This NAMM also served as the official unveiling of his new Guyatone-style gold foil (pictured above) which comes complete with the right materials and covers made to his exacting specs. I had the good fortune to play this pickup at the last Fretboard Journal Summit, and I have to say that it captures the twangy beauty of the low-output originals to a staggering degree. Simply amazing work, Curtis!

And since I happened by the EarthQuaker booth at just the right time, I stuck around for a demo set by Fabi and Laurence from She Shreds magazine, one of my favorite guitar mags out there. I’m a huge fan of their work and focus on the music industry from the perspective of female players. It’s important, necessary work they’re doing.

HOTONE (Booth 5995)

Before leaving the EQD booth, I ran into O, a fixture in the music industry. He’s a guitarist, band manager for Dinosaur Jr., photographer, pedal connoisseur, and the reason that the Squier Super-Sonic was on my radar back in the late 1990s. The man is filled with stories, and his Instagram series “One Photo and One Photo Only” is one of the few ongoing series that I look forward to these days.

img_4720After chatting for a while, we decide to walk the floor for a bit. We were mere booths away when O told me, “Oh, you gotta check out this tuner pedal. It’s the best tuner pedal in the world.” When O says something like that, I take it at face value. We followed him to the HOTONE booth, where he pointed out a comically small pedal and declared, “There it is, my favorite tuner pedal ever.”

I know what you’re thinking: “It’s a tuner. How good could it be?” First things first, this Skyline Series tuner pedal tracks fantastically, and is true-bypass so it’s out of your signal chain when disengaged. And again, it’s small, so it won’t take up valuable space on your pedal board. It’s also inexpensive, with most new prices floating somewhere between $59.99 and $69.99. All of these are good things.

But what’s that there, at the top of the pedal? It’s what makes this pedal so great: a knob that controls the pedal’s volume when engaged, from silent to 12 db of boost! This is a fantastic boost pedal, and I’m so glad I got clued into this thing. How’s it sound? In the words of O: “Gnar.”

SAUL KOLL (Booth 1589)

Saul Koll may have had the coolest booth of the whole show, and you know this before you ever see a guitar. It’s better to just show you rather than try to explain:

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Dude drove his booth to NAMM. And it’s a VW single-cab pickup, no less. I’m not sure if this has ever been done before, but if it has, there’s no way it could have had the style of this year’s Koll Guitars booth. How freaking cool is this!

img_4731With messages of equality on the dash, the #kolltruck served as both display and stage, making the perfect backdrop for his guitars. Whenever there was a demo session, the performer would sit atop the truck bed and plug into a Benson amp. It’s also a total conversation starter, and I’m sure a number of convention goers stopped by simply because who even parks a truck on the show floor! What a brilliant move.

It’s a good thing Saul’s guitars are works of art unto themselves, or the truck would be the only thing to speak of here. Saul brought with him a number of guitars, each beautifully finished and in a number of configurations. This semi-hollow red devil pictured to the right came loaded with humbuckers and a Bigsby vibrato, sporting a guard with a Guilloché (engine-turned) look. There was also a yellow offset Jr-style hard-tail and a bass equipped with a Novak Bisonic/Dark Star pickup that caught my attention. There was even one model loaded with two TK Smith Summertone pickups that just demanded to be played. I’d take them all home in a heartbeat. img_4733Saul Koll is one of those builders that seems incapable of producing something you don’t immediately want to own. Look, feel, playability, it’s all there.

SATELLITE AMPS (Booth 1595)

Satellite has long been one of my favorite amp companies, but now that they offer both guitars and effects pedals, they may end up being my favorite one-stop shop for all of my instrumental needs. It’s not often that a brand, well-known for one thing, can easily  make the transition into other areas, often sacrificing quality in their bread-and-butter area of expertise to build up the new side of the business, or doing one thing great and everything else averagely.

There is nothing average about Satellite.

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I may not need to tell you how great these amps are, but the guitars, I’m gonna have to beg your pardon because I’m about to preach. Adam and co. have done something that seems impossible, making a single-pickup guitar of the Jr. family that stands out from the rest. It’s a simple machine, right? Just a pickup and a stop bar, how hard can it be?

But there’s so much more to the Satellite Coronet. Satellite Founder Adam Grimm has a deep love of the 1960s Epiphone Coronet, as well as the entire Gibson family of student models. The first time I met the guy back at the LA Amp Show in 2015, he handed me guitar after guitar in the vein, praising them for their understated genius. Inarguably, Adam knows what makes a cool guitar, so combine this with his enthusiasm and tenacity, and Satellite is the clear choice for the perfect company to pull this off.

img_4744When I saw Adam months ago at the Fretboard Journal Summit, he brought along the red prototype, as seen in the photo above. I fell in love with the thing immediately, and even though I couldn’t plug in, the neck begged to be played and the thing rang out like a peal of thunder on a quiet night.

If you can imagine, somehow Satellite have made the production models even better. The instrument is perfectly light-weight, beautifully finished in a range of tastefully-aged colors. It’s trite to call out a finish for looking “just like the real deal” these days, but I’m going to say it anyway: it looks like the real deal. The authenticity of the shape, the range of delicious colors, the suitably snarly pickup, the chunky-yet-not-baseball-bat neck shape, all of these features had me asking the price before I’d even figured out what I could sell to afford one.

I really can’t say enough about the guitars, except that plugged-in, they’re jaw-droppingly good. If you’re looking for an exceptional student-style guitar, even if you’re in the market for vintage, you may want to consider this one. There’s even a two-pickup model which I neglected to photograph that’s still haunting me these few days later. img_4779

Didn’t I mention pedals? I think I did! Satellite also saw fit to grace us with a new line of five pedals, and once again, they knocked it right out of the park. The Golden Harem is a delightful octave-fuzz that’s both sputtery and harmonically rich, while the Fog Cutter’s selectable transistors offer an entirely different fuzz experience ranging from brash to wooly. The White-branded pedal (blue, far left) is essentially one of their White reissue amplifiers in a box, but with the tubes swapped out for transistors. If you’ve ever played a White but couldn’t own one for yourself, this pedal nails the sound and the feel of these nearly-mythical Fender-made amps. It’s a total set-and-forget kind of pedal, too; this unit could easily become your main sound.

The Eradicator pedals, both in guitar and bass versions, were the ones that spoke to me most. I don’t recall ever playing a tube-driven pedal and walking away impressed before; something about the response of such units and their muddy tones has always left me cold and unwilling to add one to my stable. The Eradicator may have completely flipped the script on me with its nasty, big-bodied drive. These pedals were loud and in charge, if that makes any sense, and maybe the most fun I’ve had with a pedal during the entire show.

I definitely didn’t want to stop playing once I’d started, especially once I turned on the Bass version (black, upper left). Meant for bass instruments and with a separate DI out, this one really slayed me with its mean, dark tones and bigger, rounder low end. I’m in love!

KAUER/TITAN GUITARS (Booth 1294)

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Vanessa loved this one loaded with Lollar Model One pickups

My buddies at Kauer Guitars always have a really great booth. With wooden crate decor and a lot of floor space with plenty of benches and stools, I was hard pressed to find another booth as comfortable, like your favorite guitar shop.

img_4765Kauer brought with them a number of stunning pieces, including an Argonaut dressed in a metallic blue finish and Mastery hardware Kauer had gold plated specially for the model. I spent some time with it and found it to be one of those rare magical guitars, the kind you come across once in a while that give you that achy feeling deep down. An impressive guitar to be sure, it’s sadly not for sale.

Kauer also came fully loaded with their more affordable line of Titan Guitars. Made in California, the Titan KR-1 has a more-or-less modular design so that the basic guitar is ready to go until a buyer decides what specs the final product will have. Choose a satin body color and a pickguard, pickups, bridge, and switching and you’re all set. A huge variety of the model’s possible configurations were on display, each of them exciting in their own way. My favorite: this single-pickup bruiser as played by Josh Scogin of the band ’68. Just a Duncan humbucker wired directly to the output jack. Yes, please.

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PRISMA GUITARS (Booth 1399)

I’ve been following Prisma’s progress for quite a while now, I really couldn’t be more excited by their work. Nick Pourfard and Co. recycle old skateboards by gluing them together and then shaping them into guitars. Like, really. It’s amazing. Take a moment and stare at this, even if you don’t get it at first:

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I’m so, so into this. The playful visual cue of the multi-colored boards coming together at different angles is a treat for the eyes, but then again, I’m a sucker for lots of bright colors. Believe it or not, they sound just as good as they look!

img_4769Loaded with McNelly pickups and Mastery Bridge hardware, these guitars are set up for greatness immediately. The necks are fast but not too thin, frets are expertly crowned, and the guitars feel so familiar that if you weren’t looking, you’d forget you were playing something made from skateboards.

I’ve been looking forward to playing these guitars for a long, long time, and I’m happy to report that Prisma totally met my expectations. I’d like to note that if the look of skateboard guitars aren’t your thing, Prisma also offers standard finishes, as well as guitars made from traditional body woods as well. Check out the orange Sunset model pictured here, Prisma’s long-scale take on the Squier Super Sonic model!

TEMPLE BOARDS/MATTHEWS EFFECTS (Booth 1791)

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I caught up with my friend Rick Matthews of Matthews Effects, who was on-hand at the Temple Audio Design booth to tell me all about his new partnership with the company. Rick designed a new line of modular end panels, fully interchangeable and easily installed and swapped by the user. These new panels come in an array of different designs, from the SUMMOD which allows musicians who run stereo to never think about connections again, to the built-in BUFRMOD which can run as six different kinds of buffer setups including stereo, dual-amp, and fully mono. Pedal junkies should take note; while I lament the overuse of the phrase “game changer,” it’s fully applicable here.

Non-Temple owners will be pleased to find that some of these modules will be available as standalone units.

MARSHALL AMPLIFICATION (Booth 5740)

img_4793Even if you’re a newcomer to the NAMM convention, there’s no way you’d be able to miss the Marshall exhibit. With literal walls of amps on the corner of the main drag, it’s hard not to be impressed by stack after stack of iconic amps.

I headed over to Marshall on my third day at NAMM not simply to browse, but because I’d been invited there by Chris Robinson, social media manager for the company and punk rock enthusiast. After reposting a few of my photos on Instagram, as well as kindly sharing the music video for my rendition of Silent Night on Christmas, he reached out to me asking if I’d be interested in meeting up and having a look at some of Marshall’s products. Of course I would, don’t be ridiculous.

Marshall may not have any spanking new amps for this year, but last year’s models were still new to me. Of all the things I saw and played at last year’s NAMM, I just didn’t get around to checking out any of what Marshall had to offer. In chatting with Chris, we briefly went over the newly-redesigned CODE 100 modelling head, and talked a bit about how the Astoria series has been recieved, being Marshall’s answer to the hipper boutique amps of the day. I pointed out that I hadn’t seen the 2525 Mini Jubilee head before, and Chris excitedly told me that they’d “…kept all of the tone, just made it smaller.”

img_4808I balked at the idea initially; I’m a huge fan of the original release as well as the recent Silver Jubilee reissues, I just couldn’t imagine this being true. The sheer number of mini-amps on the market that all make the same claim yet ultimately fail to measure up may have soured me on the idea, but Chris persisted. “Look,” he said, picking up the head and turning it around, “big bottles!”

The mini-amp craze seems fully reliant upon the EL84 tube, which is a great valve but not the one that I associate with some of my favorite higher-wattage heads like the Marshall. Seeing the glimmer of full-size 34s through the metal panel, well, that gave me all kinds of hope.

Chris ushered me into Marshall’s personal ISO booth to prove it to me, which is perhaps my favorite location in all of NAMM. Before he hooked up the amp I begged him to pause for a moment, just letting the silence overtake us. NAMM is loud, like Guitar Center times 30 loud. Anyway, after a gloriously brief moment, Chris plugged in an Arcane humbucker-equipped Strat and turned me loose on the 2525, instantly greeted with––you guessed it––the very tone I scarcely believed would come from a tiny head and cab.

img_4853After performing my usual tone tweaks (Presence and Treble at zero thank-you-very-much) and cranking up the preamp, I was in my own personal Alterna-Rock heaven. Suitably crunchy and brimming with that strident midrange Marshall are famous for, this amp delivered every bit of the good stuff I craved. All of this at 20 Watts, too (switchable to 5).

Also, that vertical 2×12 cab has nearly the same dimensions as my favorite vintage Marshall 8×10 cabs, so it’s safe to assume that I am very much into the look of this little stack. I need one. Thanks a lot, Chris! 

***

Like I said before, there was a LOT to do and see at NAMM 2017, and in the space of three days, I probably got to mess with more gear than I will in as many months this year. I can’t wait for the next.

Special thanks to my pals at Sinasoid cables for the pass! You’re the best. Everybody, go buy some cables from them––may I humbly suggest my signature Redbeard for starters?

 

 

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Mike Landis’ Very Special 1966 Jaguar: A Holiday Tale Spanning Two Decades

Happy Holidays from all of us at Mike & Mike’s Guitar Bar. We truly would be nothing if not for the love, support, and business of our many friends and customers. Cheers to you! In celebration of this joyous time, I’d like to tell you about something extraordinary that happened to me recently, something I couldn’t talk about because it would have spoiled a surprise.

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This 1966 Jaguar belongs to the father of my good friend Mike Landis, and it happens to be the very first offset guitar I ever encountered. I haven’t seen it in 20 years.

I vividly remember Mike pulling it out of the case on some otherwise average day in 1996. I’d never seen anything like it before—like something out of a Sci-Fi dream. The cold gleam of the Jaguar’s many control plates ignited within my young mind what felt like a fumbling musical adolescence; I didn’t know what I’d do with it if I had one, I just knew I needed it.

Sunglasses case, no less!

Sunglasses case, no less!

Holding that guitar for a brief moment two decades ago felt like some guilty, illicit pleasure. Everything inside me knew I shouldn’t have been messing with it, but the rush of getting caught made it all the more thrilling. I strummed a few chords, ignorant to the function of the switches, yet marveling at its beauty and quality of the sound I was hearing. It was clear to me then that I wasn’t worthy of such a guitar.

When Mike heard that I was coming back to my hometown of York, PA for a quick visit, he asked if I’d be able to get it back into playing shape as a Christmas gift for his dad. Of course I said yes!

That night as I stood over the guitar—the guitar—I paused for a moment before I dared touch it. I thought back to that first trespass, handling his dad’s Jaguar as if it were a priceless artifact, caught up in wonder and amazement. Surely, at that time, it had been the nicest instrument I had ever seen, let alone played. I wondered, was I worthy of it yet? I breathed, spoke aloud a quick thank you to any deity that may have been listening, and got to work. For two hours, I attended to it with the same thoughtful, careful attitude I try to lend to every instrument.

fullsizerender_1Before I arrived, Mike gave me a run-down of what the guitar might need. For starters, he wasn’t getting any sound out of the thing, and my first thought was that the Rhythm Circuit switch may have a bad solder joint. When I finally got my hands on it, the solder joints didn’t look obviously inoperable, but I thought it a safe bet to simply reflow a few key joints. This certainly helped, and suddenly I was getting sound from the Lead Circuit, with intermittent functionality of the RC.

It took a few minutes of turning the Rhythm volume and tone controls, but it turned out that those pots were just so dirty from disuse that they wouldn’t pass signal. Ideally, I’d have sprayed them out with contact cleaner, but alas, this was one thing I forgot to mention when I sent Mike my laundry list of tools I’d need to do the work. They cleaned up beautifully just by being turned over and over, and I told Mike to get some cleaner before too long.

Back in 1996, I remember asking why Mike’s dad never seemed to play the thing. The complaint then was that it just didn’t play all that great, and that was still a problem today. I don’t think the guitar had ever been set up, at least, not by someone that understands the intricacies of Fender Offset Guitars. Strung with too-light strings and with the bridge too high and saddles set at the wrong radius, it was clear that this guitar hadn’t been comfortable to play for ages.

fullsizerender_2I took the strings off, removed the bridge, and gave the guitar a thorough cleaning, from finish to frets. It wasn’t filthy by any means, but the frets showed signs of disuse and the finish had a dull shine. It’s Christmas, after all; this should feel like an entirely new guitar. After a good polish of the finish and frets, and some lemon oil for the rosewood fretboard, this guitar came right back to life.

I had Mike pick up a set of 11 gauge strings, which is usually the lightest I’ll recommend for Jaguars. I lowered and pre-radiused the saddles by eye and re-installed the bridge, intending to fine-tune it later on. To my surprise, the guitar actually played pretty well with just that done, but I decided to give the truss rod another quarter-turn to really dial in the relief. With 11s and the correct amount of neck angle, those strings weren’t going anywhere.

Because the guitar just wasn’t staying in tune before I started my work, I paid special attention to every point of contact on the strings, lubricating the nut and making sure it was properly cut for the gauge being used. Ideally, I’d like to replace the nut on this one at some point, but there just wasn’t time for that on this quick trip home. Another day, then! The trem was also wildly out of adjustment, so I zeroed in on the sweet spot for both the Trem Lock to work as intended and for optimum string tension, and the whole guitar snapped right back in to perfect functionality. Bam!

fullsizerender_3When I was finished, I hovered above the thing, not quite sure how to feel. This was the guitar from my youth that elicited such passion, though my ignorance kept me from fully embracing the model. I couldn’t believe that I was able to give back, as it were, to that first Jaguar. I dreamed about this shimmering blue guitar for years, and here I was, ready to play it as it should always have been. And play, I did; the sound, the feel, the response… it was magical.

Life has come full-circle, in a way. What an honor it was to care for this instrument! Thanks, Mike!

 

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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

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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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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.

zz+top+bunting

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To Mod or Not To Mod…

IMG_3374-imp

…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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